Political Dynasties: An Endless Game of Thrones

Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain who served as a backbench, ‘low clergy’ congressman for almost three decades, was the surprise victor of last year’s presidential election. What is even more surprising, however, is the presence of the Bolsonaro family in Brazilian politics: his three sons have enjoyed their father’s fame to rise in the ranks of power. Flavio Bolsonaro was elected a Senator for Rio de Janeiro with an astounding one third of the total vote. Eduardo Bolsonaro was the most voted congressman in Brazilian political history. Carlos Bolsonaro was elected a city councillor in Rio in 2016, following his mother’s steps, who won the same position in the 1990s simply by carrying the husband’s family name and political capital. So much so that when they fell out and divorced, he withdrew his support, ruining her chances for re-election. The Bolsonaro name has thus underpinned the formation of a deeply rooted political clan. This phenomenon is by no means limited to Brazil, thereby deserving our full attention and scrutiny. Just look at the Nehru-Gandhis in India, the Kenyattas in Kenya, the Kennedys and Bushes in the US, the Fujimori in Peru, and the list goes on. How can we classify political dynasties? What are their social and political effects? Are they threats to democracy and the rule of law?

First, it is important to address the popular misconception that all political dynasties become successful the way the Bolsonaros did: by espousing a clear-cut ideology (in this case far-right) with their own distinguishable speech, almost like a brand (similar to the Trump name in American politics and society). In fact, for most families, dynastic transmission has less to do with the building of a brand name or celebrity status than with the concept of inheritance and the electoral advantages transferred from one generation to the next. Just as a parent doctor will expect their child to be a doctor, and will integrate them into the professional network of the medical world, for example by passing on their family clinic as inheritance or by getting their child a job at a friend’s hospital, the professional politician will have access to a range of contacts, from campaign financiers to journalists and local political agents, who will provide the dynast with comparative advantages relative to the amateur political newbie. The New York Times, for example, found that the son of a governor is 6000 times more likely than an ordinary American baby-boomer to become a governor himself. For the son of a senator, the figure is 8500. Certainly, as it is the case with many specialised professions, children tend to have an interest for what their parents do and eventually choose to pursue the same career path as a genuine vocation, whereas others succumb to family pressure. In politics, parents wish to foment their base by increasing the family presence in the institutions of government. They may also pressure their heir into running for their former job if they decide to take part in a riskier election for a higher post, so the family will have a position to hold on to in case of a negative result. By making politics their traditional profession, dynasties which are not restricted to one particular ideological label operate as political chameleons, acting according to context and scoring wins based on pragmatism and the gradual building of a political support web that has little to do with the political spectrum and more to do with keeping their jobs. Insider knowledge of the political machinery, therefore, can be used to raise barriers for outsiders to enter the political sphere, perpetuating and potentializing dynastic behaviour.

Underpinning this system is the understanding of politics as a profession. In theory, democracies are all about the rule of the people, envisaging a society in which every citizen, at one point or another, becomes a political agent and contributes to the collective administration of the polity. Of course, as societies become bigger and more complex, forms of decentralised, diluted decision-making become harder to implement and less efficient than the filtering of public opinion through governmental institutions (and the representatives and bureaucrats that compose them). In the world of competitive, combative politics, the professionalisation of the ability to gather political support and exercise power becomes a decisive factor in maintaining the incumbents’ status quo, especially in the legislature where in many cases there are no limits for re-election (although families can also control the executive branch at different generational stages, as in the case of the Bushes in the US and the Trudeau in Canada) .

The ‘dynastification’ of government is not a bad thing in itself, but it is usually accompanied by a feeling of general immobilism and lack of political equality, as well as a number of barriers to entry that make politics an uninspiring and pointless business for most of the population, contributing to overall political apathy. Political dynasties tend to hinder democracies’ inherent dynamism and accountability by maturing into an entrenched class/elite of professional politicians. In Brazil, for example, 172 (one third) of the 513 members of congress elected in 2018 belong to a political dynasty, a rise from the 2014 election. Moreover, as political positions become a family business, the line between public and private gets blurred, patronage and nepotism might be facilitated or normalised, and social movements may become less relevant than someone’s family name in the daily news. Significantly, political scientists tend to agree that the predominance of political dynasties is negatively correlated to popular participation and activism in politics. This is why political education is so vital in breaking the cycle and encouraging more outsiders to run in open and fair contests for positions of power. Many dynasts prevail primarily due to a lack of strong, competitive alternatives. “Politics is too serious a matter to be left to politicians”, Charles De Gaulle once warned. Finally, the question is not whether there will be political dynasties in a democracy – in a complex, specialised society they are inevitable – but whether these powerful families, whose seductive incentives to use connections rather than merit to accumulate power often leads to corruption, will be properly tamed and supervised by the law in terms of transparency and checks and balances, as well as scrutinised by a free press and the wider society. Although with their fair share of dynasties, more consolidated democracies in the rich world tend to face less corruption and dynastic patronage precisely because the strength of their public institutions outweighs the machinations of influential individuals.

Another side to political families has to do with gender representation. A study in the US found that “dynastic legislators are significantly more likely to be female than non-dynastic ones (31·2% of women legislators are dynastic vs. 8·4% of men)”, meaning that dynastic activity may have aided female representation in politics. This does not mean that women are unable to run and win without family connections and name recognition. On the contrary, the fact that almost one third need to rely on the comparative advantages provided by their families only attests to how inherently anti-female the political environment is. It should therefore be treated as a symptom of a problem as opposed to a beneficial side-effect. Indeed, the more women-friendly the electoral playing field, the lower the demand for dynastic relationships for female politicians in general.

Democratic politics and government go hand in hand with notions of legitimacy, fair representation and political equality. The system loses its meaning if ordinary citizens feel completely demotivated to participate and run, as personal merits and accomplishments will matter less than family connections. Political dynasties are here to stay (and no one should be barred from running merely because he or she is a dynast) but they do not have to be the modus operandi. If competition is properly stimulated among the political class, a more constructive clash of ideas and proposals could emerge as the dynasties would be forced to fight for their position with more than just contacts and patronage. This could lead to greater political efficiency and a more decentralised power framework. Lastly, politics should not be treated as just another profession, meaning that the barriers erected by incumbents need to be minimised. Contrary to the economy, where oligopolies are often unable to hold for long, oligarchies in politics are stubborn forces, especially if they are united under the comfortable roof of a family.

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