David Brooks

Politics and breeding grounds for excellence

If Mrs Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, then 10 of the 45 American presidents will have had a family member precede or follow them in the White House.
If Mrs Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, then 10 of the 45 American presidents will have had a family member precede or follow them in the White House.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Americans are embarrassed. Over the last 35 years, there have only been two elections without a Bush or Clinton on the national ticket.

Next year, both names could rest atop the ballot. In one poll, voters saw this as a bad thing by a ratio of eight to 1.

Some of the people who are upset have a false view of how life works. Since Thomas Hobbes, many have embraced the illusory notion that society is made up of individuals. According to this view the only fair competition is between individuals, without undue benefit from family connections.

But no society has ever been this way. Individuals do not come fully formed. They emerge out of families and groups. The family and group is the essential social unit. These collectives have always shaped public life.

According to some surveys, 90 per cent of businesses around the world are family-operated. Much research suggests that in the US, family-run businesses outperform non-family-run businesses, especially while the founder is still alive.

Politics, too, has always been a dynastic affair. If Mrs Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, then 10 of the 45 presidents will have had a family member precede or follow them in the White House.

According to my colleagues at The Times, among boomers, the son of a senator was 8,500 times more likely to become a senator than the average American male.

Things look the same on the state level. In New York, there are Cuomos. In California, Browns. Out West, the joke is that voters should just vote for the closest Udall.

If you look around the globe, these pseudo-monarchical tendencies seem to be on the increase, not on the decrease. There are Aquinos in the Philippines, Nehru-Gandhis in India, even Le Pens in France. Now that women are more empowered, each dominant clan has essentially doubled the size of its talent pool, so family influence is increased.

Why do the members of dynastic families do so well? Some of the reasons are obvious and unfair: brand names and fund-raising networks. Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton get the benefit of their family members' fame. Their donor networks are already in place. These advantages will not necessarily make them better presidents.

But in other ways, we should be grateful that in each field of endeavour, there are certain families that are breeding grounds for achievement. We should be grateful that there are Bachs in music, Griffeys and Molinas in baseball, Brontes and Amises in novel writing and Kennedys, Roosevelts, Clintons and Bushes in politics. These families make life more unfair for the rest of us - because it is harder for others to compete against them - but they also make society as a whole more accomplished.

Powerhouse families nurture achievement in many ways. First, there is identity formation. If you grow up in a musical family, you are more likely to think of yourself as a musician at a young age. You can get your 10,000 hours of practice in early, which is a huge leg-up.

Second, there is the realm of practical knowledge. Very little of the knowledge you need to succeed in a trade can be taught in the classroom or read about in a book. It can only be imparted by example. If you are former senator Nancy Kassebaum and you grow up around your dad, former governor Alf Landon, as he conducts a meeting, works a room or reacts to victory or defeat, you are more likely to have an intuitive feel for how the craft of politics is done.

Third, there is the level of skills. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott once observed that it takes three generations to make a career. That is, the skills that go into, say, becoming a teacher - verbal fluency, empathy, endurance - take a long time to develop. They emerge in grandparents and great-grandparents and are passed down magnified through the generations. I bet you could trace ways your grandparents helped shape your career.

Fourth, there is audacity. It is very odd to think you should be President of the United States. But if you grow up in the Kennedy or Bush families, it is apparently less odd.

Fifth, there is the time horizon. There are many reasons why family businesses do better, for a time, than non-family businesses. The senior people are connected by intense and sometimes altruistic bonds of trust. But one reason is that families often run the business for the long term, to pass it down as a legacy to those not yet born.

Tomorrow is Mother's Day, when we celebrate the powerful ways mothers shape their children. Families are unequal. Some mothers - and some fathers, husbands and wives - shape their kin with extraordinary power, and in certain directions. We should fight unfair advantages like legacy admissions, but we would not want to live in a society in which family influence did not happen.