Should We Be Wary of Political Dynasties?

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Stephen Hess began seriously studying American political dynasties while stationed in Frankfurt, Germany in the military.  Flipping through the pages of an extensive volume on American political history, he was struck by the frequency and size of the clusters of shared last names.  Of course, some weren’t so surprising—the Adamses, Roosevelts and other household names—but more local names, like the Frelinghuysens of New Jersey, prompted Hess to craft elaborate genealogies of America’s political families

Senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution and Distinguished Research Professor at the George Washington University, Hess formerly served on the White House staffs of Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford.   He has become a foremost authority on media and government, and is author of America’s Political Dynasties(1966, Doubleday; 1997, Transaction).   In a brief discussion with Hess, he raised a few issues to remember when thinking about America and its relationship to our political families. I here list a few of them:

I. Last name alone rarely guarantees political success.

Both of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s children tried unsuccessfully to launch political careers.  Candidates, no matter what their last name, are held accountable by the voters and are judged largely on the quality of their service.

But a famous last name can provide a stepping stone much the way other seemingly impertinent attributes can.  Abraham Lincoln’s early local political success owed much to his “rough-and-tumble” fighting prowess.  Others have relied on good looks, political machines and acting skills.  

II. Political dynasties are not symptomatic of an unhealthy democracy.

Hess’s research suggests that public servants associated with political dynasties have served their constituencies just as well as individuals without that name recognition (he defines dynasty as a family with three generations of politicians).  It isn’t as though we’ve been left with a collection of substandard politicians with recognizable last names. 

Moreover, political dynasties are not indefinite.  New ones are constantly emerging, and others fading out.  Sometimes they happen by accident and sometimes they are deliberate and carefully planned.  Hess argues that Joe Kennedy groomed his children to become political leaders, while the Bushes largely stumbled upon the political scene.

More recently, women and minorities have entered the dynastic struggle for political power.  On the national level, Nancy Pelosi’s family has all the characteristics of a political dynasty, and Jesse Jackson has started one of his own.   Latinos around the country have political dynasties at a local level.

III.  They’ve been here since the start.

Dynasties are not always household names.  They generally operate on a very local level with power passed on in the same way as other family-run businesses.  A name becomes something of a brand that voters learn to trust.  When that trust is breached, or a new family challenges the old, then the dynasty is replaced. Tafts were elected for generations in Ohio, but that has changed recently.

Starting with the first congress in 1789, one finds the beginnings of several political dynasties.  It’s hard to like political dynasties, but they are inevitable, and built into American democracy.  Some find the mythology of America's ruling families entertaining or intriguing, others are sickened by a system that has monarchical implications.

In the unconventional case of appointments, it’s hard to say who deserves what.  In a democracy, the person receiving the most votes (or electoral votes) deserves the position in question.  Political appointees unavoidably circumvent the voting process.  If chosen, Caroline Kennedy has two years to prove to the people of New York that she was a worthy choice, otherwise she will be replaced.  That’s the beauty of the system. 

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