By Eoin O’ Malley.
When the French UMP selected Jean Sarközy to run the party in the wealthy suburb of Hauts-de-Seine, a region his father Nicolas dominated for two decades, many saw this as an attempt to start a new political dynasty. The protests at the then French president’s later attempt to install his son as the head of a public body running a Parisian business district ultimately led to his withdrawal; the fear of dynasty-building perhaps remained in fiercely republican France.
Except that Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean Marie Le Pen, the founder of the Front National, has brought the party to unprecedented popularity. And her niece is a significant player in the current election. It could be just the electoral system in France that will keep Marine out of the Élysée Palace. And in the US, another republic which perhaps thought dynasties were a thing for Old England might well see a presidential contest between a Clinton and a Bush, both related to former presidents, and in Jeb Bush’s case a fourth generation of his family in elected politics. One or both of the names has fronted a ticket in seven out of the last nine presidential elections.
Political dynasties are surprisingly durable, and they’re more widespread than we might naturally assume. Over a quarter of all TDs elected in 2007 had some familial relationship to a past or current TD. This fell sharply in 2011 (below 10%), but still a fifth of Fianna Fáil TDs were children of a former TD. Fianna Fáil’s figure may be higher simply because it was bigger and around for longer. There may be a new generation Ferris or Adams running for Sinn Féin in the 2020s.
Ireland isn’t unusual. According to the Economist magazine, the leaders of Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Bangladesh are all related to former political chiefs. The “Stans” of Central Asia are family fiefs. The Gandhis are struggling in India, as are the Bhuttos in Pakistan, but the Kenyattas are kings in Kenya, a Fujimori is once again leading the polls in Peru and a Trudeau has a fighting chance in Canada. Meanwhile the lengthy catalogue of China’s “princelings”, the children of Communist Party grandees, starts at the top with the president, Xi Jinping. Fifty-seven of the 650 members of the recently dissolved British Parliament are related to current or former MPs.
Though official data don’t include whether an elected representative is related to a past or current member, I with colleagues from DCU and Oxford University have collected data for seven countries, and we can see that Ireland is high, but lower than Japan, and not much different from Argentina or Israel. The US and the UK are a bit lower, but only the Netherlands, where virtually no seats are held by the children or grandchildren of politicians, stands out.
Why do these dynasties exist, and are they something we should worry about?
We usually think political dynasties are a cultural phenomenon: that they are accepted and expected in some societies. Certain groups are privileged and this is accepted by most within society. The Indian caste system is a good example; Shudras may accept that Brahmins should rule.
This might fit most Irish people’s perceptions where we think that Irish politics is inherently local and based on loyalty to family and locality. But we can see that dynasties are as acceptable in the fiercely individualist US as in the more collectivist Japan.
Dynasties might be common simply because children of politicians have just inherited an interest in and talent for politics. In all areas of life we tend to see children follow their parents’ career paths. Doctors’ children become doctors. As well as picking up an interest in the field at, say, the dinner table or campaign meeting, they possibly also inherit traits that make them suitable; the daughter of an eloquent speaker is likely to be eloquent herself. If this is the primary driver of dynastic politics then we shouldn’t worry too much. But if it is what explains the continuance of dynasties then dynasties should be as likely in the Netherlands as Japan. But they aren’t.
The ancient-Greek-derived word ‘dynasty’ is highly loaded and implies an undemocratic passing of power in an unfair and anti-meritocratic way.
This can happen because the children of elected politicians are socialised into and have networks and connections available to them that most others wouldn’t have. In a country like the US where money counts for a lot in elections, being able to access a network of donors makes someone immediately more electable. The children will expect greater media coverage, and be taken seriously more quickly than others might hope.
They can also inherit an electoral machine. Rand Paul was able to inherit his father’s party structure, which helped him get elected to the Senate. In the US (as in Ireland) parties are loose federations of individual fiefs. According to Ken Carty they are the political analogue of franchises. You get some branding (party label), and a standard product (policies), but the candidate is expected to bring in their own money and canvassers. In Fianna Fáil this is sometimes dated to Bertie Ahern’s creation of the so-called Drumcondra Mafia. He created his own parallel organisation that was loyal to him, rather than to Fianna Fáil.
We can see its effect play out throughout the country. When Michael Lowry was expelled from Fine Gael he effectively took the party machine with him. Because it was HIS machine. There were as many ‘Lowry independent’ councillors in the north of Tipperary as there were Fine Gael ones.
In some places parties are highly institutionalised and rule-based. In the UK many towns have their own Conservative Clubs or Labour Clubs. Party candidates are often from outside the area and selected by the members. The members retain control of the party, and there is usually a parliamentary agent who runs the party in the constituency and is funded and controlled by the party rather than the MP. Dutch parties are even more institutionalised – it is common for a party in government to appoint a separate parliamentary leader and a leader to represent the members’ interests. It’s much harder for a prominent politician to pass on a party organisation they never controlled.
Even if loose party organisations confer special advantages on the children of politicians political dynasties in democracies are subject to election, so voters have a right to accept or reject anyone on their merits.
In fact voters seem to want dynasties. One of the services a political party performs is analogous to that of a brand name. If Volvo has shown itself to be reliable in the past, you are more likely to buy a Volvo the next time you get a car. Party labels offer a shortcut to voters who use the party label to know something of the candidate without knowing anything of the candidate. Family names too might be sometimes like brand names. If you liked original Gandhi, why not get New Improved Gandhi?
They can only choose them where the electoral system allows them to do so. In Ireland, as in the US, the competition within the party for a place on the ticket is fierce. This incentivises candidates to cultivate a personal vote rather than a party vote. The electoral system matters. Some countries have systems that only allow you choose the party or, as in the UK, effectively only choose on the basis of party.
Work on Belgium, the US and Argentina shows that dynastic candidates get a vote bonus over and above the other advantages the children of politicians have. This demonstrates that voters, for whatever reason like and want dynasties.
One of the reasons may be that dynastic politicians have a longer time horizon than regular ones. Recent research on family businesses has found that these tend to outperform PLCs, possibly because the families aren’t beholden to shareholders nor fixated on share prices.
According to the Economist, more than 90% of the world’s businesses are family-managed or –controlled. Families own or control 33% of American companies and 40% of French and German ones with revenues of more than $1bn a year. In the emerging world the preponderance of family control is greater still.
But political dynasties are not always benign, and egalitarians may recall. They can perpetuate a power elite and suppress other talent from emerging. Many of those who rose to the top in contemporary Ireland have been the children of politicians: FitzGerald, Lenihan, Cowen and Kenny. This might suggest that dynasties are the cream of our political class, or a clique keeping out real talent. The truth, as so often, is somewhere in the middle. •