Why you should care
Because this political theater has lulled us into deep REM.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
We the People abhor political dynasties. In principle.
In practice? Not so much, as evidenced by the current crop of presidential candidates. It features a president’s wife; a son of a congressman-slash-presidential candidate; and, probably, a man who is the son of one president and brother of another. Yes, dynasty has some benefits — political skill could run in the family. But like 69 percent of Americans and Barbara Bush circa 2013, we would much prefer that “two or three families” did not seem to have a lock on the White House.
Why not amend the Constitution to prevent presidential dynasties? Something simple would do, like Any immediate family member of a former president is ineligible to run for the presidency. And there’s precedent for restrictions: The Constitution already disqualifies those who are not native-born citizens, or younger than 35, or have already served two terms.
When it comes to the polls, we just cannot help ourselves: We choose the brands we know.
Yes, amending the Constitution is mighty hard, as comparative constitutional scholar Rosalind Dixon warned us — all the more so when it aims to curtail the powers that be. Still, Dixon liked the idea of the amendment, and she flagged a couple reasons why the specter of a Chelsea Clinton-George P. Bush matchup in 20 years makes us so queasy. First, dynasty might signal a festering democratic malaise. Even if it doesn’t, and the system is pretty fair, dynastic politics just looks like an illness — the kind that can alienate voters.
Of course, We the People have often brought dynasties upon ourselves. We might whine about them, but when it comes to the polls, we just cannot help ourselves: We choose the brands we know. Clintons and Bushes, Romneys, Gores, Kennedys, Roosevelts. Which is one problem with singling out dynasties, argued Mark Tushnet, a comparative constitutionalist at Harvard: We should be worried about nonpolitical families too. Would a Chelsea-George P. matchup be “any more bothersome than the image of a Bill and Melinda Gates grandchild running against a Koch brothers grandchild?” he asked.
We can’t say for sure. But we do think that one of the virtues of our amendment is its very cleanness, its discreteness.
Or we did, until Akhil Reed Amar, probably the world’s leading constitutional scholar, schooled us. The Founding Fathers would never have condoned curtailing voter choice, he told us, even if its intention was to stave off dynasty. Besides, from a “proper dynastic analysis perspective,” he says, Hillary and Bill are not a dynasty because they did not come from political power and are related by choice, not blood. Theirs, he says, is more of a political partnership than a dynastic tie. “She is the James Madison to his Thomas Jefferson — it’s friends with benefits plus sex,” he said.
Don’t get him wrong: Amar despises the threat of political dynasty, which he’s spent 15 years studying and worrying over. Like Dixon, he considers dynasties a “canary in the coal mine” for larger political troubles. The founders did indeed hate dynasty: George Washington was picked to be the first president in significant part because he had no children who could pose a succession threat, Amar said. And that provision in the Constitution that requires presidents to be over 35? Also an anti-dynastic provision, a “brilliant” one, according to Amar: No Baby Docs, or William Pitt the Youngers to bumble around the White House on inherited power.
That 18th-century proviso is much more elegant than our proposed amendment, Amar argued, and it accomplished. The best solution to the dynastic threat, he said, is not an amendment — it’s to play the long game: working toward a better informed, better enfranchised electorate. Meaning campaign finance reform, stronger political parties.
We agree with Amar, in principle. In practice? Call us cynical, but we doubt whether our democracy can manage all this in time to avert Bush v. Clinton, 2040.
We encourage you to comment, even if you’re Barack Obama’s third cousin twice removed. Actually, could that guy please comment?