Last summer, after the Republican National Convention made history by nominating the son of a former president as its standard-bearer, the writer Andrew Sullivan raised an issue that only now is beginning to make its way onto op-ed pages. How was it, Sullivan wondered, that in a supposedly meritocratic republic, the son of a former president was running for the same office his father so recently held? One would think this kind of behavior was better suited to Sullivan’s native country, the United Kingdom. But even in that land we associate with aristocratic nepotism, Sullivan noted, it would be almost unthinkable that a child of a prime minister would make it to the top of Disraeli’s famous greasy pole.
The Bush succession, of course, has come to pass, the first such father-son succession since John Adams and John Quincy Adams. But the time span between the two Adams presidencies was a quarter-century; the Adams succession was by no means considered a restoration. The two presidents named George Bush, however, have only Bill Clinton’s name separating them. This undoubtedly will create great confusion in a century or so when some poor sixth-grader consults the list of presidents published in the World Almanac—how many sixth-graders in 2100 will think that George Bush was like Grover Cleveland, president in non-consecutive terms?
Sullivan also took note of all the blood relatives of political figures present at the Republican convention and wondered what it might mean for the republic. Now, every thumb-sucker in the American punditry class is wondering the same thing. For not only do we have a president’s son as president, but in New York—a state that still has some importance to the nation as a whole—the son of a former governor has stated his intention to run for his father’s old job. And he may well face the very man who deposed his father, George Pataki. Calling Mr. Shakespeare!
Andrew Cuomo, son of Mario Cuomo and most recently Bill Clinton’s Housing Secretary, is but the best known and most ambitious of several sons and daughters of New York elected officials who wish to turn politics into a family business. That the younger Cuomo is married into the Kennedy clan only adds to the idea that our political leaders are becoming a class unto themselves. Taking note of this trend, Gail Collins of The New York Times wondered if perhaps politics was becoming an insular business, where family connections mean more than talent and determination.
Perhaps, but there’s another and even more disturbing explanation. Because fund-raising has become the mother’s milk of American politics and because politics has become just another part of the celebrity culture, having a recognizable name instantly separates you from your competitors. It is a variation on the marketing mantra known as “branding.” Political contributors will more readily respond to a “brand” they recognize—a Bush, a Cuomo, a Kennedy—in the same way that a consumer is more likely to reach for Kellogg’s corn flakes over, say, Unknown Mills corn flakes (even though Unknown Mills is probably cheaper and tastes just as good).
So, whether the office you seek is dogcatcher or president of these United States, you become an instant contender, perhaps even a front-runner, if you are a name brand. It almost doesn’t matter why people recognize you—remember, after all, that the first President Bush was not simply defeated in 1992, but humiliated. Eight years ago, the Bush brand name rivaled that of Edsel in consumer confidence. Yet George W. Bush managed to capitalize on his name recognition to build a record-setting campaign war chest and then win (or, depending on your view of the proceedings in Florida, almost win) the presidency, despite being a political novice and relative “unknown.”
What does this mean for the republic? It is not hard to conclude that we are on the verge of governance by celebrity. Some, in fact, would argue that the age began with the election of a screen actor, Ronald Reagan, as president. But Reagan at least was involved in union politics, served two terms as governor and ran for president twice before finally winning the prize. George W. Bush famously led a carefree life until he hit 40 and started his political career a few years later by running not for local office, but for governor. Likewise, the younger Cuomo has never run for any other office; his father, who struggled for recognition and who found his last name to be something less than an asset, ran in vain for mayor of New York City, served as New York’s secretary of state and then as lieutenant governor before becoming governor.
In the age of brand-name politicians, it would seem, nobody starts at the bottom, nobody feels the need to learn what some might dare call political science. Society’s arbiters, fascinated by fame and the famous, have concluded that possession of a brand name is qualification enough for high elected office. Donors, like any educated consumers, look for names they can trust, which apparently means names they recognize. They know what they’re getting when they invest their money in a Bush or a Cuomo.
For those who labor in state legislatures, in city councils, in the farm systems of American politics, the outlook for advancement is dreary. Conditioned to believe that hard work, determination and ambition will reap great rewards, they are learning that in 21st-century American politics, nothing matters more than fame.