So, you want political power? You can picture your name on elementary schools and highways; you dream of a crowd chanting your name under raining red, white, and blue confetti. In America this means you have to run a top-notch, cutthroat campaign while also remaining likeable to voters. This requires hiring the best strategists, making calculated speeches, and pumping money into name recognition. And who runs the best campaigns? Pundits and columnists always have the words on the tip of their tongues: political dynasties. They’re called America’s version of royalty, allegedly given access to more resources than the average candidate could even imagine. So, you want to be powerful? Try founding a dynasty.
Political dynasties have existed in American politics for centuries. But what does the word dynasty really mean in this day and age? It seems antiquated in today’s rapidly changing political climate. Many people have their own definitions. Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution and a veteran staffer of multiple U.S. presidencies, explained what makes a dynasty in a 2009 Washington Post article. He stipulated that there must be at least three generations of officeholders to call a family a dynasty and that members are related by blood (so, for instance, the Kennedys can’t count Arnold Schwarzenegger).
However, Barbara Kellerman, a professor of public leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, has a different take: “In general, if you’re talking about a political dynasty, even one generation probably does it. I don’t think you have to go from grandfather from son to grandchild.” That being said, she also maintains that the word dynasty isn’t the right way to categorize current political trends.
“What is more interesting now is that as women have entered the public arena and gradually assumed leadership roles, [familial political power] is not necessarily a generational thing but more of what we [might] think of as nepotism – that is, simply being related to a family member if only because of name recognition,” said Kellerman. “A better way to think about this is in the second decade of the 21st century is the importance of kinship, not necessarily dynastic kinship.”
Regardless of how you define it, we can agree that these familial connections exist in today’s politics – a 2016 presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush is very possible. Political consultant and policy analyst Basil Smikle Jr. explains, “When you have political dynasties, no matter what relationship in the family the elected officials have, they will build into this network of support and that matters a lot.”
How do you start building your political dynasty? Unfortunately, someone has to do the hard work and pave the road to a political office. This could be you, or you can shift the burden to another family member. Russ Baker, investigative journalist and author of Family of Secrets, a history of the Bushes, outlines this scenario.
“There have been people [in America history] who don’t want to be in politics who are the power behind the throne,” explains Baker. “They engineer the election of a sibling or a child who likes the limelight and may be more charismatic. There are a few examples of that actually, where the quieter member of the family was sort of the master planner. ”
For example, David Rockefeller, who was incredibly powerful, decided to remain focused on finance and work “behind the scenes” as his siblings ran for and assumed office.
Once you’ve been elected and have served enough time in office, it’s time to encourage the next generation to come up to bat. This is when all the hard work starts paying off for your family.
Smikle believes there are certain steps you can take to follow a family member into office. He notes that if you start off with the family name, you start out strong, but you still have plenty of challenges ahead. “You have to promise to build off the strengths [of your predecessor], but promise you [have improved on] their weaknesses. You have to be able to explain to the voters why you won’t make the same mistakes, sometimes very specifically and openly, and sometimes just implying it.”
But how do you get someone else in your family to run? That’s obviously the most essential part of building a dynasty. Well, in some cases they may want to. Doug Wead, a presidential historian and New York Times bestselling author, believes it’s unsurprising that these kinds of political families form. “It’s natural that a child seeks to please their parents by mimicry and completion. Presidential families are no different; you see it very clearly in the presidents, but you see it all through history with people of power,” he explains. “Among presidential families you see it very clearly in George W. Bush. Andover Andover, Yale Yale, Airplanes Airplanes, baseball baseball.”
Smikle, on the other hand, contends that more important than parental pressure are the circumstances of the campaign. “You have to be slightly narcissistic to run for office, you have to go out in public and tell people that their lives are going to better because of you. I don’t know if there are particular families that are more inclined to run for office than others, but I know that you can pass [your] political ambition on to family members. However they can’t necessarily pass on the circumstances around a particular campaign,” he says.
Indeed, circumstances drive political campaigns. A candidate has to be running at the right time, with the right platform for the current issues. You’re going to have to wait patiently for your time to come. But what if the timing is right? A candidate running with a politically active family member is given a jump-start against their opponent. This is because they have easier access to the most important ingredient in a political campaign: money.
Campaign finance is one of the greatest edges that political dynasties have. According to Kellerman, “People detest giving to people they’ve never heard of. They’d much rather give money to people they have heard of because they think they’re more likely to be winners.”
Campaigns have a wide variety of expenses, but a massive part of their spending is on building name recognition. Smikle claims that if a family member comes with an established name, those resources can be spent on other efforts. “There is some allowance of inherited elitism and intellectual capital [in American politics],” he asserts.
Take for example George W. Bush. He had both the first and last name of a president, and so his vast financial resources could be spent on other priorities. When Baker was writing his book, he investigated George W. Bush’s first campaign, for the House of Representatives. Baker looked into Bush’s campaign finances, and found that Bush had a massive number of donors from all across the United States even though he was only running to represent a district in west Texas.
“What I saw was the Bush family had tapped into a network of some of the richest and most conservative people in America for many years and built up this network of people who just sort of understood that the Bush family would look after their interests,” said Baker. “I think the Bush dynasty was built on this idea that the Bushes were going to look after wealthy people, and [wealthy people] could trust them to carry that out.”
Recent developments in campaign finance law have allowed massive floods of money to enter the political arena, specifically the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission. Baker believes the wealthy favor political dynasties and will use their newfound power on their behalf.
Stephen Hess, on the other hand, does not see as much inequality when it comes to political dynasties and finance. “When you reach the level of seeking the presidency, it doesn’t come [across] very clearly in the media, but the truth of the matter is that anybody who is a serious candidate can raise a sufficient amount of money,” he explains.
While finances are crucial to campaign success, so is choosing the right time to run. Perhaps the most advantageous environment for a member of a political dynasty is when a member of another dynasty is also running. Though this seems counterproductive by neutralizing the advantage you have over the average political opponent, it also neutralizes one of your biggest weaknesses – allegations of aristocracy and inequality.“We have an unusual situation as we have dynasties appearing in both parties simultaneously… that natural check and balance is gone. It’s frankly why Jeb Bush is running for president, in my opinion. If he ran the next cycle he’d be attacked, but if he runs this cycle what can Democrats say? Hillary Clinton is his opponent,” explains Wead.
One of the biggest questions is whether these dynasties are dangerous for American politics. Wead believes they’re damaging and “very dangerous” to democracy. “They lead to social inbreeding, where small groups of people make all the decisions. In the United States it’s in the thousands, but it’s still small.”
Not everyone sees this kind of danger.
“To this degree I don’t think that they reflect much, they are actually very small percent of people actually elected to office,” explains Hess. “Generally as you study these families over time they’ve been above average political figures. We haven’t had a great downside from having them, and they can always be defeated.”
Smikle falls somewhere in the middle.
“I don’t think they’re dangerous for American democracy, anyone who wants to run for office should run for office. The problem that we face is that there is a lot less vetting of the candidates than you would normally see in a campaign, because those individuals are leaning hard on their family connections,” he explained, “I think it’s more incumbent upon voters and the media to do their due diligence.”
This raises another question: what is the media’s role in all of this? The media landscape is also rapidly changing. Print sales are plummeting, and news networks find themselves with 24 hours to fill so they repeat news over and over again in various permutations. Many people are critical of this new age of media and news’ role in promoting dynasties.
Baker complains that they media does not consider new candidates: “They don’t do much of a star search, asking who are the good people out there with great potential who could make a great elected official.” Therefore, the only candidates with a realistic chance are familiar names. “Frankly a Kardashian has a better chance than some relatively unknown person who’s really capable.”
Wead recalls a time when he was working in the White House and made some mistakes that he was sure were going to make waves across the press. However, the story never broke. When he asked a friend of his in the White House Press Corps why no one was reporting the mistake, the reporter told him that the story got spiked to keep access to the White House. This interdependency between the media and the government is troubling for Wead, and for him is an indication of how the media has become less of a check for those in power.
But what about the American public? Certainly they have some responsibility to keep their candidates and political systems in check, so why do they keep electing these political heirs to office? Baker believes it has something to do with America’s “envy complex regarding royalty.” Americans love Prince William and visiting Buckingham Palace. Perhaps Americans are so accepting of dynasties because they want to think of them as their own version of royalty, a level of status to strive for and respect.
So is there any way for these dynasties to be fixed? Some such as Baker and Smikle suggest amending campaign finance laws by, for example, repealing Citizens United or putting in place restrictions on how much money can enter the political system.
However, Wead disagrees: “In my humble opinion, [campaign finance reform] is kind of like putting a Band-Aid on a cancer.”
Perhaps it will take a major confrontation of political dynasties to get America’s attention. Buzzy election chatter is predicting a race between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush in 2016. Barbara Kellerman believes this election might have the potential to wake people up.
“The idea of a Bush-Clinton run-off is somewhat nauseating. I think it’s inevitable, but if it becomes too in-your-face, such as the idea of the next president being between two families that have these clan connections, that would say things about American politics that I don’t think any of us want to own up to,” she predicts. “Some of it is part of the deal, but if it becomes exaggerated, I think many Americans will go, ‘what the hell is wrong with us?’ We’re not a banana republic. We need to fix this.”