A Bad Year for Dynasties

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye’s impeachment caps a year in which famous political families, from the Clintons to the Kirchners, have seen their fortunes sink.

Park Geun-Hye arrives at an emergency cabinet meeting on December 9.
Park Geun-Hye arrives at an emergency cabinet meeting on December 9. (Reuters)

Three-hundred and sixty-four days ago, on December 10, 2015, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner departed the Casa Rosada. A Kirchnerite candidate seeking to succeed her had lost the presidential election, and several months later Kirchner herself would be indicted for financial chicanery. Her fall from grace kicked off what has been an awful year for some of the world’s most prominent dynasties, culminating in the impeachment on Friday of President Park Geun-hye of South Korea.

There has been no shortage of commentary on the extent to which the last year has witnessed repudiations of the establishment, from Brexit to the FARC deal to Trump to Italy. But the way that some of the most powerful families in world politics have stumbled is an interesting dynamic as well, if perhaps not one of such obviously epochal impact.

The proximate cause of Park’s impeachment is a set of revelations about her close ties with Choi Soon-sil. Park’s father was the military dictator Park Chung-hee, who ruled from 1961 to 1979. Choi’s father, the cult leader Choi Tae-min, became a mentor to the younger Park, who then became close to the younger Choi. President Park is accused of improperly allowing Choi to influence her and national policy, and Choi faces prosecution. But this scandal is only the latest in a string of embarrassments for Park. The president offered to resign last month, only to be rebuffed by lawmakers. South Korea’s constitutional court will now decide whether to remove her from office permanently.

Park’s impeachment comes a month after Hillary Clinton’s surprise defeat in the U.S. presidential election. Clinton was bidding to become the first woman president in the United States, having previously spent eight years in the White House while her husband, Bill Clinton, was serving as president. Clinton’s bid was sunk in part by allegations of corruption related to her family’s charitable foundation and her use of a private email server. Kirchner also left office dogged by scandal. She, too, had been married to her predecessor, the late Nestor Kirchner.

One obvious similarity between Kirchner, Park, and Clinton is that all three are women. Misogyny makes life for women in politics far more difficult than it is for men, and one reason these politicians have risen after men in political dynasties is that name recognition helps allow women to overcome at least some of those structural challenges. But misogyny alone can’t explain the situation, since lots of other female leaders have thrived.

The other common denominator here is those corruption, or the appearance of it. Voters turned on all three women because of allegations of impropriety and scandal. And in each case, the whiff of corruption originated not simply with the leader involved, but dated back farther into the dynasty. One might point to supporters turning on those dynasties as the real current at play.

Take Park: While many of her problems are partly of her own causing, the Choi case improbably dates back to her father’s regime, when she became friends with Choi Tae-Min. Clinton, too, was hurt by her connections to the Bill Clinton administration, around which a host of scandals, real and imagined, revolved. Some of the troubles that beset her during the presidential campaign were really more connected to Bill Clinton, too—from the foundation he created after leaving the White House to NAFTA, the free-trade agreement whose implementation he oversaw and to which Donald Trump tied Clinton.

Meanwhile, other dynasts, including some who are not women, have been experiencing troubles of their won. In the United States, Jeb Bush’s bid to become the third member of that family to win the White House fell well short even of Clinton, sputtering early in the Republican Party presidential primary. In France, François Fillon’s recent victory in the Republican primary is seen as a blow to the presidential hopes of Marine Le Pen, the second-generation scion of the National Front. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the country’s first president, has come under criticism for failing to control rampant corruption.

Why the struggles? The journalist Jonathan Rauch has written that American politics follows a peculiar rule: “No one gets elected president who needs longer than 14 years to get from his or her first gubernatorial or Senate victory to either the presidency or the vice presidency.” As he wrote in The Atlantic last year:

Well, there is nothing magical about the number 14. What matters about the rule is not the exact number—14 versus (say) 12 or 16—but its reflection of an underlying public preference for presidents who are battle-tested but not battle-weary, experienced enough to know their way around but fresh enough to bring new energy to the job.

To this one might add the old maxim that power corrupts. The longer one is in office, or as in Clinton’s case during her husband’s presidency, adjacent to power, the longer one has to meet and connect with people at high levels. Even if one is miraculously pure oneself, that’s likely to bring him or her into contact with some less savory, less ethical people, creating liabilities down the line. In the case of the Clinton Foundation, it didn’t matter that there was never any proof of wrongdoing; the charity necessarily dealt with questionable characters overseas. Trump’s own ethical shortcomings seem to damage him less, perhaps because the idea of him being corrupt had not had time to marinate in the public consciousness for the 24 years it did for Clinton.

Being a member of a dynasty may be the shortest path to power, but as the past year showed it also risks foreshortening one’s time in power. As Trump prepares for the presidency, he is reportedly planning to hand most power in his business over to his sons, while his daughter Ivanka, a trusted lieutenant, plans to move to Washington, where she can advise him closely. If Ivanka Trump sees that as her own springboard to political success, she might think about some of the other dynasts and reconsider whether it’s really worth leaving the commercial world.