Americans see it as sign of freedom, absolute proof of how democratic their political system is. Like it or not, for a nation that split up from the British Monarchy through a revolution, the Americans were really quick to build their own version of royalty, aristocracy and even dynasties.
First came the “founding fathers” – that is, the men who stood up to the Crown, took part in the revolution, and contributed to the writing and adoption of the US constitution. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe – the first five presidents – were all “founding fathers.”
In other words, for almost the first half century of the country, anyone in the US could become president… as long as he also was a founding father.
Aristocratic and/or oligarchic groups are really keen on keeping their power. The best way to do so is by creating a dynasty.
After the Monroe presidency, there were no more founding fathers around to take up the torch. But there was John Quincy Adams, son of a founding father who even bore his name.
The year was 1824, and while Adams was preparing to inherit the presidency through the democratic vote of the people, the first media circus of American presidential politics rose like a thunderstorm headed by general Andrew Jackson.
Jackson had the dubious honour of being celebrated as a national hero for his massacre of Native Americans during the Creek War and the First Seminole War.
He ran against Adams and certainly secured more votes than all of the other candidates.
Thanks to the mechanism of election of the president based on the electoral college, however, no candidate in 1824 was able to get elected thanks to the popular vote and the election had to be decided by the House of Representatives. Because oligarchies are hard to defeat, John Quincy Adams was elected president, even though he had received less votes than Jackson.
Four years later, Jackson ran again and was elected, proving that someone surrounded by a powerful media circus can actually upset the establishment of a true dynasty.
But maybe Jackson represents the rise of a different kind of oligarchy. In fact, between his election in 1828 and the beginning of the 20th century, 10 out of the 14 people elected to the presidency were generals in the military.
Their presidential campaigns throughout this time are often referred to as “hurrah” campaigns. The term tries to symbolise the level of superficial and over-the-top support these men usually received from the people.
Needless to say, the media circus surrounding these campaigns was incredible, especially keeping in mind that we are talking about 19th-century elections. In other words, in the 1800s, anyone in the US could become president …as long as he also was a general surrounded by a media circus.
Then, with the 20th century, one of the most important American political dynasties emerged: the Roosevelts.
This dynasty dominated American presidential politics for the whole first half of the 20th century with only two men and one woman.
Theodore Roosevelt was elected vice-president in 1900, rose to the presidency in 1901 and until his death in 1919 was front-and-centre in presidential politics. He even created his own party and ran as a third-party candidate in 1912.
It is fair to say that in 1908 Theodore Roosevelt handed the presidency to William Howard Taft – himself part of an important political dynasty from Ohio – and that in 1912 Woodrow Wilson became president only because of Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party candidacy.
In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt walked his niece Eleanor to the altar to marry their fifth cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Franklin Roosevelt would become president in 1932 and re-elected in 1936, in 1940 and in 1944.
In other words, during the first half of the 1900s, anyone in the US could become president … as long as his name was Roosevelt.
The logical thing at this point would be to jump to 1960 and talk about John Kennedy and the Kennedy dynasty. Even though they are obviously one of the most well-known American political families, in reality there are several families in the US that rise to that level or above.
For example, the Carter dynasty in Georgia, the Cuomo dynasty in New York, the Udall dynasty in the West, the Rockefeller dynasty in the East, the D’Alessandro/Pelosi dynasty in both the East and the West, the Taft dynasty in Ohio, and the Harrison dynasty, which can boast two presidents. Under this light, the Kennedys seem less interesting.
What is extremely interesting, on the other hand, is the widely known but little talked about fact that, since 1980, every single American presidential election has had either a Bush or a Clinton – or both – running in a presidential ticket with the sole exception of 2012. In 1980 and 1984 George HW Bush was in the ticket as vice-presidential candidate. In 1988 and 1992 he ran for president.
In 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton ran for president. In 2000 and 2004, George W Bush ran for president. In 2008 Hillary Clinton was a major contender during the presidential primary season, upset only by Barack Obama and the media circus that rose around him when he gave a promising speech during the 2004 Democratic convention.
After one single election in 2012 with no Bush or no Clinton candidate, we doubled-down in 2016 with Hillary Clinton as Democratic nominee and Jeb Bush running in the Republican primaries. The power of these two dynasties is astonishing.
In fact, one of my personal favourite moments in recent American presidential politics happened during the 2008 Democratic convention, when Hillary Clinton “nominated” Barack Obama as the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party.
What I see in that moment, is the establishment allowing a small detour from its own design. Hillary played her cards right.
She accepted to work with Obama as Secretary of State, which made her look like a team player and gain international profile and foreign relations experience. But she only stayed in this role enough to do that, and then stepped back to distance herself enough from the administration just so no one could accuse her of being the “continuation” of the Obama administration.
This is oligarchic and dynastic planning at its best – or worst. It is, almost play-by-play, what John Kennedy did himself in 1956 when he conceded to Estes Kefauver the honour of joining Adlai Stevenson in the Democratic presidential ticket that was bound to be easily defeated by Dwight Eisenhower.
Will Hillary Clinton follow John Kennedy’s footsteps all the way to the White House? Will her dynasty finally have two presidents, as the most successful American dynasties?
We will know that soon enough. For the time being, all we know is that, in the last 30 years, anyone in the US could become president … as long as his/her name was Bush or Clinton.
The only good thing about it being that I finally can use “her” next to “his” when I write this sentence.
Dr Rodrigo Praino is a lecturer in Politics and Public Policy at Flinders University’s School of Social and Policy Studies and director of the Graduate Program in Public Administration online. He is an expert in American politics and elections and has published extensively in the field. His works appeared in journals such as American Politics Research, Social Science Quarterly and Congress and the Presidency. His academic work has featured prominently in the international media, including the Washington Post, Politico, the Huffington Post, the Pew Research Centre and the Discovery Channel.
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