29 July 2013

Dynasty: American politics as family property and soap opera

When Dick Cheney's daughter announced that she would challenge an incumbent Republican U.S. Senator from Wyoming, the news inspired more commentary on the increasingly dynastic nature of politics in our democratic republic. Zeke Miller's piece in the August 5 issue of Time sums things up nicely. Since most of it is behind a paywall, I'll smuggle in what I consider his key insight.

Heredity can act as a handy shortcut around the high barriers to entry of the modern campaign. The financial costs of running a ground operation, hiring consultants and airing television ads have skyrocketed. The increasingly celebretized nature of politics has turned politicians families into stories in their own right. And the advantage of name recognition may be surpassed only by the political networks of high-powered supporters that come with it. There is also the advantage of experience. These candidates start young, dragged to county fairs and Fourth of July parades from their earliest years, and grow up knocking on doors and passing out yard signs.

Notice that it's experience in campaigning rather than experience in administration that counts. Not just governing but running for office seems to have become a specialized trade that one must start young at, preferably in apprenticeship to one's own parents. Miller provides troubling statistics, most notably that the percentage of congressmen who've had "a close relative who has served in the Capitol" has been rising from a historic low in 1960, though we aren't yet close to the historic high of the 1790s, when we were probably the closest we'd get to a real aristocracy. The prospect of a 21st century political aristocracy of Cheneys, Bushes, Pauls, Clintons, Cuomos, Kennedys, etc. may be the best argument for a policy I've never really warmed to, which is the public financing of campaigns. Term-limiting entire families, as some might want, doesn't necessarily eliminate the "high barriers to entry," which themselves encourage recourse to familiar names. If those barriers encourage the sort of dynastic politics that the Founders (presumably excepting John Adams) presumably abhorred, the barriers should be lowered, either through public financing on the demand side or controlling the cost of advertising on the supply side. Public financing should always leave us concerned about the gatekeeper role of whoever controls the purse, but reducing the cost of campaigning, or liberating it from inappropriate market rules, is a less worrisome option -- unless you depend on advertising revenue from politicians and PACs.

On the other hand, we might look to instruction from the Roman Empire -- not the Republic this time. During the age of the Antonines, the supposed golden age of the Empire in the second century of the Common Era, the virtuous emperors cultivated talented proteges from outside the family. Out of respect to the dynastic principle of legitimacy that had prevailed in Rome, the emperors adopted their proteges to make them their heirs. When Marcus Aurelius gave up the practice in favor of his natural son Commodus, things started falling apart. Adopting an adult into your family for political purposes might look awkward in 21st century eyes, but adopting the practice in the U.S. could combine the best features of aristocracy and meritocracy while maintaining the indispensable integrity of the family brand. For those who tremble over regulating the trade in political ads, this modest proposal may appeal to the extent that it reduces family, with its overtones of unwelcome aristocracy and potential degeneracy, to a pure brand that could long outlive the usefulness of the original biological line. If no better option is possible in today's partisan climate, we should at least think about this option -- if only because doing so might make us reconsider the impossible.


Anonymous said...

It occurred to me some years ago that part of the solution must be a Constitutional amendment making it illegal for anyone who is not an American citizen to donate to political campaigns.

When politicians can no longer rely on attack ads they will have to stick to the facts, the issues and their own individual record.

Of course that would almost demand at least one election cycle where both the democraps and repugnicans are out of power. This would entail a national act of will I doubt the American people are capable of mustering.

Anonymous said...

Of course, corruption and "kept" politicians are really symptomatic of a deeper illness. That illness is the American people.

1) Short attention spans, so easily diverted from what actually impacts their lives to bright and flashy. Too willing to jump in to the latest "cult of personality"; too readily available for the next flavour of the week.
2) Addicted to "celebrity". In the sense that far too many Americans seem to feel a need to be recognized by the anonymous masses. To see proof of this, just look at the growth of websites such as YouTube and FaceBook and services like Twitter. All these subscribers seem under the impression that Joe Plumber or Frank G Average really cares that they just took a dump or are waiting in line at a theatre. People will pull lame pranks or attempt deadly stunts in the hope of going viral. Why? Because they all think that by doing so it proves to someone that they are special although they and I mean two different things, I'm sure.

3)L A Z Y. The average American, from a political perspective, are just plain lazy. They don't want to have to constantly monitor their elected representatives, so they've come to rely on party mentality - which has evolved into partisan mentality. Political commercials and campaign attack ads are really where most Americans get their "knowledge" from and it shows too well.

The only way for America to become a better nation is for Americans to become better people and I'm afraid we are just far too arrogant to every admit that.

Samuel Wilson said...

Anon 2:44: Your proposal addresses related problems of inappropriate influence but I don't see how it addresses the dynastic impulse. The ultimate answer has to involve controlling the cost of campaigning.

Anon 5:06: Political corruption obviously predates social media, and for all the narcissism on display there it does create more opportunities for whistleblowers, etc. Your third point is the one the Founders would have agreed with most strongly. Many of them believed that the nation had to cultivate virtue, understood as a public consciousness, though some of their notions of what constitutes virtue may differ from ours. But sometime in the 19th century it was accepted that if everyone concentrated on making money virtue would take care of itself. Virtue's rewards aren't necessarily material, so you can see why it fell out of fashion.

Anonymous said...

By eliminating the big money donations from corporations, special interest groups and wealthy foreigners, the amount of money any given candidate has to spend is going to decrease dramatically.

An alternative would be that ALL donations go into a common fund and only legitimate campaign expenses are allowed to be paid from this fund. Of course that would pretty much be "public funding". Any candidate capable of getting on the ballot gets use of the funds.

Anonymous said...

Dynastic impulse should not be a problem. A good politician is a good politician, whether related to other politicians or not. What is dangerous is when a candidate feels "entitled" to an elected position just because of the accident of his/her birth or marriage.

The same goes for term limits. We don't need defined term limits. We already have that power in the form of regular elections. A good, honest politician should be allowed to serve as long as they remain good and honest.

But again, the problem is with lazy Americans who don't know who really is good or honest because they are too willing to believe whatever their party tells them to believe.

This is one of the main evils of religion. It has, over the course of thousands of years, conditioned the human race to accept and believe what they are told to accept and believe, without question.

Samuel Wilson said...

Anon 2:11: I suspect that the dynastic impulse today comes less from the children of pols feeling entitled than from the pols themselves and the hangers-on who see family name recognition as a shortcut to success. You often hear rumors that the Clintons are grooming their daughter to become a politician; you also wonder whether Chelsea really wants such a future.

As for the religious roots of intellectual laziness, the question becomes how the country ended up split between two dogmatic political parties, especially when you consider that the parties have changed their ideological identities over time. We reached where we are today after many people switched parties from the Sixties through the Eighties; how do you account for that?

Anonymous said...

My remark regarding religion, in this case, wasn't actually aimed at any current partisan ideology. What I meant is that, over the course of thousands of years, people have been conditioned - through religion - to not question what they are told.

Now that the mass of humanity has been so conditioned, it is far easier for corrupt politicians or decadent autocracies to control their people through very simple propaganda. Now people simply accept politically just as they have been conditioned to accept religiously.

Samuel Wilson said...

Point taken, but my point was that we've seen a lot of people change their minds in recent times, e.g. from loyal Democrats to "Reagan Democrats," and that today people are able to choose to whom they'll listen. This can't be accounted for by saying they're doing what they're told because people are trying to tell them to do different things, and many people decided to stop listening to authorities they'd listened to in the past. What seems more consistent over time, and what you may be able to explain better, is the exclusion of certain ideas from mainstream debate. The church could say don't listen to heretics, and the mainstream media seems to have a similar power.