Democracy good, political dynasties bad(?)

Posted on January 31, 2008

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I’ve been hammering pretty hard on the imperial presidency of Bush II recently, given his use of signing statements to ignore federal law and his attempt to slip around the Senate’s Constitutional authority to approve or reject treaties by negotiating a “status of forces agreement” with the Iraqi government. Add into the mix his rejection of any classified information procedural oversight by a semi-independent auditor doesn’t exactly help his case. But Bush II is a product of his upbringing and the United States’ political climate. And these days, that climate is dominated greatly by political dynasties like those of the Bushes, the Clintons, the Udalls, the Rockefellers, the Kennedys, and many, many more.

Today, Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times (The Dynastic Question) asks whether the prevalence of political dynasties in the U.S. actually detracts from democracy. And given that it’s a tricky question, he doesn’t necessarily have a good answer.

If Hillary Rodham Clinton serves two terms, then for 28 years the presidency will have been held by a Bush or a Clinton. By that point, about 40 percent of Americans would have lived their entire lives under a president from one of these two families.

Wouldn’t that make our democracy seem a little, er, Pakistani?

Yet … 28 years … two families! That needn’t be decisive, but it’s too important to be ignored.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had an opportunity to re-read much of my Machiavelli, something I try to do every few years, and in the process I noticed something that I’d either never noticed before or had forgotten – a “principality” as defined by Machiavelli isn’t necessarily a kingdom, but rather an area of authority. In many respects, Machiavelli’s concept of principalities could apply just as well to a middle manager as to a corporate CEO, and just as well to a mayor as to a state representative as to a U.S. Senator or even the President of the United States. In addition, the U.S. political dynasties qualify as hereditary principalities, and most of our governments qualify, generally speaking, as “civic principalities”.

I won’t rehash what Machiavelli says about all of the above here – read the link above if you’re interested – but it’s important to note that our hereditary principalities (dynasties) in the U.S. have been passing political power down from one generation to the next for a very long time. As Kristof points out, FDR was an excellent president in most respects, but his relationship to Teddy Roosevelt certainly helped him, and there was a hint of dynasty in the rise of John Quincy Adams too. And, as a Coloradan, I can’t help but wonder if Ken Salazar’s time as state Attorney General (before becoming a Senator) helped his brother John Salazar win his position as U.S. Representative in 2006.

I once considered running for political office “when I grew up.” Then I grew up and saw what that process entailed and despaired, then grew cynical. Part of the reason is that, as someone from outside the “political class” of the dynasties, I simply lack the contacts required to acquire my principality by fortune of a kingmaker, and as an electrical engineer, I’ll never acquire sufficient wealth to make my own way. However, the fact that I, and millions more like me, are cut out of the process is one of the reasons I’ve started to fight to reform the system. But sometimes I still despair over the influence of the political dynasties.

Our nation will never be free of dynastic politics – there are too many ways for wealth and power to be passed from one generation to the next in a capitalistic society – but there are ways to reduce their influence. Electoral college reform is a start. Public financing of elections would help too. And electing a President who isn’t the heir to a political dynasty would probably help too.

So long as the President didn’t start his or her own, new dynasty in the process….

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