Amoral familism in America

Dysfunctional societies tend to be tribal, and the strongest form of tribalism is family bonds. Leaders of dysfunction countries often use family ties to get around term limits. (Term limits are a method for reducing corruption.) When I was young, I recall some governors in the Deep South using their wives to get around fixed term limits. You also see this technique used in some highly corrupt countries in the third world.

As the US becomes more and more like a banana republic, we are beginning to adopt what is sometimes called “amoral familism” at the national level. Consider:

1. Hillary Clinton was the Democratic nominee in 2016.
2. A draft Michelle Obama for VP movement is getting underway.
3. Jared Kushner is called the “de facto President“.
4. George Bush’s son was elected president in 2000.

I will ignore any comments discussing the competence of these four individuals, which is not the point. And I don’t believe the two Democratic wives would be mere puppets, as in some other countries. And yes, this is not entirely new—Bobby Kennedy was made Attorney General.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that the problem is getting worse in the 21st century, at least at the federal level. Voters seem increasingly drawn to people based on family connections, which is a really bad sign. Just one more area where the US is becoming a bit more like a banana republic.

China is also increasingly suffering from this problem, more so than even 20 years ago.

PS. Thank God that Melania was born in Slovenia.



15 Responses to “Amoral familism in America”

  1. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    23. May 2020 at 18:58

    Well, if we make Pete Buttigieg president then we stop descendant nepotism.

    (I am joking! I know he can arrange to have kids).

    Buttigieg actually seemed like a smart guy….

  2. Gravatar of Nate Nate
    23. May 2020 at 19:34

    Japan also suffers from this to a degree, there is even a specific word in Japanese for this ‘hereditary democracy’ (世襲議員) and only in the last few decades have people that don’t come from political families started being elected – celebrities, sports players, comedians, etc.

    Worth considering that Trump himself is also not from a political family and is utterly incompetent. Maybe there is something positive to be said about it.

  3. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    23. May 2020 at 22:12

    Do we go back further to TR and FDR? Or John Adams and JQ Adams?

    Pete Buttigieg is a smart guy, present tense. Just too young. Nice debut, I think he will be a factor over time

  4. Gravatar of BC BC
    23. May 2020 at 23:51

    “it seems to me that the problem is getting worse in the 21st century”

    It can seem that way, but in reality out of the 10 Presidential elections since 1980, only 8 of them have had a Bush or Clinton on at least one of the tickets.

  5. Gravatar of BC BC
    24. May 2020 at 00:16

    It’s interesting that Republicans moved away from Bush familism in 2016. After all between 1980-2012, every winning Republican ticket had a Bush on it.

  6. Gravatar of Dan Culley Dan Culley
    24. May 2020 at 01:00

    In and of itself, family governance is not necessarily bad, as it leads to a longer time horizon. That is, I will care a lot more about the effects of my policies ten years from now if they impact my spouse’s or child’s electoral prospects than if my only concern is my immediate electoral prospects. And random selection of a low-ability heir is less of an issue in a democracy — when there is no need to select the eldest child, disciplined by worry about losing an election — than in a monarchy. The main risk would seem to be corruption, although there is admirably little of it (definitely not zero) in the main political families relative to most other countries, including many European ones.

    I think the more concerning thing is that family governance is probably adaptive to the failure of other institutions designed to promote longer-term horizons. I would trace this back to enhancement of civil service protections in a very unfortunate way in the late 1970s, leading to both itself a loss of bureaucratic capacity in the 1980s and to the Republican Party further attacking bureaucratic capacity (through, for example, an erosion of wages relative to comparable positions) from a feeling of the bureaucracy frustrating their policies.

    The failure of COVID-19 response at very low levels within the bureaucracy is a showcase for that. And Trump hasn’t been around long enough for those to be his fault, even if a better political response at the top might have ameliorated them.

  7. Gravatar of rayward rayward
    24. May 2020 at 03:25

    In America isn’t this a function of celebrity, celebrity in a culture that worships celebrity. The first celebrity president is often identified as JFK, but I would identify TR.He was even before radio (FDR was the first radio president), but he created an image of himself through newspapers and personal appearances (he famously traveled the country by train, giving speeches from the rear of the train) that was larger than life. Dictators in less developed countries are celebrities, and have what once was described as “charisma”. Trump followers worship Trump like the poor worship the dictator. I see Trump giving a speech and I see nothing more than a blustering windbag, but his followers see a savior. The expression of adulation on their faces says it all. Trump’s entire business is just a “brand”, a carefully constructed illusion. He was a celebrity before he became a reality television star, but television exposed him to the millions of Americans who watch reality (i.e., celebrity) tv. The “stars” of reality tv have no talent other than self-promotion. For people like me who aren’t drawn to reality tv, we cannot understand the allure of the genre or the celebrity culture that has made reality tv so popular. Martha Stewart and Donald Trump are one and the same. At the height of Stewart’s celebrity, homes of thousands, maybe millions, of Americans were Martha Stewart cutouts. At a different time Martha Stewart may have become the first woman president. Instead, she went to jail for conduct that is far less socially repugnant than what Trump does every day.

  8. Gravatar of P Burgos P Burgos
    24. May 2020 at 04:49

    I would second what Rayward said about celebrity. Name recognition is a big deal in politics. So just to give another example, many people have speculated about Oprah making a bid for the presidency, or Dwayne Johnson, because their celebrity would be a huge boost for the electoral prospects for their party.

  9. Gravatar of Mark Barbieri Mark Barbieri
    24. May 2020 at 10:39

    Texas elected its first female governor back in 1924. Ma Ferguson ran as a puppet for her husband Pa Ferguson. He was ineligible to run because he had been impeached while serving as governor and barred from holding elected office again.

  10. Gravatar of nick nick
    24. May 2020 at 17:41

    I don’t think this is new. Or comparable to a banana republic. John Quincy Adams was the son of John Adams. Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of William Harrison, Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt were cousins. Truman was the Vice President of FDR. Nixon was the vice president of Eisenhower, and Bush (senior) of course was the vice president for Reagan. His son was selected, but it was not in a landslide. Hillary was never elected despite her Husband Bill, who was arguably one of 20th centuries most popular presidents. And then of course there are outliers like Obama, Lincoln (not suggesting they are in the same category of quality). But mostly Americans have voted for people they know. Grant was given the title after the civil war. As was General Eisenhower. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and just about everyone up to Andrew Jackson were founding fathers. So I think you are over analyzing a bit.

  11. Gravatar of nick nick
    24. May 2020 at 18:21

    “It’s interesting that Republicans moved away from Bush familism in 2016. After all between 1980-2012, every winning Republican ticket had a Bush on it”

    – I think you are forgetting how popular Reagan was. This is a man who won 525 electoral votes, and swept 49 states. George Bush won in 1988 because he was Reagans vice president. This not uncommon. 9 out of 45 presidents were previously vice presidents before taking office.

    – Bush Jr. was an excellent candidate for office. He had a good sense of humor, nice personality, and seemed to restore trust in what many Americans had perceived to be a corrupt Clinton administration. Al gore was also a very good candidate, hence the close electoral outcome. Bush also overcame strong primary challenges – John McCain was a beloved American hero, especially on the right, and Alan keyes was no slouch. He has a Ph.D. in govt from Harvard.

  12. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    25. May 2020 at 00:38

    Yawn. Weak post from a usually brilliant Scott Sumner. Having lived in three non-US countries for over a year (GR, TH, PH), I can tell you this sort of ‘trademark branding’ is common for the same reason ‘nobody got fired for buying IBM’ as the old meme used to go, or the same reason people buy trademarked goods (symbol of quality, it’s a ‘no brainer’ while shopping). In GR the Misotakis, Papandreaou, Karamalis clans control politics since the 1960s, in north Thailand it’s the Thaksin clan, in the Philippines it is one of the leading five families who control most of the economy, not to mention the Marcos clan, etc etc etc. The USA is becoming more ‘average’, and, being the end of American Exceptionalism, is following the rest of the world, on that point I can agree with Sumner.

  13. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. May 2020 at 09:37

    Ray, Common in banana republics or common in Scandinavia?

  14. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    25. May 2020 at 16:35

    The phenomenon really seems to be very common, even in Scandinavia:

    I think it is partly the ringing name (i.e. branding) and partly “networking” – or more critically speaking, not “networking” but corruption and nepotism.

    There seems to be not only a positive correlation to the corruption index of the country, but maybe also to the size of the country. Roughly speaking, the bigger the country the more powerful certain families are, which could be explained by the ringing name and the massive networks that you need, which can take generations to build.

    In a big country it might help even more to have a well-known name in order to come to power, or to put it another way, a no-name has almost no chance. As someone else has said, you have to be a well-known celebrity way before the election, see Michelle Obama, Oprah, and Dwayne Johnson.

  15. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    25. May 2020 at 17:52

    On this Memorial Day, while thinking about the sacrifices of the many men and women who’ve died or lost loved ones in the defense of our country, I am reminded of the great men and women who rose to lead us in times of peril. They were far greater people than most who occupy this nation today, in the shockingly sad state in which we find ourselves.

    Far too many Americans have become selfish, narcissistic whiners, who want to destroy the entire system if they don’t get their way on every issue. They are unworthy of calling themelves Americans. The are alien to the very concept of sacrifice.

    On this Memorial Day, I am sad to say that our enemies are within, led by the chief nihilist in the White House, and followed by the treasonous lemmings who long forgot what America stands for, if they ever knew.

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