The Democrats have chosen Massachusetts representative and current shining star of the Kennedy political dynasty, Joseph Kennedy, to give the party’s response to Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night. The move is yet another in a long series of moves indicating the party bosses are lost in the wilderness when it comes to their feeble attempts to appeal to Millennial voters.
Joseph Kennedy is the 37-year-old grandson of Robert Kennedy. He has represented Massachusetts’ 4th congressional district since 2013. His politics run the rather uninspiring gamut from middlingly liberal to slightly progressive. He is young, attractive, and has inherited the family knack for public speaking. It’s not so much that he’s a particularly terrible person or a “bad Democrat,” but the decision to make him the face of the party on Tuesday night shows that Democrats really don’t understand what Millennials are looking for in a political party.
Millennials want a party, ostensibly the Democratic Party absent the rise of a viable third party that can truly compete in elections, to not only stand up to Donald Trump but offer something truly different than business-as-usual politics. They want change. They don’t want reversion to Obama-era policies, but a new direction for the country that no longer favors corporations and the wealthy. Choosing a member of the most prominent political family in the Democratic Party shows that the Democrats are focusing on the superficial characteristics that make Kennedy appealing – his youth, looks, flair for public speaking – and ignoring those things that make him a laughably wrong choice – his name, middling liberalism, and views that run at odds with the majority of potential Millennial Democratic votes.
Chief among these views is Kennedy’s regressive attitude towards cannabis legalization. According to a Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this month, 79 percent of Americans aged 18-34 support full legalization of cannabis. Kennedy, however, has consistently voted against cannabis law reform. In a Boston Globe interview from 2016, Joseph Kennedy came out strongly and decidedly against cannabis legalization.
“I don’t think marijuana should be legalized,” Kennedy said. “If we’re going to say marijuana is a medicine, it needs to be treated like a medicine and regulated like a medicine. But when we look at full-on legalization, the potential danger that marijuana poses particularly to adolescents — I’m not convinced.”
The chief problem with this statement is that he speaks of generic “dangers” to adolescents posed by cannabis as if somehow prohibition remedies these “dangers.” Assuming these “dangers” exist, adolescents have historically had very little problem getting their hands on some weed despite laws making it illegal. And besides, studies looking for “dangers” of cannabis have yet to result in any hard conclusions to support the existence of said “dangers.” Kennedy is just peddling classic drug warrior platitudes and missing the fundamental arguments in support of legalization, which hinge on civil rights and a rejection of an authoritarian worldview that criminalizes peaceful personal behavior.
Kennedy will very likely hit all the right notes during his rebuttal to Trump on Tuesday night and buzz will swirl about the prospect of his running on the top or the bottom of the 2020 ticket, but the attention will likely bring his record under closer scrutiny than it has ever been before. According to Marijuana Moment, Joseph Kennedy’s official cannabis record is extremely troubling. In 2015, Kennedy joined just 10 other House Democrats in a vote against a measure that protected medical cannabis patients and providers from possible federal prosecution. He has also voted three times against increasing access to cannabis for military veterans, despite strong evidence supporting cannabis as an effective treatment for PTSD.
Kennedy also received a D on his congressional scorecard from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). The man who can be argued stands as the frontrunner among Millennials to lead the Democratic Party presidential ticket, Bernie Sanders, scored an A+ from NORML on the same report.
While cannabis may or may not be part of any given voter’s “litmus test” for a political candidate, cannabis legalization is one of those issues that connect to a number of other important issues. At a time when Millennials are seeing more and more of their peers impacted by opiate addiction, pharmaceutical companies are fighting against the rise of medical cannabis, which has been shown for some patients to be an effective alternative to opiates for pain management. Kennedy’s opposition is a tacit endorsement of the position of the pharmaceutical industry. That’s not a good look for someone or some party that needs to appeal to Millennials.
Criminal justice, private prisons, healthcare, the pharmaceutical industry, class inequality, good new jobs – these are all areas that tie into the cannabis legalization debate. For Joseph Kennedy and the Democrats, the time has come to decide where they truly stand.