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  • Writer's pictureMegan M

Political Bloodlines and Generational Power in America

When the term “Royal Family” is mentioned, it’s probably alongside “Queen Elizabeth” or “Meghan Markle marries Prince Harry”. Royal Family is a term reserved for the likes of Great Britain and other nations with monarchal roots. While the United States doesn’t fall in that category, there are still dynastic families in American politics. The term “political dynasty” has been used to describe families where multiple members are, or have been, politicians. Famous names that probably come to mind are the Kennedys, the Bushes, and the Clintons. So how does family relation affect political ventures? Are generational family members better suited for political office or are the American people biased toward political dynasties?

The Prevalence of Political Dynasties

While the Kennedys, the Bushes, and the Clintons are only three families, the list of political dynasties goes on. Political dynasties with presidential members also include the Adams, the Roosevelts, the Harrisons, and the Tafts. Present-day dynasties with congressional members include popular names like the Romneys and the Cuomos.

In fact, research by Ernesto Bo, Pedro Bo, and Jason Snyder in The Review of Economic Studies calculated that between 1789 and 1996, an estimated 8.7% of all congressional officials had familial ties to previous congresspeople. However, not all years since 1789 have been equal. The figure below from the study shows the proportion of familial relations in Congress over time. Looking at the figure, we see that the percentage is declining over time. However, given that there are currently 320 million people in the United States, 8.7% seems quite high.

While it isn’t uncommon for family members to succeed one another in a family business, politics is a unique case being that it’s public office and positions cannot be handed down. Before any conspiracy theories go awry, political bloodlines aren’t something that necessarily seem sinister. They are, for the most part, transparent, and transparency is what might drive these political dynasties.

Voter Bias Toward Political Dynasties

Brand names are more than just the products they represent. They elicit emotions, trust, and a faithful following. Political names aren’t so different. Brian Feinstein analyzed congressional elections in which losing non-dynastic candidates were compared to winning dynastic candidates. Keeping candidate experience, campaign financials, and local partnerships equal, he found that dynastic candidates had an advantage over non-dynastic candidates. This would suggest that voters favor a “brand name” dynastic candidate over a first-generation candidate. Other research also supports this conclusion. Bo et al. found that holding legislative office for more than one term doubles the probability of a relative gaining a congressional position. The preference for brand name candidates could be due to familiarity, complacency, past candidate success, or simply party affiliation.

A note on party affiliation – political dynasties don’t seem to favor a particular party. Both republicans and democrats have family skin in the game.

Occupational Following in Politics Compared to Other Professions

To judge the prevalence of political dynasties, familial ties should be examined in other professions. Children may pursue the same occupation as their parents for a variety of reasons – inheriting the position, admiring parents enough to follow in their footsteps, being exposed to the profession at an early age, being encouraged by their parents, monetary constraints or lack thereof. All of those reasons could rationally apply to politics, aside from the first regarding inheritance.

One study on people’s career preferences found that the quality of parent-offspring relationships impacts children’s desired job characteristics. What better way to achieve similar job characteristics than by pursuing the same job?

The previously mentioned research by Bo et al., shed light on the prevalence of political dynasties relative to other professions. The numbers were overwhelming in favor of dynastic bias, showing that children with fathers in Congress were more likely to follow in the same occupation than were children of doctors, plumbers, and economists. The population percentages are shown in the table below, where the dynastic bias score is calculated by taking the percentage of individuals with a father in the same occupation divided by the percentage of all fathers in the occupation (the higher the number, the higher the dynastic bias). Legislators come in with a dynastic bias score of 255, whereas the next highest score was only 34 (7.4 times lower). Other occupations studied included public administrators, carpenters, electricians, and dentists, all of which resulted in dynastic scores of less than 15. While career choices are surely impacted by the continual shift in job markets, technology, medicine, and culture, the question is whether political career choices are impacted by the same.

Facebook Research also studied occupational relationships, using 5.6 million parent-child pairs from English-speaking areas. However, Facebook did not control for percentage of total population, so those findings can’t be directly compared to the research by Bo et al.

Societal Impacts of Political Dynasties

Politics is heavily subjective. It’s one of the only professions where an accreditation isn’t technically needed to engage in the profession. Unlike law, medicine, and engineering, where practitioners are required to pass a standard exam, politicians are not required to pass such an exam. There is no measurable standard to judge their qualifications by – aside from public perception, that is.

The result of political dynasties on society is that power is more concentrated in the hands of the few. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a determination made by individuals. After all, voters elect the generational politicians. While voting behavior might suggest the American population approves of the dynasties, there are groups that have openly spoken out against them. Roots Action, whose tagline was “No Bushes or Clintons in 2016”, highlighted how all seven consecutive elections from 1980 to 2004 have featured a Bush and/or a Clinton on a Republican or Democratic ticket.

One could argue political dynasties have positive impacts on society, assuming the dynastic candidate is more connected and well-versed in the political sphere from prior exposure through their family. The flip side to that argument is that dynastic candidates are further removed from the public due to their inherited political status and are therefore not best suited to represent the public. Regardless of the positive or negative impact perceived, the current situation is that voters are renewing and perpetuating family power by electing candidates with familial ties in politics.

While political dynasties may not be a good thing or a bad thing, they’re intriguing at the least. See if your state has a dynastic politician by searching the Biographical Directory of Congress.

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