The trouble with political dynasties


Los Angeles Times

Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, announced this week that she was giving up her campaign to unseat an incumbent U.S. senator in her father’s home state of Wyoming. Her campaign had angered many as she had sauntered from her longtime home state of Virginia to Wyoming.

She certainly is not unique. Today in America and around the world, families cling to power, passing the baton from one generation to another or from spouse to spouse.

We have had two Bushes in the White House and one in the Florida governor’s mansion. More may be coming. Soon the United States could experience another run at the presidency by former President Clinton’s spouse, Hillary. And there has been talk that Chelsea, their daughter, could consider a run for Congress in the future.

There also have been many dynasties that have not made it to the White House but have dominated state legislatures or state congressional delegations; think of the Udalls and Sununus.

The rest of the world is also afflicted. Out of the 1.3 billion people in India, it seems there is only one family that can run the country, the Gandhis. Surely India does not lack talent. In India’s neighbor, Pakistan (population 190 million), the Bhuttos have dominated the landscape: father Zulfikar was hanged by the military, his daughter Benazir fell victim to assassins, her husband, who became president, served out his term in disrepute. Their son is now at the helm of the family’s political party.

The British seem to have avoided this fate, perhaps because they have a genuine monarchy. The French too. Our Canadian neighbors have proved not to be immune, though, despite their fondness for the British monarchy. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s son has assumed the reins of his father’s Liberal Party, although he has run into some criticism for smoking marijuana while a sitting member of Parliament (maybe he did not inhale).

There are institutionalized republican monarchies. Bashar Assad took over when his father died; never mind that he was only 34 and the constitution (yes Syria has a constitution) stipulated that one had to be at least 40 to be eligible. Not a problem. Parliament quickly convened and magically the age limit was reduced to, not 30, not 35, but to 34 exactly. As a friend of mine remarked then, it would have been easier to simply change Bashar’s age; why go to the trouble of convening parliament?

As for Egypt, among the reasons the people rebelled in 2011 was the fear that Hosni Mubarak, despite opposition from many quarters in society, including the army, planned to have his son, Gamal, succeed him. And we, of course, remember Saddam Hussein and his murderous sons, Uday and Qusai. Nor should we forget Moammar Gadhafi, whose sons occupied all levels of power in Libya.

In democracies, family control of political power is a real problem. In the age of multiple and diverse sources of news, information and ads, name recognition matters a great deal. The Hillarys and Chelseas and Georges and Jebs tend to emerge as front-runners and suck up a great deal of air and contributions in political campaigns because of name recognition. They do not have to go to the trouble of introducing themselves to the electorate the old-fashioned way.

Hence, dynasties discourage and handicap newcomers. In a country of 300 million Americans, there are many who are perfectly capable of executing the responsibilities of elected office. Some do get elected but are often sidelined when it comes to the most visible races.

The most bizarre of family dynasties is North Korea’s Kims. North Korea is owned and operated by the Kims. The third Kim to lead the nation has just distinguished himself by having his uncle executed. He had good reasons, we’re told, including the uncle’s failure to clap heartily for his leader. It is difficult to see the Kims leaving power any time soon. Let us just hope that when a new Kim assumes power, the American president is not a Clinton who will have defeated another Bush for the chance to live in the hereditary White House.

Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

©2014 Los Angeles Times

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