The political landscape in the United States is littered with examples of political dynasties; President George W. Bush, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Former Vice President Al Gore are but a few examples. Although access to political institutions may have increased in recent decades, a new study finds some evidence of a self-perpetuating political elite in Congress.
In a study of Congress since its inception in 1789, Haas School Assistant Professor Ernesto Dal Bó found that legislators who won re-election were 40% more likely to have a relative follow in their footsteps to the Capitol than those who held only one term.
“In politics, power begets power,” Dal Bó wrote with co-authors Pedro Dal Bó (his brother) of Brown University and Jason Snyder of Northwestern University in their recent working paper, titled “Political Dynasties.”
The authors were surprised to find that dynasties have been far more prevalent in Congress than among other occupations. They found that legislators were more than seven times more dynastic than economists and more than ten times more dynastic than doctors.
Dal Bó believes better contacts and name recognition are likely explanations for the prevalence of political dynasties in Congress. “People who stay in power for longer develop a series of advantages, such as stronger contacts with the party machine and name recognition,” he explains.
Dal Bó rules out the possibility that politicians simply pass down smarts and charisma to their offspring by comparing politicians who barely won re-election with those who barely lost. He hypothesizes that razor-thin victories are primarily caused by luck and mean there is little difference between the winner and loser. But he finds that even those close winners were significantly more likely to see relatives later elected to Congress.
If winners and losers are basically identical, then any difference in descendents entering Congress later is the result of the different outcome in the re-election – and subsequent longer time in power – and not personal or family characteristics, Dal Bó argues.
Moreover, dynastic legislators were actually less likely to have previous public service experience before going to Congress than other legislators, discrediting the theory that dynastic legislators pass down an affinity for public service to their offspring, Dal Bó says.
The evidence of a self-perpetuating political elite in Congress suggests that elections today can have political consequences 30 years later by paving the way for descendents to enter politics, Dal Bó says. “Political mistakes by confused electorates may have longer-lasting costs than simply conferring office to a bad candidate,” Dal Bó and his co-authors concluded.