US presidential race

America’s plutocrats savour the political game

Linda Colley

It’s now certain. The next presidential election will be between two multimillionaire members of America’s hereditary elite. For the Republicans, it will of course be George Bush, son of the other President Bush who founded Zapata Petroleum, and an alumnus of Yale University and its elite student society, Skull and Bones. His Democratic opponent, John Kerry, is no closer in origins to the toiling masses. Kerry’s ancestors have been involved in Massachusetts’ politics since the 1600s. His first wife was worth $300m; his second wife’s family fortune is even larger. And guess what his university background is: Yale and Skull and Bones.

“In Britain neither of these guys could lead a major party,” grumbled the New York Times columnist David Brooks last week: and this was a significant remark. Americans believe that Britons are uniquely class-bound. So for Brooks to concede that even the British would not tolerate leaders like this was quite an admission. Americans “pretend to be a middle-class, democratic nation,” he diagnosed: “but in reality we love our bluebloods”.

Yet this is neither entirely fair to US voters, nor the whole truth. In virtually all countries, politics is often a family business (think of the Bhuttos in Pakistan, or the Mussolinis in Italy), and there are good as well as bad reasons for this. The children of politicians learn the allure and tricks of politics along with their alphabet. They inherit a network of useful contacts, and - if they’re lucky - a name that confers instant voter recognition. It was hardly their own shining abilities alone that allowed a son, two grandsons, and a son-in-law of Winston Churchill to make their way into parliament.

So, to this extent, there’s nothing unique, or novel, or remotely sinister about the Bush

and Kerry pairing. In the past, America’s sixth president, John Quincy Adams, was the son of its second president, John Adams. And, in the present, the voters of Ohio enjoy as their governor Robert Taft III, having previously elected two other Robert Tafts to represent them in the US Senate.

American hereditary politicians of this sort are as common among Democrats as among Republicans, and — like their equivalents in other countries — often do the state conscientious and considerable service.

But what we are witnessing in America now is something rather more than these common and universal linkages between procreation and power. At one level, the particular clout that family connections and extreme wealth exert here reflects the fact that America’s politics remain in some respects rooted in the 18th century. Its written constitution, after all, was drafted in 1787 by men who had rebelled against George III, but who still thought and behaved very much like 18th-century Britons. As a result, the US, for all its republicanism and rampant modernity, has preserved in aspic some political ticks and traditions that Britain itself has long since got rid of.

In 21st-century America, elections are raucous, flamboyant, flag-waving, expensive, and sometimes ramshackle things. Some of Florida’s difficulties in the last presidential elections, for instance, stemmed from the fact that - in the US - it is the different localities, not any central agency, that are responsible for electoral equipment and ballot forms. As a result, there is plenty of room on voting days for local variations and fiascos, and just occasionally for chicanery. Such cheerful chaos may seem shocking to modern-day Britons, whose elections are more staid and standardised, and very much cheaper. But Hogarth would have understood it.

But it is in the lure and opportunities that American politics afford to a small number

of very wealthy families that the continuities with the 18th century can best be seen. True, this point should not be overstated. As Ronald Reagan demonstrated, it is still possible to progress if not from a log cabin at least from obscurity to the White House. It is also rare. By contrast, in every presidential election since 1950, bar one, the Republican ticket has included someone named Bush, or Dole, or Nixon. Just as great aristocratic families such as the Pelhams, Cavendishes and Salisburys once dominated British politics, so now great plutocratic families stalk the jungle of modern American political life.

And the power of such plutocrats is actually increasing. This is partly because, since the 1970s, the gulf between America’s very rich and the rest of its people has widened. The 13,000 or so richest US families now enjoy as much income as do its 20 million poorest householders. Simultaneously, American electioneering has become increasingly expensive.

But before Britons shudder at such excesses, and think complacently of the relative restraint and openness of Britain’s political system, it’s worth considering just why some of America’s very richest families are so eager to play politics. Again, the answer can be found in the 18th century. Back then, great landed dynasties competed for places in parliament and the cabinet, and not just because they could and felt they should. Rather, the very wealthy invested in politics because Britain was then a global power, and ruling it meant performing on a very big stage indeed. America’s plutocrats savour the political game for much the same reason. Because their country is the new Rome: so the game is worth the candle.— The Guardian