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The Dynastic Tendency in Modern Politics: A Cause for Concern?

Introducing the Dynastic Tendency

An incident transpired recently in the Northern Chilean city of Antofagasta. Augusto Pinochet Molina, the grandson of the Chilean dictator who staged a coup in 1973, was apprehended by police for the alleged possession of cocaine. It was the latest headline to break in the controversial career of Pinochet Molina, who was discharged from the army in 2006 due to a speech he made at his grandfather’s funeral, and who has since turned his energies towards the political sphere.

The significance of Pinochet Molina’s political ambitions resonates on two levels. For Chile, it points to the degree to which the country continues to struggle to find a historical consensus in regard to the Pinochet era.

Beyond Chile, however, the ambitions of the dictator’s grandson are symptomatic of a broader ‘dynastic tendency’ that can be observed in an overwhelming number of contemporary state systems, states embedded in both ends of the political spectrum and evincing both liberal and illiberal ideologies.

Taxonomy of Modern Political Dynasties

Undoubtedly, some political dynasties are starker than others. Opaque, inhumane, paranoid and enduring, the dynastic regime of North Korea is one of the most pronounced examples of modern times. The inheritance of power from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il, and now to Kim Jong Un, represents a transition in leadership that is monarchical in terms of the absolutism and deification it bestows on the ruling bloodline.

The very particular historical circumstances that gave rise to the current North Korean regime can lead to a treatment of the state as sui generis, and in many ways this is a correct approach. The regime’s unprecedented blending of a quasi-cultish dynasty with a hybridised Marxist ideology has been taken to such an extreme it is now almost without parallel.

A surface comparison can be attempted between North Korea and the Castro dynasty of Cuba, but a review of the details all too soon throws up divergences. Fidel Castro led his country as a folk hero and, in many ways, the Cuban system successfully provided for a better quality of life for its citizens, for example, by establishing a highly efficient model of healthcare. With Castro’s brother Raúl now leading the country, historic breakthroughs have been made in US-Cuban relations that point towards the increasing integration of Cuba within the mechanisms of international cooperation.

In contrast, international ostracism, large-scale privation, prison camps and a relentless fear of retribution have long been the tools that have underpinned the authoritarianism of the leaders of the Kim line, with little chance of a breakthrough for the peninsula in the near future.

But in respect of the ‘dynastic tendency’, if nothing else, North Korea is not as unique as might initially be thought. The concentration of power within certain political families is, or recently has been, apparent in a great number of states, from the paradigm of familial oligarchy in the Philippines to the sprawling Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that for so long dominated Indian politics. In Western states, too, the dynastic tendency is compelling.

As the United States gears up for its 2016 presidential campaign, the field of both Democratic and Republican candidates vying for nomination is becoming ever more crowded. However, two candidates stand out from the milieu on account of their dynastic credentials.

First, of course, is Hilary Rodham Clinton with her bid to become the first female president. The longevity and industriousness of Clinton’s political star is impressive, so much so that it is arguably belittling of her own achievements to persist in describing her first and foremost as the wife of Bill. But the impact of the Hilary-Bill alliance on the Democratic movement for the past three decades should equally not be understated.

On the Republican side, the prospective candidacy of Jeb Bush, son of George H. W. Bush and younger brother of George W. Bush, has attracted a comparable volume of speculation. If Jeb Bush decides to run for the presidency, as seems likely to be the case though an official announcement is still pending, it could leave Americans ultimately facing a restricted choice between two candidates from two political families that have long dominated the highest levels of American government.

The UK is similarly riddled with many political dynasties, old and new. There are the sons, notably Stephen Kinnock, son of Neil Kinnock, and Will Straw, son of Jack Straw. And then there are the brothers. Jo and Boris Johnson immediately come to mind, as, of course, does the fraught fraternal relationship between Ed and David Miliband that ultimately had a hand in undoing Labour’s 2015 election campaign.

A Cause for Concern?

The question that needs to be asked, therefore, is this: what impact are political dynasties having on modern politics? Intuitively, one might jump to the argument that these concentrations of political power within specific families are undemocratic: they speak loudly of nepotism, of a lack of diversity among ruling elites, of the insidious professionalisation and standardisation of politics in practice.

In sum, they represent an insurmountable barrier to access the political game in the first place, if it is not so much the purposeful character of a person that matters, so much as the family that a person is arbitrarily born into. Having the right name becomes the currency with which access can most efficiently be bought and this can interfere with the evenness of the playing field in a fundamental and lasting way.

If the issue was really so simple as this first intuition implies, political dynasties would indeed be detrimental for they would feed into the much deeper, seemingly irremediable trends of growing inequality that characterise our societies. But intuition can pull in the opposite direction, too.

In a democracy, everyone should have the opportunity to become anything they want, for there need only be the will and the ability to achieve. The daughters of prime ministers and the brothers of presidents, moreover, are no exceptions to this clause- if they truly are good enough to undertake the job of running our countries, if they are at least as good as the next candidate and fairly proven to be a little better. In this sense, that the son of a politician freely chooses to become a politician himself, and then succeeds on the basis of his own merit, is evidence of the proper functioning of democracy.

Both of these arguments, oppositional as they are, seem equally valid, equally concerned with the welfare of democracy. But perhaps this is not so much proof that a tendency towards political dynasties is benign, as proof that the level of analysis is wrong. The real effect of political dynasties can perhaps best be comprehended by exploring the psychology of the individual and the effect that the individual can have on world events.

To return to the Bush dynasty, one can look at the presidential terms of both George Bush Senior and George Bush Junior and discern the monumental impact that they had on the fate of the state of Iraq. The actions of father and son collectively will reverberate for decades to come and not just in Iraq alone, but in the entire region as it struggles to find a lasting stability.

Much was written at the time of the Bush-led revolution in American foreign policy that ultimately culminated in the 2003 Iraq War. George W. Bush, or so the conventional wisdom went at the time, was motivated to an unusually high degree to be so hawkish with his Iraq policy because he aspired to finish what his father had started, namely to topple Saddam Hussein from power once and for all.

Similarly, there are those who argue that for a long time Ed Miliband was preoccupied with a need to break free from the legacy of New Labour. It is hard to get away from the idea that Ed Miliband must have been motivated in this quest, at least partially, because he sought to justify and differentiate his leadership from the spectre of his brother’s would-be leadership. A similar conflict could be in store for Jeb Bush if he pursues a presidential candidacy.

It is an interesting question to pose; whether political leaders who come from political dynasties are incentivised to make more cautious or more impactful decisions as a result of an aim to display solidarity with the political policies of their near relations, or indeed to break away from them. Interesting, but perhaps not too important at the end of the day. All leaders are human and fallible; and, if belonging to a political dynasty does have a distorting effect on the judgement of its politically-active members, perhaps it is sufficient to see this as simply another facet of inescapable human fallibility.

But then again, perhaps it is not an unreasonable claim to insist upon leaders who, rather than having been coached and cultivated from an early age to pursue a certain line of politics, enter politics simply because they have something original to offer. The true detriment of political dynasties may sooner or later emerge to be the stifling of new ways of thinking, and, at a time in human history that requires new thinking above all else, this could be a detriment indeed.

About the Author

Heather Emond is an MSc graduate in International Relations from the London School of Economics, with a focus in advanced international security, European security and defence policy and Arab-Israeli Relations. Upon graduation, she worked in the fields of economic development and external affairs for local government in Edinburgh, assisting with a number of EU, international and telecommunications projects. More recently, Heather has collaborated with the United Nations Association of Edinburgh and is currently based in Northern Chile volunteering for a teaching programme co-delivered by the Chilean Ministry of Education and UN Development Programme.

Twitter: @HGEmond

Cover image ‘Hillary Tom Bill & Ruth‘ by Karen Murphy


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