The election of Joe Biden as president, with Kamala Harris as his running mate, says something about the American desire for continuity. A vote for this ticket was in part a re-endorsement of the Obama administration — steering back onto the course we had followed before the highly unpredictable Trump experiment. The campaign worked to make that lineage present and felt.
The more obvious way to accomplish this, of course, is by name. George W. Bush took office eight years after his father left it; Hillary Clinton served in the Senate after her husband’s two terms in the White House, and later nearly became the first woman president. The Daley family of Chicago was once synonymous with the Illinois political machine, and the Roosevelts changed the course of the first half of the 20th century with two towering commanders-in-chief.
But the Kennedys are who most of us think of when the word “dynasty” comes up. And in 2021, not one member of this storied clan will sit in Congress — an aberration almost never encountered since JFK joined the House of Representatives in 1947. In fact, from that point on, a Kennedy held federal elective office until 2011, when Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island left the chamber after declining to seek reelection. At the time, this prompted observers to ask whether the name no longer had the iconic status it once did, or if this departure confirmed the “fading popularity of the activist federal government the Kennedy family has long championed.”
Probably the former!
This year, Joseph Kennedy III faceplanted in a primary against Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey when the incumbent ran to the left of him, with the help of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, his co-sponsor on the Green New Deal — certainly an activist piece of legislation. (Kennedy also gave up his House seat to run.) Meanwhile, Biden’s victory is owed in part to direct organizing on turnout and voters’ rights by Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the ascendant Stacey Abrams and others. Among Democrats, support for Medicare for All (that is, guaranteeing health care as a human right) is at an all-time high. It would seem the appetite for the kind of civic liberalism most associated with the Kennedys remains strong, it’s just that nobody really trusts another random grandson of RFK to push that agenda for them.
The right, too, has obviously tired somewhat of punching ballots based on bloodlines. Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, fizzled out of the 2016 GOP presidential race as a pathetic meme, begging audiences to clap and branded as “low-energy” by the eventual winner, Donald Trump. In another era, he could have been the natural, safe consensus pick for Republicans, but lately the question is: Who wants to be ruled by a single group of rich people for a lifetime? There’s an idea that MAGA nation might: Trump voters have expressed an interest in seeing one of his adult children (Don Jr., Ivanka or Eric) mount a challenge in 2024, though Trump sounds like he’d rather keep the spotlight to himself. There’s also no reason to think his kids are adept enough in narcissistic performance or Boomer xenophobia to capture the party as he did.
And even as Cori Bush, the Black Lives Matter activist who ousted 10-term Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr. in a primary for Missouri’s First Congressional District, acknowledged her opponent’s progressive record, she also connected his lineage and many years in power to an unacceptable complacency. She accused Clay, the Black son of the man who held the seat for 32 years before him, of a “get along to get by” approach and waiting until leftist positions were safe to endorse instead of leading the charge. Her message was clear: If you more or less inherit your job in government, you aren’t exactly disposed to shake up the system. Bush fell short of defeating Clay in 2018, but this time around, voters responded to her spirit of protest, and sided with her against a family entrenched in the region for more than half a century.
It’s common for children to choose the careers their parents did, and politics is no exception. Yet we may have already entered a cycle where the famous surname is a liability rather than an advantage. On the whole, that’s a very good thing, because it means voters aren’t treating established dynasties as fixed brands, which leads to taking their various figures as interchangeable, the family as a kind of royalty and their work on behalf of constituents as a given. Instead, we are rejecting the practice of installing scions in semi-permanent positions and basically forgetting about them, since they have distinguished roots and “good enough” policies.
That could also mean we are breaking with the need for continuity — the feeling that Congress should shift glacially, not radically, while populated by the descendants of those who presided there in decades long past. The sidelining of the Kennedys, the Bushes and others is an expression of an electorate that is tired of waiting for things to improve, and has come to learn that they never will if the path of succession in Washington is genetic. For a while, if you’re not paying attention, this familiarity can be a comfort. Then, all at once, it is the primary obstacle.