The New Dynasty Politics of the United States

With the announcement that Paul Ryan will not be entering the 2016 presidential race, we are starting to see the formation of the short list of presidential candidates. And what a list it is! Right now, the Democrats have Hillary Clinton and possibly Elizabeth Warren, if left-wing cheerleaders can somehow convince her to leave her Senate cocoon.

And on the right, the candidates are beginning to narrow to Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and now Mitt Romney, with maybe some others throwing in their hats.

What is striking is just how familiar these names are. Bush and Clinton certainly need no introductions of their political family connections. Romney, who has now run for president twice -- once as his party's candidate -- is also the son of a former governor. And of course, Rand Paul is the son of erstwhile libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul.

That leaves Rubio as the sole candidate running outside of a political dynasty.

Political dynasties aren't uncommon in America. We have already had John and John Quincy Adams, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, as well as George H. W. and George W. Bush. But it is far less common to see the vast majority of candidates in the primaries come from such backgrounds.

What is happening in American politics today is a pattern that has already befallen professions as diverse as professional soldiers and medical doctors. One element is competition. As these areas of work increasingly see new entrants, advantages that accrue to those with parents in these disciplines tend to become decisive later on. Children with parents who are doctors can be better prepared for life in a hospital simply by listening to the vocabulary and procedures that their parents are talking about.

Similarly to competitiveness, the increasing search costs for work means that there are greater incentives to work where one knows. It used to be relatively easy for young workers looking to explore different fields to switch industries. But there is a process of hyper-professionalization in many fields, where a careful sequence of unpaid internships, internships, fellowships, and entry-level jobs is the only way in. While this is often argued as a sort of "cultural affinity" for why families stay in similar industries, I believe that these switching costs at least partially explain this.

There are labor economic reasons why political dynasties are blooming for our nation's highest office, but there are also more particular reasons for its rise as well. To run for president practically requires brand familiarity. The process of choosing the presidency has been warped by social media and 24-hour news away from engaging a candidate's character to simply throwing soundbite grenades. The rigors of that campaign life narrow the field of candidates able to perform it considerably.

There is also the feeling among some analysts that families who have lived mostly in the public eye are less "risky," since any skeletons buried in the closet have presumably been unearthed. For the sons and daughters of current politicians, who theoretically have had significant supervision to ensure that their actions comport with the media attention they will receive if discovered, they already have the extraordinarily clean record the American public demands of its politicians.

While those reasons are a partial explanation of this growth, the larger question is more normative: are dynasty politics bad for democracy? There isn't any immediately obvious direction here, particularly given that dynasty politics is quite common in democracies throughout Asia like Korea (where the current president is the daughter of the former dictator of that country), India, and Japan as well as in European countries like France, where Marine Le Pen is now leading in some polls.

Despite that experience, my sense is that the experience is mostly negative for the US though, for two reasons. First, these dynasties encourage a sort of factionalism in politics that the United States already needs less of. Political feuds end up becoming blood feuds, since the stakes are not just for one's own political careers, but also for one's kin as well. We see these developments in many of the stories about the Clinton family, which isn't just protecting Hillary but also Chelsea.

But perhaps the real concern is that families have devices to create permanent campaign structures in place and ensure that they can lock up key talent. The Clinton Global Institute performs this function, which has hired many of the top lieutenants of the Clinton years like Ira Magaziner. Since campaigns are so ephemeral, the allure of more permanence of work is highly attractive for both campaign workers and policy experts.

In short then, political dynasties harm democracy, without a concomitant benefit that I can identify. Maybe the candidates are more fluent and experienced, but it seems hard to believe we can't find new candidates equally qualified.

We don't want a political system that is already obsessed with slogans to further devolve to simple comparisons of last names. Let's keep politics fresh.

Image by ASJ8M used under Creative Commons

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