The Party Left Them: Steve Bannon, Kennedy Democrats, and The Complicated Legacy of JFK
Ronald Reagan was a New Deal Democrat. To his supporters, this was a story of redemption, of Paul on the road to Damascus finding salvation in the conservative ideals of the free marketplace. To his enemies, it brings to mind Lucifer’s fall from Paradise, a man who once had good and true ideals and the gifts to communicate them to the people betraying those ideals and then using those gifts for evil. This story repats itself in the new boogeyman of liberals and the left, Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon. Growing up in a working class Irish-American household in the middle of the 20th century, Bannon recalls how he, like his family, identified strongly with JFK as a political figure and was a “Kennedy Democrat” earlier in life. The rest of his story is by now well-known, as he moved from the Navy to Goldman Sachs to an executive producer of Seinfeld, until at last emerging as the eminence grise of our current far-right government. At first glance it is a case of an extreme ideological reversal. And yet, a closer look at the dark side of what being a “Kennedy Democrat” really meant at the time reveals that, as Reagan himself famously said, Bannon may never have left the Kennedy Democrats after all.
The phenomenon of Republicans attempting to claim the mantle of Kennedy is not merely limited to Steve Bannon. Dan Quayle was famously shot down by Lloyd Bentsen in the 1988 Vice Presidential debates for trying to claim the mantle of Camelot. During the 2016 GOP primaries, Ted Cruz claimed he was the true heir to JFK’s legacy. The infamous GOP operative Roger Stone also began his political life as a Kennedy Democrat- in the 2017 Netflix documentary about him, he still proudly displays Kennedy campaign memorabilia in his office, alone among all the Republicans Stone has helped elect. Kennedy Democrat turned right-wing pundit Bernie Goldberg, author of books including 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (with his “culprits” including Courtney Love, Ludacris, and then-NAACP Chairman Julian Bond) claimed that the Democrats “lost their minds” after JFK’s death and the subsequent war in Vietnam.
No other Democratic President in modern history gets this kind of treatment from GOP political and media class. Even FDR, now universally recognized as one of our greatest Presidents, is often attacked in hushed tones by Republican conspiracy theorists who claim that he let the Pearl Harbor attacks happen, or that his domestic programs such as Social Security and the Tennessee Valley Authority were part of a plan to turn America communist. One obvious reason for this is that JFK’s assassination was such a universal, earth-shattering event for the American public that it instantly elevated him to a kind of sainthood, giving him a martyr status above partisan politics that is arguably shared only by Abraham Lincoln. Of course these politicians and pundits would want to associate themselves with such a popular figure. But although they doubtlessly overstate their case, there is a grain of truth to their assertions, one that requires taking a look at the darker side of JFK’s legacy.
In this time of contentious debate among Democrats as to the future direction of their party, many feel that the party has gone off the rails, that it has become too hostile to working people, too eager to support foreign wars, more concerned about grand compromises with the GOP than about their own base. Many point to Bill Clinton as the man who steered the party wrong- who signed NAFTA, welfare reform, expanded mass incarceration more than even Ronald Reagan, and may well have privatized Social Security had the Lewinsky scandal not hobbled him politically. Although the rightward trend of the Democratic Party may have reached its peak under Clinton, the seeds of that trend began with the President who so impressed young Bill as a boy when they met in the Rose Garden, would inspire Bill to finish the work that he began of turning the Democratic Party to the right.
If JFK were still alive (he would have just turned 100) and met Steve Bannon today, there is compelling evidence to suggest he would be horrified at what he has inspired. But if the two men sat down in a room and got to talking at length, Kennedy’s record suggest that he might find he and Bannon would see eye to eye on more than a few things. For one thing, Bannon’s paranoia about the Muslim threat could find a parallel with Kennedy’s extreme Red-baiting, the Cold War’s own version of Islamophobia. The Kennedy family had deep ties to Joe McCarthy- patriarch Joe Sr. backed him financially and politically, JFK’s young brother Bobby got his start in politics as a lawyer for McCarthy’s Senate committee investigating Communism, and McCarthy had romantic relationships with two of JFK’s sisters. When he first ran for President in 1960, JFK ran to the right of Richard Nixon (a noted red-baiter himself) on the issues of Communism and national security, famously asserting that America had a “missile gap” with the Soviets (it didn’t). Meanwhile on the left, Eleanor Roosevelt called JFK a “conservative Democrat,” citing his McCarthy ties, and all but refused to campaign for him in the 1960 election. Bannon’s desire to promote a new McCarthyism aimed at Muslim and nonwhite Americans mirrors his political icon quite nicely.
In office, Kennedy continued to govern as a conservative Democrat in many ways. Acting through his brother Bobby, now Attorney General, he launched a crackdown on organized labor, claiming it to be nothing more than a tool of the Mafia. While many unions were in fact corrupt, the effect of this policy was to begin the long downward slide in the power of the American labor movement, the repercussions of which are still being felt to this day. He also signed into law what was at the time the biggest tax cut in American history, claiming that “ a rising tide lifts all boats” in an eerie prelude to Reaganomics. On foreign policy, he was an extreme hawk, escalating US involvement in Vietnam, attempting the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, and placing nuclear missiles on the Soviet Union’s border in Turkey, the latter two of which precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. On the issue of abortion, he would appoint socially conservative judge Byron White to the Supreme Court, where he would go on to be one of two dissenters in Roe vs. Wade
When conservatives attempt to claim JFK for their own, it is an utterly cynical and self-serving exercise. Steve Bannon’s admiration for Kennedy likely does not extend to his embrace (however tepid it might have been) of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. However, the truth that does lie in their assertions forces progressives to examine people who we hold up as our own heroes. If we understand JFK as he truly was- a politician of a fundamentally conservative background who was nonetheless capable of being influenced by progressivism and used by progressives to accomplish reforms, then we can learn from the mistakes that were made in his time and build a better future armed with those lessons.