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Dynasties have been there in North America too

It is political season in North America. General elections to Canada’s Parliament are scheduled for October 2015 and the run-up to the US Presidential election, due November 2016, is gathering momentum. The landscape is, significantly, dotted with political dynasties in both countries.

In Canada, Justin Trudeau heads the Liberals who are a large political party with national presence. Justin Trudeau is the son of late Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a former Liberal Prime Minister of Canada and a highly regarded politician.

In the US, Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of former president Bill Clinton, is in a clearly leading position among the four candidates seeking the Democratic party’s ticket for the presidential election. The Republican field is more crowded, with 14 candidates vying for nomination. Among the top contenders in the list is Jeb Bush, younger son and brother, respectively, of George H W Bush and George W Bush, both former presidents.

The presence of dynasties might invoke no more than a yawn in India, itself no stranger to entrenched families in politics. Dynasties are all too common in Indian politics, democracy and elections notwithstanding. They can be seen all around, from municipal politics to several states, through to the national level. To be fair, the BJP and the Communist parties are largely exceptions to the trend – at least until now.
There is, presumably, a feature in human DNA that innately encourages dynasties. This is reflected in the ancient institution of monarchy where succession was purely by birth. There was little attention to issues such as the merits or qualities of individuals. In contemporary times, perhaps, older and more feudal societies exhibit stronger dynastic tendencies.

If it is any consolation, the dynasty bug does not, apparently, spare modern democracies like Canada or even the oldest of them all – the United States. Stephen Hess, in American Political Dynasties (1997), found that family connections played a significant role in US politics.

Especially after the American Revolution (1773), a strong tradition of celebrating individual merit developed in the US. The culture explicitly decried the feudal order in Britain from which America emerged. The closed social order in Britain and the decisive advantage it gave insiders came in for condemnation. These sentiments, however, did not completely stop the emergence of families active in American politics.

John Quincy Adams, who became the sixth US president from 1825 to 1829, was the son of John Adams, the second president. Since then, there have been famous dynasties. Significantly, the trend seems to have strengthened in recent decades. The Kennedys appeared in the 1960s and more recently, there were two Bush presidents, father George H W (1988-1992) and son George W (2000-2008). Hillary Clinton is now the putative Democratic nominee, while Jeb Bush is a leading candidate for Republican nomination.

Neither is Canada without its share of dynasties. As noted, the current Liberal candidate for the prime ministerial position is the son of a heavyweight politician. The previous Liberal prime minister, Paul Martin (2003-06), is also a son of a Member of Parliament and Federal Minister of longstanding.

Understanding dynasties

How is the rise of dynasties to be interpreted, considering the democratic ethos of the times? Do they mean that family privilege and advantages of birth are still the overriding factors? The answer to the second question is, probably, “yes.” The presence of dynasties and their influence are undeniable facts. This is against the values that are implicit in the contemporary democratic ideal, which represents a leap from the monarchies of the past.

In monarchies, dynastic rule was automatic, whereas in democracies, scions of political families must yet make an effort and win elections to gain office. This difference can be understood as evolutionary and possibly transitional; two seemingly opposing phenomena – the older dynastic order and more recent democratic notions – coexist quite comfortably.

In dealing with the dynastic question, an equally valid question is whether someone should be excluded from office or even placed at a disadvantage merely because he/she was born in a certain family. This could be as objectionable as a person gaining office simply because of the accident of birth. The issue is, therefore, complex and is probably best left to forces of evolution. For instance in India, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty seems to be in decline after several decades of dominance.

To a significant extent, democratic politics, in particular as practiced in America, can itself provide a check against dynasties. In the system of primaries, grassroots members of political parties get to elect their parties’ nominees for elections. This means candidates will require the support of local members to win nomination, which can pave the way to electoral success and holding public office. Even here, persons from established political families will have advantages. These include the familiarity of established names (like Clinton or Bush) and the “branding” effect, greater visibility, media coverage, and access to resources.

The American primary system, however imperfect, can strengthen democracy and the “bottom-up” principle of power structures – a feature Mahatma Gandhi so cherished. Party nominations are decided in the open by local members, and not by so-called “high commands” composed of career politicians operating behind closed doors.

The Liberal Party in Canada has recently adopted the primary system, moving away from the older, British system of candidate selection by party leaderships. However, the Canadian Liberal Party leadership has retained a veto power reflecting, perhaps, the pangs of transition and the reluctance of established interests to relinquish hold.

Indian politics is still dominated by regional and central leaderships. A transition to the primary system can be more effective in strengthening the democratic culture within parties, at the local level, and help in grooming leadership. There is, however, little sign of change in the way political parties function in India.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, Canada)

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