John Derbyshire: There Are Worse Things Than Political Dynasties—Like An Affirmative Action President

Political dynasties are in the news. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, son of George H.W. and brother of George W., has resigned his directorships, apparently in preparation for a run at the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. It seems likely that among his competitors for that honor will be Rand Paul, son of former congressman and two-time presidential candidate Ron Paul

On the other side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton, wife of former President Bill Clinton, may be waddling into position for a try at the Democratic nomination. And Tuesday this week saw the funeral of Mario Cuomo, Democratic Governor of New York from 1983 to 1994. Among the mourners there was of course Andrew Cuomo, the current Governor of New York, also a Democrat.

The probable Bush-Clinton candidacies have been received with much negativity. “At least 150 million of us are eligible to run for President,” rises the collective groan. “Can’t we find people not related to former presidents?”

I sympathize with the groan. The Clintons are of course loathsome, root and branch.

I retain some lingering mild affection for Poppy Bush just on account of his dutiful old-WASP sensibility, which I think was on balance a plus for the U.S.A. George W., however, with those missionary wars, those misplaced loyalties, that insouciance towards federal gigantism, and that open-borders sentimentality, seems to me now to have been a disaster, and I bitterly regret having voted for him in 2004.

Jeb Bush looks to be a more competent executive in most areas but is unacceptable in any federal position to anyone not as crazily transnational as himself. He gives a strong impression of actually preferring foreigners over Americans.

So my voice is included there in the groan. There is more to be said, though; not much more, but a little more, so here I am to say it.

First let’s allow, as we surely must, that practical politics is a social skill, like salesmanship, or running a successful dinner club, or seducing women. As with any other skill, some people have a natural inclination for it, and some don’t.

I write with feeling there, as a person hopeless at practical politics. If there is a PQ analogous to IQ, I’m down in the bottom decile. In my years working at corporate offices, I never had a clue who was up and who down. When X was suddenly fired or Y given a sudden dazzling promotion, I was always flabbergasted: “I had no idea …!” My colleagues would respond with a roll of the eyes: “Oh, Derb. Try to keep up, please …”

It is reasonable to suppose that this skill, or lack of skill, is rooted in the contours of the individual human personality. Now, most of the features that define personality are heritable, often highly so. (The paper at that link gives heritability for the “big five” core personality traits as: Extraversion 0.86, Openness 0.92, Neuroticism 0.59, Agreeableness 0.85, Conscientiousness 0.81.) We should therefore expect political skill to travel in families, like freckles or hairy elbows.

Presumably nature gets some reinforcement from nurture, too. Evelyn Waugh remarked somewhere that most men are best suited to the work their fathers did.

(As always in this deeply enstupidated age, I have to pause here to note that “most” is not a synonym for “all”; and that, as Winston Churchill liked to say, in regard to usage of the word “men,” the male embraces the female.)

Watching parents go about their daily business, or hearing them talk about it at the family dinner table, at least familiarizes you with professional jargon and major strategies.

(My own father was in his later career a repo man and “reference inspector” for a furniture company selling on the instalment plan. He drove around the county checking the credit references for potential customers. I spent the last few years of my own career doing software support for the Credit Department of an investment bank. Coincidence? Maybe …)

It follows that the children of a skillful politician are likely—more likely than the average, anyway—to be politically skillful themselves.

This applies in despotisms and monarchies just as much as in republics. When North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung died in 1994, I was sure the regime would collapse. His son, Kim Jong Il, had a reputation as a frivolous movie-addicted playboy.

In fact Kim Jong Il proved even better than his father at keeping the stone-faced generals and scheming Party bosses in line. That’s real political skill, with very high stakes. Whether Kim Jong Un, the current inheritor, can repeat the trick is still, I think, open to question; but after three years and counting, he’s still there.

In nations with a hereditary principle of rulership, the good rulers are always racked with anxiety about the PQ of their offspring. There is a tense scene in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One where Henry rages at Prince Hal, his son, for his wastrel ways and political incompetence:

Thy place in council thou hast rudely lost,

Which by thy younger brother is supplied,

And art almost an alien to the hearts

Of all the court and princes of my blood …

Harry replies, approximately, “Don’t worry, Dad, I’ll shape up.” And indeed, he turned out to be a capable king.

Unfortunately he died young and was succeeded by a nasty case of regression to the mean: Henry VI was a disaster.

You might object that in a free nation we don’t want too much political skillfulness: that a person with low PQ but sound policies is preferable to the converse case.

The Cuomos, for example, are undoubtedly deft at politics; but their legacy to New York State has been mostly negative. They have raised taxes, destroyed the upstate economy, pandered to public-sector employee lobbies (which I refuse to call “unions”), appointed radical left-wing judges, and made state revenues more dependent than ever on Wall Street.

All right: but this only shows that high PQ is not sufficient to make a candidate desirable; it is only necessary. A low-PQ politician of any stripe will be outwitted by careerists and seat-warmers, and will fall into traps set by his political enemies.

Other things equal, therefore, I don’t think we should mind too much that a candidate is related to some former office-holder, so long of course as the policies are right.

And say what you like about dynastic politics, it is at least preferable to Affirmative-Action politics.

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. ) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His most recent book, published by com is  FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle).His writings are archived at

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