The demise of dynastic politics is something to celebrate
Bloomberg Opinion September 7, 2022
The slow fade-out of dynastic politics in the U.S. is continuing in 2022. Just in the last few weeks, Nick Begich III was defeated for the Alaska House seat his grandfather once held; his uncle was also a senator from Alaska. And in New York, State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, whose grandfather served in the House, failed to win a House seat.
Yet the most high-profile development this year is the apparent political demise of the Bush family, with Texas Land Commissioner George P. attempting to move up to state attorney general and getting squashed by a better than 2-to-1 margin in the Republican primary. It’s possible that George P. or another 4th-generation Bush will have a robust political future, but given the family’s opposition to former President Donald Trump, that isn’t so likely (George P. Bush himself supported Trump and tried to get his endorsement, but few were surprised when that didn’t happen.)
This follows the 2020 defeat of Joe Kennedy, the grandson of former Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, in a Massachusetts Senate primary, potentially ending the storied family’s reign in politics. Two years ago, there was a Cuomo as governor of New York and a Cheney in the House leadership. Not anymore. Nancy Pelosi, whose father was mayor of Baltimore, is still speaker of the House and remains the most prominent legacy politician in the U.S., but she probably won’t hold that position for too much longer.
Using a loose definition of dynasty, I counted 14 dynastic politicians in the current Senate — down from 22 a decade ago. The decline is set to continue. Missouri’s Roy Blunt, whose father served in the state legislature (and whose son was governor of Missouri) is retiring. Among open-seat Senate candidates and challengers with a realistic chance of winning in November, only one — Nevada’s Adam Laxalt — is a legacy politician. And his opponent, incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, is herself a legacy politician whose father was a Clark County, Nev., elected official. That means we’ll wind up with at most 13 dynastic senators in the next session.
At the presidential level, 2020 was a rare election in which neither major party ticket had a dynastic name, and the Biden-Harris administration is the third consecutive one without a legacy president or vice president. That hadn’t happened for more than a century.
There are still dynastic politicians around. Even new ones: In Arkansas, Sarah Huckabee Sanders is virtually certain to become the governor, a seat her father held. She’ll be succeeding Asa Hutchinson, who himself followed his brother into Congress. There’s a Sununu who is governor of New Hampshire; members of the Lujan family currently serve as governor and senator from New Mexico. But overall, the number of dynastic elected officials is shrinking.
That’s a good thing. Yes, there have been plenty of excellent politicians in the U.S. who hailed from political families, most notably Franklin Delano Roosevelt. George H.W. Bush was a good president whose father was a senator; John F. Kennedy was a good president and a dynastic politician whose younger brother, Ted Kennedy, was one of the most productive senators ever. Pelosi has surely been the most successful House speaker in at least 50 years.
(In other words, she’s the most successful modern speaker. The modern position was created by reforms from the late 1950s through the early 1970s that transformed the House and the speaker’s job. The House changed from a chamber run by largely independent committees and their powerful committee chairs to a body that is run by the majority party — which made the speaker, as the leader of the majority party, a much more important figure than pre-reform speakers.)
There are many others, going all the way back to John Quincy Adams.
As legacy politicians leave the scene, their successors increasingly are people who historically had been shut out of the political system. That is something we should all celebrate. Of course, when political scions are replaced by celebrities or by the children of wealthy families, it’s harder to claim that we’re making progress. Still, there was always something slightly strange about a republic in which legacy politicians dominated. We didn’t need Lin-Manuel Miranda to tell us that politicians who succeed without any family connections seem like a better reflection of the nation’s ideals — and that opening up politics to people from all sorts of backgrounds tends to make the nation more true to its democratic principles, whether that means electing Abe Lincoln or Dwight D. Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama or Joe Biden.
There are a lot of things going wrong with American democracy right now. But the demise of dynastic politics is something to celebrate.
Jonathan Bernstein is a former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and writes A Plain Blog About Politics.