Tue, Mar 16, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Why the rich rule the land of the free

With two very rich white males likely to run for the US presidency, the 300-year-old American tradition of rule by the wealthy is still going strong

By Linda Colley  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON


It's now certain. The next presidential election will be between two multimillionaire members of the US' hereditary elite.

For the Republicans, it will of course be President George W. Bush, son of the other president Bush who founded Zapata Petroleum, and an alumnus of Yale University and its elite student society, Skull and Bones. His Democratic opponent, Senator John Kerry, is no closer in origins to the toiling masses. Kerry's ancestors have been involved in Massachusetts' politics since the 1600s. His first wife was worth US$300 million; his second wife's family fortune is even larger. And guess what his university background is: Yale and Skull and Bones.

That two such men should be battling to lead the quintessential land of opportunity strikes some Americans as odd.

"In Britain neither of these guys could lead a major party," grumbled the New York Times columnist David Brooks earlier this month: and this was a significant remark. People in the US believe that Britons are uniquely class-bound. So for Brooks to concede that even the British would not tolerate leaders like this was quite an admission. Americans "pretend to be a middle-class, democratic nation," he diagnosed: "but in reality we love our bluebloods."

Yet this is neither entirely fair to US voters, nor the whole truth. In virtually all countries, politics is often a family business (think of the Bhuttos in Pakistan, or the Mussolinis in Italy), and there are good as well as bad reasons for this. The children of politicians learn the allure and tricks of politics along with their alphabet. They inherit a network of useful contacts, and -- if they're lucky -- a name that confers instant voter recognition. It was hardly their own shining abilities alone that allowed a son, two grandsons, and a son-in-law of Winston Churchill to make their way into parliament.

So, to this extent, there's nothing unique, or novel, or remotely sinister about the Bush and Kerry pairing. In the past, the sixth US president, John Quincy Adams, was the son of its second president, John Adams. And, in the present, the voters of Ohio enjoy as their governor Robert Taft III, having previously elected two other Robert Tafts to represent them in the US Senate. American hereditary politicians of this sort are as common among Democrats as among Republicans, and -- like their equivalents in other countries -- often do the state conscientious and considerable service.

But what we are witnessing in the US now is something rather more than these common and universal linkages between procreation and power. At one level, the particular clout that family connections and extreme wealth exert here reflects the fact that America's politics remain in some respects rooted in the 18th century. Its written constitution, after all, was drafted in 1787 by men who had rebelled against George III, but who still thought and behaved very much like 18th-century Britons. As a result, the US, for all its republicanism and rampant modernity, has preserved in aspic some political ticks and traditions that Britain itself has long since got rid of.

Thus when Americans wanted to prosecute Richard Nixon, they impeached him. Impeachment is an ancient legal device which the British, too, once employed against unworthy ministers. They no longer make use of it (perhaps they should?). But Americans have kept it. In much the same way, American electioneering is now closer in spirit and ritual to William Hogarth's brilliant caricatures of mid-18th-century elections than is Britain's own electoral politics.

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