Whenever the news media begins to stir about Jeb Bush running for president, a pundit or two does some verbal hand-wringing about the ruinous state of our democracy if the wife of one former president ran against the brother/son of two other presidents.
There are certainly many reasons to fret often about the weakening of democracy in the 21st century: the massive increase in election spending by the ultra-wealthy; the demise of trade unions; the prevalence of lying in public discourse, suborned by the mainstream media; and the refusal of politicians to follow the expressed will of the American people on matters such as taxes on the wealthy (we want them higher) and unemployment compensation (we want it extended).
But the fact that relatives of presidents may be running for our highest office is not a manifestation or a cause of a diminishment in our democratic traditions. Presidential dynasties have been a major part of presidential politics since the birth of the Republic. Most Americans living a full life since 1800 have experienced two presidents who were closely related.
Let’s do the math:
1. 34 years rolled by between the time father John Adams, our second president, (president 1797-1801) took office and his son John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) left office.
- 12 years passed before William Henry Harrison was inaugurated.
2. 52 years rolled by between the time grandfather William Henry Harrison (1841) took office and his grandson Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) left office.
- 8 years passed before Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated.
3. 44 years rolled by between the time cousin Theodore Roosevelt took office and his cousin Franklin Roosevelt died in office.
- 44 more years passed before George H.W. Bush was inaugurated.
4. 20 years rolled by between the time father George H.W. Bush took office and his son George W. Bush left office.
If Jeb is elected in 2016 and serves eight years, the Bush presidential dynasty will have lasted 36 years. If Hillary is elected and serves two full terms, the Clinton presidential dynasty would have lasted 32 years, with zero time between dynasties.
This catalogue of presidential dynasties leaves out the dozens of other national political dynasties that have always dominated national politics: the Cabots, Dirksons/Bakers, Gores, Hydes, Kennedys, Lehmans, Macks, Madisons, Marshalls, Masons, Rockefellers, Schuylers, Tafts, Talmadges, Wadsworths, Walkers—the list is not endless, but could go on for pages.
It looks to me as if dynastic families have always played a major role in American politics. Nothing has changed.
I’m not saying that presidential dynasties are good for the country. All things being equal, I would prefer if people got by on their talents, not their names. But the fact that a Bush may run against a Clinton does not symbolize the bankruptcy of American democracy. Rather it serves as an example of how tightly a narrow sliver of the wealthy and the connected has always controlled our politics. We can exemplify that fact by taking a look at the backgrounds of the 10 men and one woman involved in this discussion of presidents who were related to other presidents or might be in the future. The Adams, Harrisons, Roosevelts, Bushes and Hillary Rodham all came from privileged and connected backgrounds, all had every opportunity to succeed handed to them on a silver platter. All, of course, except Bill Clinton, who truly did fulfill the quintessential American myth that anyone can grow up to be President, assuming he or she has talent and drive.