Hank Minor: Democratic dynasty

Sunday, February 4, 2018 - 1:50pm

The United States’ political system was founded on the cultural myth that anyone with the skills and ability can rise to lead their community — almost half of the elected representatives to the first U.S. Congress, though, served alongside a blood relative. Since the U.S. became an independent republic in 1789, almost 400 parent-child pairs and more than 190 pairs of siblings have served in Congress. Overall, more than 700 families have had two or more members elected to Congress.

Public office in America seems to work like any other family career — it’s inherited and taught to the next generation, passed down like a trade. If families in the Midwest teach farming and families in the Great Lakes region teach fishing and forestry, then families in Washington, D.C. and various state capitols teach governance, politics and how to hold power. 

Part of this comes from the way our selection process works — name recognition is highly desirable in American election campaigns. Voters are often more comfortable with what and whom they know. This has been particularly true in the past century. George W. Bush's father was president and his great-grandfather was a U.S. senator. Both Vice President Al Gore and his father were senators from Tennessee.

This obsessive preference for whom we recognize exists outside of the executive realm, too. Last year, Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, gave up his seat to become governor. He carefully considered 24 Alaskan officials as potential replacements and then appointed his daughter, Lisa Murkowski.

Rep. Charles Gonzalez, D-Texas, now occupies the seat once held by his father. So do Reps. Jim Duncan and Harold Ford from Tennessee. The father of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. — the minority leader in the House of Representative — was a congressman, as well as the fathers of current Sens. Jon Kyl, Chris Dodd and Bob Bennett. It’s tempting to see dynastic politics as something that died out a while ago — maybe in the 1950s, maybe earlier — but it appears to be as strong as it has ever been.

This tendency was visible again in the Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address — they picked Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., member of the Kennedy dynasty, to deliver the speech. Personally, I found parts of the speech patronizing, his delivery unimpressive and its message to be overall quite tepid.

I’ve found it frustrating, then, to see news outlets marveling over this fresh, eloquent, obscure Democrat. He’s a Kennedy! What about that is groundbreaking? What about an heir to America’s most famous political family speaks to the millions of disadvantaged and marginalized Americans who make up the core of the Democratic party?

This isn’t to say that elites and insiders are somehow less capable, or should be disqualified — look at Franklin Roosevelt — but it’s a trend we have to be wary of in an era where American politics is decidedly anti-establishment and anti-elite. The classic model of political legacy and personal political brands — in my estimation — will become a liability. Regular people aren’t impressed or reassured by famous names; they feel alienated by them.

We’re familiar with the legacy system of election here in Ann Arbor, even — Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., is part of a family that’s held Michigan’s 12th District since 1933. To be clear, I think she’s entirely capable and represents the interests of this district well, but her holding office is still a striking demonstration of how political brands work to maintain themselves.

Maybe we’re always going to be susceptible to political brands: The reliable neoliberalism of the Clintons and Obamas; the old money progressivism of the Kennedys; the (supposedly) charming simplicity of the Bush family. In a time when the Internet has made media even more democratized and wide-reaching than it was in the TV and radio era, though, we might want to shift in a different direction.

There are thousands of people who — like Barack Obama, originally — do great work on the local scale and who are entirely capable of representing their communities. The old institutions and business of Washington, D.C. will survive whomever actually holds the offices (we’re seeing this with Trump), so perhaps it’s time we reconsider the idea of effective dynasty in American politics. Washington doesn’t actually need the political class to perform its ideal function — representing American voters.

Hank Minor can be reached at hminor@umich.edu.