When asked last year about the prospect of having yet another son run for the White House, former first lady Barbara Bush said she thought it was a bad idea. “There are a lot of great families,” she said. “It’s not just four families, or whatever. There are other people out there that are very qualified. We’ve had enough Bushes.” If Jeb Bush, Barbara’s second son, does run, he might well be up against former first lady Hillary Clinton, making Barack Obama’s tenure an eight-year interlude in an otherwise unbroken 36-year stretch in which either a Bush or a Clinton was on the presidential ticket.
“I think this is a great American country,” Barbara said in a more recent interview. “And if we can’t find more than two or three families to run for high office, that’s silly.”
In that case, these midterm elections are not just silly but quite ridiculous. The US seems to be drawing its political leadership from an increasingly shallow puddle of genes. For the sake of brevity this can be illustrated solely by the Senate races that are considered “in play” this year. The race in Georgia is between Michelle Nunn, whose father used to be a Georgia senator, and David Purdue, whose cousin Sonny Purdue was once Georgia’s governor; Alaska Democratic senator Mark Begich’s father, Nick, was the state’s congressman; Arkansas Democratic senator Mark Pryor’s father David was himself once senator.
It goes on: Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu is the daughter of former New Orleans mayor Moon, and sister of current New Orleans mayor Mitch; Kentucky Democratic senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes is the daughter of Jerry Lundergan, former chairman of the Kentucky Democratic party; Colorado Democratic senator Mark Udall is the son of late Arizona congressman Morris, and cousin of current New Mexico senator Tom, who is himself the son of late interior secretary Stewart; Kansas Republican senator Pat Roberts is the son of Charles, who was briefly the chairman of the Republican national committee; North Carolina Democratic senator Kay Hagan is the niece of former Florida senator Lawton Chiles.
Such are the dynasties; such is the democracy. This, remember, is just from the Senate races in play. It says nothing of the Senate races that are not closely contested (in West Virginia, Republican Shelley Moore Capito, daughter of former governor Arch Moore, is likely to fill the seat vacated by retiring Democrat Jay Rockefeller, whose uncle Nelson was vice-president and New York governor) and the gubernatorial races (Georgia Democrat Jason Carter, grandson of former president Jimmy; New York Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo, son of governor Mario; California Democratic governor Jerry Brown, son of former governor Pat).
One might imagine that the candidates in question might find these connections a liability – struggling to keep a silver spoon in their mouths as they ride parental coattails. In some places, Republicans have sought to exploit the vulnerabilities in these family connections. In Colorado, the National Republican Senatorial Committee released a video called “The Mark Udall Dynasty” that spoofs the opening credits of the hit 1980s TV show Dynasty as the narrator says: “Wealthy, comfortable and established. Out of touch but eager to stay in power. We now present the saga of the Mark Udall dynasty.”
But for the most part these candidates are happy to showcase their dynastic pedigree. In many cases they campaign on the stump with their fathers, appear in ads with them, and have them solicit donations to their campaigns. Jerry Lundergan is, reportedly, running his daughter’s campaign. One of Mary Landrieu’s earlier ads, called “Father Daughter Part 1”, starts with her and her father, engaging in playful banter in the family living room. “When you have nine children, one of them’s bound to be hardheaded,” says Moon. “Dad, you’re one to talk,” quips Mary, before Moon continues about how his daughter will put her “hardheaded” ways to the service of Louisiana voters. “I know how BP felt when Mary fought to get billions for Louisiana,” and how she “took on the president” to try and get the Keystone XL Pipeline approved, he says.
Michelle Nunn, who like her father played basketball in high school, ran an ad this spring, in which she said she “tries to follow in his footsteps” on the court but not politics. Then, as though to immediately undercut the claim, her dad comes on screen with a basketball and says, “I think you’ve got a pretty good shot.” She’s referred to him as “a great role model”.
One of Begich’s first ads is called “Alaska’s Son”. It features scenes of his late father, who is presumed to have died in a plane crash in 1972, getting into a small plane and visiting his constituents, followed by news footage about his disappearance. “Begich goes to the people, wherever they are,” his wife, who is narrating. “Mark was 10 when he lost his father,” she adds. “We’ve lost too many Alaskans this way. But Mark is clearly his father’s son … I love my husband. But I’m prouder still of him as a father and what he learned from his own.”
If these connections are useful they are clearly not decisive. Of the seven races in question the candidates with family connections are losing in five (Alaska, Colorado, Arkansas, Louisiana and Kentucky) and winning in just one (North Carolina). In Georgia both have family ties and Nunn is winning. “The good news for Republicans,” argues the rightwing National Review, “is that the political legacies were just about the only thing keeping Democrats competitive in many states that are purple but trending red”.
That’s why in most cases the parental ties are understood to be beneficial to the candidate. One of the things a political newcomer has to establish in an American state, particularly a big one, is name recognition. Moreover, in a system where candidates are marketed like products, Nunn is a good brand. Her father retired from the Senate in 1997 but a recent poll showed 54% of Georgians still have a favourable opinion of him – that’s 20 points higher than the sitting senator Saxby Chambliss.
It is particularly noteworthy that overrepresented in this list of political scions are southern Democrats, most of whom are also women. Political affiliation in the former Confederacy has undergone a fundamental overhaul in the last 50 years, during which time the Democratic party went from being the part of segregation to the party with the overwhelming support of African Americans, and Republicans went from the party of Lincoln to an almost all-white party.
“I think having candidates come from these old political families has definitely helped them weather the political storm in the south,” says Chris Kromm, director of the Institute for Southern Studies. “These are not progressive standard-bearers by any means; they’re centrist candidates. But on top of name recognition and connections, I think growing up in these families also gives them a kind of Clintonian sensibility to understand what the right thing is to say at any given moment, without really committing to anything.”
At Daddy D’z BBQ Joynt in Atlanta, where the sauce sticks to your fingers and the ribs stick to your insides, patrons said it was a factor. “I guess it means you know what you’re getting,” said Shayla Harrison. “I wouldn’t vote for someone just because of what their daddy did. But if their daddy did a good job that might make take a second look.”
Beau Jackson Jr agreed. “It’s about values,” he said. “If their parents did good things and raised them then chances are their kids will have the same values. You can’t be sure but you can’t rule it out. I think it’s relevant.”
Either way, as Barbara Bush intimated, it does speak to a trend in American politics. Were it one or two cases one could suggest coincidence. It is not unheard of for children to go into the profession of their parents. They know what’s involved; they may well have even been involved; they have literally sat at the feet of the master. Mary Landrieu was out canvassing with her father from the age of five. And though none are walking in maternal footsteps, to the extent that these are political families, one might say they imbibed it with their mother’s milk. But there are only so many isolated incidences one can refer to before it is necessary to start understanding things in terms of a pattern.
And that pattern that runs counter to the dominant American mythology of meritocracy, class fluidity and personal reinvention embedded in the sweet spot of the American dream: the notion that anyone can make it if they try hard and fly right, regardless of their upbringing. This view still holds some currency. A recent Pew poll of 10 advanced economies that asked what people is thought the key to getting ahead in life, Americans were by far the most likely to cite hard work and the second most likely to say having a good education.
The electoral reality, however, suggests a narrow plutocracy in which the privilege of birth outranks ideology, charisma or achievement. And if the trend contradicts the nation’s founding credo it nonetheless confirms its current trajectory in which stagnant wages, increasing college tuition fees and growing inequality is leading many Americans to doubt the nation’s meritocratic credentials.
“In spite of the enduring belief that Americans enjoy greater social mobility than their European counterparts,” argues Joseph Stiglitz in The Price of Inequality, “America is no longer the land of opportunity.” Americans clearly sense this. The same Pew poll illustrates how people’s lived experience has begun to erode the myth, with Americans being the most likely to say that “belonging to a wealthy family” and “knowing the right people” were the most important attributes to getting ahead in life. In another poll 69% of Americans said they agreed with Barbara Bush’s comments.
When the cost of running an election keeps going up, having well connected parents who have wealthy funders and lobbyists on their speed dial becomes crucial. ‘Twas ever thus.
While running for Congress in West Texas in 1978, a young George W Bush attended a training school for Republican candidates. In a class on fundraising he was struck by inspiration. “I’ve got the greatest idea of how to raise money for the campaign,” he told David Dreier, now a California congressman. “Have your mother send a letter to your family’s Christmas card list! I just did, and I got $350,000.”
Only now more so than ever.