Power & Politics: Is America Manufacturing its Own Royals?
Americans have always had a fascination with royalty. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we have no homegrown nobles of our own; but whatever the reason, the royal families of Europe, particularly that of the United Kingdom, enjoy pride of place in the tabloids of our republic. And despite our country’s official antipathy toward royal houses in politics, that popular affection for famous families seems to have bled into our government.
This week Hillary Clinton, the former First Lady and Secretary of State, announced her candidacy in the 2016 presidential election. She hopes to be the first woman, and the first spouse of a former president, to serve in the highest office in the land. At the moment she is facing virtually no credible opposition for the Democratic nomination, which continues to look more like a coronation than a primary election.
But Hillary is not the only presidential relative in this race. Jeb Bush, the brother and son of presidents, is also a frontrunner for the Republican nomination. His decades as a politician and Republican powerbroker makes him a favorite among party establishment types, in much the same way Hillary is valued by the Democratic leadership.
This is not the first time multiple members of the same family have captured the White House. John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams were both elected president (in 1796 and 1826 respectively). William Henry Harrison and his grandson Benjamin also won the White House (1840 and 1888). And there is the most famous presidential pair, cousins Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt (1901 and 1932). But what does separate these past successions from today is the sheer closeness of their occurrence. George W. Bush took office just eight years after his father left it, and Hillary tried to do the same in 2008. Now, eight years on again and Jeb is looking to take over and Hillary is back for another shot. Compare that to previous familial successions, when the closest time between offices was 30 years!
The fact is this: a few families are running for the presidency with greater frequency than at virtually any time previous. The result has been the ascendance of two families who seem to trade power every few years, not the free-for-all we have come to expect from presidential electoral politics.
Here is a harrowing illustration of the centralization of influence by these families: by 2016, 32 out of the past 36 years will have seen a Bush or a Clinton in one of the three most important Executive Branch offices (president, vice president, and secretary of state). That is quite a shocking record for a country that prides itself on democratic governance.
Somewhat ironically, even Barbara Bush, the grand dame of the Bush clan, has expressed a degree of unease with these dynastic tendencies. “We’ve had enough Bushes,” she told an interviewer a couple years ago.
Is this sort of dynastic politics healthy for democracy? Certainly not if we expect people to believe that we live in a country where personal effort and vision are what define success, not family connections. That must be especially the case in politics, which is public trust; our representatives are meant to serve the people, not the interests of a few families in a political clique. It is unhealthy for a system of government to become so reliant and fixated on a few powerful clans, because doing so necessarily shuts out new ideas from seeing the light of day.
It’s a long road to 2016. Neither a Bush nor a Clinton may appear on the ticket. But the very fact that that is a real possibility ought to give any interested citizen cause to think and consider whether power in America should be handed back and forth between a few chosen families.