In his column “Not another Clinton, not another Bush,” Daily columnist Joel Gottsegen rightly points out the potential corrupting influence of nepotism in American politics. Citing examples like India and the Philippines, Gottsegen suggests that political dynasties in those countries have allowed a few families to exert “disproportionate influence” over public life, and that this idea undermines the notion of American meritocracy.
Grounded in this premise, Gottsegen concludes in no uncertain terms that the potential election of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or former Florida Governor Jeb Bush would be “a very bad thing” for American democracy.
But, missing from Gottsegen’s impassioned advocacy is an analysis of why Clinton remains the (undeclared) frontrunner of the Democratic Party and why Bush tops the list of potential Republicans (excluding Gov. Mitt Romney).
Is it that Americans are so bedazzled by the personalities of political aristocrats that we become blind to the merit of the candidates? Are we unwilling to look beyond the party platform for political inspiration? The argument against a Clinton or Bush presidency by virtue of their names assumes a lack of political agency on behalf of the average American, which is a notion itself as dangerous as that of the dynasty.
A face value analysis may lead one to conclude that the emergence of American political dynasties is both a modern mystery and contemporary evil. To some, political dynasties represent a symptom of the larger inequities that exist in American society.
However, political dynasties are neither evil by nature nor founded in modernity. Many of America’s most effective political leaders were the products of political dynasty. The Kennedys and the Roosevelts are the most notable examples, but also if not more important to America’s history are the Adamses, the Harrisons, the Rockefellers and the Frelinghuysens of New Jersey.
Voters are drawn to members of these families because their beliefs and leadership potential seem less uncertain than that of their political opponents. Clinton’s ability to lead is bolstered by her experience as First Lady, as U.S. Senator and as Secretary of State. Her policies are generally well known not only because of her own remarkable experience, but also by her association with her husband President Bill Clinton.
Likewise, Jeb Bush was not only a reasonably successful governor of a swing state with a substantial Latino population, but is also the son and brother of former U.S. presidents. In other words, both his experience and family connections increase voter confidence in the credence of his beliefs.
Even so, it makes little sense to define politicians by the successes and failures of their families. Bill Clinton’s successes and failures will not determine Hillary’s, just as the victories and shortcomings of the two Bush administrations will not determine Jeb’s.
None of this detracts from the notion that nepotism is a dangerous force in global politics. A look at the Castros of Cuba to the Assads of Syria and the Kim dynasty of North Korea makes the danger of this phenomenon clear. We must ensure that those who seek power in America, no matter their background, prioritize the interests of their constituents over familial to financial ties.
Nonetheless, so too must we not condemn an individual for her background and circumstances she cannot change. By the same belief in meritocracy that Gottsegen claims political dynasties threaten, we must evaluate Clinton and Bush by their merits for the job they seek.
Perhaps this conversation is premature: Formal election season in America has yet to come upon us and Clinton’s loss in the 2008 primary shows that both she and Jeb may fall prey to American politics’ fickle whims.
Yet, we will soon be flooded with a familiar cacophony of political rhetoric promising such buzzwords as prosperity and equality, hope and change. While these promises are flimsy and malleable, dynasties are not.
Do not be surprised if voters fall back on family — that which we always love, sometimes hate and barely understand — when it comes time to vote.
Contact AZ Gordon at zelinger ‘at’ stanford.edu.