2020 is not a family affair, for a change

2020 is not a family affair, for a change
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With the exception of 2008 and now 2020, the 21st century's presidential elections thus far have been something of a family affair. From George W. Bush to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTexas Supreme Court rejects Alex Jones request to toss lawsuits from Sandy Hook parents Paris Agreement: Biden's chance to restore international standing Samantha Power's Herculean task: Turning a screw with a rubber screwdriver MORE to Jeb Bush to Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds GOP senators say only a few Republicans will vote to convict Trump For Biden, a Senate trial could aid bipartisanship around COVID relief MORE, the son of 1968 presidential candidate George Romney, the state of presidential politics reached the point that Barbara Bush felt inclined to remark in 2014 that, "If we can't find more than two or three families to run for office, that's silly." So for all the various criticisms being raised about the 2020 candidates, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate that — at least in this presidential contest — the candidates don’t appear to be running on a family name.

Despite this 2020 respite, the trend of mixing families and presidential politics does not appear to be stopping. Even committed liberals such as Michael Moore, whom one might expect to frown on the disproportionate influence of a few families on presidential politics, has called upon Michelle Obama to run for president, a notion much of the public also seems to embrace. Reporters, biographers and respective supporters all speculate on whether Donald Trump Jr.Don TrumpCompany appeals rejection of controversial Pebble Mine  Singer Taylor Dayne responds to criticism after Mar-a-Lago performance: 'I try to stay non-political' More voters say pardons for Trump's family would be inappropriate: poll MORE and Ivanka TrumpIvanka TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds NRSC chair says he'll back GOP incumbents against Trump primary challengers Trump extended Secret Service protection for family members in final days in office: report MORE are competing to succeed their father as the head of a potential Trump political family. Mitt Romney, perhaps sensing the dangers of politics trending in this direction, quoted his own father during a 2015 question-and-answer session at Harvard Law School: “I’ve seen too many families where the mom or the dad is elected to office and the kids are growing up, and they think they’re somehow special because of what their mom or dad is known for — and the fame associated with the family’s [position].” 

It is hardly a stretch to think this could have taken place at other points in American history. If it were going to happen, however, one would expect it to have happened during the early days of the Republic when monarchy and aristocracy were still the norm in most of the world. So it’s particularly unexpected that it would be taking place in a 21st century that claims to prioritize merit over circumstance of birth. As companies seek to dismantle anything resembling an old boy network and columnists call for the abolition of legacy college admissions, why would they not extend this same concern to those seeking the White House?


In the early days of the nation, the founders were rightfully concerned that the nascent republic would give rise to leadership based on bloodlines. This worry was situated in the framework of Thomas Paine's biting denunciation of hereditary monarchy and was shared by the ideological heavyweights of the day, including George Washington, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. Even in the case of John Quincy Adams, who was considered among the most impressive and best educated men in the nation, George Washington had to be the one to implore John Adams not to forgo appointing John Quincy because they were related, referring to John Quincy as, "the most valuable public character we have abroad.” Presidents then were acutely sensitive to the danger of creating family rule — a far cry from our culture today.

There have, of course, been political families throughout American history, from the Tafts to the Udalls to the Kennedys — but, at the presidential level, Barbara’s Bush’s “two or three families” still remains a historical anomaly. Perhaps it is partially the result of our celebrity culture, which has enabled presidential children to so regularly be in the spotlight. But when a celebrity's endorsement of a future President Malia Obama takes social media by storm, it seems we are close to forgetting our nation’s long-standing opposition to presidential dynasties.

To be clear, being related to a president ought not automatically disqualify someone from being considered. But there is a difference between someone not being disqualified on account of family name and what we are seeing today: a near-expectation by voters to look to family members of past presidents when considering future candidates.

And in our current partisan climate, there is the additional challenge of remaining consistent. If one balks at members of the Trump family eyeing future election bids, they ought to do the same for Obama’s wife and children.

More than anything, though, as our modern culture purports to place an ever-increasing premium on merit rather than birth, it’s all the more important to ensure this remains true for those we consider for President. This is something we're doing correctly for 2020, and it ought to continue in the presidential elections to follow.

Erich J. Prince co-founded and runs Merion West (@merionwest), a Philadelphia-based group promoting civil discourse in the age of polarization; he also writes a weekly column at MediaVillage on how the news media covers politics. He previously served as a communications strategist for former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory. He studied political science at Yale.