Is our nation a democracy or a creator of political dynasties? Or are we a combination of both?
As the United States Senate continues to gel, and as people jockey for appointings and annointings, it is interesting to ask how much "name" matters, and whether other factors propel politicians to prominence. President-elect Barack Obama came to the table with scant lineage.
Neither his mother or his father, nor anyone he knew had been in politics. Yet, Obama snatched the crown from an ambivalent insider, partly because he was able to create energy around the concept of "change."
Democracy or dynasty-creator? Obama's election says democracy.
On the other hand, former President George Herbert Walker Bush recently touted his son, Jeb, as a future president. He said, "I think he's as qualified and able as anyone I know on the political scene.''
Qualified and able to, what, shrug off his lineage? While the Bush family is surrounded by a cadre of loyalists, it might be difficult for Jeb Bush to overcome the legacy of war and economic devastation that has been left by his brother, the current president.
If Mr. Bush had his way it would be dynasty, not democracy. Other than President John Adams, he is the only one who has a son who has also served. I find it a special kind of hubris that Bush 41 would assert that Jeb Bush should be President
But for some, politics is a family business.
I don't envy New York Governor David Patterson. He is living in a situation best described as "can't win." When the daughter of one of our nation's most popular presidents indicates her interest in a vacated Senate seat, he has to pay attention. And when the national media comes raining down on their perception of her scant credentials, he has to be concerned.
Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg has been more than an author and mother. She has also been a civic leader, raising money for public schools and for conservation issues. Is that enough to qualify her for a seat in the United States Senate? In choosing her, can Patterson ignore another dynasty, the Cuomo dynasty, since Andrew Cuomo has also indicated that he is interested in the Senate seat?
Speaking of Hillary Rodham Clinton, there was bristly talk about a Clinton dynasty when she stepped out to run for Senate from New York in 2000. People bandied about terms like "carpetbagger" to describe the former first lady, and many suggested that she didn't deserve the seat once held by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
While I think that both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg are outstanding human beings who bring value added to the political landscape, I am concerned about the notion of dynasties.
While these dynasties appeal to some, the raise the bar for African Americans, who represented just 2 percent of all elected officials in 2001, thus less likely to get the dynastic leg up than others.
If we grandfather political status by family, we are likely to perpetuate the underrepresentation of African Americans in local, state, and national politics, who are less likely to get the dynastic leg up than others.
To be sure, there are African American dynasties.
Jesse Jackson, Jr. had a foundation from his dad's visibility and years of public service. Harold Ford, Jr., the former Congressman from Tennessee and 2006 candidate for that state's Senate seat, succeeded his father in Congress.
Kendrick Meek, from Florida, received the baton from his mother, the outstanding Carrie Meek. While Latinas are relative newcomers to the national political game, two sisters from California, Loretta and Linda Sanchez, now serve in Congress.
So People of color can do "dynasty," too. Should we? I have already heard people buzzing that Michelle Obama should run for president in 2016 (assuming two terms for Barack Obama), or that Malia and Sasha should consider Congress. Is that really what we want?
While the entry of Michelle, Sasha or Malia Obama into the political scene would be most exciting, political dynasties ultimately undermine the concept of democracy and a level playing field.
New York Gov. David Patterson is himself part of a political dynasty. His father, Basil Patterson, was a member of the New York State Senate, deputy mayor of New York City, and ultimately the first Black Secretary of State in New York. If he selects Caroline Kennedy to succeed Hilary Clinton, I hope he also considers the value of an open democracy and makes his reason for selection clear. Sometimes political dynasties yield good candidates. Sometimes, though, they signal that our system is relatively closed to newcomers.
Julianne Malveaux is an economist and president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C. She can be reached at [email protected].