[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
With former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s announcement on Tuesday that he’s “actively explore the possibility of running for President of the United States”–a move which, it should be noted, has been predicted by many for a long while now–we’ve now officially entered The Great Dynasty Debate. If a Jeb Bush v. Hillary Clinton contest comes to pass in 2016, then one way or another, two families will have controlled the White House for at least 24 of the previous 32 years. Of course, there’s no guarantee that Bush will win the Republican party’s presidential nomination, or even that Clinton will win on the Democratic side…but establishment politics, the worried second-guessing of party elites, and most of all the huge advantage that prior fund-raising networks provide all being what they are, you now right now that the odds favor just such a match-up. And as a result, as Noah Millman succinctly puts it, the next “general election will be the most depressing of our lifetimes.”
There are many reasons why I agree with Noah, and I say that as someone who–while I’m deeply dissatisfied with the state-and-Wall-Street-centered, corporate-wealth-and-national-security liberalism which both these individuals will likely always ultimately side with–doesn’t necessarily have much reason to dislike either of them. (Bush used to be a fairly sane moderate on immigration issues, after all, and I’m even willing to give Clinton’s It Takes a Village a second chance.) My primary beef with this potential presidential election is the obvious one: dynasties are, nominally at least, supposed to be incompatible with republican self-government. The perpetuation of offices within particular families invites corruption and collusion, and fosters a distrust in the political process, a suspicion towards ones fellow citizens (because who is to say who might be able to find for themselves an inside track to power?), and thus ultimately generates anti-democratic and irresponsible resentment towards any kind of civic obligation. And all of that is not to mention that dynasties, historically, have a pretty terrible track record in terms of being able to weed out those–a foolish cousin, a vindictive daughter, a crazy uncle–who should not be trusted with powerful offices.
It is to the credit of these two likely presidential candidates that they are reportedly aware of this perception, and to small degree at least seem to be bothered by it. But only a small degree. And at least part of the reason for that smallness–besides such obvious factors as ideological ambition, family pride, and personal vanity, of course–is that there are people willing to make apologies for dynastic politics in a presidential system. Ross Douthat, though he admits that this potential presidential contest reflects “stratification and elite consolidation and other non-ideal patterns in American life generally,” basically gives away the game up front by admitting that “[i]n principle, I am not against [dynasties]…[a]ny political system, however formally democratic, is going to feature powerful families that pass influence and connections (and hopefully talent!) to their heirs.” And Will Wilkinson goes even further, pointing out that “the president is nominally in charge of the entire, vast bureaucracy of the American state, including the military and the various spy shops,” and as a result there is a positive good to be had in electing a president who “will [have] strong preexisting networks within the bureaucracies willing to circumvent the de facto power structure and independently transmit reliable information straight to the White House.” In other words, however offensive the idea of tacitly allowing the advantages of position to accumulate in a few, well-connected and insular hands may appear to the more populist or democratic among us, it will 1) always happen anyway, and 2) result in the empowering of individuals already prepared to manipulate the vast apparatus of the state, instead of those who would find themselves overwhelmed by it.
This is hardly a new insight, both in the great sweep of political life (weak monarchs or chieftains or generals being dominated by their own ministers or by the bureaucracy has been staple of all story-telling about leaders for as long as governments have existed) and in our own recent history (consider how often Presidents Carter or Reagan or Bush II or Obama were criticized at different times by different clans of Washington DC insiders for failing to “connect with the culture of the capital” or “work with the establishment” or some such thing). If we’re going to have chief executives in our constitutional system, don’t we want them to be good at their jobs? And if being good at such reflects a lifetime of elite preparation, why look askance that those families wealthy and well-positioned enough to be able to make it happen amongst themselves?
John Adams, in the midst a revolution (and, soon, a revolutionary culture) which quickly became much more democratic than he’d either anticipated or wanted, insisted that there was a place for dynasties in a free society. Not that he defended what he elsewhere labeled “artificial aristocracies,” but in a letter to his cousin Samuel Adams, he didn’t look away from the possibility that it is often families who–through their control of education, property, and opportunity–generate governing elites, and that a good system of government should make a place for them:
[T]he nobles have been essential parties in the preservation of liberty, whenever and wherever it has existed. In Europe, they alone have preserved it against kings and people, wherever it has been preserved; or, at least, with very little assistance from the people. One hideous despotism, as horrid as that of Turkey, would have been the lot of every nation of Europe, if the nobles had not made stands. By nobles, I mean not peculiarly an hereditary nobility, or any particular modification, but the natural and actual aristocracy among mankind. The existence of this you will not deny. You and I have seen four noble families rise up in Boston,–the Crafts, Gores, Dawes, and Austins. These are as really a nobility in our town, as the Howards, Somersets, Berties, &c., in England. Blind, undistinguishing reproaches against the aristocratical part of mankind, a division which nature has made, and we cannot abolish, are neither pious nor benevolent. They are as pernicious as they are false. They serve only to foment prejudice, jealousy, envy, animosity, and malevolence. They serve no ends but those of sophistry, fraud, and the spirit of party. It would not be true, but it would not be more egregiously false, to say that the people have waged everlasting war against the rights of men.
Adams’s argument is, I think, a not unreasonable one. Should we then set aside our reservations and recognize that, as discomforting as it may seem, somewhere in the rise of Jeb Bush (as in his older brother George W., and his father George H.W.), as well as in the enduring influence of Hillary Clinton, there is a legitimate aristocratic principle at work?
I say no, and I think my reasons for doing so are on solid theoretical ground, completely aside from either the many outlandish fulminations one could launch against the Bush family (oil money! Skull and Bones! the CIA! Enron!) or the Clintons (Rose Law firm! Whitewater! drug smuggling! Benghazi!), or my aforementioned distaste for the sort of American exceptionalism they’ll both build their campaigns upon. Nor is my strong qualification of Adams’s argument–and my disputing of its applicability to mapping out the putative skill at managing the executive powers of our government which the wife of a president or the son and brother of two presidents may have–related to the plain truth that the republican presumptions which gave shape to many elements of our original constitutional order have long since been wiped away. No, the real problem is that any defensible argument for the compatibility (or at least acceptability) of dynastic elites amongst a self-governing people depends upon those dynasties having a locality. That is, whatever benefits or harms which the perhaps inevitable concentration of influence and training and access in a family line may present to a free society, the dynasty in question needs to be understood as one that is local enough, implicated and involved in community life enough, to be trusted by the people in its employ (however driven by ambition) of that very influence, training, and access.
This is reflected plainly in Adams’s own argument to his cousin: the elite families he calls out are Boston families–families who parents and children and relatives and careers and background and travails and stories were known to and interwoven into the lives of the people of Boston. He didn’t need to do any explaining: Samuel knew exactly who “the Daweses” were, because they lived right there; he’d seen them, knew them, and consequently could trust in them. Thinkers from Wendell Berry to Friedrich Hayek, from Michel Foucault to James Scott have all insisted, despite their many methodological differences, that to have routine, ordinary, daily, experiential familiarity with a particular set facts (or with a particular set of relationships with a particular set of people) is to be in possession of an awareness upon which one can build dependency, intimacy and, hence, civic trust. The republicanism which developed in the southern American colonies through the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries took very seriously the rudimentary populist presumption that power was vested in the sovereign people of Virginia, but it made place for the noblesse oblige of the Tidewater plantation aristocracy–George Washington, Richard Henry Less, John Dickenson, and others, who were expected to serve by governing over the needs of the community as a whole with classic, republican disinterestedness. Those families represented dynastic power, to be sure, but it was locally circumscribed, and thus relatable power; the people good identify with those leaders, because they knew them.
That more homogeneous and more civic-minded (though also far more unequal) world is now gone. The elitism which remains, such as may be realized through the sort of family connections which Adams laid out, really can only be defended for what it is if we can know these dynasties, locally. If we can’t know them, they are simply figures of power, advertising their advantaged births and relations, as if that provides them with some virtuous route to better government. Allowing ourselves to be carried away by their supposed skill and nominal connections and seeming inborn privilege only shows the degree to which we don’t take democratic governance seriously ourselves. The Bushes have their family estates in Maine and Texas, and the Clintons have their Ivy League degrees, and the media is quick to use the immense privilege and respect associated with climbing economic and academic ladders as demonstrating meritocratic achievement such that we can all relate to. But of course, the truth is that 1) the American meritocracy is anything but truly meritocratic, and 2) the talents and insights which measurable “merit” supposedly captures usually reflects, more than anything else, an ideological, almost slavish loyalty to the systems and processes and institutions which have supposedly enabled the “best and the brightest” to rise to the top. No matter how many times the Clintons or the Bushes have appeared on the covers or news magazines or pop up in our RSS feeds, the overwhelming majority of Americans do not and cannot know them–they aren’t local. If we are to have a federal system of subsidiarian states, then obviously some government will stand at the top of that arrangement, and it is equally obvious that those who dominate that government will likely be strangers to the bulk of the people. To pretend, through the orchestration of family connections and mediated familiarity, that the distance isn’t there or ought to be elided for the sake of a well-known name, is simply anti-democratic foolishness.
I’m not ignorant of the unfortunate reality that the present American state is huge, powerful entity, with innumerable sub-interests and factions contained within its bowels, and that such a situation may well demand that those we elect to manage it bring with them resources and preparation which which likely will often track with family connections. Nor am I unaware that, given our hideous, post-Buckey v. Valeo, post-Citizens United campaign finance swamp, one might well argue that worrying about dynasties in office is a ridiculous distraction, since it is highly likely that real influence in our country is already wielded by a spectacularly tiny and elite group of super-wealthy individuals, many of whom are already related to one another. All worthy points. But given that we will be able to govern ourselves through this ramshackle government only so well as we set the best rules we can conceive for ourselves, this is a rule–or a norm, at least–which is not at all pointless. It is, rather, a line in the sand which needs to be drawn, and redrawn again and again.
If our electoral and party arrangements are such that fully capable women and men are not entering politics, or can’t get nominated or elected when they do, then that says something about our electoral health which giving the reification of dynastic practices a pass wouldn’t influence for the better anyway. In the meantime, we do what we can to keep whatever spirit of a genuinely civic and popular civil society alive. There are, after all, party tools to bring a knowledge of, and a trust in, distant office-holders into voter calculations, and ruefully applauding (with some kind of latent Machiavellianism, I suppose) the ability of the well-connected to dominate those tools so early on is to be resisted. I’ve got no problem with supporting the daughter or brother of some locally powerful individual for office, assuming I am able to judge for myself how much of their family’s or relative’s talent or commitment or good sense they have within them, thus showing their capacity to respond to my trust. But to give a Hillary a fair shake, simply because her husband claimed to have felt my pain? To allow that Jeb ought to be taken seriously, because, well, after all, it’s his turn? No, I’m sorry, but when it comes to allowing dynastic offices to form around our distant capital, count me (and my vote, for whatever it’s worth) out.