Adam Bellow, In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 576 pp., $30.
Frank K. Salter (ed.), Risky Transactions: Trust, Kinship and Ethnicity (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2002), 288 pp., $79.95.
The United States currently confronts foreign policy challenges
involving such highly disparate foes, friends and in-betweens as
North Korea, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Jordan,
Morocco, the Congo and the Philippines. All these countries, however,
possess one striking common denominator. Although dynasticism is
supposed to have died and been buried by meritocracy, these countries
are all led by the children of former heads of state.
The same is true of America, whose president is not just the son of a
president, but also the grandson of a senator and brother of a
governor. Americans tend to be willfully blind to the crucial subject
of nepotism. We disapprove of it, so we feel we ought not to think
about it--a dangerous illusion as we pursue a more activist foreign
policy that brings us in touch with cultures that approach the topic
The return of family rule should not surprise us. Nepotism and its
more formal offspring dynasticism have provided the basic organizing
principles of politics for much of human history. For example, in the
early 20th century, the ruling aristocracy of Mongolia, which
comprised 6 percent of the population, still consisted of the
descendants in the direct male line of Genghis Khan, even though he
had been dead for almost 700 years.
Indeed, Genghis Khan, who was known as The Master of Thrones and
Crowns, was so successful at propagating his lineage, both by
fathering countless children and granting some of his heirs enormous
and enduring political privileges, that his genetic footprint on a
vast swath of Asia from the Pacific to Afghanistan leaps out at
population geneticists today. A 2003 study of male Y-chromosomes
discovered that about 16 million living men are his direct
patrilineal descendants. That's a level of dynastic success, in the
Darwinian sense of the term, approaching one million times greater
than that of the typical man who was alive back then.
As ferociously exemplified by The Mighty Manslayer, this urge to help
copies of one's genes survive and spread is the basis of nepotism,
which biologists define as altruism toward kin. It encourages human
beings to help their offspring and relatives achieve power and
The recent book In Praise of Nepotism by Adam Bellow (son of Nobel
Laureate Saul Bellow) documents how the great English biologist
William D. Hamilton's 1964 elucidation of the genetic reasons behind
altruism toward kin formed the plinth upon which the field of
sociobiology was built. Hamilton's paradigm became more widely known
from Richard Dawkins' 1976 bestseller, The Selfish Gene. A more
accurate, if still anthropomorphic name, would have been The Dynastic
Gene, since genes thrive by promoting copies of themselves in others.
Of course, biology can explain only the rudiments of the
manifestations of family feeling in the political world. Further,
scientists have barely begun to consider the flip side of the desire
to establish a dynasty--the widespread desire to be ruled by one.
Evidence for the resurgent importance of dynasticism and nepotism is
everywhere. In a broad swath of southern Asia, running from Pakistan,
through India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia and on to the
Philippines, the dynastic urge has often worked in conjunction with
the democratic impulse. In each, voters have chosen widows or
daughters to carry on from their late men-folk the family business of
running the country.
Some of these women entered politics to avenge the killing or
overthrow of their husbands or fathers. For example, Corazon Aquino
was elected president of the Philippines following her husband's
assassination by dictator Ferdinand Marcos' goon squad. Benazir
Bhutto ruled Pakistan after the downfall of General Mohammad Zia
Ul-Haq, who had overthrown and hanged her father. Indonesian
president Megawati Sukarnoputri is the daughter of the former leftist
ruler Sukarno. Sheik Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh from
1996-2001, is the daughter of the founder of independent Bangladesh,
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who died in a military coup in 1975.
In India, the Congress Party chose as their leader in the 1999
election Sonia Gandhi, widow, daughter-in-law and
grand-daughter-in-law of prime ministers. She lost party control,
though, after leading Congress to merely a second-place finish.
Runner-up is considered a disgraceful performance for anyone bearing
the magic name of "Gandhi." The high hopes invested in Sonia were
testimony to the glamour of the dynasty. Without the Gandhi name,
Sonia--a Roman Catholic Italian who doesn't speak a single Indian
language terribly well--would have been just about the least likely
person to become head of a major Indian party.
American men have not thought highly of kings since 1776 (although
American women traditionally have been notoriously intent on being
presented at court). We chose not to revive the monarchy in
Afghanistan, even though sentiment for de facto dynasties is strong
in nearby countries, and the monarchy was the only institution that
had ever provided a centripetal force in that fractious land.
Dynasticism is far from confined to Asia. Here at home, powerful
men's sons and, increasingly, their wives and daughters, are
succeeding to political leadership with a regularity reminiscent of
the feudal days of old Europe. In 2002, for instance, Senator Frank
Murkowski was elected governor of Alaska and promptly named his
daughter Lisa to take over his seat in the U.S. Senate, saying he
wanted the person who succeeded him to share his vision and values
for the future of the state, which apparently includes Alaska being a
satrapy of the Murkowski clan.
In Chicago, two of the biggest names--Mayor Richard M. Daley and
Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.--are also among the oldest. Winners in
the 2002 elections included House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi,
daughter of the former mayor of Baltimore; North Carolina Senator
Elizabeth Dole, wife of former Senator Bob Dole; Massachusetts
Governor Mitt Romney, son of George Romney, former governor of
Michigan; and New Hampshire Senator John E. Sununu, son of former
Governor. John H. Sununu. Even California's new Republican governor
Arnold Schwarzenegger, an immigrant bodybuilder who would seem to be
at first glance the most self-made of men, is the politically wayward
son-in-law of the dynasties of the Kennedys and their non-evil twins,
the Shrivers. It seems that as Americans have found other, more
amusing entertainments than following politics, the public appears to
have become increasingly reliant upon famous brand names.
Scions are also found in appointed positions. "No sooner had Bush
taken office (after an invocation by the son of Billy Graham)",
Bellow writes, "than he began handing out appointments to members of
other Republican families", such as fcc Chairman Michael Powell, son
of the Secretary of State, and Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, wife
of Senator Mitch McConnell. The children of Antonin Scalia, Dick
Cheney and Strom Thurmond also benefited.
None of this has excited much disapproval among Americans. As Bellow
told me recently,
There is a deep emotional satisfaction that we all understand in the
pride of a father whose child wants to emulate him. Americans value
the reassurance and security of a certain amount of continuity at the
top in a highly mobile and volatile society. People are comforted by
a familiar name and face.
Indeed, the growing importance of women may be contributing to the
return of family ties among leaders. First, many rules against
nepotism in, say, academia were relaxed in the 1970s and 1980s when
it was realized that much of the best female talent was married to
the best male talent, and, consequently, rules intended to prevent
favoritism and corruption were harming the ascent of women, or at
least the ascent of talented women.
Further, as political consumers, women tend to be more interested
than men in the kind of family stories that dynasties generate. You
may recall the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Many commentators
curiously opined then that the tidal wave of grief signified that
royalty had outlived its time. In reality, dynastic life remains
highly popular because it offers soap opera in the guise of affairs
The women of the world did not idolize "Princess Di" for her charity
work or some other such bogus rationalization. No, they loved her
because Di, unlike other female celebrities such as Madonna, didn't
have to claw her way to the top of the celebrity heap. She didn't do
anything to get there. She was just picked out for who she
was--young, beautiful and a virgin: a princess from a fairy tale.
Monarchism would not have been so popular for so long if it also did
not offer to the ruled at least some practical benefits as well.
Compared to transient kleptocracies, the common folk benefit from
dynastic rule because the likelihood of passing royal dominions down
to their offspring encourages their rulers to think about the long
term. Science-fiction novelist Jerry Pournelle said, "Politicians
look to the next election. Statesmen may look to the next generation;
but monarchs must look to the next generation." Rather than laying
waste to their realms, the dynastic system gives kings incentive to
cultivate their domains well so their children can inherit a
prosperous and content land.