Americans’ Healthy Suspicion of Political Dynasties

We didn't like King George III either
We didn’t like King George III either

Leftists often want America to become more politically similar to Western Europe. When it comes to providing everyone access to health care, I’m in. But I hope Americans never give up a political sensibility that separates us from all those European countries where kings and queens still walk the earth and unelected hereditary politicos shape legislation: Our fundamental discomfort with ruling families.

Dan Balz’s coverage of a focus group of a dozen voters made me proud to be an American:

they are underwhelmed by the prospect of a race pitting another Bush against another Clinton. When Charlie Loan, an IT program manager and Republican-leaning independent, said half-seriously that he would be happy if Congress would pass a law banning anyone named Bush or Clinton from running, half the people in the room agreed.

…To them, Bush and Clinton represent a political class that is seen as living lives apart from those they represent, people who are seen as out for themselves rather than for ordinary people.

None of this of course means that Governor Bush or Secretary Clinton is a bad person or couldn’t be a good president. It’s not about them as individuals. Rather, the focus group members are expressing a very healthy, very American suspicion of a having a small group of families continually run the country.

One of the remarkable features of American politics is how few dynasties have existed at the national level. The Adams family in the late 1700s and 1800s, the Roosevelts for the first half of the twentieth century, the Kennedys over the past half century. It is often — though definitely not always — an advantage in American politics to have had a famous political parent, but the halo’s glow rarely extends to the third generation (Especially in the western U.S., which is less shaped by European culture than are the former British colonies). And when political dynasties fade in power, Americans rarely grieve their passing even when they like the family in question.

Missouri is the “Show Me” state, and it resides in a “Show Me” country. Neither Bush nor Clinton is going to become President of the United States by riding on their last name. That’s a good thing for democracy and a great thing about America.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.