An American Trend: Political Dynasties From Bush to Kennedy

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Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

With the Clinton and Bush names both being discussed for a second and third  round at the presidency, more and more people are eying the American executive, raising an eyebrow, and asking: What role do political dynasties play in the U.S., and are they a bad thing? How big a deal are they really? Some argue that stretching back to the birth of our nation, dynasties have been abhorred, and rightly so; the transference of political power via relation and nepotism entirely bucks the idea of equal opportunity and the everyman president. As Barbara Bush said in an interview with C-SPAN, “If we can’t find more than two or three families to run for office, that’s silly, because there are great governors and great eligible people to run.”

That said, family dynasties have stretched back nearly to the beginning of government — the Clinton and Bushes may be the most recent family powers, but they are hardly the first — and technically, the Clintons are a couple, not a dynasty. Why, though? Why do we see so many familiar family names crop up in politics? Some could argue that running for a political position takes two things on top of drive and education, and that’s money and connections. Having family that has already gone before you makes for an easier pathway to political success.

A study published in The Review of Economic Studies back in 2009, written by Ernesto Dal Bo, Pedro Dal Bó, and Jason Snyder, posits a similar theory. Specifically when it comes to Congress, the study finds that “political power is self-perpetuating,” meaning that the more power one individual person holds, the greater the likelihood that his or her power will be passed on to family. “Political power in democracies becomes inheritable de facto for reasons other than permanent differences in family characteristics,” reads the study, also noting that the preference of such individuals is not a result of their skills, but rather “contacts or name recognition may play a role.”

While we’re discussing the logic behind such dynasties, let’s take a look back in history and consider three examples of American families in politics.

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