Of course there’s a big tug-of-war over the legacy of JFK on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. He’s a sainted figure on the Left, holding one of the highest seats in their pantheon, even though conservatives have accurately pointed out that several of his policy stances were far more in line with modern-day teabagging right-wing extremism. Both sides can agree that the center of gravity in American politics has moved far to the left since 1963. As a result, yesterday’s moderates are today’s arch-conservatives.
How much of that pendulum swing was a result of the Kennedy assassination? What-if games are always fun to play, and impossible to resolve. If JFK had lived, would he have changed his views to remain supportive of the leftward-drifting Democrat Party… or would his role as an elder statesman have prevented that drift? Would the Democrats have suffered from the orderly conclusion of an ultimately mediocre Kennedy presidency, and the loss of the high-voltage energy provided by Camelot mythology? Would Nixon have been the same Nixon? If time travel ever becomes a reality, I’d hate to work on the team charged with calculating all the butterfly effects. It sounds like a job that could drive you nuts.
One of the most powerful aftershocks of JFK mythology has been the growing belief in government-managed utopia, the enduring dream of a return to Camelot. Decades of myth-making left many of those who came of age after the assassination convinced that President Kennedy was murdered on the verge of leading America into a golden age. He had a truly inspiring gift for describing what that age might look like. The New Frontier hangs forever on the horizon of our national imagination. The one man who knew the path to that promised land was struck down before he could show us the way.
Those wistful regrets – imparted now to a generation that scarcely knows anything about Kennedy, other than that he was awesome, and got murdered – have gone a long way to support the belief in centrally managed Utopia. Aspiring central managers have been shrewd about using the Kennedy legacy for their ends. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” became a collectivist mantra, even though Kennedy was making an appeal to voluntary patriotic energy, not endorsing the kind of dreary, compulsory, incompetent administrative State envisioned by the likes of Barack Obama.
The theme of that memorable speech was freedom, and cooperation, not regulatory management by arrogant elites. It ends with Kennedy encouraging his audience to “ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you.” You might have noticed that the bloated mega-government built partially in his name, following his death, is not very interested in making sacrifices.
Fueled in part by carefully blended JFK nostalgia, the Left has driven America right where it wants us, leaving us stranded at the gates of Paradise, paying an increasingly absurd price for every inch we are dragged closer to those eternally locked doors. Of course we can’t “go back” or “regress” – who wants to move an inch further away from the radiance of Heaven? And we’re supposed to feel awful and unworthy because we can never quite reach that glorious destination. It’s all the fault of nefarious, selfish interests, who just happen to be political opponents of the Left. America is a perpetual disappointment to its political masters… but if we just obey them with a bit less resistance, a tad less insistence on our outmoded and inconvenient “inalienable rights,” we can creep a little closer to the Eden we were cast down from in 1963.
Voluntary cooperation, and the freedom it implies, are a mirage sponsored by sinister and greedy exploiters who would lure the State’s child-citizens into the shadows of the free market, where they can be more easily consumed. Greater faith and trust in central political authority necessarily requires less faith and trust between citizens. People won’t trust the government to take over a market until they have lost faith in the free citizens who keep its shops. Citizens won’t accept hyper-regulation until they have lost confidence in their ability to manage their lives, engage in commerce, and steward the Earth without compulsory guidance from their betters.
A glowing vision of those betters is very useful for selling the ideal of coercive collectivism to free people. They are naturally a little reluctant to despise themselves, but much more willing to worship a celestial elite filled with genius planners, expert consultants, and anointed leaders. By accepting the moral authority and practical superiority of the elite, they slowly begin to lose faith in their fellow citizens. And then the voices come rolling down from Olympus, to tell them about the predatory monsters lurking in their midst! Safety can be found only behind the aegis of the political gods! Ask not what you can do for one another by creating wealth through the pursuit of your own ambitions, but rather ask what you can do for the titans of the State, who love you and will ensure you get what you deserve.
The old leftist mythology about how JFK was killed by Dallas, a city of right-wing hatred, instead of the communist nut who pulled the trigger, is version 1.0 of the “Climate of Hate” rhetoric deployed after the Tucson shootings. Remember how the Left – nearly all of them, in unison, from the inner circles of Democrat politics to the editorial pages of the New York Times – tried to portray Tucson killer Jared Loughner as the puppet of Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh, driven murderously insane by the toxic atmosphere of conservative anti-government rhetoric? It wasn’t a new strategy for the modern totalitarian Left. It was just a new version of their founding anthem, the Ballad of Dallas.
Perhaps the Left would not have become so authoritarian, paranoid, and vicious if JFK had survived to become one of its revered elders. Or maybe they would have quickly lost interest in him once he left office, because he was no longer useful – maybe even counter-productive – once advancing years diluted his appeal to the kids. That appeal was preserved for decades by his ascent into legend. The ideology of the man who killed him is now less “extreme” than Kennedy’s.