Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is running for president in the Democratic primary against Joe Biden, and some polling suggests that Kennedy is receiving unexpectedly high support, with nearly 20 percent of the Democratic electorate supporting him. At this early stage, it’s difficult to know what it means for voters to select RFK Jr. in an opinion poll. They may not know much about him beyond the fact he has an extremely presidential-sounding name. (It would be useful to see the polls done without the “F.” and the “Jr.” to see if it makes a difference.) As Jim Newell of Slate notes, it’s probably also got something to do with the fact that Kennedy is one of the only “warm bodies” who happens to be “giving it a go against a president who a supermajority of Americans believe should not run for president again.”
Certainly, it’s not surprising to see that a challenger to Biden would appeal to voters. While elected Democrats have almost uniformly endorsed Biden’s reelection bid (even Bernie Sanders has already endorsed Biden), the data suggests that most of the electorate isn’t on board. When asked, they overwhelmingly say they want someone else instead of Biden. The numbers are bad. Some polls show that nearly 60 percent of Democrats want someone else. People are clearly hungry for an alternative. And Kennedy is, technically, an alternative.
It remains to be seen whether Kennedy’s support will increase or plummet as Democratic voters find out more about him. Kennedy’s medical and public health views (antivax, antimask) conflict strongly with the opinions of the majority of Democrats, and someone who issues Trumpian rants against “lockdown liberalism” may have chosen the wrong party primary to run in. On the other hand, Kennedy is casting himself as an independent thinker who challenges party orthodoxy, and claims to be anti-corporate, pro-environment, and anti-war. The strong showings of Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020 show that a substantial number of Democratic primary voters do want a challenge to the party leadership, and Kennedy’s public statements are full of the kind of populist progressive rhetoric that could strike a chord with those (the majority of the party, remember) who say they don’t want Biden.
But we have to hope that Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign doesn’t take off. While he began his career as an environmental attorney, Kennedy’s turn toward anti-vaccine conspiracy theories has meant he shouldn’t be anywhere near an office where he’ll be entrusted with safeguarding public health. And yet because the Democratic Party has failed so badly to satisfy the basic demands of working people for social democratic policies, there’s a real risk that Kennedy may outperform expectations. Any success he has is an indictment of a party that has made him one of the few options left to anyone who doesn’t want another four years of Joe Biden.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Is A Serial Liar Who Pushes Dangerous Nonsense And Should Not Be Trusted With A Position Of Power
Let’s establish at the outset that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is someone who lies constantly in ways that seriously endanger the public. In fact, his lies have probably directly caused people to get sick, and possibly die.
To those who accept the scientific consensus around the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, someone like Kennedy can appear to be a mere “nut” or “crank.” But it’s important to understand that anti-vaxxers like Kennedy aren’t just “crazy.” They’re skilled manipulators of statistics who are great at fooling people using pseudoscience. Waving them away as fringe is ill-advised, because it underestimates the power of their appeal.
Kennedy does not present himself as a kook who doesn’t believe in inoculating yourself against deadly diseases. He presents himself as a principled liberal, a believer in truth and rationality who simply thinks that the Democratic Party has betrayed the legacy of JFK and RFK Sr. Take Kennedy’s 2022 book A Letter to Liberals: Censorship and COVID: An Attack on Science and American Ideals. He claims that “Democrats were once the party of intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and faith in scientific and liberal empiricism.” (One might point out that this has never, in fact, been true.) He says that once upon a time, liberals understood the Enlightenment principle that dogmas should be questioned, but now “so many of today’s ‘Lockdown Liberals’ refuse to read or debate the science that they believe supports the government’s COVID countermeasures.” Kennedy says that he simply wants an open debate, in the spirit of free scientific inquiry. Kennedy then presents a wealth of statistics, charts, and citations to journal articles, purporting to show that the supposed “consensus” in favor of COVID vaccinations (as well as other public health measures like wearing masks and the initial “lockdowns”) is in fact mere propaganda. Kennedy pleads with his reader to simply maintain an open mind and listen to the research and evidence that confirms his claims about vaccines. To do otherwise would be to subscribe to an authoritarian “theology” that is not open to questioning.1
Anyone who simply dismisses Kennedy without addressing his “evidence,” then, will confirm the point he is making: we are afraid of the truth. The best way to respond, then, is to call his bluff and look (briefly) at the arguments he makes. When we do, we can see just how deceptive, bogus, and easily refuted they are. To see the Kennedy method at work, let’s start with a claim about autism that he made in a recent interview. Kennedy thinks autism can be caused by vaccination, but pay attention to how he sets up the argument:
“Why is it that in my generation, I’m 69, the rate of autism is 1 in 10,000, while in my kids’ generation it’s 1 in 34? Now, I would argue that a lot of that is from the vaccine schedule, which changed in 1989. But what nobody can argue about is that it has to be an environmental exposure of some kind.”
The “vaccines cause autism” hypothesis has been disproved, of course. But let’s also consider Kennedy’s claim about what “nobody can argue” with. He says that if autism rates are different in older people than in younger people, the explanation has to be an “environmental exposure of some kind.” That’s obviously not the case. (Research indicates that there’s a genetic component to autism.) It could be, and almost certainly is, that autism was overlooked in those of Kennedy’s generation, and there are a lot of people who would have been diagnosed with autism if they had been born forty years later. But Kennedy moves our attention away from the possible explanations of a fact that are non-sinister, trying to convince people that it would be irrational to entertain theories other than his own.
This is a trivial example compared to some of Kennedy’s more egregious whoppers. In his Letter to Liberals, Kennedy says there are “mountainous archives of peer-reviewed science supporting the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin” as a treatment for COVID-19. This is entirely false. A Cochrane meta-analysis of the high-quality studies on hydroxychloroquine found that the drug did not work and in fact “caused more unwanted effects than a placebo treatment,” recommending that “no further trials of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine for treatment should be carried out.” Ivermectin, too, is almost certainly useless. As epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, summarizing the research, says, “there does not appear to be much doubt that ivermectin is extremely unlikely to have any benefit in the treatment of COVID-19.” In fact, there is evidence that “ivermectin at the doses used in COVID studies might be harmful.”2 Yet Kennedy repeats myths that “Other nations like [Japan and Singapore] all ended their pandemics after providing their citizens with ivermectin and/or hydroxychloroquine (or chloroquine).” Kennedy claims that “[T]he Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (estimated pop. 235 million) effectively abolished the pandemic overnight by scuttling Dr. Fauci’s protocols and distributing ivermectin and other treatment to its citizens.” In fact, as Meyerowitz-Katz explains in an analysis of the Uttar Pradesh case, “it’s hard to know exactly what did work, but one thing we can be quite certain of is that ivermectin didn’t.” Yet Kennedy asks the question: “Why were the lowest COVID death rates in countries and states that relied on therapeutic drugs like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine[?]” The answer is: they weren’t.
Kennedy has spread similar nonsense about masks. He says in his Letter to Liberals that “masking showed a highly significant correlation with increased risk of COVID death,” and told Tablet magazine that “there is just no evidence that [masks] make any difference,” explaining:
“The Cochrane collaboration, Cochrane Library, which is the premier authority for scientific clinical reviews,3 came out this week and said that masks, both the masks, the N95 and the regular surgical masks, are useless. And we looked at the studies, the existing literature, at the very beginning, and we collected it all in one place and saw the same thing. What Tony Fauci said originally was true: Masks don’t work against respiratory viruses during a pandemic…It was an exercise not in public health, but in control.”
Many people, particularly in the media, misrepresented the findings of the Cochrane review. In fact, the study’s lead author, Oxford’s Tom Jefferson, misleadingly suggested to the press that the study showed that even N95 masks did nothing to stop the spread of COVID-19. Given how many conspiratorial types like Kennedy (“an exercise in control”) are eager to latch on to any evidence that masks don’t work, Jefferson’s messaging was grossly irresponsible. Furthermore, Cochrane recently released a correction noting that the analysis had been “widely misinterpreted” and that the analysis was “inconclusive” to determine whether “interventions to promote mask wearing help to slow the spread of respiratory viruses.” As Meyerowitz-Katz explains, Cochrane’s study did not show that masks don’t work. In fact, they showed that mask mandates don’t necessarily do much if people don’t comply with them:
“What most of these masking studies show is that people don’t love wearing masks, and will often not wear them correctly, will wear ineffective masks, or only wear them some of the time that they’re told to. This is not at all surprising — people are, after all, not perfect even when it comes to medications that they have to take to stay alive — but it does mean that when we are looking at the real world we aren’t testing whether masks work [to block respiratory particles], we’re testing whether the tools we use to promote mask usage have an impact on infectious disease.”
Kennedy, then, repeats the incredibly dangerous falsehood that “masks don’t work against respiratory viruses during a pandemic,” and he insists that he’s backed in this conclusion by the “premier authority” in medical science. In other words, he’s telling people lies that will endanger their health. Just to be clear, evidence shows that masks do block respiratory particles, and “consistently wearing a mask, preferably a high-quality, well-fitting one, provides protection against the coronavirus.”
Kennedy’s Letter to Liberals is full of other totally erroneous statements, like “the most reliable data suggest that COVID vaccines do not lower risk of death and hospitalization.” Again, this is contradicted by what Kennedy calls “the premier authority for scientific clinical reviews,” whose conclusion is that (depending on which vaccine we’re talking about) vaccines are “highly effective or probably highly effective in preventing SARS‐CoV‐2 infection, symptomatic COVID‐19 and severe or critical COVID‐19.” Instead of diving into the mainstream research, Kennedy relies on his audience having a limited understanding of basic statistics, by citing such information as “the now-undeniable fact, summarized in the February issue of the European Journal of Epidemiology, that ‘Countries with a higher percentage of population fully vaccinated have higher COVID-19 cases per 1 million people.’” (As proof that vaccines are ineffective against COVID, this is like saying that because countries with more seawalls also have more tidal waves, seawalls are clearly ineffective against tidal waves.) Kennedy even goes so far as to suggest that the vaccinated are actually more susceptible to COVID, repeating an erroneous claim that antivaxxers have spread across social media.
But the fact that Kennedy is completely wrong doesn’t mean it will be obvious that he’s wrong, especially to those with limited statistical training. For example, Kennedy cites data supposedly showing that the vaccinated were more likely to die from COVID than the unvaccinated. The data doesn’t show that, but importantly, it can look like it does, because of the phenomenon known as Simpson’s paradox. (It’s easy to see how an illusion can be created. If we have data showing that vaccinated people have higher death rates, but then we learn that the vaccinated are likely to be older, and older people are much more likely to die of COVID, we can see how we can’t draw any conclusion about vaccine efficacy from the bare fact that the vaccinated population has a higher death rate.) Kennedy, like other antivaxxers, is good at presenting pseudoscience, and pseudoscience is effective because it’s “pseudo”—it looks like science, and non-experts find it hard to differentiate between it and the real thing. But given that Kennedy’s promotion of deadly lies is so easily proven, and promoting deadly lies should be disqualifying from public office, it’s pretty easy to see that Kennedy is not someone you want to be your president.
Why Kennedy May Be Dangerous Despite Being Discredited
As we have seen, it is easy to establish that Kennedy misrepresents scientific research in ways that endanger public health. His Letter to Liberals poses as a call for open debate in the spirit of the Enlightenment but then pushes a discredited conspiracy theory that pharmaceutical companies conspired with politicians to suppress effective COVID-19 cures in order to profit off vaccines that at best are ineffective and at worse cause mass death.
But as we know, the fact that someone spouts easily-disproved nonsense is no guarantee that they will not attain a huge following. Kennedy’s book The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health reportedly sold a million copies and stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 17 weeks. (It comes with blurbs from Tucker Carlson, Naomi Wolf, Oliver Stone, and even the pro-vaccination Alan Dershowitz.)
We cannot count on the media to successfully expose Kennedy’s lies. True adversarial journalism is virtually nonexistent these days. (Tablet’s recent interview with Kennedy asked such hard-hitting questions as “How [did] you acquire your first pigeon?” and “Does it hurt you when you are painted as a nut?”) What the media is far more likely to do is ignore him, but Kennedy will use this to advance his claim that he is censored because his heterodox opinions challenge the Establishment, who fear a genuine debate. Kennedy is clearly trying to run as an outsider, claiming to be taking back control of the party so that it serves the interests of voters rather than “elites.” As he says:
“The Biden administration is riddled with Neocons, war hawks, Wall Street people, and former corporate lobbyists. That’s what the party elite has become. But I know the rank-and-file—and the American people as a whole—don’t share their priorities. It’s time to return our party and our nation to the people.” #Kennedy24
The trouble, of course, is that he’s right. The Biden administration is riddled with precisely these people, and the American people don’t share their priorities. When Kennedy says that “both political parties are the war party,” a lot of independent-leaning Democratic voters will nod along.
Kennedy clearly knows how to speak the language of the populist outsider. He has quoted Noam Chomsky, praised Chris Hedges’ criticism of the military-industrial complex, and calls Bernie Sanders “Capitol Hill’s most formidable critic of pharma corruption and regulatory capture.” He has even started to mimic Sanders’ language of class antagonism. Recently, he went on Tucker Carlson and said that, “There’s a cushy socialism for the rich and this kind of brutal, merciless capitalism for the poor. It keeps us in a state of war… it bails out banks.”
Kennedy has long posed as a champion of the interests of the vulnerable. His nonprofit, Children’s Health Defense, brands itself as, well, defending children’s health, but is in fact a veritable antivaccine and health freedom disinformation media empire (CHD’s website says that Kennedy is on leave from the organization). They produce news, books, and film, and fund litigation. They feature the following sections on their website: Big Pharma, Big Energy, Big Food, Big Tech, Big Chemical. True to faux-populist form, though, Kennedy is actually part of the big money problem he rails against. As Walker Bragman recently reported, CHD is a “dark money group” that has not revealed its top donors even as its revenue has “balloon[ed]” since the pandemic started.
And yet, it’s also important to understand why Kennedy’s shtick generally, and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories specifically, resonate with people despite the lack of evidence. As Lauren Fadiman has written for this magazine, our for-profit healthcare system generates a rational mistrust of medicine and public health. People think they can’t trust insurance companies or pharmaceutical companies, and they’re right. But this means that it doesn’t take much evidence to convince them that Big Pharma is controlling the government and doing things that hurt them—like lying to them about the efficacy of vaccines. Kennedy, for instance, uses people’s (justified) distrust of the pharmaceutical industry as a way of side-stepping the need for evidence of his claims:
“Everybody knows big pharma is crooked. So if you’re a Democrat and a liberal, you have to say yes, they are crooked in every aspect of their business—except for vaccines. I think the three big pharma companies have paid $35 billion in criminal penalties and civil damages over the last decade or so. So they’re chronic felons. Why do you think that just with this one product they found Jesus and they are going to behave?”
When Kennedy says that Bill Gates is plotting to implant tracking chips in people, plenty of us will see right away that he’s delusional. But Kennedy can be clever. The Letter to Liberals is filled with statistics, footnotes, and charts, and he tells people that the true facts have been kept from their knowledge by nefarious actors like pharmaceutical companies, Bill Gates, and Anthony Fauci. Because Bill Gates is a nefarious actor, and so are pharmaceutical companies, and Fauci has been misleading, arrogant, and self-contradictory, people may be more likely to be receptive when he says that he has data showing that the vaccines and the masks were a Big Pharma/Fauci conspiracy. Failures of public health messaging open the door for someone like Kennedy.
People might also be willing to overlook Kennedy’s crankish healthcare views, especially if he emphasizes the anti-war and anti-corporate parts of his platform. After all, the public is not, at least in polling, saying that it is particularly concerned with “Big Pharma Poisoning Our Kids With Vaccines” as a pressing policy concern. According to recent Pew polling, the top four policy concerns for Americans have to do with the economy, reducing healthcare costs, defending against terrorism, and reducing the influence of money in politics. In this sense, Kennedy’s main obsession with vaccines is probably about as important to people as it is scientifically accurate—which is to say, not very.4 But it would be a mistake for people to disregard all his lies and horrible messaging on issues critical to public health. It speaks to a lack of fitness to be in public office.5
Kennedy can and will present himself as a “unity” candidate to heal a “polarized” country. His campaign website says that he “has clear positions on most of today’s divisive trigger issues like abortion, guns, and immigration”—what are those positions? The website doesn’t say. But “he knows that both sides have legitimate concerns and legitimate moral positions.” Kennedy promises to lead us toward a grand “national reconciliation.” Will it work? Let’s hope not. While Kennedy may sound appealing when denouncing corporate dominance or calling for reining in the military-industrial complex, this “both sides have legitimate points” rhetoric suggests he might govern as both a disappointing centrist and an antivaxxer, which would be the worst of two awful worlds.
Could RFK Jr. Still Be The “Lesser Evil”?
The case against Kennedy is easy enough to make. But there’s an obvious response: As bad as he is, is he actually worse than Joe Biden? On public health, yes, clearly he is. But that’s one issue. What about climate change? Foreign policy? Corporate power? While Kennedy’s environmental and anti-imperialist credentials may not be as strong as he’d like leftists to believe, he actually makes a lot of sense on these issues (and more sense than Joe Biden). If we think, for instance, that he’s right about putting companies out of business if they push climate denial, or about the existential necessity of avoiding escalation in Ukraine, or his promise to “dismantle the surveillance state,” or that the migrants at the border are facing a “humanitarian crisis” due to “years of misguided foreign policies,” could these “outweigh” his hideously irresponsible vaccination rhetoric? After all, the whole reason progressives were supposed to vote for Joe Biden over Donald Trump was that Biden was the “lesser evil,” even if many of Biden’s policy positions were terrible.
Could Kennedy, then, still be the “lesser evil”? Is it worse to push anti-vaccine conspiracies than to approve new fossil fuel projects at a time when it’s clear this will lead to planetary destruction? Is it worse than breaking strikes and escalating tensions with nuclear-armed powers? In another pandemic, Kennedy would clearly be one of the worst possible people to have in the executive branch. But if one’s concern is reining in the military-industrial complex, wouldn’t he actually be better than Biden? Consider this, from his website:
As President, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. will start the process of unwinding empire. We will bring the troops home. We will stop racking up unpayable debt to fight one war after another. The military will return to its proper role of defending our country. We will end the proxy wars, bombing campaigns, covert operations, coups, paramilitaries, and everything else that has become so normal most people don’t know it’s happening. But it is happening, a constant drain on our strength. It’s time to come home and restore this country.
If someone thinks the continuation of American empire endangers the future of the planet, might they not be willing to suspend their disapproval of his stance on COVID vaccines?
On the other hand, we need to remember that all this anti-empire and pro-civil liberties sentiment sounds great, but it’s like a broken clock being right twice a day. Ultimately, we can wrack our brains trying to tally up the good and the bad for each candidate to make some kind of calculation as to who is the lesser evil. Or we could just take a few seconds to remember that Kennedy has made it his life’s work for the last couple of decades to spread lies and undermine scientific truth. (Biden is a liar, too, of course, and we can see that he hasn’t kept his campaign promises.) He really is a professional liar. Why should we fixate on the parts of his campaign we might happen to agree with and assume he will do those things? The danger of Kennedy is that he uses populist rhetoric to make people think he will change things. But thinking Kennedy will shake things up in a good way is probably as misguided as thinking that Donald Trump would “drain the swamp” or give us a good healthcare plan—things he promised but failed to deliver on. Consider Kennedy’s recent response to a question about his record on vaccines. The reporter asked him if he “went too far at any stage.”
“Here’s what I would say: show me where I got it wrong. Show me one fact that I’ve said in all of my social media postings that was factually erroneous. If you show me that, I’ll fix it, I’ll change it. And if it’s appropriate, I’ll apologize for it. But, that’s not what’s happened.”
The question, to begin with, was far too gentle considering Kennedy’s 2005 Rolling Stone-Salon article, “Deadly Immunity,” in which he claimed that thimerosal in vaccines caused autism, was retracted due to misquotations and factual inaccuracies. Salon has even admitted that keeping the corrected story online constitutes a “disservice to the public,” so they have taken it down. And in a recent interview with progressive commentator Krystal Ball, who was very kind to Kennedy, saying she likes a lot of what he says but that she is concerned about his antivaccine advocacy and wonders how he’s going to win over skeptical voters, he chose to answer her with more of the same, “Show me where I got it wrong.”6 Kennedy’s responses here show that he refuses to acknowledge he was wrong in a pretty big way. As we live through the fourth year of a public health crisis and also a cost-of-living crisis, it’s hard to see how this is the kind of leader we need right now—or ever.
Lesser evilism is not only wrong because it distracts from the overall problems with Kennedy as a candidate but also distracts from the rest of his policy agenda—to the extent that he has one.
What’s most concerning is that his policy agenda on his campaign website lacks mention of the most basic (and popular) progressive policies around healthcare, climate, wages, and taxes. Our colleague Briahna Joy Gray, who has spoken positively about the “energy” around Kennedy’s campaign, pointed out on a recent Bad Faith Podcast Callin that some excitement for Kennedy among leftists seems to ignore the fact that he essentially has no healthcare or specific social welfare policies. “It is very weird to me that no one seems to care that this man has no healthcare platform!” she said. She’s right.
Healthcare isn’t even listed as a distinct policy priority! No mention, either, of Medicare for All. But part of his “revitalization” plan is to “include low-cost alternative and holistic therapies that have been marginalized in a pharma-dominated system.” Great. Now we can replace Big Pharma with another Big Multi-Billion Dollar (Alternative Health) Industry. Remember, though: the fundamental problem with American healthcare is not a lack of access to alternative therapies or “natural” supplements or holistic therapies. It’s the profit motive of the pharmaceutical, health insurance, and other related industries that cause public mistrust, drive up costs (often through administrative bloat), limit access to care, and cause unnecessary deaths—that and the country’s fundamental lack of commitment to the social determinants of health. Millions of people with diabetes cannot afford insulin, people who need organ transplants are denied by insurance companies, and millions can’t get basic primary care. Kennedy’s desire to move to a “wellness society” “from a sick care system” sounds good until you realize that “wellness” is about self-care and consumption, not about the structural changes that would truly make people healthy.
When asked by Ball about whether he would consider nationalizing the pharmaceutical industry, Kennedy didn’t hesitate to say no. When Ball pressed him further about the profit motive ultimately being at the root of the problem with that industry (and others), he responded that the profit motive is “human nature.” In other words, it’s something we can’t do anything about.
When asked by Ball if he supports Medicare for All, Kennedy said (unexcitedly while shrugging) that he would like a single-payer system to be available to everyone, along with private plans, but that single payer was not “politically realistic.” This certainly ought to concern anyone who wants a president who not only supports M4A but is willing to fight for it. It sounds like single payer is simply not an issue that Kennedy is very invested in (probably because he knows it would undercut the for-profit health insurance industry, and, after all, the profit motive is just human nature).
The bottom line here is that any credible progressive candidate who wishes to run in opposition to Republicans (during a pandemic, no less) simply needs to support Medicare for All. (This is not an argument to push this particularly bad candidate to the left. It’s an argument against this particular candidate.) And it’s concerning that a candidate who is running such an Anti-Corporate and Anti-Pharma campaign won’t even consider nationalizing the industry.
Moving to climate, then, we shouldn’t be too surprised that Kennedy’s stance here is downright awful. He clearly lacks an appropriate commitment to addressing the climate emergency. On his campaign website, there’s no mention of a Green New Deal or concrete plan to do what is necessary to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels to address global warming. Kennedy says he will detoxify the land and protect natural areas, and this is unobjectionable. But when a Breitbart radio host recently asked him about climate, his first response was that the crisis was being used as an excuse to “impose social controls and political controls” and “geoengineering” on society. Just a few months ago, Kennedy tweeted a CHD article (“Must Read!”) which claimed that a government declaration of a “climate emergency” (an important thing, one would think, assuming it had substantive policy implications) would be a gateway to authoritarianism. When Ball asked him whether he thought the crisis was “existential,” he said yes but that he doesn’t insist that others believe that. He then repeated the line about climate (and COVID) being gateways to totalitarianism.
It gets worse. He told the Breitbart host the following in a recent interview:
“I don’t believe in these top-down mandates [such as geoengineering]. I’ve said from the beginning [that] the solution to environmental problems—not just climate but all environmental problems—is free market capitalism. … We have corporate crony capitalism. … A true free market promotes efficiency, and efficiency means the elimination of waste. And pollution is waste. A true free market would require us to properly value our natural resources. It’s the undervaluation of those resources that caused us to use them wastefully.”
Kennedy’s solution to corporate polluters (and climate), then, is the “discipline” of the free market. Now, not only is so-called “green capitalism” not going to solve the climate crisis, but Kennedy’s persistent paranoia7 about something sinister lurking behind large-scale societal efforts to address climate seems fairly incompatible with efforts to address climate in a meaningful way and with the general policies of social uplift that progressives support. That, combined with his delusional faith in the free market, ought to be the final nail in the coffin of his candidacy for anyone who is even the slightest bit serious about addressing the existential issue of climate.
On economic issues, his website says nothing about raising the minimum wage or taxing the rich (though he does support deregulating cryptocurrency and made his campaign debut at a Bitcoin conference). He does, of note, want to “restore integrity to government” by opening “institutions to real citizen involvement” and to clean house of the influence of the corporations that he says have “captured” major government institutions like the CDC, NIH, FDA, USDA, SEC, and the EPA. He recently tweeted, for instance, the following: “I’d like to put some former prisoners in the Bureau of Prisons. I’d like to put a few homeless people in HUD. The DOD needs a few peace activists.” This sounds like nothing more than standard liberal inclusion politics, not fundamental change. And surely any program of rehabilitating our government and getting money out of politics (which Kennedy says he also wants to do) must involve taxing corporations as well as taxing billionaires out of existence. So is he going to do those things or adequately fund the IRS to deal with rampant tax evasion? We have our doubts.
As for criminal punishment, which is buried in his “civil liberties” section, Kennedy plans to make prisons more rehabilitative and to “transform” the police instead of defunding them. No details on how. Also not terribly exciting for anyone who wants radical change in these areas, but it may sound perfectly acceptable to liberals who don’t want to vote for someone who seems too soft on crime. (But we agree with him about ending the War on Drugs and the school-to-prison pipeline.)
What’s his agenda for racial justice? We can’t know for sure, but in his campaign website video, he says he wants to “confront the darker parts of our history” such as “the genocide, the racism,” but not in a way that would “shame or blame or punish” but in a spirit of kindness. Well, that sounds about as ineffective as it sounds vague (what about reparations?). For other clues, we might look to CHD’s 2021 film Medical Racism: The New Apartheid, which targeted Black Americans with antivaccine propaganda by using actual past atrocities (Tuskegee and so forth) as context. Experts who were interviewed in the film have said that they feel they were used and misled as to what the film was about. If that’s any indication of Kennedy’s leanings on the issue, he might not have an agenda for racial justice that goes beyond conspiracy theories about government using vaccines as genocide against people of color. It goes without saying that it is truly despicable to target with disinformation a medically vulnerable minority group that has experienced disproportionate death from COVID and real harm from unethical medical experimentation and systemic racism in healthcare.
Another important point for progressives is that it’s not clear whether Kennedy the Populist has sworn off corporate PAC money. His website donation page notes, “We don’t have the mainstream media, the big corporations, or the Party establishment on our side. But we have you.” But there is no mention of a pledge not to take corporate PAC money. A search of his tweets also yielded no results on the subject.
On his campaign website, Kennedy has a short video about his run. He nostalgically recalls that his father and uncle had high hopes for the country: “racial harmony and prosperity for all,” “peace,” and “honest government.” But their lives were cut short and “America took a different path.” This implies that if only they had been around, things could have been different. Leaning a bit on the fairy tale romanticism of the “Camelot” JFK administration, as well as portraying himself as just a sincere adult-in-the-room liberal, Kennedy wants us to think that he can finish the job as a member of this political dynasty. It’s interesting that Kennedy uses his deceased family members to try to establish credibility. Some of his living family members have gone on the record to denounce his “dangerous misinformation” crusade against vaccines (and others reportedly see him as a “disgrace” in private). In the video, Kennedy warns about “alchemies of demagoguery” that are threatening our country. The truth, though, is that he is a demagogue.
Ultimately, it’s only because Biden and the Democrats have been so disappointing that someone like Kennedy, an abysmal candidate and totally untrustworthy person, can be attracting any support at all. It’s depressing that it’s even possible to ask whether Biden is better or worse than Kennedy.
In a way, we are in a similar situation to 2016, when, as Chris Hedges put it, “our failed democracy vomited up a con artist who was a creation of the mass media.” Speaking of this con artist, Kennedy said on the Breitbart radio interview that he “admired” Trump for speaking out against the establishment during the early days of COVID and seemed to lament that Trump didn’t have the “fortitude” or other traits it would take to really be effective as a leader to “do battle with his own bureaucracy.” Kennedy seemed to be implying that he’d like to be a more effective Trump, which should terrify us.
Kennedy will continue to sell himself as a brave “alternative” to the status quo. But this man peddles lies and capitalizes on the public’s hatred of corporate greed and government corruption. Like the con artist of 2016, this man is not to be trusted.
If the Democrats had a crop of candidates that people would be genuinely enthusiastic about voting for, Kennedy wouldn’t get a second look from anyone. But then they wouldn’t be the contemporary Democratic Party, and we wouldn’t be facing another demagogue vying for power.
Update May 19, 2023: The article was updated to include Kennedy’s interview responses about his views on Medicare for All, whether he would consider nationalizing the pharmaceutical industry, and his view on the existential threat of climate.
The “why won’t you debate me?” mentality is a classic provocation by antivaxxers and other science deniers. As one physician writer, Jonathan Howard, puts it, the demand “create[s] the illusion that discussion and debate hasn’t already occurred.” ↩
It’s worth noting that when Kennedy can cite a Cochrane review to support his views, they are the “premier authority for scientific clinical reviews,” but when they refute his analysis, as in the case of hydroxychloroquine, they go uncited. ↩
Pew polling also found that “large majorities” of Americans believe in the value of childhood vaccines and 7 in 10 support vaccine requirements to attend public school, although this percentage has decreased since the last poll. ↩
Scientist Darshana Narayanan wrote in this magazine last year about the factually erroneous “populist science” of best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari. She emphasized how important science is to our lives. “Science informs medical, environmental, legal, and many other public decisions, as well as our personal opinions on what to be wary about and how to lead our lives. Important societal and individual actions depend on our best understanding of the world around us—now more than ever, with the plague in all our houses, and the worst yet to come with climate change.” It’s critical, then, that our leaders have a basic respect for scientific consensus and that they not further the already growing anti-science sentiment in the country. ↩
He also was dishonest to say in that interview that he doesn’t “lead” with the vaccine issue. In his recent two-hour campaign announcement speech, he made sure to bring up his theory about autism and chronic disease as being caused by some environmental toxin. Given that antivaxxers claim that autism and chronic disease are both caused by vaccines, Kennedy’s clever omission of the word “vaccine” in that speech still leaves the listener wondering what the connection might be between his vaccine skepticism and the mysterious environmental toxin he says is causing high levels of autism and chronic disease. ↩
This paranoia shows up in CHD articles, one of which states that plans to create 15-minute cities (in other words, walkable cities, which sounds pretty cool) would be an “excuse for more control.” Sounds very familiar to Kennedy’s take on the COVID response: “It was an exercise not in public health, but in control.” ↩