Thursday, September 16, 2010

Nepotism Update

You know, we all make mistakes, and blogging is, alas, a perfect breeding ground for errors.  Me too: I had a whopper just yesterday.  Not just factual errors, either; we guess wrong about what will happen next, we interpret something in ways that turn out to be undermined by new information...that's just the way things are, even for the most cautious bloggers who are commenting on current political events. 

Of course, the real difference is what happens when we err.  Some bloggers can be counted on to 'fess up, toss a correction up if warranted (many mistakes, such as poor predictions, don't need corrections), and move on.  Others...well, here's the first two paragraphs of a Glenn Greenwald post from way back in December 2008 that Glenn Greenwald again linked to approvingly today:
Bill Clinton yesterday was forced to deny speculation that he would be appointed to replace his wife in the U.S. Senate.  Leading candidates for that seat still include John F. Kennedy's daughter (Caroline), Robert Kennedy's son (RFK, Jr.), and Mario Cuomo's son (Andrew).  In Illinois, a leading contender to replace Barack Obama in the Senate is Jesse Jackson's son (Jesse, Jr.).  In Delaware, it was widely speculated that Joe Biden would be replaced by his son, Beau, and after Beau took his name out of the running because he's now serving in Iraq, the naming of the actual replacement -- lone-time (Joe) Biden aide Ted Kaufmann -- "upset local Democrats who believe the move was a ham-handed attempt to engineer the election of Biden’s son, Beau, to the Senate in 2010."
Meanwhile, in Alaska, Lisa Murkowski, who was appointed by her father to take his seat in the U.S. Senate when he became Governor, yesterday warned Sarah Palin not to challenge her in a 2010 primary, a by-product of tension between those two as a result of Palin's defeat of Lisa's dad for Governor.  In Florida, Mel Martinez's announcement that he won't seek re-election in 2010 immediately led to reports that the current President's brother, Jeb, might run for that seat.  And all of that's just from the last couple of weeks.
Got that: Bill Clinton, Caroline Kennedy, RFK, Jr., Andrew Cuomo, Jesse Jackson Jr., Beau Biden, Lisa Murkowski, and Jeb Bush, all headed to the Senate by 2011.  Except that...well, none of them, of course, will be there.

So, you say, give him a break; it's just a framing devise, and Cuomo will likely be Governor of New York, after all.   What about the meat of the post?  Nope, it doesn't get better.  The next sentence claims that there were at the time 15 "current" nepotism Senators.  Now, he didn't specify whether he was talking about the 111th Senate (a month away from being seated) or the outgoing 110th, but what he did do was count Senators from both groups -- so his 15 included outgoing Senators Dole, Sununu, and Clinton and the incoming Udall cousins.  In other words there were only 13 in the 111th (and 14 in the 110th).  Beyond the specific numbers, Greenwald's general point is that dynastic succession is at historic high levels and increasing, when it fact it is at historic low levels and dropping.  He is absolutely correct that reporters tend to speculate about famous people when thinking about open seats, but that's not the same thing at all as an electoral system dominated by nepotism.

Meanwhile, I did promise an update.  Of the 13 who served in the 111th Senate proper (i.e. not counting Hillary Clinton), six -- Kennedy, Dodd, Bennett, Bayh, Murkowski, and Gregg -- will be gone in the 112th Senate.  Seven (the Udalls, Rockefeller, Kyl, Casey, Snowe, and Pryor) remain.  As near as I can tell, only one new case has emerged since I last wrote about this in the spring.  Joe Manchin, likely to be the next Senator from West Virginia, is the nephew of a pol who held statewide office twice in West Virginia, although he was never governor or in Congress.  Still, it counts.  The other nepotism candidates I know of remaining include Rand Paul, who is a marginal favorite in Kentucky; Robin Carnahan, who has a real uphill climb in Missouri; and heavy favorite but marginal nepotism case John Boozman in Arkansas (his late older brother was briefly a state senator who ran for US Senate in 1998).  It seems fairly unlikely to me that both Paul and Carnahan will win, so even counting Boozman, the 112th Senate will likely have only ten dynastic Senators.  Now, I'm not going to go back and check, but my guess is that 10% of the Senate could be an all-time low.* 

Back to Greenwald -- he's been corrected on this before, by Tom Schaller, who actually has done the historical research (and, for that matter by me, on the specific factual points, such as the number of nepotism cases in the 111th Senate).  Nothing in any of this speaks to whether the current levels of dynasty in elective office are too high, too low, or just right, but on the facts Greenwald's original post was just dead wrong, and each time he links to his false claim that "what was once quite rare has now become pervasive" he's undermining at least this reader's confidence in everything else he says.  Moreover, it's not as if Tea Partiers shy away from dynasties, given their support for Rand Paul.  I most definitely think that Greenwald has (whether one agrees or not) important things to say about critical areas of public policy, but...well, I'll just leave it there.

*Schaller's numbers are a bit lower; he only looked at family members who were in Congress, not all pols.  I understand that research choice (it allowed him to use an existing data set and make easy comparisons across time), but I think everyone would agree that we're interested in everyone with a family background in politics, whether or not the specific office was Congressional.


  1. Even for you, this is an unbelievably dishonest post:

    (1) You completely mislead your readers into believing that I never addressed Schaller's post. I did.

    For you to write about this exchange and not include this - leaving the impression that I just ignored Schaller's analysis - is incredibly intellectually sloppy, to be put that generously.

    CONTINUED . . . .

  2. (2) You also conceal from your readers that Tom Schaller isn't the only political scientist to have commented on this question. I based my statements on a podcast interview I conducted with Nathan Burroughs, a Ph.D. in Political Science who was then with Indiana University's Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, has done extensive work studying dynastic politics. This is what he said:

    NB: I've seen people who have famous last names tended to climb the ladder much faster and have a long-term political effect. . . But in terms of how level the political system is, it certainly appears that people who have famous last names, particularly political last names, have a real leg up on everyone else. . . .

    When I was doing a little bit of work on the Senate, the average number of senators who are from political families in the 1950s was 14. Now's it's 22 in the current Senate before Hillary Clinton resigned, opposed to a high of about 24. About a quarter of the governors in this countries are from political families. The House is not quite as much a problem, it's about 14%. But certainly it looks on the surface like this is a pretty strong trend. . .

    GG: So one of the things that you and I talked about, I think a month or so ago, was what is really the trend? To find that out, you really have to do a statistical analysis. You seem to be suggesting that the trend has actually worsened, at least in the Senate for example, there's an appreciable increase in the past several decades.

    NB: It's shocking, actually, when I ran the numbers, the correlation between time, as you advance through time, and the percentage of the Senate which is from political families, is 0.896, which, given the maximum of any correlation is 1, that... It means that every single decade there's been a substantial increase in the average number of senators from political families, and sometimes it will go down in one year, but it will go up by three the following year. It's been very steady.

    CONTINUED . . .

  3. NB (con't): In the 1950s it was just under 14 senators on average who were from political families, and right now it's 24. If Caroline Kennedy gets the seat it will continue to be 24. And if you look at the possibilities, it's looks like some of these may not manifest. Both Joe Biden in Delaware, Ken Salazar was a serious candidate in Colorado, Jeb Bush just recently announced he's not going to run for the Senate in Florida, but he could have; I was looking at that number could have hit 30 in the next cycle, if everything broke that way, which would have been remarkable. . . .

    Now, it's possible that's changed in the last 10 years [in the House], but [dynastic heirs] didn't have a lot of success at the House level in the 1980s, when they were trying to immediately succeed. Now, if you look lately, it seems like on an anecdotal level that they've had a great deal more success in people from the same families perpetuating directly from one year to the next.



    I explained in the response to Schaller what could account for the discrepancy between his conclusions and Dr. Burroughs', and then confirmed that analysis with him in a follow-up email.

    Citing to Schaller as though he's the only authority is both totally dishonest and a pitiful display of mindless credentialism in lieu of analysis.

    CONTINUED . . .

  4. (3) I didn't link to my post today to claim that nepotism is increasing, only that it is a problem.

    (4) I didn't confine my complaints about nepotism to the Senate, but to the political culture more broadly. Nothing you said, or Schaller said, addresses that.

    (5) Despite all of your reckless accusatory rhetoric, you don't identify a single false statement I made, including in the first two paragraphs. All of that speculation I cited was exactly true, and illustrates the point that we look to dynastic succession way too readily. That's true whether or not those individuals became Senators.

    I would say that this behavior of yours "is undermining at least this reader's confidence in everything else you say," except I never had any confidence in anything you said to begin with. Political hacks and White House servants posing as objective political scientists - while using their discipline to invariably defend their political leader and attack his critics -- inspires many things. Confidence isn't one of them.

    I'd request that you note this response at TNR as well, where you spouted these same accusations, since I can't post there, but that'd be expecting far more intellectual integrity than you have, as this post amply demonstrates.

  5. Glenn Greenwald and you both have a loose definition of the concept of a political dynasty. You include essentially any member of a prominent or wealthy family elected to high office. So Senator Jay Rockefeller is included in the list of dynastic senators, even though no other Rockefeller preceded him in elective office in West Virginia and all of the other Rockefellers who have been elected to high office in other states were members of the other party. No doubt Senator Rockefeller’s family name and money contributed to his achievement of a senate seat, but the same is true of many politicians who are not regarded as dynastic. Consider, for example, former Senators Connie Mack of Florida or John Tunney of California. We think of neither as dynastic, but both relied heavily on famous fathers to win election. The list of those who rely on family fortunes to win elections is quite long.

    The Udall cousins present an ambiguous case. Both are sons of prominent politicians, Morris Udall and Stewart Udall, but both fathers built their political careers in Arizona. The sons are representing New Mexico and Colorado. It is not likely that either son relied on political ties or organizations initially established by his father. Also, a significant amount of time has elapsed since the fathers left the political scene, so that very few voters would have supported one of the sons due to a fond memory of his father or uncle.

    To lump all of these cases under the term “dynasty” is to drain that term of much of its meaning. There may be cause for concern with dynasties but those concerns do not arise with every case where the scion of a famous or wealthy family wins an election. There also can be concerns when the well born take up a disproportionate number of elective offices, but those concerns extend much beyond the matter that some families send one or more members to high office.

  6. It's really completely unclear to me what anyone could find in Greenwald's piece to take exception to. I guess I'm wondering, especially in light of the errant allusion to the Tea Partiers, if this skittish response is just reflective of annoyance that Greenwald would dare touch certain darlings. Is it really too iconoclastic to point out nepotism? The response makes it seem like Greenwald is some apologist for the Rand Pauls of the world. I don't get it.

  7. The Udalls are famous enough nationally so that, no matter where they run, they will definitely have a leg-up in fund-raising and name recognition, two of the major factors in getting elected. And they are only famous because their last name is "Udall". If that's not dynastic, I don't know what is.

  8. "He is absolutely correct that reporters tend to speculate about famous people when thinking about open seats, but that's not the same thing at all as an electoral system dominated by nepotism."

    I don't think Greenwald has proposed anywhere that America's electoral system is dominated by nepotism, just that it exists, it sucks, and it's getting worse.

    As J. Walter Weatherman would say, "That's why you should never construct strawmen arguments."

  9. tfbush:
    Anyone in political circles know who the Udall's are. As was noted elsewhere, this still gives them a tremendous leg up. When raising money. When going to talk to party people/power brokers in D.C.

  10. Typical Greenwald behavior: he makes shoddy, sensational claims and insinuations and then, when challenged, unloads a torrent of verbiage to try to obfuscate what he said.

    Is there a bigger bore than Greenwald in the professional blogosphere? I can't think of one -- on the left at least.

  11. Don't take on Greenwald with lies and hiding half the story or you're going to end up looking like you do right now -- an idiot.
    @JonM - A drag to have to actually read and pay attention when writers use citations for their facts isn't it? READ what Greenwald wrote and his answer here; hardly verbiage to try to obfuscate what he said.

  12. Greenwald is certainly not be always right, like all humans he makes mistakes, but you surely know that if you're going to come at the man you better be loaded for bear. You came at him with a strawman argument so flimsy and fact-free that even Jonah Goldberg would blush. The result? You end up looking both exceedingly foolish, petty, and incompetent.

  13. Quoting Bernstein:

    "Got that: Bill Clinton, Caroline Kennedy, RFK, Jr., Andrew Cuomo, Jesse Jackson Jr., Beau Biden, Lisa Murkowski, and Jeb Bush, all headed to the Senate by 2011. Except that...well, none of them, of course, will be there."

    It's really hard to know what to make of this. I'm not sure you can call Bernstein a liar - he quotes the relevant passage right above his strange interpretation of it. But wow.

  14. Mark A., I don't always agree with Greenwald; in fact, I disagree with his view on political dynasties. But does anybody ever get the better of him in one of these blog fights, when it comes to a factual issue? I'm not sure I've ever seen that.

  15. Quick response to Greenwald...three things.

    First: the material he linked to had no references to neither the Schaller study, or my debunking of the Time magazine article, nor links to the (subsequent) post in which he discussed them. Nor has he (still, AFAIK) acknowledged that his count of Senators in the 12/08 post is wrong, since it counts both incoming and outgoing Senators as if they served together. Anyone following the link trail from yesterday's post would have found no mention at all that anything in the 12/08 post had been even challenged.

    Second: At the end of the day, the substantive question is probably more important. The best long-term data appears to be the Schaller study. I don't know how Burroughs -- who finds an increase over the last fifty years -- got 22 dynastic Senators at the beginning of the current Congress, but while I do think that Schaller's data is too restrictive, I'm not sure that I'd care a lot about the dangers of dynasty if it turned out that a dozen Senators had uncles on school boards or active in their local parties, but never elected to anything higher (even if it was the case that it turned out such involvement was a marginal advantage for the niece or nephew). Since I raised it, I'll spend some time tracking this down, and see where the evidence takes us.

    Third, just to be clear: I agree with Greenwald (and Shaller) that all in all dynastic succession in a democracy isn't a good thing. I just think the evidence points to dynasties going down over time, not up -- but as I said, I'll follow up a bit and report back if I learn anything.

  16. tfbush,

    Well, there's dynasties and there's dynasties. Yes, one can't say that Mo and Stewart Udall gave their seats to Mark and Tom -- I suspect that very few voters in CO and NM have ever heard of the Udall's fathers. So it's not the same thing as the extreme cases in which the father passes the seat to the son. OTOH, it surely was a lot either for the younger Udalls to raise money, secure endorsements, etc. from people who were friendly to their fathers -- and I'm sure it was a lot easier for the younger Udalls to navigate Democratic party networks than it would be for primary opponents without Dem party family ties. If the question is whether the US is producing (or has produced) an "aristocracy" (to use Greenwald's) term, then I think one would definitely want to count cases like the Udalls.

  17. My point was not to dispute that the Udalls represent a political dynasty. I think their case is ambiguous. My point is that we are using the term dynasty too loosely and lumping together phenomena that are not alike.

    Go back to the example of Jay Rockefeller. Clearly his family connections provided him with huge financial advantages, as well as a high level of name recognition. However, in New Jersey, John Corzine won senate and gubernatorial elections on the strength of huge financial advantages, and Bill Bradley won senate elections on the basis of strong name recognition. Why is it meaningful that the same advantages for Rockefeller derived from his family? Is his case not comparable to Corzine and Bradley?

    The term dynasty is an allusion, obviously, to the old monarchial houses. Louis IV did not become king of France because the Bourbon family gave him financial advantages and name recognition that his rivals lacked. He became king because his family controlled the throne. The analogous situation in the United States arises when the family has political standings. Family members rely upon that political standing to win election, and once in office they use their power to preserve and enhance the family’s political power.

    A clear example is the Daley family in Chicago. Richard Daley won election to the mayoralty not on the basis of a family fortune, the Daleys are not exceptionally wealthy, nor on the basis of name recognition conferred by his father, as the son was well known for his own political achievements at the time of his election. He own on the strength of the political organization that his father built, and they he and his brothers have preserved.

    Hillary Clinton’s political career is similarly dynastic. She ran for the senate, and then for the presidency, with the critical support of a faction of the Democratic party that formed during her husband’s presidency. Had she won the presidency, that Clinton faction would have achieved much more power within the party.

    Many other examples can be found, but they do not include every case where a member of a wealthy or famous family wins an election.

  18. American politics gives massive structural advantages to the politically conservative, and there are a limited number of ways to counteract that advantage. Political dynasties are one of those ways.

    So in the comparison between dynastic American politics and non-dynastic American politics, the former is better; the latter worse.

    It would be nice to have a country where this weren't true, but that's not the country we live in.

  19. political football,

    "Massive structural advantages to" conservatives? Conservatives believe just the opposite is true. What I would say is that there's a legit critique of Madisonian democracy that it gives advantages to the status quo...I think whether that's true or not is contested, but at any rate it's not the same as an advantage to conservatives.

    I also think that Greenwald's implicit claim, which is that "liberal" dynastic pols are likely to be more cautious and, ultimately, less liberal, is a claim worth considering -- although I have no idea whether it would turn out to be true or not. (It matters if liberal pols from political families are replacing liberal pols without family backgrounds in politics, which is certainly the case almost all of the time, such as in NY-Gov this year).


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