During the 1800s, American folklore fostered the idea that anyone could become president of the United States. Indeed, some people from very ordinary backgrounds have: Andrew Johnson was a tailor. Harry Truman failed as a haberdasher and entered politics simply to have a job. And Abraham Lincoln was a country lawyer and failed shopkeeper.
Yet family dynasties in politics have existed too, such as two John Adams, three Adlai Stevensons, and, of course, the Kennedys. The possible decline in the political fortunes of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie opens the way for the continuance of yet another. If Christie falters in the polls, which at this point is likely, the main beneficiary may be former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — grandson of U.S. Sen. Prescott Bush, son of President George H.W. Bush, and brother of President George W. Bush.
If Bush becomes the nominee, and particularly if he were actually elected president, it would mark the growing importance of dynastic politics. No family has ever had three presidential nominees (nor three presidents). Three Kennedys ran for president, but only one became a major party nominee and then president. (Although Bobby might have been before he was assassinated on the night of the California primary.)
Moreover, if the Democratic nominee remains the current front-runner, voters will be able to choose between the latest iterations of two current political dynasties — one named Bush and the other named Clinton. If Hillary Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee in 2016, a Clinton will have been on the presidential ballot three times in the last 24 years. But if Jeb Bush becomes the Republican nominee, a Bush will have been either the presidential or vice-presidential nominee six times since 1980! That would be unprecedented for a political dynasty.
Political dynasties are not limited to the Bushes and the Clintons, although most others have flourished at the state or local level, rather than at the presidential level. For example, U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas is the son of former U.S. Sen. and Arkansas Gov. David Pryor. Both U.S. senators from Alaska are the children of prominent Alaska politicians: Lisa Murkowski’s father was former Alaska Gov. and U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, and Mark Begich’s father was U.S. Rep. Nick Begich. Both the current U.S. senator from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu, and the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, are children of Moon Landrieu, former mayor of New Orleans and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. In fact, eight current U.S. senators and three current governors are the children of former governors, senators, or representatives.
Why has this occurred? One reason is the fact that we lack an actual American aristocracy, yet we are fascinated by them. Consider the viewership success of BBC’s Downton Abbey on PBS. In a sense we have invented our own aristocracy. American aristocrats do not dominate government and politics, as would be true in some countries, but they carry an outsized influence for a society that otherwise prides itself on lack of social classes. And they seem to have become more prevalent in recent years.
Perhaps a more powerful reason is the importance of name recognition in our candidate-centered campaigns and elections. Where political parties are relatively weak and elections revolve around individuals, a famous name can provide relatively uninformed voters with important information about a candidate. Obviously, the name ID can cut both ways. An unpopular representative of the family can discourage support for their relatives seeking office. That could be Jeb Bush’s problem, although time tends to heal such wounds.
Moreover, these dynasties carry their own political organizations of loyalists. The Bushes, for example, have created a vast network of supporters who mobilize to support the next Bush candidate. And don’t forget all the FOBs (Friends of Bill) who will be there to help Hillary.
Nevertheless, it is ironic that the nation most closely associated with democracy and equality, and one historically hostile to aristocracies (even to the point of the U.S. Constitution banning titles), would have adopted dynasty politics and even embraced it into the 21st century.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.