Bobby Kennedy and the Critical Realignment that Didn’t Happen


M. Davout

Watching a documentary commemorating the fiftieth anniversary year of Robert Kennedy’s (RFK) tragic run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, I couldn’t help thinking back to a venerable (if also somewhat moth-eaten) political science theory of critical realignment. This theory refers to a national election that radically and durably alters the balance of power in our two party system.

According to one iteration of that theory, these elections tend to occur on an approximately 36 year cycle of presidential elections and manifest in one of three ways: a new party displaces one of the two major parties (as when the Lincoln Republicans, calling for the containment of slavery, completed the dissolution of the Whig Party in 1860); a major party reinvigorates its dominance by mobilizing new and existing constituents around a fresh set of policy issues (as when the Republican Party ushered in a new period of electoral success with the 1896 election of the industrial protectionist McKinley); and when dominance switches between the two major parties (as when Franklin D. Roosevelt won overwhelmingly the first of his four presidential terms in 1932).

Key features of critical realignments include a crystallizing issue, heavy voter turnout, and major and durable shifts in voter allegiance. Political scientists have noted that this phenomenon seems to have petered out with the fracturing of FDR’s coalition in the Sixties. The election of 1968 did not see the emergence of a dominant new party (George Wallace’s success as a third party candidate that year was fleeting), nor did it witness either a renewal of Democratic dominance or a switch to long-term Republican Party dominance (control of the White House and Congress has instead oscillated between the two major parties).

Would the U.S. party system have experienced a critical realignment had Bobby Kennedy avoided assassination and won election as the thirty-seventh president of the United States? It is a question that occurred to me as I watched video footage taken from Kennedy’s funeral train of the people spontaneously gathered along the rail lines in big cities and small hamlets to pay last respects to their martyred candidate.

USA. 1968. Robert Kennedy funeral train.
Mourners await the RFK funeral train (1968)

As one of the Kennedy family friends riding that train noted, those forlorn folks represented Kennedy’s base—Catholics, people of color, blue collar workers, the poor.

Had he lived and gone on to run in the general election, he would have added to these groups the students and liberals who had flocked to Senator Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar candidacy, as well as the party bosses who were supporting the sitting vice-president Hubert Humphrey. And had he won the presidency in 1968 and made significant progress in achieving his stated goals—ending US military involvement in Vietnam, retooling LBJ’s efforts at poverty reduction, fostering a sense of solidarity among racial and generational groups—would that have been enough durably to boost voter turnout and cement loyalty to a more social justice-oriented Democratic Party for decades?

USA. 1968.  Robert KENNEDY funeral train.
Mourners await the RFK funeral train (1968)

A lot of “what ifs,” I know. But watching the stasis of American politics over the last decades in the face of mounting crises on both the domestic and international fronts, it is consoling to think of a possibility (however remote) of the critical realignment that could have been.

M. Davout, an occasional contributor to Bracing Views, teaches political science in the American South.

15 thoughts on “Bobby Kennedy and the Critical Realignment that Didn’t Happen

  1. Since M. Davout freely admitted in a previous column that he chose not to make the only righteous choice in the last ultimately binary presidential election, thinly suggesting that others might do the same and everything would work out fine, I’m not sure he should get to play would have/should have now that he has helped to make this hole in democracy a permanent life fixture. If your merit badge says Democrat (and what else is there?) and you so believe that the party philosophy/platform is predominantly right and good, then you should spread enlightenment on this earth, teaching that the party goes beyond the sometimes imperfect figurehead at the top but extends all the way down to the personal and human level to include everything from judges to maintenance workers, who without the figurehead are now powerless and made redundant. So you vote party to get your foot in the only door there is. And if that leaves you with nothing more than an imperfect but sympathetic ear, at least you still have a voice that might be heard and you use that voice to make the figurehead as enlightened as you yourself profess to be. But without an ear at the top, or anywhere in between now, one has to wonder about that tree falling in the woods.

    Personally, I don’t think the devout one learned a damn thing from Bobby.


  2. Bobby Kennedy, George McGovern, and Hubert Humphry all hid in the tall grass until someone with an ounce of integrity and some political balls, like Euguene McCarthy, showed them how to take on an unpopular “war” President of their own party. As David Halberstam wrote in The Best and the Brightest (1969):

    “Part of the frustration and bitterness, of course, was the feeling in the liberal community – the political segment most aggravated and most offended by the war – that it was powerless, that Lyndon Johnson was a liberal Democrat and could not be beaten, that they had no political alternative. For the mythology lived; one could not unseat the sitting President of his own party. Eventually, however, despite the protests of older liberals (some of whom wanted to fight Johnson only on the platform at the forthcoming convention), younger liberals went looking for a candidate. They had only one choice, they thought, and that was to take the issue to the country and make the challenge to the President within the party. Robert Kennedy was the logical choice, but he was torn by the idea. Part of him wanted to go and was outside the system; part of him was still a traditionalist and believed what his advisers said, that you could not challenge the system. In the end he turned it [the challenge] down. Then they went to George McGovern, who was sympathetic and interested, but he faced a re-election race in South Dakota and that posed a problem. But if no one else would take it, then he told them to come back. So they turned to Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, and he accepted. There comes a time, he told reporters, when an honorable man simply has to raise the flag. ‘What will you do if elected?’ A reporter asked, and borrowing from Eisenhower in 1952, he answered: ‘I will go to the Pentagon.’”

    Eugene McCarthy clearly recognized that the U.S. military establishment — trapped and discredited by their endless lies and historically inept Bungle in the Jungle — posed the greatest threat to America’s true national security and prosperity, as they do today with their decades-long Debacles in the Deserts (Iraq, Libya, and Syria) and Humiliation in the Hindu Kush (Afghanisan). Bobby Kennedy had his brief moment of trying to get back in the real game once someone else made it safe for him to come out in the open, but his actual track record shows no evidence of confronting America’s vicious right-wing-only political “spectrum.”

    As Barbara Tuchman wrote in The March of Folly (1984):

    “The American government reacted not to the Chinese upheaval or to Vietnamese nationalism per se, but to intimidation by the rabid right at home and to the public dread of Communism that this played on and reflected. [In the] social and psychological sources [of that dread] lie the roots of American policy in Vietnam.”

    The rabid right at home — the Republicans and the Corporate Democrats — continue their tag-team intimidation of every possible challenge to rule by the corporate oligarchy, no matter how feeble, so that we now see Bobby Kennedy’s grandson, Joseph Kennedy III (and even Bernie Sanders), cravenly bashing “the Russians” in a pathetic imitation of Tricky Dick Nixon and Tail-Gunner Joe McCarthy’s red-baiting of the Democrats in the 1950s and 1960s. As Oscar Wilde wrote: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” Joe Kennedy III and the corporate Democrats have chosen some particularly nasty Republican “greatness” to imitate and, in so doing, have only demonstrated their own mealy-mouth mediocrity.

    The Democrats don’t have an FDR in them and seem completely uninterested in ever producing one again. Consequently, I doubt that the Republicans will have any trouble throwing them table scraps while whipping them into grateful submission. Intimidation by the rabid right always works “at home” in America. It worked on Bobby Kennedy just as it has on every “Democrat” since. America could really use a second, unintimidated political party.


    1. Stated somewhat differently, with the upcoming mid-term elections in mind and remembering the last “Blue Wave” which produced the first female Speaker of the House in 2006:

      Nancy the Negotiator

      Nancy the Negotiator
      Gives up first; surrenders later;
      Takes her cards from off the table,
      Then recites her loser fable:

      “We don’t have the votes we need,”
      Nancy says, in tones that bleed:
      “Mean Republicans will whine
      If we do not toe their line.”

      Nancy bows to George and Dick
      While her skinny ass they kick;
      Writes them checks both blank and rubber,
      Then proceeds to lamely blubber:

      “We don’t like what Dubya’s doing.
      Still, we quite enjoy the screwing.
      Masochism’s what we offer,
      Helping crooks to loot the coffer”

      “Sure, the squandered blood and treasure
      Goes to those we will not measure.
      Still, we promise you’ll adore us
      If you mark your ballot for us.”

      “Choices you don’t have assail you,
      Leaving only us who fail you.
      Nonetheless, we’ve gotten fatter.
      Why, then, should we think you matter?”

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2007

      And then, of course, the “historic” election of the first U.S. president with a black face in 2008:

      Congenital Stockholm Syndrome

      He started by giving up quickly,
      Surrendering early his case.
      He offered to kiss their asses.
      Replying, they pissed in his face.

      Their urine, he thought, tasted strangely;
      Yet not at all bad to his taste.
      He’d gotten so used to it, plainly.
      Why let such a drink go to waste?

      The people who voted in favor
      Of him and his promise of “change”
      Now see in his many betrayals
      A poodle afflicted with mange.

      Each time that the surly and crazy
      Republicans out for his skin
      Condemn him for living and breathing,
      He graciously helps them to win.

      He’ll turn on his base in an instant
      With threats and disdain and neglect
      While bombing some Muslims so Cheney
      Might thrill to the lives that he’s wrecked.

      A black man in love with apartheid
      He offers his stalwart support
      To Zionists and their extortion
      With “More, please!” his only retort.

      A masochist begging for beatings
      Obama takes joy in abuse
      Receiving just what he has asked for
      Which makes him of no earthly use

      The little brown men that he’s murdered
      In homes far away from our land
      Bring profits obscene to his backers
      Who give him the back of their hand.

      Obama seeks praise from the vicious
      Republicans, no matter what.
      He suffers, apparently, nothing
      So much as his need to kiss butt.

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2011

      What “virtue signalling” gimmick will the bankrupt and useless “Democrats” come up with next? Trying to combat the Republican’s Culture-War with Transvestite Identity-Politics doesn’t seem to have worked out so well. Neither has the pathetic Russophobia. And making heroes out of the CIA and FBI — Can’t Identify Anything and Furtive Bungling Idiots — where did that come from? The Bay of Pigs, Gulf of Tonkin, WMD, and J. Edgar Hoover? “You can’t beat something with nothing,” or so the saying goes. But when you can’t even beat a billionaire real-estate fraud and cable-tv game show host like Donald Trump — who keeps shamelessly running to the left towards the embittered American working class while the Democrats look for graduate-degree Republican women’s votes on Martha’s Vineyard — I’d say that President Donald Trump and the Republican party don’t have much to worry about.

      In any event, the same class of billionaire donors gives to both right-wing political factions so that whoever wins will owe their victory to the same pile of money. As long as they get their own little share of the table scraps, I don’t think the Democrats even care if they lose. Hence, the corporate oligarchy’s simple siren song:

      Buy some Republicans. They’ll shout: “GAWD BLESS!”
      Rent a few Democrats. They’ll lose for less.

      I don’t see what Bobby Kennedy has to do with where we “lower class” Americans find ourselves today. No one in the Democratic party “leadership” gives a damn about us one way or another. At least the Republicans will show up to lie and promise that Jesus will come back soon. The Democrats can’t even bother to do that.


      1. Welcome back, Mike! I see you’ve been saving some great lines:

        “But when you can’t even beat a billionaire real-estate fraud and cable-tv game show host like Donald Trump — who keeps shamelessly running to the left towards the embittered American working class while the Democrats look for graduate-degree Republican women’s votes on Martha’s Vineyard …”

        Yes, the Democrats can’t shed the limousine liberal label. Having Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi as the faces of the party doesn’t help. The Democrats still aren’t offering a compelling alternative vision to Trump. All they are saying is, ‘We’re not Trump!” and “Russia-gate.” Is that enough for a blue wave? It’s doubtful.

        “At least the Republicans will show up to lie and promise that Jesus will come back soon. The Democrats can’t even bother to do that.”

        It’s possible that Trump is the least religious president in our nation’s history, yet his support among evangelicals is strong and steadfast. They love him for his sins, not for his virtues. And moving the embassy to Jerusalem and being vaguely anti-abortion while shouting “Merry Christmas!” — well, that’s enough for them, adultery and greed and lies and all the other Trumpian sins be damned.

        Looks like we’re living the curse, “May you live in interesting times.”


        1. Speaking of great lines, I loved that remark by Eugene McCarthy: “I will go to the Pentagon.” It reminds me of something Adlai Stevenson once said when he ran for president. A supporter once called out, “Governor Stevenson, all thinking people are for you!” And Adlai Stevenson answered, “That’s not enough. I need a majority.”

          I’ve already written a great deal elsewhere about the political realignment in the United States that occurred subsequent to President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, after which he said: “I just lost the South.” So much for the grand coalition forged by FDR during the Great Depression. I could continue with this, but I’ll save further comments till tomorrow when I’d really like to get into Thomas Frank’s several books and journalism articles regarding right-wing populism — or “culture war” — and its wildly successful application by the Republican party (with the willing capitulation of the Democrats) in rolling back the New Deal and working-class progressivism in favor of global imperial corporatism.


          1. You know the saying, Mike: Fake left, run (and rule) right.

            Clinton and his fellow Democrats believed the best way to win was to run (and even rule) as “moderates,” meaning Republican-lites. That tactic drove the Republicans even further to the right, leaving us with essentially one business/war party in the USA (the Democrats are slightly less eager to embrace the national security state and corporate imperatives, but only slightly). Old-school, FDR-like Democrats like Bernie Sanders are dismissed as crazed socialists with pie-in-the-sky ideas (health care for all — that’s crazy talk!).

            This fall, some Democratic candidates are embracing the Sanders’s line, but the MSM in the U.S. portrays these candidates as radical progressives. The typical headline: “Is Candidate X too progressive to win?”

            Well, enough. You know the story …

            Liked by 2 people

        2. I promised myself, “no more blogging under the influence,” but screw it! I can’t wait to weigh in on this!

          I’ve always heard “it’s not about whom you vote FOR, but whom you vote AGAINST.” I’ve seen it before, and I think you’ve even mentioned it once, but I’d like to be able to vote for the greater of two goods, once in my life. Maybe I should go back to Russia – at least I have a friend who owns an apartment in Moscow who might be willing to give me a a break on rent! I’m serious about that, by the way, but japes about Moscow real estate aside, I’ve already written my two units of currency on this subject,
          and as I’ve pointed out, the DNC seems to be running with the never-Trump brigade, in spite of the fact that Trump himself is more of a big-money NYC dem than a typical Republican.

          On that note, since the dems seem to be leaning even further to the left these days (making even my teenage “godless communist” self blush), whatever happened to the whole idea of the Democrats being the party of LABOUR? (Pardon my British spelling, that’s how I learned English in the first place), but aren’t these people supposed to be catering to the workers, rather than their corporate masters? Wait, so now it’s Trump and “his” Republicans who are standing up for the blue collars, while the Democrats are bleaching their own?

          I don’t see the Democrats recovering from this suicide by socialism. They’ll go the way of the Whigs, and we’ll end up with a glorified one-party dictatorship. You know, Russia is looking pretty good right now, if only I’d picked a career in the oil industry!


          1. Thanks for weighing in, KAJA. “Socialism for the rich and cut-throat capitalism for the working poor” has worked very well for those who keep throwing around inane terms like “left” and “right” as a way to deflect the conversation from the “up” vs “down” nature or real life in the United States. As the uber-investor Warren Buffer likes to say: “There’s a class war going on all right, and my class is winning.” No joke. But let us not hear of any fighting back from those on the bottom of Pharaoh’s pyramid.

            Anyway, I wrote the following twelve years ago in 2006, but I think it remains just as relevant today: the unfolding saga of America reducing itself to passive intellectual incarceration, mesmerized by the moving colored images emanating from a glowing television screen; like the island aborigine Boobies cut off from the world’s cultural mainland; like prisoners kept underground who can only see shadows dancing on the walls of their cave and not the marionettes and puppeteers on the elevated stage behind them who produce and cast the shadows that they mistake for reality. In the accelerating economic insecurity enveloping so many Americans today, we can see the usual and historic:

            Boobie Top-Down Class Warfare
            (from Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s post-literate retreat to Plato’s Cave)

            It happened back in Vietnam
            Some two score years ago
            When those within the upper class
            Declined to serve, and so
            They coined Selective Service to
            Select who wouldn’t go

            They called themselves the brightest and
            They called themselves the best
            And then they sent their countrymen
            Into a hornet’s nest
            But not themselves, of course, because
            They’d passed the privilege test

            These parents of a George and Dick
            Thought Communism bad
            But worried that some other lands
            Would find it not as sad
            As slaving for the rich ones whose
            Rank greed had made them mad

            So sympathizing with the rich
            No matter what they did
            The parents of a George and Dick
            Sent someone else’s kid
            To fight the dreaded communists
            No matter where they hid

            But not their George and Dick, of course,
            They couldn’t spare the time
            And Vietnam seemed far away
            Immersed in war and grime
            An atmosphere too turbulent
            For orchids in their prime

            These studly hot-house orchid types
            Worked hard to dodge the light
            Their parents helped them jump the line
            To keep them out of sight
            Arranging for deferments that
            Would keep them from the fight

            And so the years of war went by
            And communism won
            Which had exactly no effect
            On those who had the fun
            Of skipping out and turning tail
            To take off on the run

            Soon Vietnam recovered from
            The blasting it had got
            And communists turned businessmen
            To hatch a common plot
            With those who liked cheap labor
            And cared less why some had fought

            Still some remained embittered by
            The waste made of their lives
            And swore they’d never live again
            Like worker bees in hives
            Content to feed the rich who dined
            With sharpened forks and knives

            But Boobie schools taught only fraud
            And fiction to the young
            With fantasy and fables coined
            To see the truth unstrung
            Till history became a fog
            That never bit or stung

            On schedule, Boobie Dick and George
            Found Politician Town
            And learned that pandering for votes
            Could win some safe renown
            Affirmatively actioned up
            They never could fall down

            The millions seemed to flow their way
            And stuck to them like paste
            They spent what others raised for them
            With no thought for the waste
            Since someone else’s money had
            The sweetest sort of taste

            They made a deal between themselves
            To do a pantomime
            With Dick to do the thinking while
            George mouthed a lisping rhyme
            And so with the Supine Court’s help
            They grabbed for our last dime

            The Boobie George then tripped and crashed
            Into this truth sublime:
            That Boobies hated freedom and
            Considered it a crime
            Dick told him then what he should do:
            Just work them overtime!

            With not a moment left to think
            The Boobies wouldn’t know
            Where all their beads and shells had gone
            Or why they couldn’t show
            A single thing as evidence
            That they had labored so

            Once George and Dick gained access to
            The treasury’s largesse
            It hardly seems surprising that
            It soon contained much less
            A fact which few observers seemed
            To think of with distress

            But “stupid is as stupid does,”
            The stupid do and say
            Confronted by a wealthy thief
            They genuflect, then pay;
            With eyes and minds shut fast like that
            They make such tempting prey

            Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006


        3. “Having Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi as the faces of the party doesn’t help.”

          Actually, Bill. Having a truly repulsive and noxious loser as the face of the Democratic party does help — the other (and senior) right-wing party. See the Jimmy Dore youtube show for August 25, 2018: Republicans Rejoice! Hillary Clinton To Headline Democratic Fundraisers.

          I still can’t believe the bovine stupidity of the HRC “I’m With Her” campaign signs from 2016 showing a large arrow pointing to the right. And, of course, as conventional political wisdom in America has maintained for decades now: “The Clintons are always there when they need you.” Just what the Democratic party needs: a snake-haired Medusa for a cover girl. You know:

          A Glib Giddy Ghoul / Goldwater’s Girl
          (Venimus. Vidimus. Et Mortuus Est)

          “We came. We saw. He died,” she cackled,
          This chicken hen hawking her bile,
          Amused at the bleeding and shackled
          Gaddafi upon whom would pile
          Jihadists with red hatred spackled,
          And all so Dame Clinton could smile.

          Or, alternatively:

          On hearing of Gaddafi’s savage murder
          She smiled and joked: “We came. We saw. He died.”
          Apparently, she thought that those who heard her
          Would share her chickenhenish war-slut pride.

          She campaigned in her youth for Bomber Barry
          Goldwater, who from Arizona came;
          Who made his money ripping off the natives
          On reservations where he staked his claim.

          Our You-Know-Her worked hard for Bomber Barry
          Who swore that if elected he would kill
          Vietnamese who found us less than scary
          In numbers that would break their iron will.

          A pantsuit with no principles or vision
          Just raw ambition: naked, stark, and vain.
          If peace might happen, war is her decision.
          Goldwater’s Girl is just a John McCain.

          Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2015

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Great comments here. 1968 was one of the most profound, tumultuous years in our history: Tet offensive, American body count going up in Vietnam, capture of the USS Pueblo by the NOK’s, MLK and RFK killed, Six Day War, attack by Israel on the USS Liberty, mass demonstrations, riots in our cities, the Chicago Democratic Convention, the rise of George Wallace and return of Nixon.

    Eugene McCarthy was a hero to many of us in the Boomer Generation, he narrowly lost the New Hampshire primary to LBJ . There were bitter feelings against RFK once he climbed on board, after the New Hampshire primary. RFK had the name, money, party establishment and the Liberal Elite behind him. (Sounds like $hillary Clinton.)

    Some writers have offered their opinion that the blame for the Hump’s loss to Nixon rests with the demonstrators that were beaten up in Chicago at the Democratic Convention. This time it was not some fat-ass Southern Sheriff and his deputies beating up Black people, it was young white kids being beaten up, while the whole world watched. The result was not that our Police were a bunch of goons in uniforms, but they were saving America from lawlessness and anarchy.

    I was working at the time in a steel mill in South Chicago. The older generation – The Greatest Generation were unanimous in their opinion that those Hippies got what was coming to them a good beating Chicago Style. Well we got the Law and Order Candidate Richard Nixon elected.
    Trump, Corporate Media Are Both Enemies of the People.
    CNN’s liberal and anti-Trump talk show host Erin Burnett was in crisis mode last week. She was rolling her eyes, anxious for the fate of the republic. The cause of her angst? A Gallup poll showing that 57 percent of the nation’s Democrats now respond more favorably to the word “socialism” than they do to “capitalism”—this compared with 47 percent of Democrats who prefer “capitalism” over “socialism.”

    Burnett interviewed Jen Psaki, a Democratic commentator and former communications director in the Obama administration, and a gloating Republican political commentator named Scott Jennings. She and her two guests agreed that this dreadful socialism business augured certain defeat for the Democrats in 2018 and 2020.

    Sanders, who openly identifies as a socialist, was found in a Harvard-Harris poll last year to be “the most popular politician” (Newsweek) in the U.S., or that a good majority of the Democratic Party’s base prefers “socialism” to “capitalism.”

    The dominant U.S. commercial and corporate media are a means of mass consent-manufacturing indoctrination, diversion and dumbing down on behalf of the nation’s intertwined corporate, financial, imperial and professional-class “elites.”

    How could it be otherwise? Just six massive and global corporations—Comcast, Viacom, Time Warner, CBS, the News Corporation and Disney—together control more than 90 percent of the nation’s television stations, radio stations, movies, newspapers and magazines. Corporate ownership combines with other deeply entrenched factors to guarantee the not-so-mainstream media’s dutiful service to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, class and empire: the controlling power of corporate advertisers (the mass media’s main market, not the public); the disproportionate purchasing power of the affluent (the main target of advertisers); the elitist socialization, indoctrination and selection of journalists, and the dependence of media on government for information, access and monopoly power.


    1. You forgot the Prague Spring – that was also in 1968. On a different note, I can’t trust any poll that has a total of 104. Seriously, please tell me that was a typo.


  4. Hey, I’m going to stir up a hornets’ nest here, since we’re on the subject of dead politicians and the Vietnam War:!/v/styxhexenhammer/khm1numv
    I know, I know, but give him a chance: Styx makes excellent commentary on both politics and alt-tech. Now, for those of you shouting “too soon” at your computer, by all means, take a few days to grieve, and then come back to the topic. I, meanwhile, will by sitting back and watching the fire rise and laughing like the maniac I am.

    I don’t know what else to add to this, I just want to see where it goes (assuming that link actually works). Bloody hell, am I turning into a troll?


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