For Joe Kennedy, again

My wife asked me a question, which like almost every question from her, said something too:

“I read your Medium post about Joe Kennedy. I get the argument in the abstract, but why does it apply to Markey? Doesn’t he consistently vote in the right way?”

And so yes, it’s clear I’ve not made an important part of the argument I was trying to make clear enough.

My piece was an argument in favor of “rotation” — the notion, pressed at the founding and throughout our history, that representatives should come and go, if only to assure that the institution of Congress remains connected and real. I don’t think rotation is the only value. “You’ve been there too long” is not reason enough to support someone else. But when there’s a strong competitor who doesn’t compromise on important values, it should weigh against the (been there forever) incumbent. Heavily.

Of course, you could reject the idea that rotation should be a value at all. If you think the only thing that matters is some score on your favorite scorecard, sufficiently progressive, or not too progressive, or whatever, obviously, what I’ve said is irrelevant to you.

But I think you should think that rotation should be a value — especially with the Congress that we have right now. That institution is deeply broken. No doubt, as I’ve argued, again and again, the Right broke it. Newt Gingrich and the Republicans radically changed Congress. They made money (and a corrupting dependence on funders) central. And now the Dark Lord, Mitch McConnell, has perfected its pathology.

Yet it is wildly naive to believe that the absurdity and dysfunction of the institution of Congress is solely because of Republicans. And as the amazing class of congresspeople elected in 2018 demonstrated, the best way to change a broken and corrupted institution is to bring people into it who can’t quite believe it is as it is. There’s a complacency among those who’ve been in DC forever. There’s an acceptance of what should never be accepted. “It is what it is,” those who’ve lived with it forever come to believe. And as they get good with it as it is, they get less committed to changing it into what it should be.

So how does that apply to Markey, my wife, in essence, was asking?

The point may be captured well in the latest (unfortunately incredibly negative) exchange between Kennedy and Markey, about the apparent murder by police of an African American student, DJ Henry, at Pace University a decade ago.

Ten years ago, his parents were trying to get the justice system to recognize that their kid was wrongfully killed by a police officer. They wanted justice. They went to their own representatives in Massachusetts as well as politicians in New York and elsewhere. In their own words, Joe Kennedy’s response was extraordinarily human, persistent and real. (Watch their video here.) (Sorry, it’s facebook).

Markey met with them too. He was, in their words, the only politician who did nothing.

This difference, Kennedy argues, is the defining difference between the two men. Here’s Kennedy making that pitch:

When I first heard the story, I had a completely different take on it. Given what I know about the (failed) institutions of our government, and given that DJ Henry was apparently murdered in New York, not Massachusetts, and given that there were a million forces that would resist anyone who tried to question what the police did, especially at the time, in my own boomer view, Markey’s response seemed understandable. Not to be praised, but understandable. What was he going to do, really? The system is as it is. What was a Massachusetts politician ever going to be able to do about it?

But then I realized that I was making the same mistake that rotation is meant to cure. Kennedy’s engagement and interest and work seemed wasted. But it shouldn’t be that we live in a system where it would be wasted. His efforts seemed naive and hopeless. But why should we accept a system where the demand for justice against murder by police seems naive and hopeless? There was another Kennedy who once said “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” What I came to love about this story was that this Kennedy, Joe Kennedy, was not just uttering poetry. He was living its passion. However unlikely, however unrealistic, however, in some sense, wasted, these were acts to build a better justice, for people who had suffered the greatest injustice. It made no sense—practically, given the system as it is. But it practiced a promise about the kind of system that should be.

If you think votes are all that matters (in a system that doesn’t do anything anyway), then I get why my argument doesn’t matter to you. Markey’s got a .1 GovTrack progressive rating (AOC’s got a .09), and Kennedy has a .2 (John Lewis had a .18).

But I look at that institution of Congress, and I can’t begin to understand how anyone can accept it as it is. I can’t imagine how anyone works there for 10 years, let alone 44, without screaming its absurdity. I look at that institution and I think that we need people who can’t believe what it is, and who won’t accept it. Because if we don’t fix it, no vote is going to matter. No rating on some progressive scale is going to mean squat diddly. If we don’t fix it, if we don’t change it fundamentally, then, as Obama told us a dozen years ago (and then quickly forgot),

“real change, change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans, will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo.”

The person I know who is challenging Markey is impatient in the way I think he should be. He is frustrated in the way we need more to be. And he is committed to the fight to change that broken and corrupted institution in the way that everyone should be. Whether older (Warren) or younger (Kennedy), we need more with that kind of anger everywhere in DC. Including especially in the most absurd of the institutions on Capitol Hill — the Senate.

I admire Markey and his career. He deserves enormous respect from all of us. But respect does not mean he deserves 6 more years in Washington — which would bring his total to 50. Not because of him, necessarily, but because any person so completely fit to things as they are will not be the person who changes things to how they should be. Congress needs to be younger — not necessarily in age, but in experience—so that there are more who see its absurdity and commit to doing something to change it.

Written by

law professor, activist.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store