Dynasties and Democracy

A huge shift is taking place in the American landscape, as we cross the boundary that separates a republic from an empire, and that is the emergence of dynastic politics. No American seems to have yet noticed that American presidential elections seem to be morphing into combat between rival royal families, but Chrystia Freeland, the managing editor of the Financial Times and a Canadian citizen, has:

"What’s really interesting for me in looking at the international reaction to the U.S. presidential race and the American one, is outside the United States, people are a lot more concerned about this idea that America is being governed by two dynasties. And yet, that notion doesn’t seem to have captured the public attention or really to be being used by Clinton’s opponents."

She said it in the course of a roundtable discussion of the presidential horse race on Chris Matthews’ Hardball. Matthews came back citing a poll saying 49 percent think having Bill Clinton hanging around the White House – a co-presidency with Hillary, in effect – is a good idea, but he conceded this doesn’t answer the question raised by Freeland all that well. "The central point about family command and celebrity command of the presidency," averred Freeland, "I think even goes beyond Bill Clinton himself. And I think it’s, you know, a bigger structural weakness in how you get to be president of America. But Americans don’t seem really worried about it right now." Matthews, ever the partisan Democrat, shot back: "It’s hard for the Bush Republicans to say, let’s get rid of a dynasty after they benefited from all these years. It’s very hard to say, let’s stop this dynastic thing right now that we have all these presidencies behind us."

Matthews needn’t worry: Democrats have nothing to fear from Republicans on this score. Rudy Giuliani will mock Hillary, he’ll smear her, he’ll lash out at her until the cows come home, yet you won’t hear a peep out of him on the question of whether there’s something odd – and maybe even a little bit un-American – about the country being governed by political dynasties. You won’t hear him, or any other "frontrunner" for the GOP nomination, speak out about this disturbing trend, which shows so very clearly that our old republic is on its deathbed – because the GOP has enabled and endorsed the policies that have made it possible.

Fear and loathing of royalism was a defining trait of the American character in its formative years and only increased in intensity as the young nation expanded across a continent. The frontier spirit distilled and defined the country’s soul. In opposition to the wannabe aristocrats and neo-Tories of the Federalists, Jefferson and his party represented what might be called anti-statist populism, which boiled up whenever the hubris of the elites threatened to overreach itself. The titled aristocracy of the Europeans, with their inbred Bourbons, Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, and whatnot, used to be viewed by Americans with a mixture of perplexity, disdain, and good-natured humor. They regarded it as foreign – an archaic holdover from the bad old days of feudalism, which America, thankfully, had never experienced, and which our forefathers fled Europe to avoid.

The rise of dynastic politics – of powerful political families that, in effect, constitute political parties in themselves – is a sign of empire, which appears as the imperial reality begins to fill the empty republican forms it is fast displacing. Yes, we still have a president, not a king; yes, the Constitution is still referred to, albeit almost never enforced; and, no, we don’t have hereditary titles, unless you’re counting the editorship of Commentary magazine. Yet an American president has more power than any king ever did, and this has come about as a result of his role as commander in chief as well as chief executive.

In the early days of the American experiment, the dual character of the office of president did not produce permanent distortions in the constitutional order, and the balance of power between the three branches of the federal government was, roughly, maintained, in spite of a few unfortunate lurches in one direction or another. However, a sea-change occurred in the modern era, specifically when we began to abandon the foreign policy of the Founders, who warned against entangling alliances and going abroad "in search of monsters to destroy." Two world wars and a long Cold War enlarged the federal government, especially its executive branch, beyond all recognition, until, by the time Harry Truman stepped into the Oval Office, the presidency was infected with a case of elephantiasis.

It was Truman, you’ll recall, who set the fateful precedent of not bothering to consult Congress before sending American troops to fight in Korea. It was a first step down the fast lane to presidential supremacism in the realm of foreign affairs, one that was taken with no thought of the consequences, except among those few Republican "isolationists" – as they were unfairly tagged – who wondered about the fate of the Constitution. American presidents since that time have hardly bothered to ask the elected representatives of the people for permission to go to war, and military action has been largely relegated to the realm of presidential caprice.

The argument went that we couldn’t wait for Congress to consult, argue, debate, and vote while the fate of the Free World hung in the balance, when a moment’s hesitation could mean the difference between survival and extinction, and the Soviets were supposedly ever ready to take advantage of the West’s democratic dithering. We had always to be in a state of hair-trigger alert – so the cold warriors told us – or else we faced certain defeat at the hands of our enemies. In the post-9/11 era, this argument has reached its only logical conclusion, and it is now embodied in the Bushian doctrine of presidential primacy, which avers that the president in wartime has the power to suspend the Constitution (in the name of "defending" it, of course) and can rule by decree.

Our devolution into a system, like ancient Rome’s, in which political dynasties are dominant is a function of the bipartisan consensus on matters both foreign and domestic. Now that both parties have agreed that the federal leviathan is an immutable fact of American life, and that it is our moral and patriotic duty to police the world, the only debate that occurs in Washington is over who shall wield the power. In the imperial era, American politics is increasingly a battle of personalities, not ideologies, a clash of rival celebrities competing for public adulation rather than antipathetic platforms competing for the allegiance of the voting public.

With Democrats gleefully anticipating what some call the "Clintonian restoration," the politics-of-celebrity syndrome easily trumps the ideological tics still remaining in the Democratic Party, such as its ostensibly "antiwar" sentiments in the face of Republican super-interventionism. It is no accident that the dynastic candidate, Hillary, is also the most interventionist: she represents a party Establishment that is thoroughly invested in maintaining and expanding the American Empire, and her "right" of succession, based on dynastic loyalties, is more than a match for the ideological fervor of the Democratic grassroots.

There have always been those who preferred the pretensions of titled aristocrats and royal courts to the stern republican virtues of our forefathers, but they were in a distinct minority, mostly confined to certain moneyed precincts of the Eastern seaboard. Most Americans regarded the class distinctions of, say, the British as rather silly, as well as unfair. Today, however, American culture is less egalitarian (in the best sense of the term), more impressed by snobbery, and more inclined to worship at the altar of celebrity: add to this the centralization of power in the hands of an imperial presidency, and you have a recipe for disaster.

As Freeland put it, the "structural weakness in how you get to be president of America" is restricting the pool of possible applicants for the job. The effect is to keep the office open only to those who would maximize the power of the presidency, thereby continuing the policies that virtually ensure the triumph of neo-royalism in America – especially our foreign policy of perpetual war.

The rise of dynastic politics in the U.S. is going not only unopposed, but also almost completely unnoticed by Americans – not even Ron Paul has denounced it. That alone should tell us that American politics as we used to know it – as a battle of competing philosophies of governance – is coming to an end.

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Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].