Clare Higgins: Enough of political dynasties. We're a democracy, after all
NORTHAMPTON — The George W. Bush Presidential Library was dedicated this past April. The day before the ceremonies, Barbara Bush was interviewed about the 2016 presidential prospects of her son Jeb, the former governor of Florida. Remarkably, she said, “I think it’s a great country, there are a lot of great families, and it’s not just four families or whatever. There are other people out there that are very qualified, and we’ve had enough Bushes.”
Well, thanks, Barbara Bush, for saying what many of us think: We have had enough Bushes! But I can be non-partisan about this. I think we may have had enough Kennedys and Cuomos too. It’s not often that we here a member of one of those political families speak so candidly about the need for others to have the opportunity to serve. Her remarks were fully in line with what our founders believed as they devised our system of government.
The United States was founded on egalitarian principles and dynastic families go against that core belief. To quote Alexander Hamilton from Federalist Paper No. 69: “The President of the United States would be an officer elected by the people for four years; the king of Great Britain is a perpetual and hereditary prince. The one would be amenable to personal punishment and disgrace; the person of the other is sacred and inviolable.” We don’t have hereditary titles and we are a more vibrant country for it.
Our constitution embodies the remarkable belief that we are capable of governing ourselves. Jefferson said, “We are a people capable of self-government, and worthy of it.” There are a lot of people out there that are qualified to run for president, Congress, governor, the Legislature and other offices right down to the important municipal positions that affect our daily lives. So why do we get families where government becomes the family business?
Well, there are the obvious barriers of money. I note that many of our dynastic political families have money. And if an individual from one of these families doesn’t have money of their own, they have access to the donor base that the family has cultivated.
If you are a Bush or a Kennedy, you certainly are used to living in the fishbowl. Brothers, sisters, in-laws and even minor relatives and other hangers-on can end up in the tabloids or part of the 24-hour news cycle. There are at least 75 books written about the Kennedy family and the Bushes are not far behind that count.
In our current political culture, independent voters make the difference in an election. Not too many people vote a straight party ticket; voters pick and choose based on issues, religion, regional affinity and a host of other concerns. Those candidates with a brand (e.g. well-known family name, military service and ethnicity) have a built-in advantage in the fight for voters’ attention. You know (or think you know) what they stand for.
To get beyond the brand — to the candidates’ actual positions on important issues — takes some work. Voters have to read the newspaper, do some research on the Web and watch debates. For some it’s easier to vote for the guy because his uncle did a good job or he’s got an Irish last name. And I say “vote for the guy” because it’s almost always men who are running from America’s political families.
And as I read Hamilton’s thoughts on the difference between kings and presidents, there was another thought that struck me. He said that “The (president) would be amenable to personal punishment and disgrace.” I’m not actually sure that disgrace exists in our political culture anymore.
Mark Sanford cheats on his wife, lies to the people of South Carolina, misuses state funds to conduct an extra-marital affair, violates court orders and is then elected to Congress with 54 percent of the vote. These are the same folks who voted to ban gay marriage, presumably to “preserve family values.”
Then there is Anthony Weiner — the guy who sent sexually suggestive photos out to various women via Twitter and then denied it. He is now running to be the mayor of New York. When he is asked why, he talks about “having something to contribute.” What? I think there are many volunteer opportunities in New York City that don’t involve being on the ballot.
Now, I know that most people who run for office are not from dynastic political families or recovering from some self-inflicted soap operatic political wound. And I am fully aware of the hurdles that exist for anyone that throws a hat in any ring. We need to fight the corrosive power of money in politics; that is the biggest barrier to participation in the process.
But more of us have to think about running for office on all levels to really have a government that is “of the people, by the people, for the people,” as President Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address.
Clare Higgins of Northampton, the city’s former mayor, is executive director of the nonprofit Community Action! of the Franklin, Hampshire and North Quabbin Regions. She writes a monthly column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.