Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Dynasties in Politics

America likes to think it is a Republic. Our president and legislature is elected and the hereditary principle has no place in our body politic.

Yet, right now, the choices for my new Senator seem to be the daughter of a president and the son of a governor.

I am not sure exactly what Caroline Kennedy has done to think she should be a Senator. Yet, American politics is filled with mediocrities who thought that they should be elected and used money and family connections to get there. What I think has struck a nerve here is the feeling of entitlement that Ms. Kennedy exudes with little to really back it up other than her name and some vague commitment to the correct causes over the years. While Andrew Cuomo may be unliked in many quarters (he comes off as abrasive at times), he has been a cabinet secretary and has run for office (he is currently Attorney General). He at least has put himself and his views out there. If Ms. Kennedy feels she will be a good Senator, run for it.

I really do not care much either way, no matter who Governor Patterson appoints is unlikely to agree with my beliefs -- so a Kennedy or a Cuomo, if I really had to choose, I'll go with Andrew Cuomo, as at least he has been in the arena.

But that got me thinking, (small r) republican theories aside, political dynasties have always been a part of American politics. From the very beginning, the Adams family was central in American politics. In New York, the Clinton family was prominent. Are political dynasties undemocratic and unrepublican?

I recently finished reading Polybius's Histories which examined Mediterranean history (focusing on Rome and Greece) for the period from about 290 BC to 140 BC. Polybius, though Greek, lived in Rome for much of his life and was a friend to many in the Roman elite. And one thing that struck me was that many of the names in the various eras were the same. Rome at this period was a Republic and while at the beginning of the era still technically confined to Latinum, the beginnings of the empire were taking shape. So granted, Rome was drawing from a small pool of possible leaders, but still, you would think that more new families would appear.

Roman history is often taught as a conflict between the patricians and the plebeians. It is true that in the early days of the Republic there were real differences between the two orders, as the Republic progressed, the distinctions disappeared. By Caesar's day, the real difference was that certain offices were reserved to members to each order (most importantly, the "Tribune of the People," who held the vital veto power, had to be a plebeian). Some patricians became poor and their families faded into obscurity. Some plebeians became rich and their families prominent.

In Rome, therefore, the real distinction was between those whose families had members elected consul and those who had not. As the Republic disintegrated, "new men," those whose families had not included consuls, became more and more rare. When the great Cicero was elected consul in 63 BC, he was the first new man in more than 30 years. I have felt that this lack of new blood was one of the causes of the downfall of the Republic. People began to enter politics to advance their family interests rather than out of public service. We should keep that concern in mind.


Rodak said...

There are some thoughts on the Romans' Greek role models and the impetus towards a political life, in this post.

Rodak said...

I'll go with Andrew Cuomo, as at least he has been in the arena.

Conservatives seem strangely undecided about whether they want a professional political class, or not. It seems that if some person without experience (on the Left) looks poised to take office, then political experience suddenly becomes a must. On other occasions, however, the ideal office holder is characterized as a term-limited, civic-minded, regular citizen, taking time out from running his exterminating business, or working at his law firm, in order to do his duty for a brief interlude. Which is it?

William R. Barker said...

"While Andrew Cuomo may be unliked in many quarters (he comes off as abrasive at times), he has been a cabinet secretary and has run for office (he is currently Attorney General). He at least has put himself and his views out there."


As to the rest of your post...

Me? I'm still hoping for a military coup. (*SHRUG*)


Anthony said...

Rodak -- I guess I do not want a professional legislative class.

Maybe the answer is something like the Roman "corsus honorus".

What I don't like is that our political class is chock full of timeserving medorcrities.
Bill -- You REALLY don't believe that, do you?

Rodak said...

corsus honorus

Translation and application, please.

Anthony said...

Rodak -- I spelt it wrong (the days of my school Latin long past). It was the cursus honorum -- the "Course of honor".

It was a Roman concept that young men would enter a line of offices, starting at about 20 with election to the office of military tribune and ending years later as consul.

It is of course not well workable today, but it meant that you would not get mediocure time servers in politics.

The best prospects were those that passed through the course "in their year" meaning that they weree elected to each office up through consul at the minimum age. I believe that Cicero was elected to consul "in his year" which is more remarkable by th efact that Circero was not from a very prominant family as was a new man -- the first in his family elected counsul.

I think this ties into your blog post regarding Greeks and Romans.

Rodak said...

Thanks, and, yes, it does tie in.
But, if we were going to translate that kind of thing as nearly as possible to our age and culture, it would seem to argue for a political elite. And it would seem to legitimatize Caroline Kennedy's aspirations to serve in the U.S. Senate, at least insofar as she's a privileged member of the elite who has served in the private sector and is now willing to go public with those gifts that she possesses.

William R. Barker said...

re: Anthony; January 12, 2009 3:59 pm

Damn straight I believe that, Anthony.