The autocrats are winning,” author Anne Applebaum warned last November in an article in the Atlantic. Since then, Vladimir Putin’s disastrous war in Ukraine has exposed some of the first fatal cracks in the edifice of today’s illiberal global order. This is an order that has employed cynicism, the resentment of the powerless, and disinformation to centralise an enormous amount of economic and political power in supposedly indispensable strongmen. Might the modern autocrat’s playbook finally be failing?
Putin’s folly presents us with an opportune moment to comb through history for liberal alternatives. A remarkable example emerges from the United States of the 1960s: Robert F. Kennedy. If liberals are serious about exploiting emerging cracks in 21st century autocracy—in Putin’s Russia, Narendra Modi’s India, a United States still reeling from Donald Trump’s presidency, and elsewhere—then we would do well to study the all-too-brief career of this American leader. Kennedy’s life was dedicated to egalitarian empowerment, the very opposite of what keeps today’s autocrats in power.
Robert Kennedy, the younger brother of President John F. Kennedy, is the subject of a new biography, Justice Rising, by American historian Patricia Sullivan (full disclosure: Sullivan and I were colleagues at the University of South Carolina). This is a book about democracy in crisis—about soaring hope and awful tragedy. As US attorney general, Kennedy helped dismantle Jim Crow, the system in the American South that clipped the social, economic, and political freedoms of African Americans. He battled against exponents of hate and division. Kennedy did not live long enough to see out his transformative political project: He was felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1968, while seeking the Democratic Party nomination to be president of the United States.
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Kennedy’s politics almost Ambedkarite
Justice Rising is much more than a biography. It details a fraught moment in American history, one with certain parallels with our era of strongmen and far-Right populism. The 1960s in the United States were a time of intense polarisation, which make QAnon, ‘love jihad’, or Russian fantasies of Ukrainian neo-Nazism look like child’s play in comparison. As African Americans pursued their civil rights, they were met with brutal opposition in the South, where state politicians and vigilante mobs unleashed campaigns of intimidation, mass incarceration, and deadly violence. Right-wing demagogues like George Wallace fomented division by exploiting historical resentments and concocting conspiracy theories of government overreach. The results were some of the worst civil disturbances of the 20th century, where American cities were turned into actual war zones.
Kennedy battled hate and exclusion with a radically expansive notion of justice. He sought, in Sullivan’s words, to “to bend American political culture in a new direction,” one which proactively championed equality. At the age of 34, he was appointed as attorney general of the United States, the head of the Department of Justice.
Here, he recognised that the law far too often criminalised those who were poor, socially marginalised, or uneducated. “The poor man looks on the law as the enemy,” he noted. It was “always taking something away.” Instead, Kennedy attempted recasting the law as a tool for social justice, a helping hand to the downtrodden and disenfranchised. Under his watch, the Department of Justice made significant strides against voter suppression and school segregation while infiltrating far-Right groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Kennedy helped integrate Southern universities despite a white backlash so deadly that 25,000 federal troops had to be called into the Mississippi college town of Oxford in 1962. He instigated criminal justice reform inspired by compassion for the poor rather than a “lock them up” mentality.
There was something almost Ambedkarite about Kennedy’s politics. Like India’s greatest proponent of equality, he realised that the law could help overcome centuries of prejudice and discrimination—but that the law was not enough. Too many people, on account of their socioeconomic circumstances, experienced “an inability to assert real rights.” Only opportunity, Kennedy believed, could truly level the playing field: Access to quality education, good jobs, adequate health care, and livable housing. Government, Kennedy believed, had a responsibility to remedy historical injustices. Where today’s autocrats manipulate the festering resentments of the poor or marginalised, Kennedy sought solutions through community building. He met impatience and anger with a deep commitment to improving citizens’ quality of life and augmenting democratic accountability.
Kennedy responded to a climate of cynicism and mistrust by empowering the youth. At the Department of Justice, he appointed division heads who were, like him, under the age of 40, people who brought about a generational shift in the domain of law enforcement. On the ground, he reached out to young activists like the farm labour leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta or the African American civil rights campaigner Marian Wright. Youth was a powerful antidote to entrenched conservatism. He engaged with raucous crowds of college students, taking part in back-and-forth debates and encouraging open discussion. In America’s most deprived inner cities, Kennedy gravitated towards children, enquiring about their diet or schooling.
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Learning from the young
Youthfulness gave Robert Kennedy some traits completely antithetical to the 21st century autocrat. He was humble. As attorney general and later as a US senator from New York, Sullivan tells us, Kennedy listened to others, rarely ever lectured, and encouraged the thrashing out of opposite views. He acknowledged his mistakes. Whether it was his early support of Joe McCarthy, the paranoid senator who saw communist conspirators everywhere, or his responsibility for widening American military involvement in Vietnam, Kennedy admitted his errors and led course corrections. Unlike certain leaders today, he did not double down on failing, flawed policies.
Kennedy possessed a form of progressivism that was global in scope, visiting South Africa to speak out against apartheid and traveling to some of the worst slums in South American cities. And he had a capacity to learn and change his mind. Sullivan recounts how Kennedy became a vocal champion of African American civil rights only through sustained engagement with, and tutorship from, activists in the front lines against Jim Crow. Many of them were younger than him. “The young people,” he told John Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, “have educated me. You changed me. Now I understand.”
Kennedy could also be remarkably critical of the white elite, his own social class, holding them to account for the racial ferment of the 1960s. He formulated scathing analyses of white hypocrisy, noting how Northern whites criticised the Jim Crow South while tolerating segregation and discrimination in their own institutions and communities. To strengthen freedom of speech, he sought out dissenting voices and gave them a platform. It was not enough “to allow dissent,” Kennedy told students at the University of California, Berkeley. “We must demand it.” He had the unique capacity to speak truth to power while being in a position of power himself.
By pursuing social justice, empowering the youth, and appealing to the conscience of American citizens, Kennedy built bridges between communities and constituencies. He critically evaluated the United States’ postwar economic expansion and argued that materialism had distracted Americans from bigger questions of morality and equality. In one speech, highly unusual for an American politician to make, he attacked gross national product (GNP) as a metric of progress. GNP, he argued, did not take into account “the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play.” It measured everything “except that which makes life worthwhile.” And it concealed far too many disparities in American society.
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Why India needs a Robert Kennedy
Sullivan’s book, while focused on a particular chapter of American history, has clear relevance in broader global discussions about democracy and autocracy. It can make for sober reading in Modi’s India—a reminder of a now long-distant era when India was a progressive beacon to the world. There are traces of India in many strands of Kennedy’s progressivism. As a recent college graduate, for example, Kennedy traveled to India and met with Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru presciently warned him and his brother not to confuse anti-colonial nationalism in Vietnam with conspiratorial theories of Soviet world domination.
While crafting a civil rights agenda for his brother’s administration, Kennedy relied on two individuals with strong ideological and political links with India. Chester Bowles, the former US ambassador to New Delhi who became a warm supporter of Nehru, orchestrated outreach to African American voters. Howard Wofford—who traveled to India to study Gandhian nonviolence and then helped Martin Luther King, Jr. visit India in 1959—pushed the Kennedy brothers to adopt a maximalist position on executive action for civil rights.
India loomed in the background through the duration of the Civil Rights Movement. Marian Wright, who helped guide Kennedy’s investigation of poverty in the Mississippi Delta region in 1967, had written her college thesis on Mahatma Gandhi. Wright eventually married Kennedy’s aide, Peter Edelman, who, in a sign of the times, dressed in a Nehru jacket for his wedding.
History proves that all authoritarianisms are finite—this is a lesson which Vladimir Putin and his fellow autocrats will learn one day. The key challenge, therefore, is how to minimise the damage they inflict while in power – upon rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens as well as the essential norms of governance. To accomplish that, and to fully turn the tide against 21st century autocracy, the world is in urgent need of more leaders like Robert F. Kennedy.
In the past, India had leaders who shared many of the best qualities of this American politician. One thinks of B.R. Ambedkar’s blistering analysis of prejudice in Indian society, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s globally minded progressivism, or, more recently, P.V. Narasimha Rao’s ability to learn and change his core convictions. It is difficult to see signs of such figures amidst today’s political landscape of democratic erosion and muscular nationalism. But one can, like Robert F. Kennedy, hope for better days.
Dinyar Patel is an author and assistant professor of history at the S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR) in Mumbai. He tweets @DinyarPatel. Views are personal.