Running on the Family Name

Dynasticism is unapologetic now; it stalks this election.


President No. 6, John Quincy Adams, the son of No. 2.


The American promise has always been about new beginnings, men and women inventing and reinventing themselves. Dynasties, and the claims of aristocracy and descent, were for older lands. There were breaches to be sure, and the dynastic element reared its head in the early years of the republic: The sixth president, John Quincy Adams, was the son of the second, John Adams. Dynasticism is unapologetic now; it stalks this election. And a voter from South Carolina put the matter in stark terms, in a question E-mailed to Senator Clinton during a recent debate in California. "I am 38 years old, and I have never had an opportunity to vote in a presidential election in which a Bush or a Clinton wasn't on the ballot."

The appearance of the Bush and/or Clinton families on the national ballot the last seven elections—and the bid of Mrs. Clinton for an eighth appearance—are of no small consequence for our political practice. Clinton rides dynasticism but denies it. She conceded no ground to that voter from South Carolina; all candidates are judged on their own merits, she said. "We start from the same place. Nobody has an advantage, no matter who you are or where you came from. You have to raise the money. You have to make the case for yourself." Her case of standing alone must be reckoned as persuasive as the claim that George W. Bush, too, would have made it to the pinnacle of the political system without pedigree and the claims of political aristocracy.

Claims of pedigree. There is an odd feel to the alternation of two families at the center of political power. In the Arab world, it is taken for granted that leaders bequeath power to their sons. South Asian culture, less riven by male primacy, makes room for the political rise of daughters and widows. The celebrated cases of Indira Gandhi coming into the political inheritance of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, and of Benazir Bhutto stepping forth to avenge her father, who had been sent to the gallows, are of a piece with the traditions of India and Pakistan. This rambunctious, irreverent republic of ours insisted on its newness, mocked the claims of pedigree.

But dynasticism now appears in our midst as the country grows in population and diversity; it visits us in the most "modern" of ways—through branding. The old verities give way, and a nation wired in the extreme reaches for names and brands it knows. Call it covert dynasticism, but Americans now succumb to the spell, and to the magic, of pedigree. The Floridians who voted for Jeb Bush as their governor hardly knew him; he was a president's son, and this did the trick. There is, too, the hold of the Clintons on their followers, something of the unquestioning awe with which people follow leaders in the personalistic politics of the Third World. The political parties in America have hollowed out. This renders the political process open to both insurgents and pedigreed politicians. Barack Obama symbolizes the former, Hillary Clinton the latter. Obama's is the more thoroughly American journey; he is about the coming to the fore of the self-made man. For all the novelty of a female candidate making a serious run at the presidency, Clinton's bid reeks of an old sense of entitlement. On the campaign trail, there is about her the same unease with the crowd, the same lack of spontaneity that troubled the candidacy of Vice President Al Gore eight years ago—another pedigreed politician, it should be added.

This American dynasticism began unhappily. Left to his own devices, John Quincy Adams, an accomplished linguist, would have preferred the scholarly life. As the historian Sean Wilentz recounted it in his magisterial book, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, the younger Adams was tormented by corrosive self-doubt; he could never shake off the charge that he was a spoiled dauphin. He had bent to the will of a stubborn father who admonished his son to take up his calling in the political world: "You come into life with advantages which will disgrace you, if your success is mediocre. If you do not rise not only to the head of your Profession, but of your Country, it will be owing to your own Laziness, Slovenliness, and Obstinacy."