The problem of political dynasties
Certain families are more likely to yield a higher frequency of political leaders, but given the clear aptness of such candidates, it is difficult to dismiss political dynasties out of hand. Such a nation would suffer the ailment of incompetency, and yet, equality of opportunity is not a defunct concept. How then, is the puzzle of political dynasty solved?
Here’s the issue. Assuming political office requires a very specific knowledge base and set of experiences – the imaginative can of course seek contemporary exceptions – it would not be an entirely fruitless task to draw up a list of (private) schools, colleges, universities and think tanks which tend to pave a more traveled-by road.
Historically, the link between political authority and wealth solidified a class of people from whom office was expected. Indeed, the subjects of the crown were accustomed to the oscillation of only the first names of their rulers. The existence of this authority was a battleground during HLA Hart and Austin’s momentous jurisprudential duel regarding the nature of legal authority, as they contested the succession of power from hypothetical king Rex I to Rex II by virtue only of the latter’s situational inheritance and rule-making ability, not the moral quality of his edicts.
As such, the means to government too depended heavily upon a set of situational conditions which are more easily met by one belonging to a capable family. The list of heterosexual white middle-aged Western leaders is a weighty document indeed, but a column should also be reserved for familial background. And thus the existence of political dynasty featured in the experiment of Western democracy, and the global recipients of its influence.
Think Bush; Clinton; Kennedy; Adams. A tad north, reflect on the inevitable Trudeau II and the almost Mulroney II. Over in Pakistan, it’s a surreal sight that amongst the remaining Sharriffs, Zardaris and Bhuttos, an Imran Khan may emerge.
But citing exceptions to problem exposes another. The risk of ‘outsider’ candidates is incompetence and inexperience, perhaps not with Khan, who would struggle to consciously replicate the incompetency of his predecessors, but certainly with Trump; under whom the machinery of government has severely changed form.
Professor John Kane, when reviewing the chaotic attrition and internal strife of Trump’s personnel as well as the primacy of his tweeting, notes the conventional rational actor model intended to evaluate how a president evaluates key tasks fails to account for this administration. Trump’s‘outsider’ approach lends to a different situational logic than an establishment candidate, such as a former first lady or well-connected senator, who has been cultured to preserve the order of things. Where they see a gate, Trump sees a wall; where they see an enemy, Trump sees a client.
The problem with the problem
This is the twin edge of the problem of political nepotism. It would be easy to castrate the political class for self-interested self-preservation, but when the skills needed to govern effectively are exclusively held in that ruling class, one encounters something of a paradox.
Either we entrust governance to a remarkably self-contained minority, or we rely on outsiders who have been restricted with the means to play the game in the first place. It’s the choice between a qualified insider or an unqualified outsider; a competent oligarchy or an incompetent democracy. Meritocracy, it seems, is an impossible ambition.
Equality of opportunity is a demand Martin Luther King Jr aptly summarised as asking African Americans to “lift [themselves by their] own bootstraps, advice which does not take into account that [they] are barefoot.” Indeed, in introducing black identity considerations to how equality of opportunity was interpreted in that context, US government policy wavered between anti-privilege egalitarianism – the Jacksonian notion that the withholding of rights to African American communities had generated illegitimate specific privileges that needed to be removed – and rehabilitative ‘Negro agrarianism’ – that the entire African American community had been collectively exploited during the creation of America and generally deprived of their human capacity for self-development. US race relations remains ultimately uncertain, and it took an age to entrust a representative of such a historically disenfranchised community with executive power.
The UK, given its historical supremacy during the theoretical discussion of political authority, has generously manifested this chaotic problem. Nigel Farage, chief Brexiteer and far-right provocateur, has made his name by manoeuvring anti-immigration sentiment to push the rolling boulder that is Brexit. It was of noticeable humour then, when it was revealed that he had hired a German immigrant as his personal secretary who had the distinct disadvantage of also being his wife.
Farage’s response of inspirational audaciousness was that his German wife was the only person who could have filled the role, given the specific hours associated with the role, including answering and briefing him of emails received at any midnight of the week. Though a farcical exchange, ridicule of Farage’s position was placated by the conceding sigh of his sympathisers, who were not shocked by politicians employing family members in Westminster. The Machiavellian quality of British politics has motivated MPs to typically consider family members for junior and senior roles in office.
This is of tangible concern: family members employed by MPs were paid on average £5,600 more than other staff, with compelling cases of children and spouses expressing gratitude for employment. Again, the justification is that the incomparable access and confidentiality posed by a family member makes redundant the need for a leap of faith in the jobcentre.
But this grassroots nepotism is linked with the larger problem of dynasties: ‘career politicians’ belonging to establishment families are simply better experienced and more functional as a result. The LSE’s Wang Leung Ting accounts for the decreasing time for ministerial promotions between 2010-2015 by assigning weight to specific roles in Parliament, concluding that not only are political party insiders are privileged with a quicker rate of ascension, but that relevant experience to the ministerial role – which the minister themselves oversees – catalyses the promotion process. The family unit is the master of its own fate, and the UK has its own political dynasties to prove it.
In 1989, a 16 year-old Ed Miliband interned with third generation MP Tony Benn, the great Labour figure of inspiration and a friend of Miliband’s father. In 2010, Ed Miliband won the leadership of the Labour party – against his brother David no less – after the party senior Benn endorsed him, and upon his victory, he appointed Benn’s son Hilary, now an MP in his own right, to the shadow cabinet. Theresa May appointed Boris and Jo Johnson to her cabinet, lest anyone segment this issue in partisan terms. There is a link here between those early familial appointments and a healthy career in politics. Remember Nigel Farage’s wife? After leaving his office and marriage, she was quickly promoted to the office of a UKIP Member of European Parliament.
But, as mentioned, many of these and others are names of highly experienced political operators. Casting them aside is to disregard brilliant minds and, in some cases, quite dignified representatives of the House of Commons. Of course such a system has institutionalised privileged people but meritocratically opening up the doors to everyone, whatever that would look like, would simply provide a ladder to the next wealthiest or privileged individuals, who in turn would embed their family in this world.
A problematic solution
The perfect answer is to ensure equality of opportunity for political office as well as for the knowledge required to reach it, yet it appears the political institutions are too closely defined by the character of their operators. Norms and conventions are rigidly unwritten, and there must be a limit to the establishment’s patience of anti establishment ideology. There is even a feeling Trump is more of a bloated excess of existing sentiments than an innovator of new ideas.
The issue then is that we already have equality of opportunity for political positions: it is painfully obvious that any individual may seek success on the ballot. What is lacking is equality of access: to attain John Rawls’ fair equality of opportunity, which seeks to mitigate the disadvantageous effect of diversity by regulating influential institutions such as public education and employment law, an unreasonable amount of state action is necessary. For Epstein, such an approach is not only controversial from a libertarian perspective, with state action outweighing the individual’s Lockean rights for freedom from discrimination, but the state is a distraction from the more influential eventual clasp of the invisible hand of competitive market forces.
An immoderate amount of political will and sheer energy would be needed to remove to societal obstacles to political equality of opportunity. Specific private schools and universities account for a disproportionate number of future statesmen – again, it’s likely that exceptional teaching and weathered institutional integration is the reason, but these are things that either cannot be transferred cheaply or at all.
But whilst a bottom up approach would face inherent institutional resistance, a top down approach has an inevitable effect on the route to power. The recent success of ‘anti-establishment’ candidates for political office – see Sanders, Corbyn and the elephant in the room – makes normative claims about the capacity of government to facilitate diverse political leadership.
The plucky few are not luck egalitarians, who have seen a level playing field and climbed ahead by their own talent, but breakaways who now sit at the ideal vantage point from which to level the uneven ground below. Dworkin set out the conditions for formal equality of opportunity and necessitated the equal distribution of material resources over time – including the normalisation of profitable personal traits such as native charm and intelligence – which conjunctively ensure collective justice.
This is obviously not a description of our climate, it’s easier for some families to empower their gifted than others, and yet minority candidates can still make it; their very existence changing the conditions and expectations of a successful candidacy and simultaneously widening the pool of viable future leaders in excess of existing political dynasties.
That Oprah or Tom Hanks could run for office is only plausible post-Trump (if at all). That the far-right fringes of the UK Conservative Party may take hold makes more sense after the converse occurred in the Labour Party. This isn’t the wholemeal regulation that we were promised, but it is a piecemeal solution that we can achieve.
By Abbas Farshori