Wednesday, September 13, 2006
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How much meritocracy is there in American politics?
In my last bloggingheads.tv appearance, Mickey Kaus and I debated whether Paris Hilton's rise to fame was proof that there was a meritocracy within different American subcultures (Mickey and Bob Wright follow up on that question here).
This question came back to mind as I was perusing Chris Cillizza's washingtonpost.com blog on the latest primary results:
Famous Last Names: Last night's results in Rhode Island proved that the Chafee name is still a powerful brand in the state's politics. But Lincoln Chafee wasn't the only candidate who benefitted from his last name last night. Attorney John Sarbanes (D), the son of retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), won the primary in the open 3rd District House seat in Maryland. The seat, which is being vacated by Senate nominee Ben Cardin, has a strong Democratic lean and Sarbanes should have little trouble winning it this November when a number of other political legacies are on the line. There are plenty of other famous last names on the ballot this fall. In Delaware, Beau Biden (D) -- son of Sen. Joe Biden (D) -- is seeking the state Attorney General's office. State Sen. Tom Kean Jr., son of the former governor, officially claimed the GOP nomination to challenge Sen. Bob Menendez (D) in November. Across the Hudson in New York, another Cuomo looks likely to hold a statewide office.Now, this penomenon has existed in one form or another since the dawn of the republic (see Adams, John Quincy). And the children of politicians have often acquitted themselves well as statesmen (again, see Adams, John Quincy -- as Secretary of State, not President).
Still, a question to my colleagues in American politics -- to what extent has politics become a hereditary sport?posted by Dan on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM
When has it not been hereditary? I cite Evan Bayh son of Birch, in the Senate, Gary King is running for Atty General in New Mexico,son of Bruce King many times elected Governor. Or here in the Southwest, a whole slew of Udalls two in the U.S. House and I don't know how many other offices. Most have done a reasonable job.posted by: Stan on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
Is there a sort of "regression to the mean" thing happening with hereditary politics?
In other words, will Beau Biden ever reach the heights of Joe Biden's career? My initial answer is no, it does not appear so.posted by: Klug on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
It's a lot easier to get elected if everyone knows your name. It's a lot easier for everyone to know your name if they know your father, or your brother, or your husband.
It's not really any more complicated than that, though it is likely that larger electorates with less influential local parties and shorter attention spans gravitate more toward relations of current public figures than they may have in the past.
Pity that I didn't see this coming. My mother's maiden name is Kennedy; who knows how many gullible people I could have gotten to vote for me, had I had the foresight to use that fact creatively?posted by: Zathras on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
For some one coming from India, 'politics in family' is non issue and America does not have any excess in this matter. Of course, India is NOT the standard to be followed here.
But it is worth to understand that when voters decide some one is too much to accept as a ruler; they defeat that candidate regardless of family name. Indira Gandhi's family connection did not save her from the famous defeat in 1977 nor her son Rajiv could avoid that fate in 1989. Keep in mind that Indian voter is much less educated and poor. But as history shows family name does not save you from your hubris.
This issue is not something worth to discuss or worry about. Contemporary political discourse in many countries is mature enough in not giving 'name recognition' advantage beyond certain limit.
The brand name ID is what's important, not the kinship.
If a moderate Republican Austrian born businessman who made his millions in paper goods and had never stood for election before ran for Governor in the California recall he probably would have finished well back in the pack.
When that Austrian born businessman is a world famous actor, he not only wins, but will likely earn a second term.
So if Paris Hilton ran in the right district for the right office, I wouldn't count her out.
Plenty of folks with family ties in politics lose as well. Name ID helps, but gerrymandering and internal dynamics within each state matter more.posted by: XWL on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
In my last bliggingheads.tv appearance, Mickey Kaus and I debated whether Paris Hilton's rise to fame was proof that there was a meritocracy...
She became famous (outside of NYC) because she had sex in front of a camera for reasons other than a paycheck.
What standards would you use to measure her merits? Aside from being a member of the lucky sperm club, what has she done that is noteworthy?posted by: rosignol on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
Here is an alternative theory:
I think it is also important to remember that these families also have the advantage of already being 'sanitized' or exposed to public scrutiny. If you are a Bush (Gregg, Biden, Udall, etc), your family history is already public record, so there is little personal risk in running. After all, no one needs to uncover Jenna Bush's underage drinking, it is already old news.
I think the politics of personal destruction is a huge barrier to entry for new faces on the political scene. Capable leaders do not want their lives or the lives of their relatives to become fodder for the media, so they decide not to run. This barrier to entry, in turn, favors candidates who have already overcome it.posted by: SteveinVT on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
Just wait until the great election of 2028, when Chelsea Clinton takes on Jenna Bush.posted by: No to Ned on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
Can't we blame limits on campaign fund raising? The rise of wealthy candidates has gone hand in hand with the rise in "hereditary" candidates. Name recognition is a commodity that can be inherited or bought, but bought at a great price. Campaign finance reform has limited the amount of money an ordinary candidate may raise and spend to build name recognition.
A Kennedy running against a billionaire may be evenly matched because the billionaire may purchase the name recognition of a Kennedy. A middle class candidate cannot even this playing field. Let that middle class candidate raise unlimited campaign funds and he may be able to compete.
posted by: SWBarns on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
I suspect it's like other professions: movie-making has many examples, even academia (the Schlesingers, the Galbraiths, et.al.). I'd attribute much of it to "mother's milk"--if you grow up within the milieu, you're farther up the learning curve than coming in from outside.posted by: Bill Harshaw on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
Ohio has Governor Bob Taft, the worst gov in the history of the state, who has succeeded in killing the Taft legacy dead, dead, dead.posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
The regression to the mean problem (AKA "Three generations of Kennedys makes for imbeciles," or something like that) is real but there are countervailing considerations.
Sometimes-- as with Greggs, as with Bushes prior to the current one, Welds, Cabots, Lodges, Rockefellers, Chafees, etc.-- the WASPish sense of being the custodians of an intergenerational legacy has meant that one got very good public service out of people who might otherwise have been investment bankers. The old New England aristocracy meant that there were disciplining and accountability mechanisms in place-- a screw-up might or might not lose an election, but would suffer intra-family disdain in a culture where that was a terrible consequence. It had some of the better traits of a hereditary aristocracy (people raised to expect they had to know politics and government, and had to uphold the family name) without the downside of being completely stuck with the occasional imbecile (the voters of Rhode Island *could* get rid of PK if they chose).
And occasionally one generation can outshine the previous one. The desire to learn from HW's mistakes has been, overall, a bad one for W-- he learned all the wrong lessons in his desire to be a completely different kind of president. But, for example, NH Senator John Sununu is a much, much better politician-official than his arrogant overbearing father ever was. Senior had the "smartest kid in the room" pathology, and was unable to ever learn that anyone else might know anything at all. Junior may be shy twenty of Senior's IQ points-- but really learned the lessons of his father's failings, and has been a much better Rep and then Senator than I think anybody expected.posted by: Jacob T. Levy on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
...Rockefellers, Chafees, etc.-- the WASPish sense of being the custodians of an intergenerational legacy has meant that one got very good public service
I lived through Rocky as governor (speaking of Nelson here, not the governor of Arkansas) and other than extravagant spending, ridiculous claims that he had turned the Long Island Railroad into the nation's best in 90 days, and nonstop self-promotion for his endless runs at the presidential nomination, just what was this "very good public service" that he brought to New York? Seems to me that Rocky was dedicated to the idea of the public servicing him.posted by: Gene on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
Theodore Roosevelt and FDR were cousins, for another example.
Do you recall your Robert Dahl from Politics 101? My understading of his evidence and argument is that there have always been oligarchies in the US, and the earliest ones, at least in New England, were well-connected patrician families. Those oligarchies never really went away, there just arose new groups (new rich industrialists, organizers of ethnic groups, technocrats of the New Deal, etc.) giving us a plurality of multiple oligarchies, instead of one culturally unified one. So in a sense we've always had the patricians, in another sense things are more egalitarian because there are multiple competing power centers, but in a third sense the great masses of the public have always been locked outside the system.
As for meritocracy, depends on what you mean. If you consider people drawn from the technocrats and from the business community as having merit, then things are better than they were at the founding of the Republic. Alternatively, if you believe patricians are also likely to have merit in terms of education, good values, good connections, maybe good "breeding" etc. then things have always been good. OTOH if you think of merit as in finding the most talented person in the country, regardless of their social status, then things may be better, but still aren't perfect. (Unless you believe the technocracy and business communities have successfully assimilated all people with merit in the country.)
So in sum, it's always been a problem, and things are probally better today then they used to be, but things are also probally far from perfect still.posted by: wml on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
Major Owens retired as a congressman from central Brooklyn this year, and his son Chris ran in the Dem primary for his seat. Ran and lost. But the larger point is a truism in the same sense that any occupation or business sometimes becomes hereditary, when the kids seek to take over or move into the executive suite previously occupied by a parent. Nothing new here, and no reason to think it's any more prevalent than it has always been. Except, perhaps, in Hollywood.posted by: RHD on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
Let's not forget those eminent presidents, William Henry and Benjamin Harrison.
Also, andmore seriously, let's not overlook JQ Adams as a Congressman, after he lost the presidency.posted by: Donald A. Coffin on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
Ernesto Dal Bo at Berkeley has studied family dynasties in the U.S. Congress. They are very common, but are becoming less so. Check out the paper:
To be born to the right parents is very difficult, very few succeed, so it must be due to his own merits that George W Bush is son of a President. He did it all by himself. he owns nothing to anybody.posted by: jaimito on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
Let's not forget a couple other senators:
Albert Gore, Jr.
Striking to me that one of the more obvious dead dad's name beneficiaries is not mentioned--Bob Casey Jr--who is otherwise a non-entity in PA politics--and who is campaigning against Rick Santorum.posted by: tmike on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
Part of its simple name recognition, which at the lower level "starter" races is pretty much all voters look at. That gives political children a healthy leg up in that its easier for them to start small and build the necessary base to run for a larger office than someone with no name.posted by: adr on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
Much of it is about access and contacts - the children of politicians have both.posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
It happens a lot if baseball. Two of the greatest sluggers of their generation were sons of major leaguers, Bonds and Griffey, both vastly superior to their fathers. Even Moises Alou was a much better hitter than his father or his uncles.posted by: David Pinto on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
If any next-generation Bush runs it'll be George P, not Jenna or Barbara. Blood association with an unpopular president can still give you a leg up: Jimmy Carter's son won the nomination for a Senate seat in Nevada.
Chelsea is probably a shoo-in for the nomination if she wants it and starts taking the right steps.posted by: nodakdude on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
Well, if you're wondering about the hereditary nature of politics, just take a quick peek at Illinois. We currently have the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives doing his level best to shepherd his daughter on her way to the governor's seat, according to some pundits; John Stroger, the former President of the Cook County Board has managed to place his son Todd on the November ballot for his old job; there's another State Senator (whose name escapes me at the moment) who decided to retire following his victory in the primary election and decided, after an exhaustive search, I'm sure, that his son in Tennessee was the best man for the job.
If you want brand recognition, there's King Richie I and II, mayors of Chicago.
I dunno about nationwide, but politicians in Illinois are sure starting to act like their positions are family heirlooms. Makes you wonder why we have elections here anymore.posted by: Greg on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
I might have read your post wrong, but I think you are really misusing the term Meritocracy here:
1. an elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth.
posted by: Babar on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
I lived through Rocky as governor (speaking of Nelson here, not the governor of Arkansas) and other than extravagant spending, ridiculous claims that he had turned the Long Island Railroad into the nation's best in 90 days, and nonstop self-promotion for his endless runs at the presidential nomination, just what was this "very good public service" that he brought to New York?
Don't forget the worst drug laws in the nation.
He lost to Yvette Clarke, daughter of a long-time City Councilwoman, Una Clarke. (The daughter currently sits in her mother's former seat on the City Council.) And now you know... the rest of the story.
Incidentally, Tom Kean Jr. is a FOURTH generation politician. His great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were all politicians. As well as two great-grand-uncles.posted by: David Nieporent on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
She became famous (outside of NYC) because she had sex in front of a camera for reasons other than a paycheck.
Not five minutes after I read this, I came across a post titled Why Paris Hilton is Famous, so I had to come back here and link you to it.posted by: Noumenon on 09.13.06 at 08:06 PM [permalink]
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