It is the elephant in the room as we approach 2016. Not that the issues of dynasties and oligarchies are not being aired. They are, relentlessly. But have we truly absorbed the sheer national embarrassment that out of a country of more than 300 million people, the two likeliest presidential nominees for the two major parties will be the wife of a former president and the brother and son of two former presidents? It’s impossible to think of any developed Western democracy that could even begin to match this pathetic, incestuous indictment of a democratic system.
Britain – that repository of privilege and class and monarchy? Well, two Miliband brothers did vie to become leader of the opposition quite recently, I suppose. But after that: not so much. France? Well, there is Marine le Pen. Canada? Germany? I’m sure readers can turn up some other dynastic impulses in other Western countries. But I can’t believe they can rival the concentration of family power in the US.
Now of course the US has long been dynastic in its politics. From the Adamses to the Roosevelts and the Tafts to the Kennedys, America’s robust capitalist economy has thrown up wealthy, connected families who have brought entire family trees into office. And it’s not all bad. Some have been motivated by more than power – some even dedicated to noblesse oblige. And the last two elections – in which a previously obscure son of a single mother managed to prevent a dynastic coronation in his own party and then defeated another family political dynasty, the Romneys – show that we’re not Rome yet.
But surely, our new emperors are looking more Roman by the day. The names themselves – like Caesar or Tudor – become brands. The brands create large, sprawling networks of hangers-on, former elected officials, fundraisers, media stars, and all the corporate synergy something like the Clinton Foundation can muster up. Politics becomes at times about daddy issues, or fidelity questions, or succession crises – like the monarchies of old. And outsiders have fewer chances of breaking through the celebrity-pol chatter – because the sheer cost of politics has become so astonishing in an era where there are close to no limits on campaign finance.
Is there anything to be done? Vote for Rand Paul … oh, wait a minute.
He only has his job because of his father as well. When even the mavericks are dynasts, you begin to see the scope of the problem. And what’s striking about American dynasticism is its relative indifference to criticism. In fact, dynasty is often embraced as an advantage. I can’t believe that George W. Bush would have been elected without his family name, for example, and the early fundraising prowess it bestowed on him. It gave him a leg-up in Texas and then the dynasty reassured those who were worried about his, let us say, jejune qualities, that there was a responsible family business to back up the new entrepreneur. And so Cheney was the back-stop. And we know where that ended up. The idea that the dauphin would retain one of the last king’s advisers is so … old Europe. By which I mean circa 1500 – 1900.
And to watch Dubya wax lyrical about his brother without even a trace of embarrassment at the open dynasticism of it all is almost as disturbing as the Clinton family’s prepping of Chelsea for heir apparent. Both the Bushes and the Clintons are shameless about this. Hillary will clasp Bill to her side as an asset for her future administration, just as Jeb could invoke the increasingly fond memories of his father. And no one really protests the fetid privilege and undemocratic spirit of the entire enterprise. I guess it’s just one of those American quirks that keeps getting quirkier.
But one thing I don’t think we’ve really thought through is how this picture of late-American oligarchy and dynasticism affects America’s stature in the world. America’s preaching about equality of opportunity and democratic virtues cannot but be etiolated by the sense that it’s all a scam, that America is one big oligarchy perpetuating its incestuous elites in a manner far more similar to a declining monarchy than a rising, robust democracy. That weakens the soft power America can wield, and undermines the ideals America has previously stood for. All Americans are equal, but a tiny few, by virtue of birth, are far, far more equal than others. I just want to utter a sharp protest – before we forget about it all, all over again.