Last year, when it seemed likely that the next general election for president of the United States was going to be between another Clinton and another Bush, there was much handwringing about political dynasties. The Economist observed that America had been subjected to a decades-long “double helix of two dysfunctional political families,” and Time featured George W. Bush and Bill Clinton on the cover with the headline “Game of Thrones.” Of course, the 2016 campaign has not ended up as a boring rematch. Eleven terrifying months after the first candidate declared his intent to run for president, America’s electoral process more and more resembles the tea party—from Alice in Wonderland. A choice between two serious, professional, political leaders with even temperaments and years of training and experience might seem quite welcome.
So why do Americans so fear and dislike political dynasties?
Most American political leaders, of course, are elected without the benefit of family name recognition, but when they are, a worry bubbles to the surface: that birthright instead of merit is the reason they were chosen. In a nation that promises the hardworking an opportunity to succeed, Americans understandably fear triumph based on unearned qualifications. It likely originates with hostility to hereditary monarchy. In their final death rattle, the inbred and incompetent crowns of Europe plunged the world into an inconceivably bloody war and precipitated the rise of both Soviet and National Socialist totalitarianism. But is that really what Americans endorse when they elect a Bush or a Kennedy, a Taft or a Chafee?
Given America’s second and sixth presidents were both named Adams, it’s hard to claim that political families are “un-American.” All over the world, every day, people enter the same industries as their parents, often even the very businesses their relatives own or run. There is no way to know how many of those decisions are based on merit and how many on familial preferences. When the family business is representing the public interest, though, it invites scrutiny and speculation. It’s tempting to assume that the scions of political families are trading on unearned reputations, and possess inferior qualifications.
Political dynasties, though, may actually produce unusually well-qualified candidates for office. Although their progeny get a boost from a famous name, they are more likely to have chosen the career with eyes wide open, and to have acquired significant skills simply by observation and imitation. A candidate from a political dynasty knows firsthand what demands the life will make of them, and they have witnessed their parent or spouse perform this rather unusual job, even being part of the act. Isn’t it possible that growing up with a seat at the table—watching a parent devoted to public service, campaigning, arguing, and deal making—is just excellent training?
Outside of politics, many celebrities followed their parents or spouses into the public eye. Peyton and Eli Manning, Laila Ali, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Serena Williams, and many other star athletes grew up watching their parents or siblings excel. They learned the skills, discipline, culture, work ethic, expertise, and demeanor needed to perform at that level. Similarly, Luke Russert undoubtedly learned an enormous amount about political broadcast journalism while growing up in Washington, D.C., and watching his father spar with world leaders every Sunday morning. Hollywood is filled with children of famous entertainers who followed in their footsteps to great success, including Oscar winners Angelica Houston, Peter Fonda, Angelina Jolie, Sophia Coppola, and Nicolas Cage.
None of this means dynasties are inherently good, nor that their heirs are worthy. A healthy suspicion of the advantages accompanying privilege is always warranted—and is a very American impulse. Dynasties don’t ensure merit, or even make it more likely, and there are many examples of family names buoying subpar candidates into undeserved positions. That’s as true of some of the younger Kennedys, perhaps, as it is of the actor Charlie Sheen. As William Smith, an early 19th-century U.S. representative from South Carolina, observed: “The sons of great and wise men often proved anything but great and wise.”
But then, obscure origins are not a guarantee of excellence, either—and many mediocre candidates have attempted to woo the public with their humble beginnings.
The American electoral system is an imperfect meritocracy at the best of times. Voters may succeed in identifying traits that disqualify candidates—criminal conduct, off-color public remarks, uneven temperament, being named “Richard Milhous”—but it’s far harder to identify objective merit. Although some second- or third-generation public officeholders are less than perfect, a famous name doesn’t necessarily mean an empty head. Many of America’s most notable political families have not degraded with the handing of the torch to the next generation. Not all Americans may like the Pauls, Romneys, Cuomos, Daleys, Rockefellers, Tafts, Harrisons, or, of course, the Frelinghuysens, but many of the members of the younger generations of these families who chose to seek office were or are as effective and successful as their elders.
Because if Americans are going to vote for a famous name, they might weigh whether they’d be better off with someone who already knows how to find the coat closet and coffee machine at the White House—or a candidate who inherited wealth and privilege, but not a tradition of public service.