What Hillary Clinton Gets Wrong About Political Dynasties

Power begets power — not necessarily ambition.

Bill and Hillary Clinton take a break in between campaign stops on February 16, 1992. (National Journal)

Hillary Clinton is an ambivalent member of a political dynasty — at least when she's talking to reporters.

In an interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel, Clinton insisted for the umpteenth time that she hasn't made up her mind about running for president. But more interesting was this question posed to Clinton, which framed her potential run as evidence of the quasi-aristocratic nature of the presidency [emphasis mine]:

SPIEGEL: For the past 25 years, there were two families that were very prominent in politics, your family and the Bush family. First George Bush was president for four years, then your husband led the country for eight years, and then George W. Bush was president for eight years. If either you or Jeb Bush were to win the election in 2016, once again a member of these two families would become president. Will the American democracy turn into a monarchy?

Clinton: We had two Roosevelts. We had two Adams. It may be that certain families just have a sense of commitment or even a predisposition to want to be in politics. I ran for president, as you remember. I lost to somebody named Barack Obama, so I don't think there is any guarantee in American politics. My last name did not help me in the end. Our system is open to everyone. It is not a monarchy in which I wake up in the morning and abdicate in favor of my son.

Clinton's right — we do not live in a monarchy. But it might seem like it, surveying the field of popular Democrats who want to run in 2016 whose initials are not HRC (cue crickets).

Which raises the question: Do dynastic families have more of a genetic commitment to public service, as Clinton suggests, or is it just the family business? Blake Carrington would never claim to "just have a sense of commitment or even a predisposition to being an oil tycoon."

Still, one recent study found that inherited political power is more about nurture than nature.

Researchers at Brown University found that political power in Congress is self-perpetuating, and that the longer a politician holds office, the more likely he or she is to see relatives become politicians. They found that, from 1789 to 1996, 8.7 percent of members had relatives who previously served in Congress.

The authors of the study concede that "unobserved family characteristics" could contribute to politicians' dynastic powers. They also found that children of politicians aren't necessarily more likely to become miniature versions of their parents — nor does having political parents give them a predisposition for public service. But if these political offspring do decide to go into politics, they'll have a leg up on the competition:

We find that dynastic politicians are less likely to start their career in the House, suggesting they have the ability or means to enter directly through the Senate, a much smaller and more prestigious body. This difference cannot be attributed to a later entry into Congress: dynastic legislators enter Congress at about 44 years of age, just like non-dynastic legislators. Dynastic legislators are not more likely to come from a state different than the one they represent and are significantly less likely to have previous public experience, although they are more likely to have a college degree.

Americans generally have a love-hate relationship with political dynasties — we say we don't want the same families to continue holding office, but as soon as names are named, we flock to their corner. In a recent survey on dynasties, a majority of respondents said they hope the Bushes and the Clintons of the world don't dominate the 2016 presidential race. Ironically, most respondents also reported favorable views of the Clinton and Bush families.

Liking a political family is, of course, different from voting one's members into office cycle after cycle. But data presents a startling disconnect between how voters want democracy to work in theory and in practice.

Whether or not having a household name helps your election chances, belonging to a political dynasty certainly conveys some privileges that no-name candidates don't have. Practically, it's easier to raise money and organize supporters as a candidate when you are (or your family is) a known commodity, potentially with a ready-made support network already at your service. And psychologically, the power of incumbency cannot be underestimated, as political reputations trickle down from patriarch or matriarch to family members.

Of course, this effect could also backfire for politicians whose names bear negative associations. Jeb Bush publicly acknowledged earlier this year that his name was "an issue." Then again, it appears that time can heal many wounds — George W. Bush is more popular today than he was during his last three years in office.

Are political dynasties different from other types of dynasties? In U.S. culture, the first family takes on de facto royalty status in a way that other family empires rarely do — unless your last name happens to be Kardashian. But unlike in a monarchy, what America's royalty does with the power conferred upon them is completely up to them.