The Mononymy Trap

As Jeb, Hillary, and Rand battle for the right of succession, they embrace their regnal names.

Lynne Sladky / AP

Run, Hillary, Run.

Stand With Rand.


Every election seems to crystallize around a theme. It’s early yet, but could the theme of 2016 be mononymy?

That’s the formal term for the use of a single name, and it’s unusually popular with this year’s presidential hopefuls, with three leading contenders branding themselves sans surnames. Hillary Clinton has been using only her first name since she launched her own political career with a campaign for Senate in New York in 2000. She’s joined by Rand Paul, the senator from Kentucky. And over the weekend, Jeb Bush revealed his own logo for the 2016 race: Jeb!, with the exclamation mark included. He, too, has used that moniker before, in his races for Florida governor.

Perhaps this is just the symptom of an informal age—a time when people naturally gravitate toward unearned familiarity, when strangers and telemarketers address us by our first names or (shudder) Twitter handles, and when politicians can dispense with even the most basic formality and send us a Snapchat directly. Yet there remains something of a stigma against the practice. Manners curmudgeons still scowl at anything besides formal titles, especially for someone who aspires to lead the free world.

For another sort of curmudgeon, using a first name commits a sin even greater than rudeness—the sin of celebrity. If you can’t sing like Beyonce or Liberace or score like Pele or Neymar, how dare you?

Not since Ike—just Ike, and not Dwight David Eisenhower—have Americans elected a single-named candidate. Voters liked the Gipper, but they didn’t vote for “Ronald.” JFK? Sure. “Jack”? Not so much.

Hillary, Jeb, and Rand (you three don’t mind if we call you that, do you?) share two things that might explain their decisions to break with convention. One is that they use distinctive first names. There’s only one Rand; in fact, he was Randy until his wife shortened it. Jeb is actually an acronym for his full name, John Ellis Bush. Hillary is a somewhat more common name, but unusual enough that everyone recognizes when it’s used to refer to her. But who the heck is Scott? Or Chris? (Floridians sometimes refer to their junior senator as “Marco,” but outside of the Sunshine State, he’s more commonly known as Rubio.)

Ike aside, even candidates with similarly unusual names have tended to avoid the temptation. I can’t find any evidence that Adlai Stevenson, surely the man with the most distinctive name in recent presidential history, campaigned using it. As Howard Fineman noted on Twitter, now-Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander tried to use a mononym in his 1996 run for president. He even used an exclamation mark, a la Jeb. (Not coincidentally, the Lamar! campaign shared a message guru, Mike Murphy, with Jeb! 2016.)

Perhaps more importantly, all three candidates represent political dynasties. Clinton wants to assume the job her husband filled from 1993 to 2001; Bush wants to succeed both his father and brother as president. Rand’s dad Ron was never president, but he served several terms in Congress, ran twice for the Republican presidential nomination, and was the Libertarian Party’s nominee in 1988.

Using a first name only can be a useful tool for a dynastic candidate. It helps to establish the candidates as their own individuals, and creates at least a little distance from their predecessors. All three of these candidates have reasons to seek a little distance. Hillary, although eager for voters to remember the prosperity of the 1990s, is running significantly to Bill’s left on issues from trade to crime to LBGT rights. Rand has a tortured relationship with his father’s libertarian base—he wants to capitalize on the Ron Paul organizing machine, but has been at pains to prove he doesn’t agree with his dad on everything (especially when his dad is, for example, flirting with Trutherism.) Jeb, too, wants to use the organizing and fundraising prowess of his family without making people think they’re going to get the second coming of George W. Bush. Fear of “Bush fatigue” seems to be the most common explanation for the peculiar, exclamatory “Jeb!,” to the annoyance of his advisers, who trace his long history of employing it. Of course, Jeb has always been concerned about showing that he was his own man and had worked for what he’d earned; he just has a different reason to distance himself from the Bush surname now than he did before.

That makes sense as far as it goes. But here’s another way of looking at it: There are places where leaders use only their first names in public life. Incidentally, political power tends to pass through family lines in those places, too. They are monarchies. Reminding voters of that risks triggering the instinctive American reflex against monarchism. (On their own shores, at least—Americans are bizarrely fond of Wills and Kate, mononymous future monarchs.)

Jeb’s brother’s solution was not use his first name—after all, that wouldn’t differentiate him from his father, also George, at all. Instead, his supporters branded him “W”—or, to critics, “Dubya.” There was a time when simple black stickers reading “W: The President” were popular.

Hillary has been grappling with the dilemmas of nomenclature for decades now. During the 2000 campaign, her logo simply read “Hillary.” It was a time when Democratic politicians weren’t quite sure what to do with the Clinton name—Al Gore, the party’s nominee for president that year, ran away from it, only to be criticized later on. When Hillary Clinton launched her presidential bid in 2007, she again stuck with her given name, a decision that Candid Camera’s Peter Funt—of all people!—mused on in The New York Times. This time around, her logo is a simple “H” with an arrow, but the nickname is firmly entrenched by now.

Last year, my colleague Peter Beinart made the case for journalists to call her “Hillary” too. For one thing, it’s simply much easier: “Clinton” could mean Hillary or Bill. And he rebutted critics who claim it’s sexist and patronizing, noting that Hillary herself had pushed the name.

It’s undeniable, though, that Hillary Clinton’s name has long been a battlefield in the conflict over feminism and naming. When she married Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham opted to keep her maiden name—a controversial choice in 1970s Arkansas. It was only during Bill’s 1982 comeback campaign (he’d been tossed from the governor’s office after one term) that she decided that political expediency bested personal pride, and she became Hillary Clinton. During Bill’s 1992 campaign, she opted for the comprehensive “Hillary Rodham Clinton.” But that’s quite a mouthful—and if, like Hillary, you were a candidate who’s sometimes been criticized for being distant and remote, perhaps you’d avoid a seven-syllable introduction, too.

The best reason to be skeptical of using a first name alone is a quick review of what has happened to candidates abroad who have used it. Take Luiz Inacio da Silva, the former Brazilian president more commonly known as “Lula.” Sure, he was wildly popular when in office; but now his successor is embattled, the economy is tanking, and the apparatus he set up seems riddled with corruption. Or look to Britain, where Tony Blair cemented his “Cool Britannia” takeover by declaring at his first cabinet meeting that he was eschewing with formal titles: “Just call me Tony.” How’d that work out? Blair left office widely disliked, his party is still lost in the political wilderness, and the members of Oasis still can’t stand each other. Perhaps he or she who has a last name gets the last word.