The US is descending into a fiefdom of presidential familiesby AC Grayling / March 26, 2015 / Leave a comment
There is a Byzantine list of people you cannot marry, according to rules on consanguinity and affinity. Some make sense—a man cannot marry his grandmother (and now that we have same-sex marriage presumably a woman cannot do so either).But it does not make sense that a woman cannot marry her husband’s sister’s son, or a husband’s mother’s brother, or indeed her father-in-law. Whereas prohibitions against consanguineous marriages make sense, those against affinities by marriage do not. In politics it is the other way round, it seems. Helping relatives to official posts or political advancement is seen as dubious practice at best, nepotism or corruption at worst. But be married to a former President (as is Hillary Clinton), or be both the son and the brother of former presidents (as is Jeb Bush), and not only is there no barrier to running for the presidency but it appears to be an advantage.There are two major signs of a political order becoming corrupt and effete. One is that it manifests infection by lunacy, as in the cases of Roman emperors Caligula and Nero, and the United States Republican Party. The other is that it begins to unravel from a republican order into a dynastic order, when the siblings or offspring of rulers take up the reins of power in succession. No doubt in Saudi Arabia and North Korea the idea that the next President of the US will be a Clinton or a Bush makes unimpeachably good sense. Indeed they must laugh up their sleeves at the absurdity of democratic orders in which power alternates between unrelated people and even—heaven forfend—people of different political opinions, with all the short-termist, electoral-cycle-bound, electability-sensitive forms of feeble and press-hounded government that result.If next year’s US presidential election is between a Bush and a Clinton, the Saudis and North Koreans will think that sense has at last begun to dawn on the benighted Americans. When in 2024 Chelsea Clinton is standing against Noelle Bush (Jeb’s daughter), the Saudis and the North Koreans will start preparing for a coronation in Washington. By that time the US might be ready for its own version of the Wars of the Roses, peace only being attained when a scion of the House of Bush weds a scion of the House of Clinton, unifying the crown.
The US came close to having a ruling house in the palmy days of the Kennedys. Somewhat as in the case of ancient Rome, it was not the plurality of the ballot box but the madness of an assassin that came between the republic and a dynasty. For a while the US did the usual democratic thing, until it reconfigured the job of President as a B-movie role. Now however it really does seem to be heading down the steep path to a Principate, with either Hillary or Jeb as imperator.
Let us look at the situation from the other end of the telescope. We strive, we save, we plan, to give our children the best help for them to flourish. We want to give them advantages in the unforgiving scramble that is our world. We educate them (or at least, we send them to the best school we can get them into: not quite the same thing), we take them travelling so that they can see the world and observe its ways, we introduce them to friends who have internships or even jobs to offer. We advise and admonish. We give them as much of a leg-up as we can. Now: if you were a George Bush Snr or a Bill Clinton, with a highly ambitious and demanding son or a highly intelligent and talented wife, would you say to him or her, “My principles forbid me from aiding you one jot in your hopes?” On the contrary!—your principles will enjoin aiding them every bit as much as we aid our own children to get their feet on the ladder.
Here, therefore, is the problem. People in a position to help those best placed to benefit from their help will be very apt to help. That is how dynasties happen. It would be very odd for a society to enact consanguinity laws against family members entering politics. But at the same time there is something very uncomfortable about the spectacle of the US degenerating into a fiefdom of presidential families, with all the resonances this brings of a Decline and Fall.