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The Rise and Fall of Dynastic Politics

In the lead-up to the 2016 elections, two candidates have emerged to the fore of public and media attention: Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and Jeb Bush for the Republicans. All things considered, there are many parallels between the contenders: they both represent the ideological middle of their parties, they both have been implicated in controversies involving email and they both have the weight of expectation behind them. But most importantly, they are both from prominent political families with legacies that could make or break their respective campaigns.

The Clinton and Bush families are simply the latest in a long list of political dynasties. If we look back at US history, we can find numerous examples of influential families that have made their mark on domestic politics over generations: the Roosevelts, Tafts and Kennedys spring to mind. This phenomenon is generally attributed to the financial drain of political campaigns; families with larger resources are more likely to run, creating de facto nobilities. The trend is self-perpetuating as these families amass contacts, information and experience about the political process. Their fame also allows family members to gain publicity and media attention with the slightest actions, giving them a measure of legitimacy in the public sphere. Thus, the prevalence of political dynasties is a result of flaws in the institutional system itself.

The United States is not alone in inadvertently promoting dynastic politics. In fact, similar dynasties were ubiquitous in Asian politics throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. Since India’s Independence in 1947, the Gandhi family — descendants of the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru — have dominated Indian politics. They have been ever-present in the leadership of the Indian National Congress and have garnered considerable power. Chinese President Xi Jinping also comes from a political background; he is the son of Xi Zhongxun, a communist revolutionary and leader. Singapore’s current Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, is the son of the city-state’s founder, Lee Kuan Yew. Comparable trends can be seen in South Korea with Park Geun-Hye, Philippines with Benigno Aquino, Malaysia with Najib Razak and Japan with Shinzo Abe. If anything, political dynasties are the norm rather than the exception in Asian politics.

This phenomenon could be due to the legacy of colonialism in Asia. When many Asian colonies gained independence, they were left with a stratified populace and only a small educated community that was capable of ruling a nation. As in the United States, the trend was self-perpetuating: these powerful families retained their influence across generations because of their strong support bases and political savoir-faire. Another factor in the rise of dynastic politics could be a cultural bias towards established, recognized families: many Asian cultures have remnants of monarchic or aristocratic rule, ensuring that the scions of upper-class dynasties gain more respect and national recognition. It could also stem from the nature of the parliamentary system, which promotes smaller, regional parties that tend to be based on familial ties. In all likelihood, these factors have accumulated to create situations conducive to the rise of family politics across the continent.

However, in the last decade the Asian public has apparently grown disillusioned with these often controversial and scandalous families. In many recent elections, the public has elected newcomers over the heirs of powerful dynasties. Last year, Joko Widodo (Jokowi) — a newcomer to politics —won the Indonesian elections against Prabowo Subianto, son-in-law of ex-leader Suharto. The Indian National Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi, lost the parliamentary elections in what became a landslide victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). And even in the countries where dynasties have maintained their power, their popularity has waned: many such leaders are facing increasing criticism for their actions and the legacies of their family.

One reason for this shift is the fact that Asian political dynasties have often been implicated in corruption and fraud. This is exemplified by the recent scandal surrounding the president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III. Despite rising to power on an anti-corruption platform, Aquino’s government has been called the “most corrupt” in the nation’s history. Aquino may have been a widely popular leader but such criticism has weakened his appeal. Similarly, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (son of the nation’s second prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein) has tarnished his own image by becoming embroiled in charges of graft. His approval rating is currently at an all-time low, largely because of criticism against his “massive wealth”. Many dissidents in Malaysia were particularly frustrated by the extravagance of Razak’s wife, who pays her hairstylists more for house calls than Malaysia’s monthly minimum wage. As political dynasties are increasingly considered corrupt, wasteful and out of touch with the masses, their support has diminished across the continent.

Moreover, although these dynasties were created by tough, savvy politicians, their modern-day counterparts tend to lack the shrewdness and resilience of their predecessors. The children of political dynasties are generally seen as incompetent. In India, for example, the Nehru/Gandhi family has maintained its political supremacy for over half a century. This dominance came to an end with the embarrassing failures of Rahul Gandhi, the heir to the unofficial throne of the Congress Party. While campaigning for the 2014 elections, Gandhi repeatedly demonstrated his ineptitude with a botched interview reminiscent of Sarah Palin in 2008. Likewise, Asif Ali Zardari (former president of Pakistan) lost public support due to his policy failures. Zardari became president after the high-profile assassination of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Even though he succeeded in keeping democracy alive in the volatile nation, he failed to tackle important issues such as inflation, energy shortages and growing radicalism in Balochistan. Zardari’s rule was also characterized by the American capture and assassination of Osama bin Laden, an event that undermined the façade of Pakistani sovereignty. Of course, many leaders from political lineages are strong and intelligent: Xi Jinping and Shizo Abe spring to mind. Nevertheless, the incompetence of certain political heirs has created widespread disillusionment with their families.

But perhaps the most disturbing trait of political dynasties is their predilection for autocracy. For instance, former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used her position as Nehru’s daughter to win power and maintain it with an iron fist. More recently, former Indonesian Prime Minister Suharto presided over a ruthless regime that saw rapid economic growth alongside deep-rooted corruption and a blatant disregard for human rights. This mixed legacy was a factor in the Indonesian public’s decision to elect Jokowi over Prabowo Subianto, Suharto’s son-in-law. Overall, the Asian public has become more suspicious of political dynasties and have begun to support newcomers instead.

The rise and fall of Asian dynasties contains many lessons applicable to American politics. Of course, the Clintons and the Bushes are not embroiled in the same issues as their Asian counterparts: neither candidate is completely inept or corrupt, and the American institutional system offers its own safeguards to prevent autocracy. However, the disillusionment with dynasties has already become palpable across the nation. Almost 70 percent of Americans think that presidential candidates should come from more families and backgrounds. Even Barbara Bush complained about the Bush-Clinton stronghold on the candidacy, calling the dominance of the two families “silly”.

The disenchantment with political dynasties is natural considering these families have little in common with the American public. More significantly, they have to surmount the mixed legacies and ideological failures of past eras. This is particularly evident in the prelude to the 2016 elections. Hillary Clinton has the unenviable task of navigating her campaign through the re-emergence of Monica Lewinsky. As Lewinsky gains media attention during Clinton’s run, many potential supporters may be turned off by memories of Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial. Clinton has to maintain her approval ratings without portraying her tenure as simply a continuation of her husband’s controversial and partisan era. Jeb Bush has the analogous task of separating himself from his brother. George W. Bush might have some staunch supporters but, for the most part, Americans remember him for his mismanagement of the economy and his failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. In other words, political dynasties may gain additional media attention and legitimacy but they must also overcome the weight of the past.

As Clinton and Bush launch their 2016 campaigns, they should be careful to present themselves as original candidates with innovative ideas. It is a long way till the primaries and the final ballots, and much will change over the course of the next year and a half. But one thing is for sure: if the Asian example is anything to go by, neither candidate will emerge victorious based on their dynasties, but rather in spite of them.

About the Author

Mili Mitra '18 is an International Relations concentrator and a senior staff writer for BPR.