Royal families rule in the kingdom of America

America, as we know, is an extremely large and deeply meritocratic society. Class doesn't exist. Anyone can rise to the top. Restless cultural change and vibrant populist currents routinely roil the nation. Politics is a place where former actors and peanut farmers can come from nowhere to run the most powerful country on earth, and where nutcase former businessmen like Ross Perot and bull-necked pro-wrestlers like Jesse "the Body" Ventura can transform the face of national and local politics in the flash of a television commercial.
So why is it, one wonders, that out of 270m people who could feasibly set the tenor of national politics in the new millennium, the immediate future looks likely to be dominated by people called Clinton, Bush and Dole - but not that Clinton or that Bush or that Dole?

How is it that out of anyone you could pick to run for senator or president in 2000, three of the most likely candidates are either the wife or son of a recent president or presidential candidate?

Think of the possible parallels in Britain. What are the odds that Mark Thatcher could have succeeded his mother as leader of the Tory party? And what chance does Cherie Blair have of following Tony into power? And that's in a country a fifth of the size of the United States, with a notoriously insular political and educational elite. Not even graduates of Paris's grandes écoles could contrive such an inside job as the Washingtonians. The closest parallel one can think of to the world's largest democracy is, well, the kingdom of Jordan.

In fact, the more you think about it, the weirder it gets. George Bush Jr is the beneficiary of old-fashioned dynastic rules. Thanks to daddy, he gets a chance to run one of the largest states in America and, despite an almost completely vacuous record as governor of Texas, is widely and seriously considered qualified to run the world's only superpower. His brother Jeb has to be satisfied with Florida, but hey, four or eight more years is not that long to wait to follow his brother into national power.

The Bushes follow in the Kennedy mould of feudalism. As of now, the Kennedy family controls only one Senate seat, one House seat, a lieutenant-governorship and a national political magazine. Not as good as the heyday of president and attorney-general, but dynasties do occasionally need a chance to take a breather.

But Elizabeth Dole and Hillary Clinton are pioneers in dynastic construction. Once upon a time, you had to be genetically linked to someone influential in America to have an extra chance at power. But now, in the meritocratic new millennium, you simply have to marry him. Does anyone seriously believe that a shady Arkansas lawyer who grew up in Chicago would be the front-runner for New York's Senate seat if she hadn't happened to be married to the president of the United States? And does anyone think a former labor secretary and Red Cross president who has never held any elected office would be a strong contender for the Republican nomination if she wasn't hitched to the last Republican nominee?

And that's not to mention Al Gore, the other prominent aspirer to the throne.

Al Gore Jr, one tends to forget, is the son of Al Gore Sr, the late senator from Tennessee and pillar of the Washington liberal establishment.

Al Jr was raised largely in Washington at the exclusive private school of St Alban's, only a stone's throw from the vice-president's residence he has inhabited for the past six years. Now there's an outsider for you.

Or a certain Steve Forbes, who is another viable Republican candidate, whose sole claim to credibility is that he is the son of Malcolm Forbes, the multi-millionaire whose dollars oiled his son's otherwise content-free political career. Or even John McCain, a man of genuine personal heroism and character, but a man whose father happened once to be one of the best connected military men in Washington.

Could it possibly be that as America's population expands, its political elite is actually contracting? Dynasty, of course, has always been a feature of American politics. In a country born by ridding itself of a hereditary monarchy, the second president, John Adams, was father of the sixth, John Quincy Adams, who was the father of vice-presidential nominee Charles Francis Adams and the grandfather of the noted historian Henry Adams. The democratic icon Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in fact a fourth cousin once removed of President Ulysses S Grant, a fourth cousin twice removed of President Zachary Taylor and a fifth cousin of President Teddy Roosevelt.

FDR's lineage in the corridors of American power rivalled that of any member of most European royal families in the 1930s except that, unlike most of them, he actually exercised real political power.

And politics isn't the only arena where birth matters. Hollywood is notoriously riddled with dozens of offspring named Douglas, Baldwin and Sheen. In a cartoon in The New Yorker magazine last week, a bemused man is asking his wife in a queue for movie tickets: "Tell me again - which blonde actress is she the blonde-actress daughter of?" In journalistic circles, it's just as bad. Who has succeeded Irving Kristol as indispensable neo-conservative guru for Washington's chattering classes? Why none other than Bill Kristol, Irving's son. Who has followed in Norman Podhoretz's footsteps as a literary and political light in exactly the same circles? Step forward John Podhoretz, son of Norman.

And what's fascinating is how unembarrassed Americans are by all of this. It has yet to occur to anyone to accuse Dole, Clinton or Bush of nepotism. It is as if Americans are so confident in the power of their meritocracy that they are almost wilfully blind as they witness its mockery. Or perhaps something more interesting is at work. Perhaps, as Tocqueville grasped, it is the very bewildering nature of American democratic life that makes some sort of informal recourse to aristocracy indispensable. Dynasty, in other words, is a leavening bulwark to democracy. An interesting concept that. Perhaps Tony Blair might take a look at it before he abolishes every last one of those hereditary peers.

~ Andrew Sullivan, "The Sunday Times", 21 Feb 1999.


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