Kennedy. Roosevelt. Bush. Clinton. Gandhi. Bhutto. Gore. Aquino. Miliband. Le Pen. What do these familiar names have in common? They are all, in one way or another, names of political dynasties — families from whom more than one member has come to prominence in political life. Justin Trudeau, son of former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, became the most recent addition to the list as he announced his intention to run for Liberal party leader this week.
The Clintons and the Milibands skew the trend — marital and fraternal bonds rather than a multi-generational lineage. But Trudeau’s recent rise to prominence in Canada reminds us that dynasty — the “trusted brand” of the alpha family name — still plays a significant role in many democracies. What does this tell us about how modern democracies are operating? For surely “dynastical democracy” is in some sense a contradiction in terms?
Take France and the US: Countries founded, in part, on a conception of civic nationalism in which “all men are created equal”, not the hereditary power of monarchies. When Hillary Clinton announced her bid for presidency in 2007, it was noted that, at that point, “40 per cent of Americans have never lived without a Bush or Clinton in the White House” — although America’s hereditary low-point of the new century was surely in 2000, when Al Gore, son of Senator Albert Gore, ran against George Bush, son of, well, George Bush. Even Barack Obama’s election — a democratic endorsement of a figure who did not emerge from a dynastical elite — was met with inevitable references to Kennedy’s “Camelot” and the iconography of golden-age patrician politics, while a Vogue interview with Chelsea Clinton this summer gushed that she was “waiting in the wings” before a (natural? entitled?) turn to politics. When the last French presidential elections were in the party-primary stages in 2011, the Socialist party’s Martine Aubry, daughter of Jacques Delors, was a possible presidential candidate alongside Marine Le Pen, inheritor of her father’s xenophobic Front National.
Dynasties once governed Europe, of course, in the monarchies that cling on in constitutional arrangements or, in the case of coalition Britain, are utilised through their weddings and jubilees to reinforce the regressive notion that all’s well and everyone “in their right place”. Elites are self-perpetuating; the different spheres of power interplaying with one another, meaning the economic elite can more easily dabble in politics — think of the Mitford sisters trying ideologies on like dresses. Dynasties that emerge in republics are perhaps more compelling: From Bonaparte to Gandhi, a name can become so bound up with the nation’s birth that it comes to embody it in the eyes of many. There is also an obvious gendered dimension: Many modern female leaders have been daughters of presidents and prime ministers, as though the importance of bloodline negated the usual disadvantage of female-ness, little help as that is to most women. Dynasties in modern dictatorships are common enough — hard to think of an autocrat without thinking of his playboy son, PhD-plagiarising or Ferrari-crashing, who gets appointed something like minister of finance, no doubt on the basis of his qualifications. State corruption in the form of clientelism and kleptocracy manifests when the nation’s wealth becomes diverted to the ruling family and those whom nepotism grants access to this walled world.
But what’s striking if you look at the current political landscape is the prevalence of dynasties in self-proclaimed liberal democracies, where the descendants of statesmen are voted into power. In countries like the US, it may be facets of democracy itself that cultivate dynasties — the mushrooming cost of electoral campaigning leaves politics to those who have already accumulated wealth as well as connections. It can be bound with the historical dominance of a party and a family’s role within that party, such as the Congress party in India. Perhaps, as with the truism that extreme ideologies become more electorally palatable during economic crises, voters do indeed reach for “trusted brand names” when crises make them frightened by the world’s uncertainties.
The negative effects of “democratic dynasties” are obvious: A fossilisation of the elite decays democracy as well as social and economic mobility, fostering “rent-seeking” behaviour in deference to the powerful families. But political discourse can deteriorate as names become more important than issues. You don’t need to say the name “George Bush” to know that a dynastical tendency might mean you don’t get the most competent candidate, and — while having a political family heritage doesn’t mean you can’t be a competent politician — those who haven’t struggled to make a name for themselves are likely to be made of different stuff to the pioneer who carved out their own place in the world.
Perhaps it is worthwhile asking ourselves: As voters, why do so many of us keep going for the “trusted brand” of dynasties? And if we are living in an era of the “democratic dynasty”, how did we come to choose our own aristocrats?
Heather McRobie has studied and worked on human rights and women’s rights issues in Jordan, Germany and Bosnia.