The Legacy of Political Families

Political families are not a new concept in the United States. We have looked at our leaders’ children and relatives as perspective heirs since the founding of this country. From the expectations held by John Adams’ son John Quincy Adams to giant political families like the Tafts, Roosevelts, and Kennedys, we have throughout our history held high political expectations for the children of our political elites. We see them as obvious successors in the world of politics; thinking that they will be able to make the same level of impact as their relatives solely because of who this next generation is related to. 

Today this phenomenon has only become even more common; we look at recent presidential families like the Bushes, Clintons, and now even the Obamas waiting to see what their children will accomplish for this country. But creating unrealistic expectations for Sasha and Malia Obama creates a situational self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. It is hard enough for many of these “heir apparents” to escape the shadow of their parents, let alone expect them to achieve just as much.

These expectations do have their advantages; recently, they have given these political sons and daughters political clout. 

In 2008, presidential candidate John McCain’s daughter became just one example. Besides writing books on politics like her most recent Dirty Sexy Politics, she also writes for The Daily Beast. She has recently begun writing about Republican candidates like Perry and Cain. It is safe to say that the influence of her father has built her, by association, an audience.

In the 2012 Republican campaigns, we have Ambassador Jon Hunstman’s three daughters. Through their Twitter handle and YouTube parody videos of Herman Cain, these three young women have become a popular face to Hunstman’s campaign. With over 15,000 Twitter followers, they add to their father’s 54,000 , effectively getting their message as well as his message out to more people.

Political families are extremely powerful, if not as officeholders, by means of public influence. When Senator Ted Kennedy and the rest of the Kennedy family threw their support behind Barack Obama in 2008, it was not just a frivolous gesture of support. People still look up to “America’s royal family” to discern how they should vote and form opinions on certain policy issues. By using the success and support their political parent(s) had, these families are able to draw in greater support and fundraising than “ordinary” candidates. Ted Kennedy’s first election was a success because of his older brothers, the clout of his father, and the influence the family had in Massachusetts.

The reason we like political families is simple: it gives us a sense of security, a feeling of being safe and in good hands. When Ted Kennedy ran for JFK’s Senate seat in 1962 he even used the same slogan JFK did for his election campaign 10 years earlier, “He can do more for Massachusetts.” People like name recognition almost as much as they do name dropping, and the Massachusetts Democrats took in the Kennedy name as an assurance that action would come out Ted’s election to the Senate. The same is true in 2000, when George W. Bush ran for president, with almost the same name of his father; Republicans felt reassured that their ideology would be successfully implemented if he was elected into office.

The effects of these dynastic families have on our political system vary, but for the most part the idea of succession does equate to success. George W. Bush’s longer tenure as president might be the only achievement ranking him higher than his father, and while JFK reached high prominence in the American political system than his father (an ambassador), his revered status comes more from his terrible assassination than presidential accomplishments. Regardless of their performances, however, political families always limit the political playing to an even more exclusive group.

At the same time, our political system is not necessarily weakened by them. If the Kennedy family had not been the prominent American political family in the 1960’s, JFK’s legacy would have not been an effective strategy by LBJ at getting important agenda items passed. It is also important to note that political families do not dominate politics forever; their “reign” is significantly shorter than monarchical families. With each new generation, these families keep their ancestral achievements as familial pride, but nothing more; instead striving to carve their own path. This is why older families like the Tafts, the Roosevelts, and even the Kennedys in some ways have in a way lost prominence. Acceptingly faded from the public eye, they leave the door open for new aspiring families to take their place; and hopefully with them, a new series of bold initiatives to enrich America.

Photo Credit: SEIU International

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Jeff Raines

A Political Science major at American University in Washington D.C. He identifies as a progressive and has a passion for education. Jeff has been featured on the campusprogress.org, Pushback.org, and New Deal 2.0, & eduwonk.com

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