Nepotistic succession in the political class

A large, and rapidly growing, percentage of high elected officials are part of politically powerful families. What accounts for this anti-democratic dynamic?

By Glenn Greenwald
December 3, 2008 5:21PM (UTC)
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(updated below)

Bill Clinton yesterday was forced to deny speculation that he would be appointed to replace his wife in the U.S. Senate.  Leading candidates for that seat still include John F. Kennedy's daughter (Caroline), Robert Kennedy's son (RFK, Jr.), and Mario Cuomo's son (Andrew).  In Illinois, a leading contender to replace Barack Obama in the Senate is Jesse Jackson's son (Jesse, Jr.).  In Delaware, it was widely speculated that Joe Biden would be replaced by his son, Beau, and after Beau took his name out of the running because he's now serving in Iraq, the naming of the actual replacement -- lone-time (Joe) Biden aide Ted Kaufmann -- "upset local Democrats who believe the move was a ham-handed attempt to engineer the election of Biden’s son, Beau, to the Senate in 2010."


Meanwhile, in Alaska, Lisa Murkowski, who was appointed by her father to take his seat in the U.S. Senate when he became Governor, yesterday warned Sarah Palin not to challenge her in a 2010 primary, a by-product of tension between those two as a result of Palin's defeat of Lisa's dad for Governor.  In Florida, Mel Martinez's announcement that he won't seek re-election in 2010 immediately led to reports that the current President's brother, Jeb, might run for that seat.  And all of that's just from the last couple of weeks.

The Senate alone -- to say nothing of the House -- is literally filled with people whose fathers or other close relatives previously held their seat or similar high office (those links identify at least 15 current U.S. Senators -- 15 -- with immediate family members who previously occupied high elected office).  And, of course, the current President on his way out was the son of a former President and grandson of a former U.S. Senator.

Isn't this all a bit much?  It's true that our political/media class in general is intensely incestuous and nepotistic.  Virtually the entire neoconservative "intelligentsia" (using that term as loosely as it can possibly be used) is one big paean to nepotistic succession -- the Kristols, the Kagans, the Podhoretzes, Lucinanne Goldberg and her boy.  Upon Tim Russert's death, NBC News excitedly hired his son, Luke.  Mike Wallace's son hosts Fox's Sunday show.  The most influential political opinion space in the country, The New York Times Op-Ed page, is, like the Times itself, teeming with family successions and connectionsInter-marriages between and among media stars and political figures -- and lobbyists, operatives and powerful political officials -- are now more common than arranged royal marriages were among 16th Century European monarchs.


But this fixation on parent-child, sibling and spousal succession for elected office is particularly problematic.  It's certainly true that one can find, in individual cases, instances of self-sufficiency and merit even among those benefiting from nepotism and family names.  But the fact that it is now so commonplace -- almost presumptively expected -- for political power to be passed along to close family members is quite anti-democratic.  The number of families possessing some sort of aristocratic-like claim to elected office is clearly increasing.  By definition, that diminishes the role of merit and the need for democratic persuasion in how elected leaders are chosen.  And this dynamic, in turn, fuels how insular, incestuous, unaccountable and bloated with entitlement the Beltway culture is.

There are numerous factors that account for this artistocratization of our politics.  Viewing political officials through the combined prism of royalty and celebrity naturally generates interest in, and affection for, their family members.  The same deeply sad mentality that makes it worthwhile for celebrity magazines to pay many millions of dollars for celebrities' baby photos is part of what makes so many people eager to vote for the sons, wives, and brothers of their favorite political star.  Independently, a rapid worsening of America's rich-poor gap stratifies the society in terms of opportunities and access and breeds a merit-deprived aristocratic culture.

Beyond that, the massive structural advantages of incumbency easily allow resources and other favors to be heaped on chosen family members for succession, and for loyalties and affections to be transferred for no reason other than family connection.  Then there is the  large number of uninformed voters -- working in tandem with our vapid, gossip-obsessed political media -- that place a huge premium on family name recognition and even generates some voter confusion that further aids family succession (how many voters who cast a ballot for Bob Casey and John Sununu in their Senate races -- or elected Harold Ford, Dan Boren, Connie Mack and Bill Schuster to the House -- mistakenly thought they were voting for their elected-official dads who had the same or very similar names?).


Family succession is hardly unheard of in U.S. political history, but what was once quite rare has now become pervasive.  As The Washington Post's Dana Milbank put it in 2005:

With at least 18 senators, dozens of House members and several administration officials boosted by family legacies, modern-day Washington sometimes resembles the court of Louis XIV without the powdered wigs.

Illustrating that radical change, here's a revealing 1929 article from Time Magazine expressing some mild disapproval for what was, back then, the rare occurrence of a son who was elected to succeed his father in a Minnesota Congressional seat after the father was killed in a tragic fire (the new son-Congressman, the article noted, was "an engaging young man, thoroughly Nordic in appearance").  About this single familial succession, Time sternly intoned:  "Primogeniture and hereditary public office have no place in U. S. tradition."


That is clearly no longer true.  One of the most encouraging aspects of Barack Obama's success -- and, for that matter, the ascension of someone like Sarah Palin or Bill Clinton -- is the pure self-sufficiency and lack of family connection behind it.  But even pointing that out demonstrates how meritocratic self-sufficiency has almost become the exception rather than the rule.  That we now treat Presidents like Kings and expect them to exercise similar powers is consistent with the broader trend whereby we are ruled by a Versailles on the Potomac, with all the bloated, decadent insularity that implies.


UPDATE:  In the comment section, Brenton Williams -- a Professor of American Constitutional & Legal History at DePaul University -- details one of the most egregiously undemocratic cases of nepotistic succession:  Democratic Blue Dog Rep. Dan Lipinski:


His father, Bill, the long-time incumbent ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004 and won easily.  A few weeks before the general election he withdrew and the Illinois Democratic Committee met with him for 15 minutes, late at night, behind closed doors before emerging with their new nominee, his son, then residing in central Tennessee where he was an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee. . . .

Still worse, a family friend [Ryan Chlada] with no funding ran as the Republican in 2004 to help insure that Dan faced no more than token resistance.

As Professor Williams notes, the Lipinski son, ever since, has been vigorously supported by the Democratic establishment, particularly Rahm Emanuel, in order to defeat progressive (and meritocratic) primary challengers.  He was simply handed the seat by his dad.

Glenn Greenwald

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