What Democrats Can Learn from Robert Kennedy’s Politics of Dignity

To lead the country out of the doldrums of Trumpism, liberals need to address the lack of dignity in the lives of too many Americans.

It’s been 50 years since Robert F. Kennedy was murdered on the night of the California presidential primary. As Democrats seek to lead the country out of the darkness of Trumpism, they should borrow a central theme from Kennedy’s campaign: the promise of meaningful dignity for all Americans.

Kennedy is now regarded as a fallen liberal hero, yet during his presidential campaign, he ran as something of a dissident against President Lyndon B. Johnson and the liberal establishment. In May 1968, his campaign laid out his agenda for reforming the welfare system, believing it had “done much…to alienate us from one another,” and was unloved even by its beneficiaries. He thought that cash welfare on its own wouldn’t boost Americans, so he rejected guaranteed basic income proposals that circulated in the late 1960s.

What Americans needed and craved, Kennedy believed, was greater dignity and purpose. And that meant jobs. Good work is more than clock-punching drudgery. It means having a stake in a community to call one’s own—an exercise of citizenship to take pride in.

“We need jobs, dignified employment at decent pay,” he said. “The kind of employment that lets a man say to his community, to his family, to his country, and most important, to himself, ‘I helped build this country. I am a participant in its great public ventures. I am a man.’”

Fifty years later, the economy is chugging along, but the spoils are mostly going to the richest of the rich. The modern liberal economic agenda is focused on reversing this economic inequality. Inequality is a macroeconomic phenomenon, but what people actually experience at the individual level is a dwindling sense of personal dignity.

These indignities manifest themselves in different ways. For some people, it’s the anxiety of being squeezed by rising costs and stagnant pay, and being utterly dependent on an employer just to scrape by (not just for income, but also for healthcare and benefits). For others, it’s the mini-tyrannies that so many employers run, controlling nearly every aspect of workers’ lives. For minorities, and African-Americans in particular, it’s chronic unemployment that feeds into generational poverty and a limited shot at upward mobility. For white working-class voters, it’s the sense of lost honor from the shriveling up of the American Dream—an indignity that led many straight into the arms of Donald Trump.

These feelings of a lack of dignity are intrinsically bound up in rising inequality. Political leaders have long insisted that a rising tide lifts all boats. But for over 40 years, America’s rising tide has lifted mostly yachts. Everyone else has been treading water, with cynical political and cultural voices egging on working-class whites to direct their frustrations at immigrants and minorities. Income inequality may be the fact of what has happened, but the ensuing erosion of individual dignity and personal status is what many people have actually felt.

 Though not always stated, the progressive agenda implicitly aims to ease many of these indignities. In particular, one rising big idea brings the politics of dignity to the fore: the federal jobs guarantee. Prominent Democratic senators from Cory Booker to Bernie Sanders to Kirsten Gillibrand have, in rapid succession, unveiled job guarantee proposals. Booker’s plan, for example, would test a jobs guarantee in 15 localities, funding public jobs for every adult who wants one. “There is great dignity in work,” Booker said. “And in America, if you want to provide for your family, you should be able to find a full-time job that pays a fair wage.”

Of course, many people don’t find much dignity in their jobs. While the mechanics of a jobs guarantee (and the precise jobs) still need to be hashed out, most of the plans anticipate funding a WPA-style public workers corps with all Americans earning a living wage paired with generous benefits. Tedious jobs will undoubtedly endure, but those stuck in them would at least benefit from a rising standard of pay, better working conditions, and more job options.

More fundamentally, the right to a job carries the promise of ensuring that our broken economy actually serves human needs. Just as the long-held progressive declaration that healthcare is a right vows to liberate bodily integrity from ability to pay, a jobs guarantee raises the hope of untethering individual purpose from the whims of the market.

Not coincidentally, dignity has become the core dividing line in our politics in the age of Trump. The president has set about boosting solely the dignity of his own narrow political base, and stripping the dignity of everyone else. By relentlessly denigrating just about every marginalized group, Trump elevates the relative status of his followers by undermining the status of nearly everyone else.

At the same time, conservatives have latched on to rhetoric about the dignity of work to justify cutting off Medicaid and other welfare benefits from the unemployed. There’s a big difference between penalizing people for not working and facilitating work for all who want it. Progressives shouldn’t dismiss the gains to personal dignity from expanding employment just because conservatives pervert that idea to demean and marginalize the poor.

It’s good that Democrats are dabbling with a jobs guarantee, but they can’t stop there—the party should build upon it to craft a broader pro-dignity agenda, too. After all, the ultimate end-goal of liberalism is not government intervention for its own sake, but to secure meaningful dignity and self-determination for all Americans. “Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task,” Kennedy once said. “It is to confront the poverty of satisfaction—purpose and dignity—that afflicts us all.”

During his short-lived presidential campaign, Kennedy’s message united a working-class coalition that cut across race and ethnicity. By vowing to expand personal dignity for all in the wake of a president determined to obliterate it for many, perhaps progressives in 2018 can command this coalition once again.

Joel Dodge

Joel Dodge is a writer and attorney in New York City. His work has appeared in Quartz, The Week, The New Republic, and The American Constitution Society.