Satoshi Kanazawa

The Scientific Fundamentalist

Genes for Monarchy?

Why do we so frequently want family succession in politics?

Posted Feb 21, 2010

CrownDoes human nature naturally crave hereditary monarchy?

When Congressman Jack Murtha (D-PA) recently and unexpectedly died in office, one of the names brought up and briefly considered as a possible successor was his wife Joyce.  This is very common.  When Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) died last year, his wife Vicki was seriously considered as a possible interim successor.  And when Congressman Sonny Bono (R-CA) died in office in 1998, his widow Mary did succeed him in office.  She still represents her late husband’s district to this day.  All of this happened despite the fact that none of the widows had any political experience at the time of their husbands’ deaths.

Sometimes the political power is passed on to other family members.  When my former Congressman Bud Schuter (R-PA) resigned amid ethics investigation, he was succeeded in office by his son Bill, who still represents the 9th District of Pennsylvania to this day.  His father’s ethics problems apparently have not hampered his success in politics.  I’m sure there are many other examples of family succession within Congress that I’m not aware of.

And it is not limited to Congress.  We have elected family members as Presidents of the United States (the Adamses, the Roosevelts, the Bushes, and almost the Kennedys and the Clintons).  In Argentina, the popular President Néstor Kirchner chose not to seek (nearly certain) re-election for a second consecutive term and stepped aside in 2007, so that his wife Cristina could run and win the Presidency.  And she did.  Argentineans voted overwhelmingly for her and she won by a wide margin.

The United States is one of the oldest and most well established representative democracies in the world.  It is also probably the only major world power which has never had any history of hereditary monarchy.  In fact, the country was founded with the very goal of rejecting the rule of hereditary monarchy.  Why then, now that we have firmly established a secure form of representative democracy in the last two centuries, do we act as if we want hereditary monarchy, by electing wives, sons, and other family members of politicians to succeed?

Now, I’m sure that, just like any other profession or career, being a good politician requires certain skills and personality traits, and these skills and personality traits may very well be heritable.  So it makes sense that sons and other genetic relatives (but not wives) of former politicians want to pursue political careers and turn out to be good politicians themselves.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  My question is, why do the people want the wives, sons, and other relatives of former politicians to succeed in office and vote for them, as if we have hereditary monarchy and politics ought to be family business?

Family business is ubiquitous.  Everywhere in the world, sons and daughters inherit and continue their parents’ occupations and professions.  But politics in representative democracy is different because the continuation of family business requires popular support and consent.  The son of the hardware store owner or the plastic surgeon does not require anyone’s consent and support to continue his family business.  The son of the Congressman does.

I wonder how common this practice of family political succession is in other representative democracies besides the United States and Argentina.  (I seem to recall there were twin brothers who became President and Prime Minister simultaneously in Poland.)  If it turns out that people everywhere tend to want family members to succeed in political office, then such desire may very well be part of universal human nature.  Does that mean that humans everywhere naturally want hereditary monarchy (but with popular support)?  Is there something in our human nature that would want our political leaders to be succeeded by their wives, sons, and other family members?

More Posts