“The best jobs in town are reserved for the politician’s distant cousins.” ~ Michael Bassey Johnson, Before You Doubt Yourself: Pep Talks and Other Crucial Decisions
Within the tapestry that seems to cover political misconduct, the threads of nepotism weave their way in and around the fabric. Whether the patterns are bold or subtle, they undermine meritocracy and sow the seeds of distrust among the people.
Nepotism, the favoritism granted to relatives by someone in power — often by offering them jobs — is not a new phenomenon, nor is it exclusive to any one region or regime.
Yet, when it appears in the democratic fabric of American politics, it not only challenges the foundational ideals of equal opportunity and fairness, but also draws power away from the American people.
Nepotism has shadowed American politics since its inception. While the adage "it's not what you know, but who you know" resonates in many aspects of life, in politics it can take on a more corrosive form.
When elected officials appoint relatives to positions of power without regard to capability or merit, they engage in a subtle form of theft from the citizenry: the theft of equal representation.
Historically, American politics has not been immune to nepotistic practices. When our second president, John Adams, took office, positions in his administration and several state and local offices were filled with numerous in-laws and outlaws.
In fact, he transformed nepotism to an art form, appointing his son, son-in-law, brother-in-law, and his son’s father-in-law to key diplomatic and agency positions. Our 12th president, Zachary Taylor, used military commissions to keep his brother and son-on-law employed in Washington. Several of these appointments in both administrations resulted in scandal and hints of corruption.
Other presidents, including Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Dwight Eisenhower, were a little more discrete. They positioned their family members in more low-key positions as advisors or aids.
President John F. Kennedy famously appointed his brother-in-law to head the newly created Peace Corps, and more infamously, his brother, Robert Kennedy, as Attorney General. Despite Robert's credentials, the appointment was controversial and it prompted the enactment of the Federal Anti-Nepotism Law in 1967, also known as the "Bobby Kennedy Law," which ostensibly put an end to such blatant displays of nepotism.
This law was meant to ensure that public office is not a family heirloom but rather a position of trust from the American people. After all, we fought a whole war to gain autonomy, independence, and do away with monarchies.
However, name recognition still means a lot.
We still have political dynasties or dynasties-in-waiting in the United States. When the relatives of families with names like Clinton, Kennedy, or Cuomo are attached to a ballot, name recognition and fond memories of alleged past glories carry them forward when direct appointment does not.
There are people walking around today donning t-shirts listing all of Trump’s children and the supposed dates when they will follow him to the White House.
In recent history, nepotism has not so much disappeared as it has evolved, and it often hides in plain sight. Even when visible, it comes with a veneer of justification.
For example, the administration of President Donald Trump took nepotism - and a whole lot of other issues - to a whole new level. He was often criticized for the roles his daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, played as advisors.
Critics argue that their positions were based more on kinship than qualifications, and that their influence was disproportionate to their expertise. Not only were the pair given positions in the administration that they clearly didn’t earn or have the experience to perform, but they were also granted security clearances for which they didn’t qualify.
These decisions, and the legality of them, were rationalized using a multitude of weasel words in this Memorandum Opinion for the Counsel to the President.
However, nepotism isn’t limited to the Federal government. There are numerous examples in state houses and local governments across the country, and it isn’t something that only happens in small town America.
You would be hard-pressed to find many localities in America - or elsewhere, for that matter - where nepotism doesn’t exist. Some notable examples from local and state government include:
Family Business in State Legislatures: It's not uncommon to find family members serving concurrently or successively in state legislatures. For example, in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, the Costa family has been notable. Three Costa brothers held positions in Pennsylvania's state government, including Jay Costa as a state senator. Critics argue that such familial connections can lead to a concentration of political influence and can raise questions of bias in policy making.
Local Government Appointments: At the local level, nepotism can sometimes be more blatant due to less scrutiny compared to federal politics. A poignant example occurred in the city of Chicago where the practice of "aldermanic privilege" often led to a family member being chosen as a successor for aldermanic seats, perpetuating a kind of dynastic control over local wards.
It’s common for family members of politicians to gain favor for lucrative government contracts. Relatives are often strategically placed in positions within political parties, where they can wield influence over the candidate selection process.
Laws prohibiting such practices vary from state to state. However, there are few in place to cover a particular form of nepotism, legacy candidates.
Legacy candidates, particularly spouses who take over a seat when an office-holder dies or is incapacitated, is a specific subset of nepotism that brings about mixed reactions. While not always viewed negatively, especially if the spouse is qualified, this practice does raise questions about the democratic process.
Here are a few prominent examples:
Lois Capps: After the death of her husband, Walter Capps, in 1997, Lois Capps won the special election to fill his congressional seat representing California's 22nd congressional district. She then served until 2017. While her tenure was not overtly controversial, it highlights how legacy appointments can occur even in the context of a seemingly fair election process.
Debbie Dingle: The U.S. Representative from Michigan, followed her late husband, John, to a seat in Michigan's 6th District. John Dingell, Jr. was the longest serving Congressperson in U.S. history prior to his death, holding the seat for 60 years. His father held the position before him, placing the Dingell family in Congress for more than 80 years so far.
Mary Bono: Following the death of her husband, Sonny Bono, who was the incumbent Congressman from California, Mary Bono won the special election to succeed him in 1998. She served until 2013, and during her tenure, she dealt with a range of issues, although it is hard to quantify the direct impact of her succession on the office's functioning.
Legacy succession often leads to a debate on whether it undermines the principles of democracy. Those in favor argue that the spouse may have been intimately involved with the office and its duties, offering continuity and stability.
Critics, however, worry that such successions can limit the pool of candidates and may not always result in the most qualified individual taking office. Moreover, they often carry the implication that the office is a personal or family asset and not a public trust.
In the context of legacy candidates, it is crucial to examine whether their policies and performance align with the constituents' needs or if they merely extend their predecessor's influence.
It's a complex issue, where the line between respect for a legacy and the potential for nepotism is sometimes blurred. These examples illustrate the various ways nepotism can manifest in political life, from the overt appointment of relatives to the subtler legacy successions.
The impact can range from perceived inefficiencies to real questions about the integrity of the democratic process. While not all instances of nepotism or legacy successions are detrimental, they do prompt a necessary discussion about the values that underpin fair and effective governance.
The impact of nepotism at state and local levels is often directly felt by the community. When positions are filled based on family connections rather than merit, it can lead to inefficiency and poor governance.
For example, unqualified individuals in charge of crucial departments like public safety or health can result in inadequate response to crises, or at the very least, an underperforming government sector.
Moreover, nepotism can contribute to an atmosphere of cronyism, where decisions are made based on personal relationships rather than public interest, leading to potential corruption and misuse of public funds.
Nepotism can redirect power in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. At its most blatant, it places unqualified individuals in roles of significant influence, where decisions are made that affect millions. These individuals, owing their positions to familial connections, are less likely to be accountable to the public.
Nepotism can manifest in less direct forms as well, such as when relatives of politicians receive preferential treatment in business dealings or are shielded from legal scrutiny. This diversion of power is not always done with malicious intent; often, it’s rationalized as trust in known quantities.
However, the end result is a concentration of power among a select few, a nepotistic aristocracy masquerading as a meritocracy.
At its most overt, nepotism in politics can lead to the creation of political dynasties. The Bush family, with two presidents and several other politicians, or the Clintons, with a president and a senator/Secretary of State, showcase how political influence can become a family tradition.
Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Bill and Hillary, is putting out feelers for possible political aspirations in the future. Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently filled the governor’s seat in Arkansas vacated by her father, Mike Huckabee, in 2007.
Numerous descendants of John and Robert F. Kennedy have run or held office, and youngest brother, Edward (Ted) Kennedy, was a senator for over 46 years. He was elected the same year his brother John was elected president and died in office in 2009. The youngest child of Robert Kennedy, RFK, Jr., is currently running as an independent in the 2024 presidential race.
While family members may be individually qualified, their aggregated power raises questions about the influence of lineage over leadership. It also reduces the sense of political efficacy among the electorate.
The impact of nepotism is multifaceted and extends beyond the immediate beneficiaries. Nepotism corrodes the political process in more subtle, nuanced ways like:
Erosion of Trust: It engenders a climate of cynicism, reducing public trust in the political system.
Barriers to Entry: It raises implicit barriers for outsiders, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, who may have the talent but not the connections.
Policy Distortion: The views and interests of a narrow elite can dominate policy discussions, skewing governance away from the public good.
Resource Misallocation: Government resources can be diverted to serve nepotistic interests rather than public needs.
These stealthful impacts create a silent but profound shift in the political landscape, where the power of the ballot is undermined by the privilege of birthright.
Independent candidates often enter the political arena as challengers to the status quo, which includes nepotistic practices. With no party machinery behind them, they can position themselves as truly representative of the people, un-swayed by familial allegiances.
Independents can play a critical role in exposing and combating nepotism. By highlighting cases of nepotism in campaigns, they force conversations that traditional party candidates might avoid. Their platforms can advocate for stricter enforcement of anti-nepotism laws and propose new measures to ensure transparency and accountability.
However, the influence of independent candidates is often limited by the very system that enables nepotism. Without the support of a major party, independents struggle to gain the visibility and funding necessary to mount a serious challenge to entrenched interests. Moreover, the voting public, while disillusioned with nepotism, may hesitate to support independents due to fears of "wasted votes" or lack of experience.
Despite these limitations, independent candidates embody the hope for a more merit-based, less insular political process. They are a testament to the belief that public service should be about capability and commitment, not connections.
Due to loopholes like appointing family members to unpaid positions or less visible posts, the problem of nepotism seems permanently embedded into the fabric of political life.
Combating nepotism will require a multi-pronged approach that includes:
Strengthening Laws: The Federal Anti-Nepotism Law should be upheld rigorously, with clear consequences for violations.
Encouraging Transparency: Government appointments should be subject to public scrutiny, and justifications for appointments should be transparent and based on qualifications.
Promoting Civic Engagement: Educating the electorate about the dangers of nepotism can empower voters to hold politicians accountable.
Supporting Campaign Finance Reform: Reducing the influence of money in politics can also reduce the power of nepotistic networks that finance political campaigns.
Ultimately, the fight against nepotism is a fight for the very soul of democracy. It’s about ensuring that America lives up to its promise as a land of opportunity, where individuals rise based on what they can contribute, not to whom they’re related.
Nepotism in politics isn’t just about a few unqualified individuals occupying office. It’s about a systemic flaw that diverts power from the collective to the familial, and it stands in direct opposition to the principles of democracy and equal opportunity.
Independent candidates, despite their challenges, offer a beacon of hope against such entrenched practices, but their success depends on the engagement and will of the American people. The fight against nepotism, therefore, is not just political, it’s a cultural issue that will require a shift in how we perceive power and privilege.
Good Party is ready to take on that fight, but we can’t do it alone. Join us in our support of independent, anti-corruption candidates running for office on ballots across the country.