It’s official: Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida, brother to former President George W. Bush and son to former President George H.W. Bush, is running for President, once again confirming the dynastic trend in American politics. Though there is sure to be a lot of handwringing and teeth-gnashing in the media about this in the coming days, it’s really nothing new. With only three exceptions, there has been a Bush or a Nixon on every Republican presidential ticket in every year from 1952 through 2004. The last time the Republicans won a presidential election without a representative of one of these families on the ticket was back in 1928: Plus ça change.
The Bushes, however, represent a different type of political dynasty, more Duck Dynasty in some ways than Hapsburg. While the Kennedys started out as Irish immigrants and gradually ascended the social ladder (by doing things like marrying the blue-blooded Jacqueline Bouvier), the Bushes have become steadily less patrician and Waspy as newer generations have succeeded older ones: Prescott Bush was a Connecticut patrician, GHW moved to Texas and ate pork rinds, and GW based himself in Midland, kept his southern accent through Andover and Yale, and ran as a gun loving, Bible reading, teetotaling Christian. Finally, Jeb lives in Florida, married a Hispanic woman, and has converted to Catholicism. The Bushes became more populist in affect over time; the Kennedys have climbed into the upper reaches of the American liberal establishment.
The Clintons, for what it’s worth, appear to be following the Kennedy route, with Chelsea adopting the liberal high life of networks and foundations in New York City. It’s interesting to note that the allure of the Kennedy clan has ebbed and that the dynasty has gradually faded away as a major force in contemporary American politics while the Bushes are still going strong.
From the standpoint of America’s cultural health, we would be much better off with a less dynastic politics, especially at a time when an increasingly unequal society raises questions about whether the American Dream still works. It’s also painfully clear that access to Daddy’s (or Hubby’s) file of campaign contributors is a big factor in empowering dynastic politicians. The increasing power of dynasties is also one of the many unintended consequences of the horribly flawed effort to reform campaign finance laws. These laws have weakened the parties and empowered large donors—and empowered people who have family ties to them. Both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush would have tougher roads to the nomination of their respective parties if our campaign finance laws hadn’t been misguidedly skewed.
That said, the good news is that in the United States it is still the voters who have the final say. Neither Hillary nor Jeb will get party nominations if the voters don’t want them. The 2016 Presidential campaign is wide open, and nobody has a lock.