Salon Radio: Dr. Nathan Burroughs on dynastic politics

Dynastic succession -- Caroline Kennedy v. Andrew Cuomo -- is becoming increasingly common in the U.S. politics. What does that mean for democracy?

By Glenn Greenwald

Published January 9, 2009 11:46AM (EST)

[updated below - Update II (w/transcript)]

Last month, when the possibility first arose that Caroline Kennedy (or Andrew Cuomo) would be appointed to Hillary Clinton's Senate seat, I wrote about how prevalent dynastic succession is in our political system.  Though I was aware anecdotally of what a problem this has become, I was actually surprised, as I wrote that, by how high the number really is of current members of Congress with immediate family members who previously occupied either their seat or some other high political office in their state.  In response, numerous commenters and emailers questioned whether dynastic succession, as commonplace as it now is, was just as common in the past or whether it's an increasing trend -- a question I couldn't answer because I hadn't performed, and wasn't aware of, any empirical historical analysis of those issues.

Dr. Nathan Burroughs, a Ph.D. in Political Science who is currently with Indiana University's Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, has done extensive work studying dynastic politics.  His dissertation examined the systemic advantages dynastic candidates have enjoyed over the last several decades, and in response to my inquiries a month or so ago, he has now analyzed recent historic trends in Congress to determine whether there is now a notably higher percentage of dynastic office-holders than in the past.

Dr. Burroughs is my guest today on Salon Radio, where we discuss those findings, including:

  • The trend of dynastic candidates in Congress, particularly the Senate, has increased steadily and substantially since the 1950s, to the point where almost 25% of the current U.S. Senate can be deemed a dynastic candidate;
  • Dynastic candidates enjoy numerous inherent advantages over non-dynastic candidates, and those advantages are also increasing; and,
  • Having a disproportionately high percentage of dynastic candidates poses numerous and serious anti-democratic threats.

The discussion is roughly 20 minutes and can be heard by clicking PLAY on the recorder below.  A transcript will be posted shortly.


UPDATE:  One additional point worth highlighting which Burroughs' research revealed:  dynastic office-holders tend disproportionately -- both historically and currently -- to be Democrats, by a significant (though not enormous) margin.  Both Republican and Democratic voters love their celebrity/royal political families -- the bizarre, People-Magazine-level swooning over Caroline Kennedy is strong anecdotal evidence of that --  but Democrats, for whatever reasons, rely on dynastic succession even more than Republicans do.


UPDATE II:  The transcript is here.

To listen to this interview, click PLAY on the recorder below:


Glenn Greenwald: My guest today is Dr. Nathan Borroughs, who is a Ph.D. in political science and currently is with the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University. Thanks so much for joining me today.

Nathan Borroughs: Thanks for having me.

GG: My pleasure. So, the reason I wanted to talk to you is because you've done a great deal of work in the question of political dynasties and the impact that it has on our political process. And more recently you've done some work with regard to some of the trends that we've seen, with the role that dynasties play in our political process.

Now, I want to ask you in just a second about some of the specific conclusions you reach, but before I do, obviously this is a topic that has been in the news a great deal and that a lot of people are discussing recently because of the controversy surrounding the possible appointment of Caroline Kennedy to Hillary Clinton's Senate seat, and the fact that her primary competitor, or at least one of them, seems to be Andrew Cuomo, the son of the former New York governor Mario Cuomo. So, what I want to ask you about is, what is it about this topic that you think is significant? You did your dissertation in this field; you've done work on it since; why does it matter, or why do you think it's a topic worth thinking about?

NB: Well, that might be the most important question about this, because for many people they think it doesn't matter, that the voters have a choice to walk in the ballot and vote for who they choose, and as long as they have that free choice, it doesn't matter who wins, whether they're from a political family or not. What I'm concerned about, from a perspective of democratic theory, is that if the political system reinforces pre-existing social inequalities, then that's a prima facie problem with your political system, from the perspective of Rawlsian theory.

We create a democracy. You want the political system to faithfully reflect your core political principles, such as political equality, as much as you possible can, and if the system is systematically weighted so that a particular group of people, or people with a particular profile, get elected far disproportionate to their numbers, that can generate some problems.

So, it was primarily a philosophical concern that I had, and also in terms of personal exposure to politics over the years, I've seen people who have famous last names tended to climb the ladder much faster and have a long-term political effect. It's not clear that you can look at voting outcomes in the legislature, policy outputs, and see stark differences--that's very very hard to measure. But in terms of how level the political system is, it certainly appears that people who have famous last names, particularly political last names, have a real leg up on everyone else.

GG: Let's talk about that a little bit, because--and you alluded to the argument that is often made against people who've expressed concerns over political dynasties, which is that the voters have the choice, and if they choose somebody with a famous last name, isn't that in essence a expression of democratic values, rather that a subversion of them? And to that I would add, that I think there are other groups that are probably disproportionately represented, and that succeed disproportionately in the political process--I think lawyers are overwhelmingly over-represented.

Certainly, if you look at the U.S. Senate, there's a massive racial disparity. There's currently no African-Americans in the Senate. I'm sure that if you looked at the wealth of the individuals who are elected to the Senate and probably the House, they tend to be disproportionately wealthy, so, are those of equal concern, or is there something about the dynastic aspect that you think poses particular problems?

NB: Well, when I was doing work on this, I was looking at all the background characteristics you were just describing. Profession, income, racial --determining whether the political system--and particularly I was looking at primaries, to determine whether parties tended to nominate candidates with particular backgrounds.

From a historical point of view, this may sound a bit dramatic, but I don't know if democracies have the luxury of flirting with aristocracies. There's always been a strong wealth or racial component in popular governments.

I have a personal concern, just from looking through historical records of popular governments over time, either in the ancient period or the early modern period. They've generally run into a lot of trouble, generate a lot of instabilities, when to tend to elect people from the same families generation after generation.

The U.S. clearly isn't at that point, but I'll be honest, I find some of the recent turnover a bit troubling. If you look at the last few cycles of presidential elections, this one was outside the norm, in that you had someone with really no political background winning. That happened again in 1992. If you look at it since the 1970s, the people who've won the presidential nominations, and particularly the elections, have much more often been from more famous families.

There's been a lot of attention paid to the fact that Bushes and Doles have been on the Republic tickets for generations, and I think at least some of the resistance among progressives to Hillary Clinton's nomination in 2008, was that fact that they didn't want a Bush/Clinton, Bush /Clinton scenario.

GG: Right. I mean, do you think there's any particular concern about the unique emotional conflicts that tend to arise when people are kind of competing with one another within the same family? Of course, if you look at European monarchies, and dramas within royal courts, it's typically a prominent feature of that was in imperial courts in Rome. And of course there was lots of speculation about whether, for example, George Bush's motivation in ordering the deposing of Saddam Hussein, was either revenge for what was dubiously reported to be an assassination attempt on his father, or even an attempt to surpass in some Oedipal way and actually go to Baghdad in the way that his father of course never did, much to the chagrin to lots of hawks who accused him of being too soft. So, do you think that those are legitimate areas of worry, when it comes to putting people in political power who might be competing with or otherwise dealing with this sort of family and Oedipal conflicts?

NB: I think that might be a possibility if things became very institutionalized. It's been a rare thing to have immediate family members get to the White House. It might be an accident that it's happened a lot lately, but I don't know.

When I was doing a little bit of work on the Senate, the average number of senators who are from political families in the 1950s was 14. Now's it's 22 in the current Senate before Hillary Clinton resigned, opposed to a high of about 24. About a quarter of the governors in this countries are from political families. The House is not quite as much a problem, it's about 14%. But certainly it looks on the surface like this is a pretty strong trend. I ran a quick analysis of the relationship between time and the number of senators related to political families....

GG: Let me just stop you there: I want to get to the time factor in a bit. That's an interesting point on which I want to focus, because I actually wrote about, when the Caroline Kennedy possibility was first mentioned, I wrote about how striking it was that there's this very strong dynastic component to our politics now.

NB: It seems like in New York it is much more of an issue in the last few years, I'll be honest.

GG: But one of the things that really struck me as I started to compile the list of senators who had immediate family members who occupied that same office, namely that Senate seat, or other high political office in the same state--they were governors, or house members, or chairmen of the party.

It was amazing to me how high the number was. There were lots of Senators, like Jon Kyl and Robert Bennett, people who I had no idea even had immediate family members-- the more you look, the more striking it became how common it was. And lots of people made the objection that this has always been the case.

So one of the things that you and I talked about, I think a month or so ago, was what is really the trend? To find that out, you really have to do a statistical analysis. You seem to be suggesting that the trend has actually worsened, at least in the Senate for example, there's an appreciable increase in the past several decades.

NB: It's shocking, actually, when I ran the numbers, the correlation between time, as you advance through time, and the percentage of the Senate which is from political families, is 0.896, which, given the maximum of any correlation is 1, that...

GG: So what does that mean, what does that mean exactly in terms of what --

NB: It means that every single decade there's been a substantial increase in the average number of senators from political families, and sometimes it's it will go down in one year, but it will go up by three the following year. It's been very steady.

In the 1950s it was just under 14 senators on average who were from political families, and right now it's 24. If Caroline Kennedy gets the seat it will continue to be 24. And if you look at the possibilities, it's looks like some of these may not manifest. Both Joe Biden in Delaware, Ken Salazar was a serious candidate in Colorado, Jeb Bush just recently announced he's not going to run for the Senate in Florida, but he could have; I was looking at that number could have hit 30 in the next cycle, if everything broke that way, which would have been remarkable.

Now, I have to say, I haven't looked at the Senate previous to World War II; it's possible, because of World War II, at lot of World War II vets come in who are well-known and are able to use that and turn it into a political career. You had a wave of World War II vets without any political experience getting elected in the 1940s. So it could be the immediate post-war era was this compressed period. Paul Krugman's written about The Great Depression.

You had this uniquely middle-class society right after World War II, and it's possible, and I can't say that right now, that that was an anomaly, that we might be reverting to the 19th century form, because if you don't have a lot of money, and you're not from a political family, it's pretty difficult to climb the political ladder. You have to be superlatively talented, the way a Bill Clinton or a Barack Obama was to climb the ladder. Those opportunities are probably still there, but it's an open question whether we're seeing a steady calcification, or whether we're just reverting to previous norms.

I don't think yet we can answer that question; I'm taking a look at the previous Congress and using the congressional biographies, to hopefully come up with a better answer to that question, but I really can't answer it yet.

GG: Yeah, we'll have to have you back on once you go and do that analysis, but one thing that we can safely say is that the trend has been steadily increasing from the 1950s, when your analysis began, and part of I tried to do--because I didn't do this analysis it takes expertise and was time-consuming--was go back and look at anecdotal press accounts that discussed particular races where, say, a son succeeded his father, when there a death of the father while in office.

Certainly the tenor of the discussion suggested very strongly, even from the the 1920s and earlier, that this was an unusual event, that that actually frowned upon and by no means something that... One of the aspects that made me begin looking at this, was that there were some really egregious instances where actually the dynastic succession is not accomplished through the democratic process, Caroline Kennedy's selection or even Andrew Cuomo's...

NB: Frank Murkowski probably the most infamous recently.

GG: Frank Murkowski decides to run for governor, and wins, and is able to appoint his successor to the Senate, and picks his own daughter. And actually, even more egregious than that, even though it's not prominent because it's the House, is Dan Lapinski, whose father I think waited until after the deadline or right before the deadline to announce that he was not going to seek the party nomination. And the local party leaders in a back room and they picked his son to succeed him, even though his son wasn't even living in the district or even the state at the time; he was teaching in Tennessee, and he's now a three term incumbent.

Beyond those extremely what I think are corrupt cases, where there's dynamic succession to capitalize on name familiarity or the ability to transfer institutional resources and the like, what about when they actually do run? What kind of advantages do they enjoy, and how disproportionate is the likelihood that they're going to prevail?

NB: Well, when I looked at congressional primaries, House primaries, between 1980 and 1998, which is when the data was really most available, it was harder to get some of that data in later years; with the source I was using, these advantages compound. The candidates from political families had a significantly greater ability to raise money, particularly from party loyalist sources, people who routinely give to the party.

They had a greater ability to win party institutional backing, which of course makes it easier to raise money. So that's a compounding effect, and then voters--I don't want to blame voters for being more willing to vote for last name --it's a very natural tendency, the attributes of one person and apply them to another, 'cause voters are always looking for informational shortcuts, and so if one candidate, you like this congressman, and his son or daughter runs, you can say, well, they're probably a lot like their dad, or their mom, so I'm going to vote for them too.

So I just think there's a natural propensity for it. If I had to guess, I'd say in a competitive primary, it might be worth six or seven points to be from a political family, which may not sound like very much, but when you consider what some of the margins of contested primaries are, that's definitely the difference between victory and defeat.

GG: Right.

NB: You have someone who is adequately talented politically, they're going to have a good chance to win. Now I will say this: parties are very likely to support candidates from, people from political families. What's interesting is it's relatively rare, at least in the period I looked at, that the parties which support somebody who is actually the son or daughter of the incumbent, it easier for them to come back later with someone from a political family, I suspect at least at the time, a lot of local election officials were angry at this person for trying to jump in line.

Now, it's possible that's changed in the last 10 years, but they didn't have a lot of success at the House level in the 1980s, when they were trying to immediately succeed. Now, if you look lately, it seems like on an anecdotal level that they've had a great deal more success in people from the same families perpetuating directly from one year to the next.

GG: Right. Let me ask you about some of those advantages, the idea that they can raise more money, that they get the support of party loyalists more easily, what do you think the reasons are for why that happens? Why are they...?

NB: I think it's very natural. Think about it.

If you're a political activist and a political donor, and you've gone to political meetings and you've known the incumbent, then you've been seeing this person grow up. You've known this son or daughter or cousin for years, and even if you don't, you have the incumbent who you like to vouch for them. So again, it's easier: informational shortcuts.

You may not know who the other person is that's running, or you don't have the kind of long term relationship, but I have to say, it would be very hard to say to someone you've know for 20 years, since they were playing in your backyard pool at a fundraiser: "Mo, I'm not going to support you 'cause you want succeed your relative in Congress." I think that's asking too much for people, so it doesn't surprise me that that would happen.

GG: Right. Now...

NB: So much of this is about personal relationships.

GG: Right. What about the break-down in terms of whether Democrats or Republicans are more likely to rely upon dynastic succession, or whether it's fairly split? Have you done that analysis, and where to you find this more frequently?

NB: Yeah, it is very clear that dynasty candidates are much more prevalent in the Democratic than the Republican Party. If you look at it, since World War II, there's been eighty-eight senators who've been from political families; 59% of those have been Democrats, whereas the Democrats have only had 53% of Senate seats over that time, on average. If you look at the current House, the one that just left, 14% of the members were from political families. Of those, 62% were Democrats. The Democrats only had 54% of the House seats.

When I did the statistical analysis of Kentucky primaries, in the '80s and '90s, Democrats were more likely to see primaries with people from political families, dynastic candidates found it easier to raise money and were more likely to get support than Republican dynasty candidates, and Democratic primary voters are more likely to vote for a dynasty candidate than Republican primary voters. No matter how I looked at it, this is a much bigger issue in the Democratic than the Republican Party.

GG: Right. So the split is probably around 60-40, something like that, so it's a problem in both but clearly something that the Democrats are exploiting more aggressively, more frequently than the Republicans.

NB: I don't know if I'd put it quite that way. I think that institutionally it's much easier for someone from a political family in the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. I don't want to make an attribution that the parties are trying to do something. It's possible there's a recruitment effect going on, but I don't know that that's the case.

GG: But I guess that's what I was getting at, and I understand that your analysis may not support that it's a question of motives, and how to speculate about that. But I suppose if you are-- --and this really gets to the heart of the problem, ultimately, as to why this problems becomes self-perpetuating--f you are a national party functionary whose role it is to perpetuate your party's majority, or at the DCCC or the DSCC or the DNC, and your job is to recruit candidates who have the greatest chance of winning. If I look at your analysis, and the arguments that your making about how successful or the inherent advantages that that dynastic candidates have, won't it be rational for me to decide that the way that I can achieve my objective is by recruiting relatives of other politicians who have performed well in that state?

NB: It's certainly rational to take that point of view. Now, I didn't look carefully at their success in the general election. I know there's been some research on that, I'd have to take a look at it.

But it's certainly likely that dynastic candidates have a similar sort of advantage in the general election as well. That election might be muted because congressional elections are so dominated by party identification.

It's important to remember that the real contest in American politics is frequently in the primary, not in the general, so sometimes it amounts to the same thing: if you win the primary, you win the general race too. But I certainly think it could make sense, but I don't think that's necessarily what's driving that.

GG: What do you think is driving it?

NB: I think it's that voters like voting for people that they feel they know, and that donors are more likely to give money to people that they know. And it's that simple. And it's also very easy, particularly for an incumbent or a former incumbent, they have a lot of chits, they have a lot of contacts, and to use them on behalf of their family member. That's just very natural, for that to happen.

So I think it's most congressional elections, people who run, there's mixed evidence for recruitment--most candidates are self-starters. They're not aggressively lobbied to run, they want that seat. Running for Congress is too grueling an experience if you don't really want it. So I suspect it's just that fact that the Democratic Party that make it much easier for these dynastic candidates to emerge, than it is, ***Tripp saying, okay, let's find a dynastic candidate.

Now, there was a time, I don't know if that's still true, when, particularly the DSCC was deliberately recruiting individually wealthy people, because of the DSCC was broke, the Democrats weren't raising money. So that there you can say there was a wealth criteria they were applying to candidates. I think it's less likely it's the case with dynastic candidates.

GG: Right. That makes sense. And I guess you hear that argument with Caroline Kennedy as well, that one of here advantages is that her wealth enables her to fund the 2010 that she would have to run-- much more easily than virtually any other candidate. Probably her name recognition helps in that as well, but also her personal wealth. I suppose on some level they end up being inextricably linked a little bit.

NB: Right, these get to be reinforcing over time.

GG: Yeah...

NB: ...perpetuates itself.

GG: Exactly. So, last question--you alluded at the beginning to the problem that a democracy can have if it starts to become too aristocratic, if it has this disproportionate representation within its political class. Talk about, if you could, where you think we are in terms of that danger, and what is that danger exactly, of a democracy flirting with the attributes of an aristocracy in that way?

NB: Well, it's hard to know right now. There are certainly some canaries in the coal mine. Campaigns are getting progressively more expensive, which means there's going to be a greater and greater premium. It's possible that the development of the netroots is going to cut against that, but it's just as possible that the netroots is going to be happy to support dynasty candidates because of the same informational reasons that voters and other donors are supporting dynasty candidates.

GG: Right, or self-funding candidates, like, for the typical netroots candidates, but he was able to succeed in large part because he had 6 million dollars to put into his own campaign.

NB: Actually, you'd be amazed at how poorly most self-financed candidates do. People who are self-financed who don't run for a lower level office first, and just run for the Senate or the House, or governor, they usually lose.

GG: Really?

NB: They generally do poorly. Yeah. Being a self-financed candidate is. . .I can send that link to you, but she did a lot of good work on this, and being a self-financed candidate, it's well known around the political circles that self-financed candidates frequently don't know what they're doing. They think they know it all, and they don't take strategic advice. Now, you've got, Corzine was very good, and hired good people, and did the right things and he won, but for every Corzine there's eight Michael Huffingtons running around.

GG: Right, right.

NB: ...series of mistakes, and don't know what they're doing. But to get back to your question--I don't know. I mean, I am a little concerned.

If, over the next decade, you see the Senate starts approaching a third, or the House starts approaching 20%, from political families, then you could be a point of critical mass, where it could be a real issue. I think we might be, in many senses the country could be at a bit of a political tipping point in a lot of areas; this might be one of them. It's really hard to say right now.

The dangers, well, there's the strictly theoretical danger, in a democracy, everybody should have an equal probability if they decide to run for office, so I sort of have a theoretical problem if the system is systematically advantaging people from a certain class. You can see some of the psychological issues, you can have family rivalries develop; you saw this in the Roman Republic, we've seen this in America sometimes, or in Europe, where two political families just become enemies. It looked for a while like that was what happening with the Bushes and the Clintons.

GG: Right.

NB: But if you'd had, say in the hypothetical, three or four generations of presidents from the Bush and Clinton families, which some people complained about in the late 1990s, in the 2000s. And the same thing with the Bush family. If you look at the problems the Republicans are going to have coming up with a nominee in four to eight years, in some sense the Bush family has institutionally captured the Republican Party; it's unclear who they'll have other than Jeb, who all the factions of the party can rally around.

That's one of the things that did them in in 2008. I mean, imagine it is --difficult to imagine, given his current unpopularity--but if George Bush was still president in popular opinion and had high approval ratings, how likely is it Jeb would have run in 2008? I'd say it would have made a lot of sense for him to have run them. It would have been very possible, you could have seen a Hillary Clinton - Jeb Bush election, which a lot of people were concerned about.

So, I think there's a danger in a democracy, it's important to preserve it. Democracies are not natural forms of government; they take a lot of work and a lot of things have to go right for them to last, and it's very easy to say democracy is helping enable, and I think one of the areas that we need to take a close look at, these are systems accidentally or on purpose in which one of the key criteria for success in electoral politics is having a famous last name. And if that becomes too important, then it's an open question whether you can still call this a democracy at all.

GG: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah, that's why I think these issues are beyond just being interesting, they're of definite importance in terms of understanding whether we want to consider them a problem and somehow work on the ways to kind of retard what seems to be the clear trend of dynastic candidates succeeding more frequently than before.

Well, it was very interesting; I think that the work that you're work that you're doing is definitely important and interesting, and I'd love to have you on again once you keep going and figure out even in a broader sense whether these trends are as strong as they appear and some of the other issues that you continue to work on. Thanks for taking the time.

NB: That'd be great. Thank you so much.


[Transcript courtesy of Thames Valley Transcribe]

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