The Rise of America’s Princeling Class

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This week the American public discourse has been fixated on the British royal family, and the birth of the new prince. Although the U.S. is hardly alone among foreign publics who have been following the birth obsessively, the entire spectacle was decidedly at odds with America’s anti-Monarchy roots.

Unlike many non-Western colonies that based their independence movements on culture and nationalism, the British transplants who populated the American colonies used distain for Monarchy (and taxes) as a rallying cry for the Revolutionary War. And since achieving independence a core national belief—though not always followed in practice— was that each individual’s social, economic, and political standing should be obtained solely from their own merit, and not the families they were born into.

But in truth there have always been “royal” political families in the U.S. sitting uncomfortably alongside this ideal.  Consider, for example, that it only took six presidents before America had a precedent for father-son presidential combinations.

Presidents John Adams and his son, John Quincy, are only one of the earliest and most well-known of America’s prominent political families that have included the Taft’s, the Roosevelt’s, the Kennedy’s and countless others, many of whom have largely been forgotten.

While their hereditary nature bears some obvious similarities to Monarchies, the offspring of American politicians who have risen to prominent positions themselves have had to do so at least partly on their own ambition and merits (and many have been very successful, capable leaders). In this sense, America’s royal families are probably have more in common with contemporary China’s Princeling class—children of Revolutionary leaders—that now populate senior positions in the Communist Party, including General Secretary and President Xi Jinping.

Whatever name they go by, the American princeling class does seem to be on the rise. Nothing captures this better than the fact the next president contest could very likely feature a candidate whose husband has served as president squaring off against someone whose father and older brother have held the nation’s highest office. Indeed, before 2012 one would have to go back to the 1976 presidential election to find one in which neither a Bush nor Clinton ran for president or vice president.

Even Barbara Bush, the first lady to the eldest Bush president, has counseled her son Jeb against running for president on the grounds that “it’s a great country, there are a lot of great families…. and we've had enough Bushes.”

But even without a Bush or Clinton running during the last president cycle, the U.S. presidency was not without a Princeling candidate; namely, Mitt Romney, whose father George was a popular Governor of Michigan and former presidential candidate (George Romney’s presidential campaign had the strong backing of Nelson Rockefeller, a future vice president from one of America’s most powerful families).

But most remarkable has been that over the past week or so, as the country was closely following the British royal family, a number of American Princelings have seemingly burst on the scene.

None more so than Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who last week announced her intention to mount a primary challenge to three-term Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi.

Liz Cheney is not a newcomer to the America political scene, having long been a proponet of her father’s brand of hardline neoconservative foreign policy. She is a newcomer to the state of Wyoming, however, having never lived there herself, save for in the hours before she announced her candidacy. Instead, she’s tried to bolster her state credentials in the state solely by pointing to her family’s long-standing ties there. Most political analysts agree she’ll rely heavily on her father’s continuing popularity there (he served as a Wyoming Senator) and his huge political network across the country in seeking the office.

A mere days after Ms. Cheney’s announcement in Wyoming, Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, announced she will seek her father’s former Senate seat. Unlike Cheney, Ms. Nunn has deep roots personally in the state in which she is running, and her own political network owing to her philanthropy in the state.

Still, she’s facing an uphill battle running as a Democratic candidate in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to Senate in nearly a decade. Unlike her father, who served in the state legislature for years before becoming a Senator, Michelle Nunn also has never ran for political office before.

Thus, while she will seek to leverage her own connections so far as she can, she’ll be using her father’s legacy and network to propel her into the Senate. As her campaign manager told The Hill this week, “People will see a lot of him [Sam Nunn] in her [Michelle Nunn], and the things they respected in him, they’ll also respect in her. Some people may give her the benefit of the doubt because of the fact that they respected her father’s approach.”

Finally, in the perfect way to capture the royal mood of the week, President Obama finally officially announced he would nominate Caroline Kennedy to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Japan. Ms. Kennedy obviously comes from the closest thing modern America has to the British Monarchy, being the only living child of former President John F. Kennedy and his ever-popular spouse, Jacqueline Kennedy.

Caroline Kennedy has been a long-time supporter of President Obama, having first endorsed him in January 2008 and worked on his campaign. Like Ms. Cheney and Ms. Nunn, she’s also an extremely accomplished person in her own right. As I noted when her name was first floated in April, however, her qualifications to be ambassador to Japan are thin, excepting that the U.S. has a history of sending celebrity ambassadors to Tokyo.

Thus, while American Princelings are all talented and accomplished individuals, they also seem to be proliferating quickly. Perhaps America isn’t as anti-Monarchial as it was once was, or at least pretended to be.

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