Rep. Liz Cheney was elected chair of the House Republican Conference on Tuesday, a leadership position that her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, held in the 1980s while representing the same Wyoming at-large district that she holds today (despite spending most of her life since middle school living in Virginia). It was a potent reminder that family dynasties can still play a part in American politics.
Hard as it is to remember through the fog of the Trump era, about three years ago, dynastic politics seemed like a dominant theme and one of the biggest dangers to the “any kid can grow up to be president” myth of American democracy. In 2015, many foresaw a general election matchup between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, recycling the last names of the candidates from 24 years earlier. It would have been the fifth appearance of a Bush on a national ticket since 1980, and the third for a Clinton.
Bushes have also won elections in three states — Connecticut, Texas, and Florida — and the Clintons two, Arkansas and New York. Other, newer Bushes, such as George P., the Texas land commissioner, were on the way up. Joseph P. Kennedy III, of the fourth generation of Kennedys, was the most electrifying new Democrat in the House. Andrew Cuomo and Jerry Brown each held big-state governorships that their fathers had occupied for multiple terms. Three members of the Udall family had almost overlapped in the Senate in the previous decade, from both parties. (Besides Mark Udall of Colorado and Tom of New Mexico, Republican Gordon Smith of Oregon is a cousin.)
If you include Al Gore, whose father was a senator, and Mitt Romney, whose father was a governor, Cabinet official, and presidential hopeful, five of the 10 major party nominees for president between 2000 and 2016 have been members of established political families. (With his election to the Senate this year, Romney has matched a Bush family record — statewide victory in three states: Michigan, where his father was governor, Massachusetts, and now Utah.)
While outsiders to the dynastic system, such as Barack Obama, could emerge, they seemed unusual, and those born to politics seemed to have hoarded at least half of the opportunities to run and win, raising real questions about whether American democracy was as open and meritocratic as we had been taught.
But then came 2018. The new class of congressional Democrats, one of the largest in history at about 58, depending on the last few races to be called, is striking for its near-total absence of sons, daughters, spouses, ex-spouses, grandchildren, even nieces or nephews of other elected officials.
Among Democrats, there is one exception, although the race got no national attention: In Michigan’s Ninth District, 58-year-old Andy Levin won the race to succeed his father, Sander Levin, who had served since 1983. Andy Levin’s uncle, Carl Levin, was the longest-serving senator in Michigan history, until retiring in 2015.
But that’s it. Reviewing the backgrounds of all the incoming Democrats, I found that beyond the Levin family (Mike Levin of California is unrelated), the rest of the new Democrats are all newcomers, none from political families, many with little elective experience of their own, and quite a few from working-class backgrounds.
The same is true of the newly elected governors. While two come from backgrounds of staggering wealth — J.B. Pritzker of Illinois and Ned Lamont of Connecticut, whose great-grandfather was chair of JP Morgan & Co. — none come from families with histories of elective office.
The notable, and welcome, diversity of the new Democratic class is certainly part of the story. The dynasties mentioned above are all white and Protestant or Catholic. So almost by definition, the third and fourth Muslim members ever elected to the House are unlikely to come from old political families.
But that logic doesn’t apply to women, and in the past, many women elected to public office have come from politically successful families, including, besides Cheney, Nancy Pelosi, whose father was mayor of Baltimore, and West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, whose father was Gov. Arch Moore. Others, such as Reps. Debbie Dingell of Michigan and Doris Matsui of California, hold seats previously held by their husbands, although more than half have been elected without family name recognition. It really is notable that not one of the women elected to the House or governorships in 2018 have that background.
On the Republican side, Donald Trump in 2016 broke not only the Bush dynasty but also the father-son dynasty of Ron and Rand Paul. Still, the dynastic strain seems a bit stronger on the Republican side. Besides the Cheneys, the fathers of two of the new Republican House members also served in Congress: Jim Hagedorn of Minnesota and Carol Miller of West Virginia, the only woman among newly elected Republicans. And Vice President Mike Pence’s brother Greg was elected to the House seat Mike represented from 2001 to 2013. (Mike Pence also held the same leadership position as the two Cheneys: conference chair.)
And there is always the possibility that the Trumps themselves will seek to form a political dynasty, as those with authoritarian instincts often do. Donald Trump Jr. seems to relish red-meat political rallies and hate-filled tweets as much as his father does, but it’s not just wishful thinking that makes it hard to foresee multiple generations of Trumps. (Okay, maybe it’s also wishful thinking.)
But for the most part, the era of dynastic politics seems to have receded. Andrew Cuomo survived a primary challenge and was reelected handily, but his 1990s-bred brand of politics remains far out of tune with the current Democratic mood. Joe Kennedy is now the only member of that remarkable family in federal or statewide office, and while he still has a bright future, he is just one of very many charismatic young representatives who deliver a progressive message with passion.
The generation of George W. and Jeb Bush is exhausted, and George P.’s career in Texas seems to have plateaued. With all respect to Hillary Clinton, she’s run her last race. Chelsea Clinton, Jenna Bush Hager, or Meghan McCain might run for something someday, but none seems eager. Michelle Obama shows no interest, and the Obama daughters are still too young to even talk about it.
And remarkably, even the most expansive list of potential 2020 presidential candidates on the Democratic side contains no dynastic politicians, now that Cuomo has been dropped from the Washington Post’s long list.
The disasters of democracy hit us every day, but we might sometimes forget to notice those points where we’ve stepped forward and made progress. If it holds — if Liz Cheney is now the exception rather than the rule — it’s possible that something we all saw as a problem just a few years ago has been solved, or at least that the dynastic clock has been reset. Perhaps a few decades from now, we’ll be looking at the third generation of Ocasio-Cortezes, but we can worry about that when the time comes.