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.