In Praise of Nepotism

Americans censure nepotism on the one hand and practice it as much as they can on the other. There's much to be said for "good" nepotism, the author argues—which is fortunate, because we're living in a nepotistic Golden Age

For almost two years leading up to the November 2000 elections, expectations focused on Vice President Albert Gore Jr. and Texas Governor George W. Bush. Both were the sons of important political families. Their rivalry sparked an immediate interest in the "return" of political dynasties.

Gore, an able and hardworking politician, was described as a child of privilege whose public career had begun literally at birth, when his father persuaded the local paper to carry the news on its front page. After twenty-four years of government service Gore had compiled an impressive record. Bush, too, was a talented politician, a two-term governor who had smoothly assumed control of his father's political network. Yet he suffered even more from the "silver-spoon" label. Following closely in his father's footsteps without equaling his accomplishments, Bush seemed derivative, uncertain: a bad copy of his father. For many, he was aptly described by a comment aimed at the senior Bush in 1988 by the Texas commissioner of agriculture, Jim Hightower, now a radio personality: "He is a man who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple."

Many people were offended by the idea that the presidency could be claimed as a birthright, as though it were family property. But others saw in Bush the authenticity Gore lacked, suggesting that the rebellious youth who eventually accepts mature responsibilities is better liked and trusted than the dutiful son who suppresses his true inclinations in order to please a demanding father. In effect, then, the 2000 election was a referendum not on the validity of dynastic succession in a democracy but on which kind of successor we prefer. The Prodigal Son won out over the Dutiful Son. The glad-handing frat boy defeated the humorless wonk.

No sooner had Bush taken office (thanks partly to the decision of a Supreme Court dominated by Reagan-Bush appointees) than he began doling out appointments to relatives of other leading Republicans. Michael Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, became chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Elaine Chao, the wife of Senator Mitch McConnell, became Secretary of Labor. Chao's chief labor attorney, Eugene Scalia, is the son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice William Rehnquist's daughter went to Health and Human Services. Elizabeth Cheney, the Vice President's daughter, became a deputy assistant secretary of state, and her husband became chief counsel for the Office of Management and Budget. In a crowning act of nepotistic chutzpah, Bush acceded to Senator Strom Thurmond's request that he appoint the twenty-eight-year-old Strom Thurmond Jr. U.S. attorney for South Carolina.

Helen Thomas, the former UPI Washington correspondent, declared in a column that the Bush Administration had become "a family affair, reeking of nepotism." (Nepotism is often said to reek, as though it were a pile of dirty laundry.) "You'd think an administration headed by the son of a former president might be a teensy bit leery of appearing to foster a culture of nepotism," Andrew Sullivan wrote in The New Republic. Sullivan produced a long list of people who had gotten jobs in Washington through such connections, and concluded, "All this nepotism is a worrisome sign that America's political class is becoming increasingly insular."

The 2002 midterm elections greatly strengthened this impression. All over the country sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, wives and widows of elected officials were strongly in evidence. Most prominent was Florida's governor, Jeb Bush, re-elected by a healthy margin. In Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, son of the former Michigan governor George Romney, became governor. In New Hampshire, John E. Sununu, son of a former governor and presidential chief of staff, beat the sitting governor, Jeanne Shaheen, for a U.S. Senate seat. In Arkansas, Tim Hutchinson, whose brother Asa was a congressman and is now an undersecretary in the Department of Homeland Security, lost his Senate seat to the state attorney general, Mark Pryor, son of the former Arkansas governor and senator David Pryor. Lucille Roybal-Allard, who occupies the California congressional seat once held by her father, was also re-elected. And in North Carolina, Elizabeth Dole, the wife of Bob Dole, won a Senate race against Erskine Bowles, a former Clinton chief of staff (and the son of a state politician). Meanwhile, the position of House minority leader was claimed by Representative Nancy Pelosi, the daughter of a five-term Maryland congressman and Baltimore mayor, who had risen swiftly in California politics in part through her skillful use of dynastic connections. Pelosi was opposed by Harold Ford Jr., a young black congressman who had succeeded to his father's seat in Tennessee.

The widespread perception of a tilt toward nepotism is correct: the American political class, along with other sectors of our society, is increasingly filled with the offspring of established parents. This phenomenon has gone largely unnoticed or has been apprehended in a piecemeal fashion. The few who have commented on it have voiced alarm that we are returning to a society based on hereditary status, complete with a corporate aristocracy and a political House of Lords. Where I differ from these critics is in not seeing the trend as an ominous departure from American principles. Occupational traditions within families are very much a part of our national fabric—much more so than most people realize. Their eclipse since World War II has been the exception in American history, not the rule, and their return is an encouraging sign, not a cause for alarm. Indeed, this is the kind of nepotism of which this country needs not less but more.

The proliferation of family ties has been broadly described as a "new nepotism" or a "new dynasticism" in American politics. There is an undeniable advantage to bearing a recognizable name in a media-driven electoral system, and to having easy access to parents' fundraising and political networks. Whatever the cause, the dramatic surge in family succession signals a quiet revolution as a new generation comes forward to claim its inheritance. Some Americans have viewed the new successors as opportunists trading on their famous names and family connections. But many others embrace the notion that continuing a family tradition has a dignity and value of its own.

Take business, for example. Every year the business press devotes considerable ink to the ups and downs of business heirs such as H. Fisk Johnson, of Johnson Wax, and Lachlan Murdoch, the thirty-one-year-old heir apparent to the multibillion-dollar media conglomerate run by his father, Rupert Murdoch. At other large firms family leadership is making a comeback: Harold McGraw III is the first family member to head the McGraw-Hill publishing company since 1983, and Ford Motor's CEO, William Ford, is the first family member to run the business in a generation. These and other family appointments (such as those of Motorola's Christopher Galvin and the chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr.) were called signs of a new nepotism in American business, with new expectations: observers and stockholders called on these scions to take their firms in bold new directions, rather than simply continuing their fathers' work.

Craft and service professions are often family dominated. The Lairds of New Jersey have been making liquor since 1780; the Coors family of Colorado has been making beer since 1873. Brown-Forman, maker of Jack Daniel's and Southern Comfort, has been a family business for more than 130 years and ascribes its success to a policy of "planned nepotism." Many other specialties, such as glassblowing, candy making, circus performing, and fireworks, are passed down through families. Funeral homes are also frequently family owned.

In fact, the great majority of American businesses are family owned or controlled, including many Fortune 500 companies. Thus nepotism in business is perhaps to be expected. More surprising is the rapid growth of family succession in areas such as entertainment, the arts, and sports.

The men who built the movie industry in the 1920s and 1930s were nepotists on a grand scale, and some of Hollywood's greatest figures owed their breaks to family ties—though many of them denied it. In the 1960s and 1970s there were dozens of second-generation actors, including Jane and Peter Fonda, Tatum O'Neal, Michael Douglas, Sally Field, and Sissy Spacek (the cousin of Rip Torn). Today there are hundreds—far too many to list. Kate Hudson is the daughter of Goldie Hawn. Gwyneth Paltrow, the daughter of Blythe Danner and the late Bruce Paltrow, got her break when "uncle" Steven Spielberg cast her in Hook. Family ties also prevail among producers, directors, and writers, and also film and sound editors, cinematographers, makeup artists, costume and set designers, stunt men, and musicians—among them the Newman family, which has included eight composers.

Television is another industry in which who you know can mean as much as what you know. The actor, writer, and director Rob Reiner, son of the writer and comedian Carl Reiner, got his break when his father's friend Norman Lear cast him in All in the Family. Aaron Spelling cast his daughter, Tori, in Beverly Hills 90210; his son Randy is also an actor. The producer Steven Bochco has cast several family members in his shows, and his son Jesse co-produces NYPD Blue. "Bochco," he says good-naturedly, "is Polish for nepotism."

Today the music industry is bursting with successors: in 1998, Sean Lennon and Jakob Dylan both released CDs (Sean's half-brother Julian had a brief musical career in the 1980s). Both the sons of Ringo Starr are drummers (Zak Starkey now plays for The Who). By the time he was twenty-four Enrique Iglesias, the son of Julio, had put out four CDs and had sold more than 14 million records; his older brother is also pursuing a career as a singer. Whitney Houston got her start singing backup with her mother, Cissy Houston, and is a cousin of Dionne Warwick's. Norah Jones, the daughter of Ravi Shankar, was showered with Grammys at this year's awards ceremony. This is not to mention the well-known and extensive family ties in Motown, jazz, and country and western.

From the archives:

"Bron and His 'Affec. Papa'" (May 2001)
Auberon Waugh, the acerbic British man of letters, died in January. Our author remembers him and reflects on Waugh's complex, heartbreaking relationship with his father, Evelyn. By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

"What Kingsley Can Teach Martin" (September 2000)
The father wrote fiction as the son still does, with brilliance and "facile bravura," but Martin Amis misunderstood his hereditary gifts when he turned from playful comedy to "the great issues of our time." By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Family traditions have also been known among writers, but never before in such numbers. Martin Amis started publishing novels at an early age and has by now upstaged his father, Kingsley Amis. Margaret Drabble and A. S. Byatt are sisters, and the three Barthelme brothers have all published multiple books. Susan Minot's sister Eliza has published a book based on the same family events depicted in Minot's own debut novel. The daughters and niece of John McPhee have written several books. I myself am the son of the novelist Saul Bellow, and I got my job in publishing through what might be called the neocon family network—the same network that aided John Podhoretz, William Kristol, Daniel Wattenberg, Jonah Goldberg, and Joshua Gilder, all children of well-known conservatives.

Many children of doctors and lawyers become doctors and lawyers themselves, and with the entrance of large numbers of women into these professions, the proportion of professional families has sharply increased. (One study has found that the children of doctors are 14 percent more likely to be admitted to medical school than non-successors.) Military families have also been known in every era of American history, bearing such distinguished names as Perry, Lee, MacArthur, and Patton; Custer got several of his relatives killed at Little Big Horn. Religious pulpits, too, are often handed down from father to son. Martin Luther King Jr. was the son of a prominent Baptist preacher who was also a civil-rights leader. In 2000 the Reverend Billy Graham handed the reins of his religious organization to his son Franklin; Graham's daughter also has her own ministry. The sons of the architect I. M. Pei work for their father and continue his tradition.

Nor are such tendencies confined to elite professions. The father-son tradition in labor unions continues, especially in the building trades. The prevalence of family ties in police and fire departments is also well established; the strength of these traditions was brought home viscerally in the lists of dead firemen after the World Trade Center disaster.

We think of sport as a Darwinian arena in which only the fittest survive—and so it is. Yet family ties increasingly permeate sports and sports-related professions. Take baseball: the left fielder Barry Bonds is the son of the coach and former outfielder Bobby Bonds and the godson of Willie Mays. There are also assorted Alomars, Alous, Bells, Boones, Berras, Macks, Motas, Roses, Sislers, and Stottlemyres. Much the same holds true for football, basketball, hockey, stockcar racing, and boxing: Laila Ali, the daughter of Muhammad Ali, and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, the daughter of Ali's old rival Joe Frazier, have entered the world of women's professional boxing and seem slated to carry that rivalry into a new generation.

No social scientist has studied modern American nepotism. But you don't need a degree in sociology to realize that there is a new boom in generational succession. The question is, what does it mean? Why is it happening now in the most democratic and individualistic society on earth? Doesn't it fly in the face of our commitment to merit and equal opportunity? Are we creating a new caste hierarchy based on occupation, similar to that of the medieval guilds? More to the point, how will we square our embrace of the new nepotism with our traditional aversion to the old?

Think back to the days before the widespread class mixing and upward mobility brought about by World War II, not to mention the civil-rights and feminist movements. In the 1920s and 1930s a certain kind of nepotism was everywhere, for a certain class of people. A young man of good family who went to Groton or Choate was admitted as a matter of course to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, after which he joined his father's Wall Street firm and one or more exclusive clubs, where he mingled with men of his set. If he didn't go to work for his father, he worked for a friend of his father's or the father of a friend, and if he married the boss's daughter, he could expect to be put on the fast track to the executive suite. Whether or not he rose all the way to the top, he would always be provided for.

No one (or almost no one, at any rate) can simply pick up the phone these days and get his kid a high-paying job, a record deal, or a spot on the national ticket. Few of today's successors got their jobs through what we would consider to be egregious nepotism. But more and more that kind of outright intervention isn't necessary. The whole thing works by a kind of natural osmosis. Growing up around a business or a vocation creates an early interest in the field, and a desire to please or imitate one's parents can exert a potent influence. But successors have a powerful advantage other people do not enjoy. Doors open, and people often prove happy to do favors for the children of colleagues who they hope may one day return the favor. All that is required to profit from this kind of opportunity is a willingness to take advantage of it.

It is worth dwelling for a moment on the differences between the old nepotism and the new. The old nepotism involved parents' hiring their children outright or pulling strings in their behalf. It was also highly coercive: obedient daughters married according to their parents' wishes, and dutiful sons allowed their fathers to chart their careers and often to select brides for them as well. The new nepotism operates not from the top down but from the bottom up: it is voluntary, not coercive; it springs from the initiative of children, not the interest of parents; it tends to seem "natural" rather than planned. Although not nepotism in the classic sense, it is rightly called nepotism because it involves exploiting the family name, connections, or wealth. The method may be different, but the result is much the same.

Mainly, however, the new nepotism differs in combining the privileges of birth with the iron rule of merit in a way that is much less offensive to democratic sensibilities. This is what explains the astonishing latitude—in effect, the room to fail—that we seem perfectly willing to grant the new successor generation. Americans increasingly feel that there is nothing wrong with hiring a relative or giving someone else's relative a break, so long as he or she is qualified. We even say that pulling strings to help relatives who are qualified is not really nepotism. But this leaves us in the inconsistent position of arguing that hiring a relative is or is not nepotism depending on the relative's performance.

We have tied ourselves in knots around this question for a simple reason: we have long viewed nepotism as something bad by definition. That negative view of nepotism, however, is not a natural or a God-given law but an artifact of social and cultural history.

Dictionaries trace the word "nepotism" to the Latin root nepos, meaning "nephew" or "grandson." But this etymology is misleadingly narrow. The word derives more directly from the Italian nipote, which can refer to almost any family member, of any generation, male or female. Nipotismo came into wide use in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to describe the corrupt practice of appointing papal relatives to office, usually illegitimate sons described as nephews, and for a long time this ecclesiastical connection continued to be reflected in dictionaries. (Even today some dictionaries give "illegitimate son of an ecclesiastic" as one definition of "nephew.") The modern definition of "nepotism" is simply favoritism based on kinship, but most people today use the term very narrowly, to mean hiring not just a relative but one who is grossly incompetent. The word is also used very broadly, to describe a range of affinities that go well beyond the family.

From the working man's perspective, nepotism means hiring or promoting the boss's son-in-law, nephew, or girlfriend over the heads of more qualified candidates. This violates our basic sense of fairness and elicits revulsion and anger toward those who practice nepotism and—even more, perhaps—those who profit from it. Yet in family businesses nepotism is often the rule, and it is usually accepted as the way things are by everyone involved. In such cases nepotism appears to be a problem only when the beneficiary is manifestly unqualified.

Economists view nepotism as an obstacle to healthy change in business firms, one that results in waste and inefficiency. Yet some acknowledge that nepotism may be a rational practice, because it can reduce the cost of extensive talent searches. Still others argue that hiring family members is the best way to promote important values of trust and solidarity. And despite official anti-nepotism policies, many executives admit that they prefer to hire the relatives of current employees, because their experience suggests that the proven conduct of a relative best predicts the behavior of a prospective worker.

From a feminist perspective, the word "nepotism" evokes a long history of slights against women, given that in historical practice it has favored sons over daughters. Even after the feminist revolution nepotism continues to play a role in rearguard efforts to preserve the male monopoly on power. This is evident from the intensity of the feminist campaign against exclusive men's clubs, old-boy networks, and the "glass ceiling" that blocks the advancement of female executives. From the perspective of black Americans, nepotism may be perceived as tantamount to racism, since favoritism toward whites, whether relatives or not, is objectively no different from discrimination against blacks.

For most Americans, nepotism is first and last a class issue—a way for the rich to warehouse their unemployable offspring while keeping the lower classes in their place. In fact, however, systematic nepotism has been practiced more or less continuously by both the upper and the lower classes, without ambivalence or apology. It was the middle class that pushed the merit principle, rising as it did through the institutions of the market and the state, in which promotion depends on bureaucratic efficiency. This is one of the things that make the new nepotism such a surprising development—it is essentially a middle-class phenomenon.

The old nepotism can be seen now as illegitimate and undesirable, a form of social cheating. But it was based on positive impulses. Parents have a natural impulse to pass something on to their children, just as children wish to accept whatever their parents have to give. The sum of these transactions is the way we pass on our cultural traditions and values. When we talk about nepotism, what we are really talking about is the transmission of property, knowledge, and authority from one generation to the next.

All societies are organized at the most basic level around the processes of marriage, reproduction, and succession. Every society therefore evolves a "nepotistic formula" geared to its needs and conditions. These formulas arise as adaptations to a given set of social and ecological conditions. The unique features of the American nepotistic formula are the result of a long historical process whose dominant trend has been the breakup of the large extended families typical of agrarian societies and the emergence of the nuclear family as the fundamental unit of industrial civilization. Concurrent with this trend has been the American project of creating a truly egalitarian society—our attempt to fulfill the promise that has been at the heart of American democracy for more than two hundred years. This project has involved a long war between the hereditary principle and the principle of merit.

The American war against nepotism began in the eighteenth century, with the abolition of English inheritance practices such as primogeniture and entail, in which the family estate was passed intact to the oldest son. The replacement of these practices with a more egalitarian pattern of partible inheritance swept the country after the American Revolution. This democratic change was thanks largely to Thomas Jefferson, who hoped to break up the great landed estates of the Colonial period. The trend continued in the nineteenth century, with laws against polygamy and the marriage of cousins, and with the creation of a federal civil service based on merit and efficiency rather than on family connections. Nevertheless, family interests continued to be important in the construction of ethnic institutions, including the American Catholic Church, the urban political machine, and the early labor movement.

In the twentieth century the war on nepotism entered a progressive phase, with strictures on the use of political patronage to benefit kin. This phase culminated in the historic New Deal and civil-rights legislation, which uprooted the last legal barriers to equal opportunity. It was at this time that anti-nepotism policies began to be widely adopted in most large-scale institutions, both public and private. Just as the merit system seemed to have triumphed, however, the same civil-rights provisions were used to challenge anti-nepotism rules as themselves discriminatory—especially against women, who were often barred from employment at schools and companies where their husbands also worked. The rapid rollback of no-spouse rules at universities, law firms, and newspapers and in many other environments has led to a proliferation of professional marriages and sparked the current boom in generational succession.

The new nepotism is a serious matter, because it bears on the formation of elites in a democracy. Elites and upper classes have always been controversial for Americans, and since the Revolution we have viewed them with particular suspicion. Yet a century of sociology has concluded that an elite is a practical necessity for any society. The real question is, what kind of elite will you have—an open, meritocratic elite that is continually refreshed from other strata of society, or a closed and exclusive elite that withdraws into castelike isolation and merely seeks to perpetuate its privileges?

The tendency in American life since World War II has been toward individualism, mobility, and the dissipation of family bonds. The "return" of nepotism therefore seems especially disturbing. Critics from both left and right have pointed out the worrisome consequences of reviving the hereditary principle. Several writers have recently argued that after a long period of extreme social mobility and mixing, the United States is undergoing a new process of stratification. Call it what you like, the overclass, the cognitive elite, the meritocracy, today's American elite increasingly lives in its own segregated communities, sends its children to the same exclusive schools, marries within its own class, and acts in other ways to pass on its accumulated wealth, position, and privileges. In other words, the American meritocracy appears to be turning into an exclusive, inbred caste.

Such, at any rate, might be the argument of those who deny the legitimacy of the hereditary principle. But this is not my view. Rather, I would suggest that the new nepotism represents a valuable corrective to the excesses of meritocracy. The late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch argued that an elite that regards itself as fit to rule by virtue of its merit owes no gratitude or deference to anyone. It has no ethical tie to the mass of ordinary people, and is therefore unresponsive to their needs. We spent two centuries trying to get nepotism out of government, but Lasch suggests that meritocracy unleavened by nepotism lacks a necessary humanizing element.

The ideal would be a balance between these two principles—a balance we appear to have struck with our new and distinctively American form of meritocratic nepotism. The new nepotism is therefore not the return of something tribal and archaic but the transformation of an ancient practice into a new and more acceptable form—one that can satisfy the permanent human impulses behind nepotism without violating the American social compact.

Since we are clearly not going to get rid of the new nepotism anytime soon, Americans must come to terms with it. That means learning to practice it in accordance with the unwritten rules that have made it, on balance, a wholesome and positive force. If history shows anything, it is that nepotism in itself is neither good nor bad. It's the way you practice it that matters. Those who observe the hidden rules of nepotism are rewarded and praised; those who do not are punished, often savagely. These rules—derived from my own study of a number of dynastic families, from the biblical House of David to the Kennedys and the Bushes—can be reduced to the following simple injunctions:

1. Don't embarrass me. The first rule of patronage has always been that the protégé's actions and manner reflect on the patron. By holding a patron responsible for his protégé's performance, the Mandarins of the Chinese imperial bureaucracy introduced a powerful corrective to the potential for nepotistic abuses. This is also the corrective built into the modern nepotistic equation.

2. Don't embarrass yourself, or You have to work harder than anyone else. If the protégé is obliged to respect the patron, he is equally obliged to respect himself and his colleagues. A democratic society is founded on a moral commitment to equal opportunity, and those who enjoy advantages of birth must make an effort to counteract the natural resentment of those who do not. That is why "good" business heirs display outstanding dedication—arriving early, leaving late, and in other respects going out of their way to win the approval of their colleagues. This is what distinguishes the new nepotism from the old: other people must prove their merit before the fact, but nepotees must prove it after.

3. Pass it on. Although nepotism is considered selfish, it proceeds from a generous impulse to pass something on to one's children, and this we think of as entirely praiseworthy. But if nepotism is in some respects a two-way street, it is also a one-way transaction. We therefore express our gratitude to our parents in the form of generosity to our children. This wholesome consciousness implies a certain humility and an acceptance of mortality.

Above all, it is high time for us to get over our ambivalence about the "return" of dynastic families. This country is now old enough to have accumulated a large number of great families, and we can no longer deny their many obvious and constructive contributions. Americans admire the Adamses, the Roosevelts, and the Kennedys not just for their unity—a value that is becoming increasingly difficult to preserve in our mobile society—but for their sense of common purpose and the spirit of public service that they foster. There is much to be said for these "aristocratic" features of dynastic families, and as long as those families observe the meritocratic rules of the new nepotism, we really have no basis for complaint. Indeed, we should not only respect great families but try to be more like them. Rather than simply seeking to punish or stamp out the bad kind of nepotism, we should reward and encourage the good.

The risks inherent in the return of dynastic nepotism have been exaggerated and fail to take into account both the progress of meritocracy and the power of social envy in a democracy. Dynastic heirs walk on very thin ice in our society: we readily grant them the benefit of the doubt, but we hold them to extremely high standards, and at the first sign of their failing to meet those standards, the hammer comes down hard.

Nepotism may be objectively discriminatory, but given that people are going to practice it anyway, we may as well infuse it with meritocratic principles so that all can benefit. Let families compete for public honors; this has always been the soul of republican virtue, and it is up to us to recover this tradition in every generation. The spirit of family enterprise gives dignity and meaning to our lives, and is not only a spur to achievement but also a check on excessive ambition. It links the generations in a chain of generosity and gratitude. We would all be better off if we reflected more consistently and deeply not only on our debt to our ancestors but also on what we owe our descendants.