How much nepotism is there in U.S. politics?

Adams in a posthumous portrait created in 1858 by G.P.A. Healy
John Quincy Adams in a posthumous portrait created in
1858 by G.P.A. Healy.

If Jeb Bush becomes president, he won’t be the first child of a former president to take the job (that was John Quincy Adams). But he will be the first brother of a former president to do so. If Hillary Clinton takes the prize, she will not only be the first of her distinguished gender but also the first spouse of a previous president to (re)occupy the White House.

(Pretty good trivia question here: We have already had the first presidential grandfather, presidential grandchild pairing. That was William Henry Harrison and his grandson Benjamin Harrison. I believe Benjamin Harrison might be the least known of all presidents.)

Anyway, the topic is the power of family dynasty in U.S. politics. It’s embarrassingly big, this tendency to elect people from the same families, and awkward in a country that prides itself on the idea that any (native born) American can grow up to president.

That’s technically true, of course, but the odds have always favored the well-born. (The absolute same thing can be said about the cherished American belief that anyone can grow up to be rich, which must coexist with the unpleasant truth that socioeconomic mobility is higher in most European countries than in ours.)

Oh, and did I mention that Lincoln Chafee, one of Clinton’s few opponents for the Democratic presidential nomination, is the former governor and senator of Rhode Island and is the son of John Chafee, who likewise was senator and governor of Rhode Island? Linc Chafee’s great-great-grandfather was also governor — in the 1870s. And one of Jeb Bush’s leading rivals, Sen. Rand Paul, is the son of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, who ran for the Repub nomination on the previous two rounds and once before that.

I should perhaps mention, before I get carried away noticing only the candidacies of those with family connections, that the presidential field is well-supplied with candidates of humble birth and/or a lack of family grandeur. I would also like to mention that Donald Trump, who was so, so tres gauche as to mention in his announcement statement that “I’m very rich,” did not choose to mention “I was born that way.”

I don’t know how the U.S. compares with other democracies in its tendency to elect members of rich and already-politically-successful families to high office. In “The Son Also Rises,” economic historian Gregory Clark argues that across cultures and across the centuries, “economic mobility rates are lower than conventionally estimated, do not vary across societies, and are resistant to social policies.”

Writing a few days ago on this general topic for the Washington Post’s The Fix feature, Hunter Schwarz  said that “in some ways, the benefits of getting into politics after your dad did are no different than the benefits in other industries. You’re related to someone you can turn to for career advice, and your last name might open a few doors, too. It’s just that in politics, it’s on a much larger scale. The doors your last name can get you into can lead to big campaign donations and votes. It’s a ticket to entry that most mere mortals struggle to obtain.”

But Schwarz links to this earlier New York Times op-ed piece by economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who actually crunched the numbers and concluded that the odds that you will become a U.S. senator are 8,500 times better if you had a parent who was a U.S. senator.

That’s a far greater likelihood than even the likelihood that an Army general’s child will become an Army general or than an Academy Award winner’s child will win an Oscar (although in all of those cases, the child is far more likely than the average person to make it to the top of the family profession).

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Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/30/2015 - 08:44 am.

    It boils down to name recognition

    The citizenry was not well-educated in the 19th century and so voters simply chose the name on the ballot they were most familiar with.

    The same phenomenon exists today for the same reason. You have to credit the politicians for taking advantage of it. I know people in St. Paul who voted for mayor Chris Coleman because they thought they were voting for mayor Norm Coleman. Seriously.

  2. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 06/30/2015 - 08:53 am.

    Nepotism the self erradicating cancer

    I’m not too concerned about nepotism, as it eventually cleans itself out. Example, the Bush family is going nowhere. George W. has taken care of that for the Bush family. I’m far more concerned with the cancer of politics, money-political corruption. It is rampant and widespread at all level of politics.

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 06/30/2015 - 09:14 am.

    Cronyism, corruption trump nepotism in today’s world of politics by a large margin.

  4. Submitted by Roy Everson on 06/30/2015 - 09:40 am.

    Two is enough

    Just as we have a two term limit for presidents it’s worth considering we have a limit — voluntary of course — of two members of one family serve as president. There’s precedent: two Adamses, two Harrisons, two Roosevelts, two Bushes.

    • Submitted by Barbara Lofquist on 06/30/2015 - 10:21 am.

      term limits and cronyism

      2 terms are enough for the president and should be the same for the legislature. No lobbying for 10 years after holding any state or federal elected position would be a start. Nepotism should be forbidden in all jobs paid for by taxpayers. Private industry can do as their by laws allow. We certainly are not currently benefiting from the best and the brightest- Governor Dayton is proof of that.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 06/30/2015 - 11:23 am.

        Amen Barbara, amen.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/30/2015 - 11:44 am.

        Term limits are arbitrary limitations on the franchise of all voters, in that they deprive us of the right to vote for whomever we please on grounds other than the candidate’s fitness for office.

        Term limits in a non-professional legislature would have extra defects. As it is, many, if not most, of our laws are written by special interest groups and lobbyists. Legislators with little experience in creating legislation would rely on this inherently corrupt and anti-democratic state of affairs. In addition, I can easily see legislators who do not have to answer to voters more than once becoming more irrationally partisan and hard-line ideological. What incentive would there be to compromise? “Who cares about the integrity of the institution? I’m out of here!”

        “Private industry can do as their by laws allow” Words that have excused decades and trillions of dollars worth of fraud, corruption, and bad practices.

        You anti-Dayton snark is [various adjectives that would not pass moderation], as well as completely irrelevant to the topic.

        • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/30/2015 - 12:21 pm.

          Her comment was very relevant

          I know little old ladies and others who voted for Dayton because they thought they were voting for the head of their favorite department store and Amy Klobuchar because they loved her newspaper columns.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/30/2015 - 01:57 pm.

            Not Really

            Since Governor Dayton has not exceeded the customary two terms for a Minnesota Governor, and since he has stated he has no intention of doing so, I fail to see what petty sniping about him has to do with the issue of term limits.

          • Submitted by Theo Kozel on 06/30/2015 - 02:00 pm.

            No, it wasn’t

            There will never be a politician elected who don’t have at least a few supporters for plainly stupid reasons. That Dayton or Klobuchar supposedly do as well is utterly meaningless and trivial information.

          • Submitted by jason myron on 06/30/2015 - 04:22 pm.

            and there were people

            who voted for George Bush because he looked like “a guy I could have a beer with.” Assigning stupidity to one particular voting block is disingenuous.

        • Submitted by joe smith on 06/30/2015 - 02:30 pm.

          Term limits hopefully get politicians out of office before they can be totally corrupted by power, money and fame.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/30/2015 - 03:10 pm.


            The Founders considered putting term limits in the Constitution, but rejected the idea. If politicians are totally corrupted by power, money and fame because they have been in office too long, that is the fault of the voters who keep returning them to office. Term limits just give the voters an excuse not to pay attention.

            If a politician is doing a good job while in office, why not keep returning them? This would seem to be a better reason for voting for a candidate than “it would be fun to have a kick-ass wrestler as Governor,” or “I sure liked him when he was on Death Valley Days.”

      • Submitted by Theo Kozel on 06/30/2015 - 01:58 pm.

        Term limits are a silly non-solution

        If someone is a good office holder or public official, people should have the right to retain them even if they’ve been in office for more terms than we arbitrarily stipulate. Term limits will do little to clean out government, only an engaged and educated electorate could do that. Failing that, other solutions like term limits are placebos that worsen the situation by making it appear to be resolved.

        The attack on Dayton was cheap and embarrassing and only serves to make your point less persuasive.

  5. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 06/30/2015 - 01:16 pm.

    Don’t forget….

    Vice Presidents Humphrey and Mondale although their offspring thankfully didn’t go too far.

    • Submitted by Kurt Nelson on 06/30/2015 - 07:39 pm.


      Good thing Mondale’s daughter died of brain cancer before she could “go too far”. I mean other than having a successful career, being a wife, and all that come with that role, a daughter… – well, you get the point ( actually you miss the point, but since she was a Democrat it cools right).

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/30/2015 - 08:01 pm.


    we’re not talking about nepotism as commonly defined.
    That is one person giving a job or other favors to a relative, such as a governor hiring an unqualified relative.
    In this case, we are talking about benefiting by association, such as being married to a former president. If Bill Clinton had hired Hillary for a job for which she had no qualifications, that would have been nepotism. Same for the Bush boys.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 07/01/2015 - 09:35 am.

      The Kennedys

      You mean like when Jack Kennedy appointed his kid brother to Attorney General and no one batted an eye.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/01/2015 - 12:48 pm.


        Robert Kennedy had law degrees, was a successful attorney, and chief counsel of the Senate Labor Rackets Committee (remember Jimmy Hoffa?).
        It is true that he had not served as a judge.

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