[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.
I guess I don’t read that Adams letter the way that you do. It seems clear to me that this line–“By nobles, I mean not peculiarly an hereditary nobility, or any particular modification, but the natural and actual aristocracy among mankind.”–reveals he’s not talking about family dynasties at all, but rather something like our “meritocracy” idea (as you allude to, we don’t actually have a meritocracy, but some sort of perverse credentialocracy where fifty year olds being nominated for high government office are sold to us first and foremost by where they chose to matriculate some thirty years prior).
Your focus on distance vs. local is an important one. It seems clear to me that one obvious improvement to our disastrous governance would be simply to no longer locate our entire national government in one location. There is no reason in the 21st century that our representatives can’t live at home among their constituents, rather than being completely isolated within the capitol city leviathan. This would, in addition to keeping them honest–would you rather have your Senator live down the street from you so that you could see him out at dinner, etc., or have him live thousands of miles away and know nothing about what actually is going on at home? This seems to have particular relevance for recent KS elections…–would probably naturally cause these pitiful family dynasties we’re cursed with all over the country to never get established in the first place, as the sons and daughters of Senators would have other role models to aspire to than government functionaries.
I would think that this is even an idea for which left and right could agree, but every time I think something like that I end up sorely disappointed.
It seems clear to me that this line–”By nobles, I mean not peculiarly an hereditary nobility, or any particular modification, but the natural and actual aristocracy among mankind.”–reveals he’s not talking about family dynasties at all, but rather something like our “meritocracy” idea
You may be right, but notice that he then immediately goes on to mention various well-known Boston families. He might well have disliked the term “dynasties,” but I think he was pretty clearly convinced the excellence–“merit,” if you prefer–really was likely to be found through particular family lines.
If being connected with the network is so important, why should we not be completely consistent and raise out leaders from infants to be the Philosopher-Kings which Plato described? Well, first — and last — because that is not what happens in a democracy (or republic, if you prefer the term.) Having read of the great breeding and accomplishments of Steward, I also think he would have been a much worse wartime President than the very plebeian Lincoln. (But, being originally from Illinois, I _may_ be prejudiced.)
The American political dynasties, Adams, Kennedy, Clinton, Bush (and Ford or Rockefeller for economics), demonstrate the corrosive nature of dynasty in a county such as the USA. Of them all, only the Adams Family has any claim to greatness, whether in politics or out.
Oh please no. A Jeb vs. Hillary race was what I was afraid of back in 2008. And casting protest votes gets old pretty fast, and I don’t want to make it a normative practice. But you’ve just given me yet another reason not to vote for either of two candidates I couldn’t see myself voting for anyway.
Well you know the U.S. was founded upon compromise and it’s important, being reasonable and so on for things to function, and having an uncompromising attitude like some contemporary politicians and bloggers is unproductive and often only the slightest of masks covering intolerance, racism and rage, but sometimes being reasonable slips into accommodation, and the constellation of powers these two personify hold ideologies that should not be accommodated.
We are carrying out extrajudicial executions across the globe to show our commitment to human rights. Conducting unwarranted and illegal searches and mass surveillance to protect freedom. Holding secret trade negotiations to promote transparency and openness between nations. None of these things make sense.
I keep thinking of Joseph Welch – “Have you no decency, Sir?” That’s a problem here. We’ve had none – and worse, too few willing to stand up and say so.
All of which is to say, I agree with you, but for me there are simpler objections. We’ve spent a long time going the wrong way.
Much of this is pointless chuffering.
1. You might just put your bloody cards on the table and tell us how your understanding of merit is operationalized. Not holding my breath.
2. The Kennedys were far more of a threat than the Bush clan. The Bush clan carries with it no cult of personality and only a small sliver of many collateral relations have ever run for office.
3. So, what have the Kennedys done in electoral politics since 1964?
a. Robert Kennedy won 4 presidential primaries in 1968.
b. Edward Kennedy won 11 presidential primaries and caucuses in 1980 (of which two were in the Boston media market; N.B. Rick Santorum won 11 such in 2012, of which none were in the Pittsburgh media market).
c. Four Kennedy scions have won congressional races in the Boston media market.
d. One of Robert Kennedy’s sons has sat on a municipal council in Southern California.
e. One of Sargent Shriver’s sons sat in the Maryland legislature for eight years. N.B. Maryland is the Shriver clan’s home base and papa Shriver was a very different animal than his brothers-in-law.
f. Kathleen Townsend proved to be the most unsalable inventory the Maryland Democratic Party has seen in a generation or more.
4. What do the more capable Kennedys do? One runs the family real estate business (Sargent Shriver’s old job), one works for an investment banking firm, and one is a physician (with Velcro mittens, by some accounts). All of these men are past 50 and have shown no interest in electoral politics.
5. The Bush and Clinton clans are not likely to be unaffected by the 3d generation syndrome. Neither will the more capable members of either clan necessarily take an interest in politics. Indeed, Chelsea is 34 and has never really found her vocation. Her mother and father are both sports, unlike the previous generation for the most part and notably more intelligent and driven than their siblings. Of Jenna and Barbara’s many cousins, only one thus far has shown any more interest in public life than they have.
6. If Hillary is nominated, it will be a major breach of precedent. The closest examples would be Richard Nixon and (reaching back to the 19th c) James Blaine. Neither of these men were as persistently and durably obtrusive as HRC, neither so unscrupulous, and neither so old (and neither had a recent head injury).
7. The Bush brand is damaged and that matters to brand-conscious Republican primary voters.
We are carrying out extrajudicial executions across the globe to show our commitment to human rights.
No, you’re describing military operations as ‘extrajudicial executions’ because you’re pleased with yourself for being a silly crank.
Much of this is pointless chuffering.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word “chuffering” before, but I like it, and am going to steal it. Thanks!
You might just put your bloody cards on the table and tell us how your understanding of merit is operationalized.
I think this is directed towards me, though I’m not certain; I any case, I’ll give it a shot. While I recognize that “merit” is probably an unavoidable concept in a free society like our own where standards of judgment are at the same time both fluid and driven by usually economically utilitarian demands, I personally find it philosophically distasteful and almost impossible to defend morally speaking. That doesn’t mean I have a good way to do without it; I obviously think at least partially in terms of merit every time I hand out grades in my classes, or indeed every time I ask myself whether I ought to take the car in to the same garage I took it to before. But it’s a profoundly troubling concept nonetheless, and I deeply dislike how our near omnipresent cultural and media structures employ it as a kind of invisible hand, the magic quality of “merit”–and thus all sorts of privileges of access, etc.–being bestowed on people who achieve wealth, graduate from good schools, or are related to those who have done either. So basically, as much as possible, I try to avoid “operationalizing” the concept…though it’s likely that I still do so, if only unconsciously.
Art Deco thanks for the reply but no, that’s incorrect. What else shall we disagree about? Trade? Have an opinion on TTIP? My understanding is that Clinton has voiced support for both TTIP and TPP – I assume Bush supports both, but have not checked, so cannot say.
I any case, I’ll give it a shot.
What you gave me was a gassy evasion.
Art Deco thanks for the reply but no, that’s incorrect.
It’s correct. It’s just a truth you’d prefer not to acknowledge.
A discussion of trade policy would require a granular knowledge that few people have (other than a general observation that the benefits and injuries associated with a liberal trade regime tend to much exaggerated by people who get fixated on the subject).
Ok Art Deco, thanks again. I assume many people share your opinion on trade policy, which, I further assume, is one reason why there is so much secrecy surrounding the negotiations.
I do not possess any expertise on the subject. Just thought I’d ask. I find the lack of transparency disheartening – seems to me that rather than attempt to engage and educate the public on a complex issue, the approach is to conceal and misdirect. That in itself is not what bothers me – I think there are instances when a direct public debate might do more harm than good. What I find disheartening is that the default approach these days for almost all public policy issues is to conceal and misdirect. And with these two, I expect, especially so.
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