Sunday, April 30, 2006


Robert F. Kennedy, the Common Good and Liberalism

Sat Apr 29, 2006 at 01:38:22 PM PDT

It is time for liberalism to once again reclaim the concept of a common good. Long neglected by the Left, it is a concept that has been abused by the Right, especially by Straussian neoconservatives.

If we on the Left want to understand how effective it can be to control the meaning of the common good, all we have to do is examine the last four and one years of Robert F. Kennedy's life. But it is not enough to merely copy RFK's words, but to be living examples of them.

After a long, unfortunate period of amnesia, the Liberalism has rediscovered one of its past core values: maintaining the institutions that serve the common good. Progressive thinkers and politicians from Woodrow Wilson to Monsignor John A. Ryan to FDR among others, all understood the importance of the reciprocal relationship that exists between contribution and receipt. And it is no coincidence that when liberals spoke in terms of a common good they regularly won national elections

Robert F. Kennedy was one such liberal. By embracing his legacy of a political philosophy that was based just as much on responsibility as it was on rights, liberals can rediscover how to provide the very leadership desired by the American people.

Why Robert F. Kennedy? According to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., RFK even disliked the term "liberal" and often did not want to be identified as one.1 He thought that by the 1960s many of the New Deal liberals had become too embedded in the establishment to effect positive change.2 But he displayed many of the qualities that today's Left should emulate if it wishes to once again become America's dominant political philosophy.

Others would suggest that FDR or JFK would be the ideal role model. To a certain extent this is true. We should always try to be as imaginative and cheerful as either one of these two great leaders. Their respective manners of speaking with the American people constitute the gold standard of motivational political communication. But unlike many of us, these two urbane leaders had the special gift of charisma. They could charm world leaders and reporters alike just by their mere choice of words. Unfortunately, many of us are more like Robert F. Kennedy: we have to work at our leadership skills; we have to overcome our faults to succeed. He is still a shining example of how to accomplish this task.

Robert F. Kennedy sought enduring solutions, not temporary half-measures. For him, a program such as welfare was not the real answer for ending economic despair. He knew that job creation was the best way to end poverty. On the issue of school busing, he knew that communal desegregation was the real way to end educational inequity. He was not afraid to tell the truth, even if his belief was unpopular. RFK stepped on many toes in trying to make America a better place. This was evident during the Cuban Missile crisis when as his brother's advisor he steadfastly refused to support a first strike against the island-nation.3

His genius was being able to reach out to marginalized individuals without himself becoming marginalized. He never wanted to play the poor against the middle-class by threatening their hard-earned prosperity. Instead he wanted the disenfranchised to the American dream so that they not only benefited from the common good, but that they would also contribute to it. His vision is still the heart and soul of true economic social justice.

Kennedy also understood the need to balance almost radical change with societal order. Americans trusted him because he believed that the ability for self-sufficiency through meritorious achievement is the proper end of civil rights, not the abrogation of personal responsibility. Nor did he see change as an excuse to descend into lawlessness. If anything, progressive policy was his means to prevent violent upheaval; the commonsense alternative to the unchecked emotionalism of the Yippies. And unlike many of the more radical New Left of the 1960s, Robert Kennedy understood that there is a difference between legitimate authority derived from the consent of the governed and illegitimate authority that is based solely upon the hollow shell of wealth and privilege. Power in and of itself is not evil; only that power which has allowed itself to become corrupted whether it be wielded by either the Left or the Right.

Robert F. Kennedy had another great attribute that guided him. He could step outside himself and put himself into the place of the hungry child sitting on his lap or the migrant worker picking grapes in Californian fields. But he could also put himself in the shoes of his adversaries and potential adversaries. From that vantage point he could better understand which effective remedy would work best to solve the problem at hand. During the Cuban Missile crisis, whenever an advisor or a member of the Joint Chiefs proposed a course of action, both JFK and RFK immediately put themselves into Khrushchev's shoes to determine what his reaction would be.4 Empathy is a great tool to be used whether we seek to help the jobless, enable scientists to cure disease, better the financial security of the middle class or, as in this case, to defend the country.

It was this ability to empathize with the disenfranchised that gave him another necessary attribute: a sense of morality. For far too long, liberalism has almost ceded the moral high ground to the Right. This abdication began to accelerate with the untimely assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and RFK. This left a large moral void on the Left. Both of these men acted not only on a social plane, but also on a quasi-religious plane. For King, the reason was simple: he came to political activism through his preaching. In the South, the African-American church was the best vehicle for activism on civil rights. With Kennedy, the reasons were more complex. He was a very religious man who still could question some of the Catholic Church's reactionary ways.

But beyond his own religious beliefs, he was deeply outraged at the immorality of hunger and poverty that still persisted in the world's richest nation. Robert F. Kennedy used his faith as a premise to fight a moral war against bloated stomachs, segregation and rat infested tenements. To Kennedy, these things, not tax cuts for the wealthiest one per cent were the battles worth fighting. And when asked by a group of doctors in Indiana who would pay for better health care in this country, he did not mince words, telling them they would.

Unlike many of those who would run from their responsibilities, he knew that the wealthy have an obligation to contribute to the well being of society, a society that, in return, provides so much to the wealthy. Maintaining the institutions of the common good--Social Security Insurance, national defense, a clean environment, to name a few--demands that everyone in society is required to contribute. As the Bible says, "To whom much is given, much is required."

The true liberal is the one who picks up Robert F. Kennedy's fallen standard and strives to finish his legacy. How do we do this? A giant step would be by being more consistent in our beliefs. And consistency will let us reclaim the moral high ground.

The ascendant liberal will no longer cede morality to the right. For far too long there has been a false perception among the Right, center and even among some of the Left, that liberalism tolerates an "anything goes" view of the world. Perhaps because of this misconception and our own failings, we have left a void that is driving ordinarily progressive people to a more fundamentalist, social conservatism.

Liberalism seeks a more objective form of morality, but a sense of morality, nonetheless. Here we look first to Locke and his basic beliefs in reason and the goodness of the individual, tempered by the progressive thinkers of the late Eighteenth and the first half of the Twentieth Centuries for direction. Conversely social conservatives often embrace Hobbesian notions of a divinely (or Supreme Court) appointed ruler mandating what is and what is not morality. It is not as specific as telling citizens which creed to follow or which religious code of conduct to believe, but it does require each of us to consider the greater common good of society in our policy pursuits. Common good liberalism demands an end to reckless and overtly selfish pursuits that cause harm to the greater American community.

This sense of morality was evident in many of FDR's policy decisions. When designing Social Security, he chose a pay-as-you-go funding plan as opposed to some of the more extreme schemes of the day. During World War Two, Roosevelt unsuccessfully put forth an economic plan whereby no one individual would earn more than $25,000 per year (a great deal of money in the early 1940s). This would have been accomplished by a progressive taxation warranted by a wartime national emergency. Its purpose was two-fold: nobody would profit excessively from the horror of war--sacrifice required by all, while the nation would emerge from hostilities deficit-free. Liberalism, in short, does not abrogate personal responsibility, but encourages it by demanding consistency.

The concept of commutative justice was at the heart of Robert F. Kennedy's philosophy. This ethical principle requires that while society owes rights and duties to individuals, the common good of society can only nourished by the fulfillment of the individual's responsibilities to the common good of society. RFK fully understood this basic liberal premise that much of today's progressive leadership has forgotten to its detriment.

If liberals are to speak up for disenfranchised minorities, they must also speak up members of the American military who are on food stamps. While liberals urge a ban on tobacco products they must not also be complacent on drug use. The drug trade kills police officers, finances terrorism and has no redeeming social value whatsoever. It even killed Kennedy's son David. And how can we discourage our children from smoking pot if we do it ourselves? Liberalism must not just preach change it must be the living example of change being improvement.

If liberalism urges a ban on all assault weapons to help reduce violence in our streets, then it must also lean on our friends in Hollywood and in Silicon Valley to end the senseless violence in movies and video games aimed at children. Tell them to stop making vile computer games such as Grand Auto Theft. It may be entertainment, but it does not encourage good citizenship in twelve-year olds.

Arthur M. Schlesinger pointed out how the progressively minded RFK was able to win the Indiana primary, with its conservative, blue-collar electorate. While he spoke from his heart about helping African-Americans, Native-Americans and Appalachian Whites, he also emphasized a rule of social justice, backed by a respect for the law. These voters understood that Robert F. Kennedy would not tolerate a deterioration of dissent into a morass of violent lawlessness.5 But beyond that, perhaps those Indiana voters saw something deeper in the type of leadership RFK espoused--distributive justice.

Maybe because of Kennedy's genuine concern about the minority's plight, perhaps more than just his concern, but of his actual expressions of empathy much of the threat of street violence simply disappeared. Furthermore, he did not make the fight for disenfranchised citizens an "us" versus "them" equation; he simply spoke about all these disparate groups as being part of a greater "us." He made it clear that poverty was not their problem, but our problem. He reminded medical students at the University of Indiana Medical School that, "You are the privileged ones...It's our society, not just our government, that spends twice as much on pets, as on poverty programs."6 And then he did what every effective leader does well--he challenged us to do better.

Robert F. Kennedy's consistency is the means to deflate the backlash so prevalent in today's "red state" voters. It is the bridge we must again cross to reintroduce ourselves to the folks who will benefit most from our philosophy. RFK had the support of many working class folks because he did not disdain them, but respected them. These folks are angry with us because we don't seem to care about their concerns. They will vote for people such as George W. Bush simply because he gives the appearance of listening to their grievances. He pays attention to them while we just write them off as bumpkins and yokels. And as a result, many good folks voted for Mr. Bush even though he consistently sells their interests right down the river for his base of "haves and have mores."

We liberals simply have to try harder. "Liberal" is an appellation to be earned, not casually worn. And remember, after we put our own philosophical house in order, we will pick up greater support from the centrists and even moderate Republicans. And on a higher plane, it will close some of the gap between the Right and the Left. We are after all, all Americans. Then, with a clearer conscience, we can turn our attention, full bore, upon the more numerous inconsistencies of the more radical Right.


1. Schlesinger, Arthur, M., Robert Kennedy and His Times; at pages 387 and 838.

2. Newfield, Jack, RFK: A Memoir, at page 72 through 74.

3. Kennedy, Robert, F., Thirteen Days, Pages 25, 28 through 29,; Afterword by Richard Neustadt and Graham T. Allison, pages 118 through 125.

4. Ibid., pages 95 through 98.

5. Ibid. Schlesinger, Arthur, M., at page 882.

6. Ibid. page 882.

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