Surveying the global political landscape these days will likely result in a few distinct observations. Things seem to be in shift right now, be it in Europe and the United States where right-wing groups are on the rise, or the Middle East where ISIS continues to wreak havoc. But one thing that may not immediately jump out at the intrepid observer of international politics is that, in a few democratic countries, the same names keep cropping up.
In the United States, a presidential election is coming closer and closer, and the biggest names anticipated on the ticket happen to be very familiar to the national stage. Hillary Clinton, the wife of a former president, and Jeb Bush, the son of one former president and the brother of another, are both expected to run. In the U.K., Labour leader Ed Miliband, son of activist and author Ralph Miliband and brother of politician David Miliband, is embroiled in pre-2015 election party drama. In France, Marine Le Pen has led her father’s National Front into power, posing a very real threat to Hollande’s Socialist government.
What does dynasty mean for democracy? For one thing, the end of dynamic political competition at the highest levels of government. If Clinton or Bush are elected in 2016, the White House will have been occupied by just three families since 1989. The fact that power merely ricochets between two parties is sad enough, but to add to that the chance that such tight control of the executive office can be held by so few nuclear families is jarring. In both cases, Clinton and Bush can cash in on family name recognition, extensive personal wealth and deep running party support based on legacy. It adds up to something that will be hard for anyone else to run up against.
Through ready-made campaign infrastructure and name recognition, it’s too simple for a handful of prominent families to stranglehold the political process. In India, the Nehru-Gandhi family dominated the National Congress for four decades. Their run in power was finally ended by Narendra Modi, a controversial figure who cashed in on the image of Nehru-Gandhi as an out-of-touch and privileged dynasty. With just one family more or less running the show for decades, opportunities for change shrink, creating openings for reactionary leaders who rally the malcontent swathes of the population.
There’s something to be said for carrying on the fights of our family. Marine Le Pen has managed to revive the National Front in the wake of her father’s inflammatory and unpopular rhetoric, which made the party a pariah in French politics. In the 1960s, the Kennedy family built a pseudo-dynasty as first RFK and later Ted Kennedy sought to fulfill the promise of fallen brothers. Some pointed at the Iraq War as Bush II’s finishing what his father started during the Gulf War, albeit a far darker example.
The danger dynasty poses to democracy is a simple one. It shrinks the ranks, decreases the number of voices being heard on critical issues and gives voters fewer true choices on the ballot. It creates dangerous opportunities for abuse of power as lesser-knowns try to pay flattery and favors to a few powerful families. And what’s more, it destroys the all-important illusion that keeps democracy alive; the idea that one day, it could be any of us at the center of the wheel, holding the levers of power in our own hands. When dynasties dominate the political system, routes to authority begin to disappear and politics once again becomes the domain of the wealthy, prominent and privileged.