LABOR WATCH - In the weeks leading up to Labor Day 2023, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is beginning to set out his economic plan to “restore the middle class”. Like other parts of Kennedy’s heterodox campaign, this economic plan draws on ideas from across the political spectrum. His plan has been termed “working class capitalism” or “populist capitalism”, but whatever term is used, Kennedy challenges the mainstream Democratic narrative, in a way that no other campaign is doing.
Kennedy’s ideas are rooted in private enterprise. He rejects various forms of collectivism as well as corporatism. He repeatedly attacks what he sees as collaborations between big government and big corporations to stifle market competition. What is needed is a market-based system, but one that differs in several important ways from the current system.
Working Class Economics
At its center, Kennedy’s capitalism is a capitalism that enables blue collar, direct service and direct care workers—workers outside of the knowledge economy—to achieve middle class lifestyles if they work steadily. As Kennedy recountedearlier this month:
“I grew up during the heyday of American economic prosperity. It was in the 1950s and 1960s that the archetype of the American Dream was born. It was not something available only to a lucky few; it was within the reach of most Americans.
“At that time, a single wage-earner with a high school education could own a home, raise a family, have vacations and save for retirement. That is how it should be. If you work hard, you should have a decent life.”
Kennedy comes back to this theme often in his talks: wages in working class jobs have declined steadily compared to knowledge economy jobs since the late 1970s. This is so, even though these working class jobs—truck driver, certified nurse assistant in long term care facilities, non-union construction worker, retail clerk and hundreds of other blue collar occupations—are the ones in the American economy providing goods and services valued by others. America must find a way back to an economy in which these workers are not one paycheck away from economic despair.
All Democratic politicians today give lip service to the idea of improving wages of low wage workforces—and we’ll hear a lot more on Labor Day by the Biden Administration extolling the working class. For Kennedy, worker wages and ownership opportunities form the base of political and economic stability: “A strong middle class is necessary for political stability and democracy,” he tells Joe Rogan; democracy cannot survive with an elite class and a large underclass that has no ownership stake in the economy.
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Kennedy’s initial job policies are a mix of approaches: reshoring of jobs, unionization, minimum wage hikes, reigning in healthcare costs, immigration controls. Kennedy also emphasizes the rebuilding of the small business economy, decimated due to the too-lengthy economic shutdowns of the pandemic So far, these policies have been introduced to frame campaign themes, and presented at a high level of generality. But Kennedy has more directly taken on some of the contentious job issues, regarding immigration controls, minimum wage and unionization.
Kennedy has called for a national minimum wage of $15 an hour. In early July, he joined the picket lines of the striking hotel workers in Los Angeles seeking to increase wages.
On immigration, Kennedy traveled in early June to the US-Mexico border in Yuma, Arizona to meet with migrants, observe the crossings in the middle of the night, and meet with local officials. Kennedy came back determined to address the Administration’s failure in border control. He denounced the “dystopian nightmare” of chaos for migrants and for the local communities and businesses. He highlighted the financial strains on cities in the border areas (prompting service cuts for low-income residents), and the environmental impacts on nearby farms and ranches. Over the past three months, he has continued to challenge the Administration on these issues, as well as on the impacts on working class wages locally and nationwide.
The Lens of Class
Beyond the individual policy challenges, Kennedy’s challenge to the Democratic leadership is a more fundamental one. His economics focus on class, not race or gender or the other identity categories that the Democratic party has become preoccupied with. For Kennedy, Americans need not be divided by race, gender or other identity categories. These categories are a distraction.
Kennedy’s economics does not idealize or romanticize working class voters; but neither does he approach them as “bitter clingers” or economic losers. He refuses to demonize rural voters, conservatives, or Republicans, and recognizes why these voters have moved to the Republican party. Their economic discontents need to be taken seriously and addressed.
In an interview in early July, New Yorker editor David Remnick asks Kennedy whether Kennedy is not disturbed about Republicans and conservatives who have made supportive statements about Kennedy’s campaign. Could this not somehow help undermine the Democratic leadership? Kennedy challenges Remnick’s New Yorker view of America:
“I’m trying to unite the country, David. I’m not going to do what you do, which is pick out people and say that they’re evil, they should be cancelled, or whatever. I’m a Democrat, I know what my values are. I’ve always spoken to Republicans my entire life…I think the kind of tribalism that you’re advocating is poisonous to our country. I think it is toxic. It’s created a polarization, a division in this country that is more dangerous than at any time since the American Civil War.”
While Kennedy’s populism stands out from other candidates, it finds echoes in a growing intellectual movement that is departing from the traditional populism on both the left and right. Michael Lind’s recent book, Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages is Destroying America captures a number of the main themes of this new populism, as does Joel Kotkin’s The Coming of Neo-Feudalism. Tablet magazine under editor Alana Newhouse has become a center for the movement writings, debates, and energy.
What the movement thinkers share among themselves and with Kennedy is not only the lens of class, but also of jobs. Their strategy for the middle class, like Kennedy’s, is a jobs strategy rather than one rooted in benefits or universal basic income. Participation in the work-world provides the structure and social participation, along with income, that most individuals need today. No income or benefits scheme can replace this structure and social inclusion.
Labor Day 2023 and Its Discontents
As we approach Labor Day 2023, the national unemployment rate is near its lowest level since the late 1960s, payroll job growth is outpacing expectations, and job openings are near historic highs. At the same time, polling data show a sizeable majority of Americans believe the country’s economy is going in the wrong direction. The reasons are not difficult to understand. They are part of Kennedy’s agenda: the inflation of the past few years, the out-of-control healthcare and education costs, the exploding national deficit.
In the next months, Kennedy will more fully outline his jobs policies, as well as his other economic policies. His ideas are worth following, whether one agrees with him or not. On a wide range of issues—censorship, the collaboration of tech firms with the federal government, a negotiated end to the Ukraine war—Kennedy has not been afraid to set out views contrary to the Democratic leadership and accepted policies. His economic populism follows this anti-establishment path.
Addendum: “Skeletons in Closet”
The legacy media has been almost uniformly hostile to Kennedy, dwelling on his past drug use, and delighting in criticisms by family members. Kennedy, though, has been nonplussed. At his campaign kick-off in April, he explained, “I’ve got so many skeletons in my closet that if they could vote, I could be king of the world.” And he adds, “In normal circumstances, I would not do this. But these are not normal circumstances.”
Of his family members, he has said the only thing that needs to be said, “Many of my family members work in the Administration. Many of them also just plain disagree with me on the issues, like censorship or public health, and they are entitled to their opinions, and I respect their opinions.”
(Michael Bernick served as California Employment Development Department director, and today am Counsel with the international law firm of Duane Morris LLP, a Milken Institute Fellow and Fellow with Burning Glass Institute, and research director with the California Workforce Association. My newest book is The Autism Full Employment Act (2021).)