That old bugaboo of dynastic privilege looks set to make an appearance in next year’s election, a familiar rash flaring up on our republic’s unblemished face. Or at least that’s what the usual crowd of naysayers and alarmists would have you believe. It seems that Americans of all stripes are united by a few simple beliefs, among them that we are just sick and tired of Bushes, Clintons, and the rest of our famous families. But even a cursory glance at American history will reveal that this dominance of our politics by the wellborn is neither a new thing nor a particularly unique one, and in many ways is a direct outcome of the system that we have created for ourselves. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that by concentrating our ire on the presence of dynasts at the top of the system, we ignore the far more important harms to our democracy at other levels.
But perhaps it is best to begin by puncturing the simple idea of “dynasty” as it is currently expressed. Despite the frequent invocations to the odious King George III, it’s important to remember that no American (barring extraordinary circumstances) reaches the Oval Office without at least being elected by tens of millions of free-thinking citizens. Furthermore, our system of presidential election is probably the most-drawn out and grueling in the world, requiring years of puttering around the small towns of Iowa and New Hampshire, not to mention the constant groveling hat-in-hand for campaign cash. I don’t mean to suggest that this process doesn’t bring harms of its own, but it’s not inherently dynastic by any definition. Rather, because we’ve allowed our presidential candidates to vacuum up close to a billion dollars of our money, and required them to employ battalions of loyalists to win any party’s nomination, it’s not surprising that the well connected and surname-credentialed are the only willing participants in the process. This also means that there is nobody that reaches the White House today without really working for it, in contrast to the languid Tudors and Stuarts of true monarchy.
And in looking back at America’s political history, to disavow dynasty is to disavow a number of notable patriots. I personally believe that John Quincy Adams, family scion or not, was no worse a representative of core American values than Andrew Jackson, born from the dirt as he was. Nor was patrician FDR somehow less in tune with the common man than Herbert Hoover, a meek orphan of humble origins. Denouncing a second-generation Kennedy in favor of a first-generation Nixon doesn’t bring us anywhere productive, and seems an unusual way to evaluate historical merit. And that’s only looking at the executive branch. Despite the Udalls, Murkowskis, and Frelinghuysens who currently inhabit the Congress, our government is actually less nepotistic than ever before.
Despite all this, the conventional wisdom holds that the possible 2016 showdown between Clinton and Bush is evidence that the engines of political renewal have broken down. Yet a much bigger problem for American democracy is systemic and not at all confined to the political arena. Since the late 1970s, the social mobility that characterized the U.S. economy has greatly diminished, leaving many Americans bound more than ever to the economic fates of their forebears. People these days tend to inherit careers and status comparable to their parents’ — be they executives, bankers, or mere politicians. This fact makes it all the more important to remember that the trend is more deep-seated, and thus more pernicious, than the simple surnames of our political leaders. In fact, I believe that it’s far more crucial to search for a presidential candidate who could speak to this fundamental issue of our polity than it is to simply look for a fresh face from an unfamiliar crowd. It is ultimately the tool of policy and not the banner of identity that will provide the country with the chance to reverse this generational slippage in social mobility. That said, if the presence of dynasts on the national stage inspires conversations about equality of opportunity, than perhaps the insufferable dialogues about the end of our democracy will be worth it. If not, as seems likely, than this entire dilemma of dynasties will be but a wasted moment in the long national conversation.
Jack Weller, a sophomore studying political science, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.