America’s Growing Love Affair With Its Own Aristocracy

Daniel Gross, the author of "Bull Run: Wall Street, the Democrats, and the New Politics of Personal Finance," is a fellow at the New America Foundation

When the Academy Award nominations were announced last Monday, the list included two second-generation representatives of Hollywood royal families: Jeff Bridges, son of actor Lloyd and brother of Beau, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor; and Kate Hudson, daughter of Goldie Hawn, is a contender for Best Supporting Actress. Hudson and Bridges are but two of many stars who are sons, daughters, and grandchildren of respected pros. In recent years, Gwyneth Paltrow, Freddie Prinze Jr., Robert Downey Jr., Angelina Jolie, Drew Barrymore and Liv Tyler all starred in movies.

There’s another public stage on which younger members of famous and well-connected families have been doing remarkably well: politics. The year 2000 was the first time in more than a century in which both presidential candidates were sons of men who had held elective federal office. And Al Gore and George W. Bush weren’t the only candidates following in their fathers’ well-worn paths on the campaign trail. Some 77 members of the 107th Congress are relatives of representatives, senators, state legislators, judges, governors and local officials. This number includes Hillary Rodham Clinton, who in January became the first spouse of a president to join the U.S. Senate.

All of which is a little ironic. The United States has defined itself since its birth in opposition to political aristocracy. While the Adamses (John and John Quincy), the Harrisons (William Henry and Benjamin) and the Bushes (George and George W.) managed to keep the presidency in the family, dynastic politics have generally not played well on the national stage. Until recently, that is. Call it aristophilia (love of aristocracy).


There are several longstanding trends in our political and popular culture that account for the rampant spread of aristophilia.

Women in politics. The electoral advances of women over the past 30 years have effectively doubled the available pool of talent for political families. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is the daughter of former Baltimore Mayor Thomas D’Alessandro Jr., who also served in the House. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) ascended to her father’s congressional seat in 1992. Mary Landrieu, daughter of onetime New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu, became Louisiana’s first female senator in 1996. And Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy, has perhaps the brightest future of any member of the Kennedy clan.

It has also become more commonplace for women to take over the seats of husbands who have died while in office--or in pursuit of office. Last fall in Missouri, Jean Carnahan picked up the campaign standard of her husband, Mel, who died in a plane crash, and unseated incumbent Sen. John Ashcroft. In California, Republican Mary Bono and Democrat Lois Capps, who both assumed the seats of their deceased husbands, won reelection last fall.

Rights of succession. A feature of the British political aristocracy from which the colonies rebelled some 225 years ago was that public offices and titles were, in effect, family property. More recently, several retiring parents have simply handed over congressional seats to their sons and daughters.

The keynote address at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles was delivered by Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee, who inherited his seat in 1996 when his father stepped down. When Rhode Island GOP Sen. John H. Chafee died in 1999, the state’s governor appointed his son, Lincoln, to succeed him, per the father’s wishes. Lincoln was reelected last November.

Safe minority districts. Many of the political mini-dynasties taking shape are in districts that were carved out to ensure minority representation. Ironically, the fact that the seats are safe has allowed many civil rights pioneers to undemocratically install their offspring in secure posts. Ford, for example, faced no real Republican opponent last fall. In November, William Clay Jr. easily won the election for the Missouri seat that his father, William Clay Sr., had held for 32 years.


In 1995, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson was able to plant his son, Jesse L. Jackson Jr., in a safe district on the South Side of Chicago, his longtime power base. When the late Henry Gonzalez won his South Texas seat in 1961, he became one of the first Latinos to represent the Lone Star state in the House. In 1998, when the irascible Gonzalez stepped down, his son, Charlie, took over. Young politicians fortunate to step into such posts generally find their path is clear. Gonzalez and Jackson Jr., for example, tallied close to 90% of the vote in last fall’s races.

Name recognition. Every four years, the Washington press corps is shocked to learn that most voters don’t pay much attention to political news until the final few days before the election. As a result, name recognition can frequently be the difference between success and failure.

Last spring, when Republican primary voters were confronted with eight presidential candidates, virtually all of them unfamiliar, it was only natural for a large percentage to flock to the one whose name they knew best--George W. Bush. Sure, maverick Ariz. Sen. John McCain did well in New Hampshire, where he camped out and spent enough time to personally meet most of the Granite State’s voting population. But once the campaign went national, McCain was at a severe disadvantage. Even had he raised twice as much money, McCain could never have boosted his name recognition to rival that of a man who shares the name of a recent president.

The vast majority of political dynasts choose to take advantage of such local name recognition. When John E. Sununu, the son of the eponymous governor of New Hampshire, decided to run for Congress in 1998, virtually every voter in his district already knew his name. Ditto for Ken Bentsen, the Texas congressman whose father and grandfather were major state political figures.

But only the hardiest dynasties have been able to break out of local markets and go national. On the Democratic side, the all-powerful Kennedy brand now has franchises in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maryland. In the West, the Udall name has long been synonymous with progressive environmentalism. This has enabled Mark Udall, son of former Arizona Rep. Morris K. Udall, to run successfully for Congress in neighboring Colorado, and Thomas Udall, son of former Arizona Rep. Stewart Udall, to represent New Mexico. On the Republican side, of course, the Bush boys, George W. and Jeb, found success in Texas and Florida.

Show them the money. For aspiring politicians, especially young ones, the key to mounting a credible campaign is the ability to raise funds. And candidates who are members of political families find it easier to raise funds even when they don’t have a long track record in public office. In the last campaign cycle, for example, Patrick J. Kennedy raised $1.687 million in his Rhode Island race; his Republican opponent, Stephen Cabral, raised just $9,700. In Rhode Island’s 2nd District, by comparison, James R. Langevin, the winning Democrat, was able to raise $1 million in a race in which his Republican opponent spent $278,000. Because of his fund-raising prowess, Kennedy, who is just 33, was named chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1998.


Hot Copy. The only thing better than money for a political campaign is free media, and aristocratic politicians simply make better copy. After all, discussing races in terms of family feuds instead of dry policy debates virtually guarantees higher ratings. Much of the tension in last year’s presidential campaign came from the image of George W. trying to avenge his father’s 1992 loss by vanquishing the Clintonites.

Today, the New York media is already overlooking what promises to be a boring 2001 mayoral campaign and is instead looking ahead to the 2002 gubernatorial campaign. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo, who is married to a Kennedy, last month returned to New York and announced his intention to seek the Democratic nomination for governor. Should he win, he’ll go up against Republican Gov. George Pataki, the man who put an end to his father’s career. Instantly, a potentially boring political story becomes a fascinating human interest saga with a celebrity tie-in.

The growth of aristophilia in politics shows no signs of abating. Indeed, the success of political family members in 2000 should have the effect of motivating more Clintons, Kennedys and Bushes to start collecting signatures on petitions and scouting out safe districts. Whether that’s a good thing depends, in part, on where you sit.

But the net result of aristophilia is to make politics more of a closed system than it already is. Given the escalating costs of campaigns and the eroding attention span of the American voter, having a politically recognizable name will likely become more important in the 2002 campaign cycle. More than ever, the deck is stacked against challengers and outsiders. And given the realities of today’s politics, it would be difficult for an upstart with no family connections--say, a Bill Clinton or Richard M. Nixon--to even get into politics, let alone aspire to the presidency.