Americans love to mock the British for choosing — in the 21st century — to live under a monarchy and honor the hereditary succession of a royal family. I enthusiastically participate in that derision. Few concepts are as antithetical to reason and democratic liberty as anointing families that are vested with an entitlement to wield power through dynasty and lineage.
The U.S. officially has no formal royal families, but clearly loves dynastic political power. As the U.S. becomes increasingly oligarchical — all of its institutions, including its political ones, dominated by a tiny number of extremely rich families — it is natural that all forms of hereditary power will flourish. There are still examples of people from backgrounds devoid of family wealth or influence attaining political power — Barack Obama certainly qualifies — but it’s virtually impossible for them to succeed without the overwhelming support of those oligarchical circles.
Dynastic power is not a new phenomenon in the U.S., but this past week featured a particularly vivid illustration of how potent it is. The two U.S. presidents prior to President Obama — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — made appearances on the campaign trail to urge Americans to elect their favorite candidate, which, in both cases, happens to be a close family member.
“There’s no doubt in my mind Jeb Bush has the experience and the character to be a great president,” said George W. Bush, himself the son of a former U.S. president, in South Carolina about his brother. At a rally in Tennessee, Bill Clinton pronounced his wife “the best change-maker I’ve ever known,” and in a separate speech in Florida angrily denounced Democrats who support his wife’s opponent by depicting them as the equivalent of the GOP’s Tea Party.
Until Jeb Bush proved to be a remarkably inept candidate, it was long expected that the 2016 election would match the son of one former president and brother of another, against the wife of another former president. Further underscoring the dynastic dynamic was that their funding would come from the same sources, numerous powerful factions would have difficulty choosing which candidate would serve their agenda most faithfully, and, as is often true of aristocracies, the two extremely rich families have become very close friends.
As one would expect, the children of those two families have also enjoyed substantial unearned benefits by virtue of their lineage. Despite no background or experience in journalism, both Jenna Bush and Chelsea Clinton were hired by major American networks as on-air correspondents, joining a slew of others whose sole qualification was being born to powerful parents.
Dynastic political power is, of course, hardly unique to the U.S. Many of the closest American allies and client states are themselves full-scale monarchies. Numerous countries, from Cuba and Pakistan to Argentina and Canada, have recently had siblings, spouses, and children of prior leaders assume power. From the Adams to the Kennedys, the U.S. itself has often had families for whom political power was a family business.
Still, the spectacle of having two former U.S. presidents simultaneously stump for the election of their close family members as the next U.S. president is a uniquely illuminating symbol of what the U.S. has become. It is still highly likely that of the last five U.S. presidents, four of them will come from the same two extremely rich families. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for any American to comfortably mock the British, who at least have the dignity to consign dynastic power to the largely symbolic realm.