This story was originally published on September 1, 2020.
Today’s Massachusetts U.S. Senate primary between two Democrats, in which Rep. Joe Kennedy III is challenging Sen. Ed Markey, will determine whether a young, establishment-backed candidate can topple a progressive senator who was in office before his opponent was born. It will also be a referendum on the role dynasties play in American political life.
If Markey defeats Kennedy — the grandson of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and grand-nephew of President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Ted Kennedy — it will be the first time a Kennedy has lost a race in Massachusetts, and perhaps the end to the stronghold the Kennedy political dynasty has had in Massachusetts politics, and the American imagination.
Polls show 74-year-old Markey leading the 39-year-old political scion, particularly among young voters. Although the two share progressive views, both supporting policies such as Medicare for All, and have voted similarly in Congress, many young activists have embraced Markey, citing his co-authorship of the Green New Deal with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and his longtime commitment to the environment.
Young progressives also show an antipathy to Kennedy’s family connections and nepotism’s role in politics in general, arguing that a famous last name is no longer an asset. In fact, many young people see Washington’s support of the Kennedys’ entitlement to Congressional seats as a turn-off, and were angered not only when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed Kennedy, but also when she explained that much of her decision was due to a longtime connection between the Kennedy family and her own, implying that Markey had crossed a sacred line. “I wasn’t too happy with some of the assault that I saw made on the Kennedy family,” she said.
“Pelosi endorsing Kennedy is just evidence that supports [Ed Markey’s] case against dynasty and smoke-filled rooms anointing candidates,” tweeted California Rep. Ro Khanna. “Bold prediction: it will backfire.”
Markey has addressed the need to question the Kennedy dynasty in a now-famous campaign ad, in which he flipped one of JFK’s legendary quotes on its head, saying, "We asked what we could do for our country. We went out, we did it. With all due respect, it's time to start asking what your country can do for you."
Kennedy has at times tried to distance himself from his mythologized clan. “As much as we might want to characterize this, President Kennedy’s not on the ballot, my grandfather’s not on the ballot, my dad’s not,” Kennedy said. “This is about me.” But mailers with messages like “For Joe Kennedy this fight is in his blood” have bolstered the argument that he is running on his wealthy and well-connected family’s legacy.
Nepotism has shaped American politics for the entirety of our history, and it has brought disastrous results, such as George W. Bush’s entire presidency. It’s also playing out on the national stage now, with President Donald Trump’s unqualified adult children speaking at the Republican National Convention last week in a transparent bid for jobs in the administration. For Markey’s supporters — including the hundreds of stan accounts that have been created for him — he remains the best chance at putting an end to the culture of privilege that surrounds the Kennedys and other political families. His win would be a historic, decisive statement against nepotism as a shaping force in politics for years to come.