Don’t look now, but anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is polling close to 20 percent in some Democratic primary surveys.
A USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll published on April 19 had him at 14 percent, with New Age guru Marianne Williamson garnering 5 percent support. Since then, a more recent Emerson College poll has him at 21 percent, while Williamson is at 8 percent. And a Fox News poll has him at 19 percent, with Williamson at 9 percent.
While it seems highly unlikely that Kennedy, who recently launched his campaign to challenge President Joe Biden, will play a decisive role in the 2024 election, he could potentially embarrass the president (probably not to the degree his famous uncle, Sen. Ted Kennedy, embarrassed then-President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 primary—but surely no incumbent president wants to find a Kennedy in the primary soup).
As such, it’s worth examining why Kennedy is currently polling so well, and what this might mean for the future of the Democratic Party.
The obvious reason for Kennedy’s success is simple: his name. But in 2023, that only gets you so far. The Kennedy dynasty may be famous, but it’s also ancient. John F. Kennedy has been dead for six decades. RFK Jr.’s dad, Bobby Kennedy, has been dead for 55 years. Ted Kennedy’s early and influential 2008 endorsement of Barack Obama (over Hillary Clinton) was probably the last time a Kennedy will ever truly move the needle in Democratic politics.
But while the quintessentially establishment Kennedy dynasty is old and musty, an anti-establishment, unconventional ethos has always had a certain perverse appeal. And if that was true in the past, it is certainly true in 2023.
Enter RFK Jr.
Though he lacks anything close to his father’s résumé, he has spent decades as an influential “conscience of the left”—promoting the worst kind of left-wing environmentalism. Most recently, this involved helping convince his former brother-in-law, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to shut down a nuclear plant, which predictably led to New York state burning more carbon.
There are a lot of left-wing activists who toil in obscurity, but Kennedy’s idiot activism—and his fame—were both boosted by a mainstream liberal media that spent years elevating him (in this regard, Kennedy is similar to Donald Trump) and his crackpot ideas.
If you have HBO Max, you can currently watch RFK Jr., appear in his sister Rory’s amateurishly produced 2004 documentary, Indian Point: Imagining the Unimaginable, which warns about a 9/11-style aerial attack on the nuclear plant—located about 40 miles north of Manhattan. Although wildly alarmist, the documentary was generally taken seriously and even praised by the fawning MSM. And eventually, the Kennedy scion took credit for advocating for the plant’s shuttering.
Arguably even more damaging than his radical environmentalism (that has ironically led to the burning of more fossil fuels), Kennedy also promoted anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. Once again, respected liberals helped him spread his message.
As the American Council On Science and Health recalled, “On July 20, 2005, Jon Stewart’s guest was none other than Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Stewart not only gave RFK Jr a platform to spew his anti-science rhetoric on vaccines, but Stewart commented that he appreciated his guest’s work for getting the word out about how vaccines cause autism.”
Stewart, as far as I know, has never apologized.
While Stewart, Bill Maher, and others were boosting his vaccine skepticism, the right despised RFK Jr.
But since COVID-19, Kennedy’s anti-vaxxer message has been embraced by the likes of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who reportedly spent “months” encouraging Kennedy to challenge Biden.
This is to say that while RFK Jr., may be an imbecile with no real qualifications, both sides of the American political spectrum have embraced him, at different points—when he told them what they wanted to hear.
This brings us back to his current quest for the Democratic nomination. How on Earth can a guy who is currently cheered by Steve Bannon be garnering nearly a fifth of the Democratic primary vote?
When it comes to the polls, the usual caveats apply. Surveys are a snapshot. Robert F. Kennedy is a great brand name. Democratic voters may simply be registering a protest about an 80-year-old Biden running again. A handful of polls can simply be outliers. It’s early. Things can change… I could go on.
Still, we have to grapple with at least the possibility that some percentage of Democratic voters actually are RFK Jr.’s constituency. (Keep in mind, if you add Kennedy’s current numbers with Marianne Williamson, you start to approach 30 percent of the vote.)
I mean, I was stunned to discover that the percentage of Republican primary voters in 2016 who were willing to embrace a populist, nationalist, conspiracy-laden candidate was so large.
Could it be that the Democrats are about to find out the same thing?
Don’t get me wrong. Donald Trump (a former Democrat) chose to target the Republican Party for a reason. It was ripe(r) for a hostile takeover.
There are many reasons for this, but the fact that Democrats settled on Joe Biden, while Republicans are poised to nominate Donald Trump—again!— proves the point.
I don’t think RFK Jr., is about to defeat—or will likely even do serious damage—to Joe Biden in 2024. My concern is about the post-Biden future.
The sort of conspiratorial populism that Kennedy embraces is on the rise in America. That’s where the energy is. To some degree, we are now seeing that even in Democratic polls.
Trump has already taken over the GOP. What happens if the Democratic Party also falls to the siren call of the populist zeitgeist?
In recent years, the Democratic Party has become effectively the institutional establishment “governing” party in America, but there is no reason to assume that Democrats are immune from the seductive lure of conspiracy theories.
It wasn’t long ago that the Democratic Party was the preferable home of an anti-establishment ethos, including “9/11 trutherism,” anti-vaxxer sentiment, etc. So what happens when the Joe Bidens of the Democratic Party have packed it in?
It’s hard to imagine an America where both major parties are (albeit in different ways) effectively “Trumpified.” Here’s hoping we never have to find out.