Political Dynasties

Via John Sides, Ernesto Dal Bó, Pedro Dal Bó, and Jason Snyder on “Political Dynasties” (PDF):

Political dynasties have long been present in democracies, raising concerns that this inequality in the distribution of political power may reflect imperfections in democratic representation. However, the persistence of political elites may simply reflect differences in ability or political vocation across families and not their entrenchment in power. We show that dynastic prevalence in the Congress of the United States is high compared to other occupations and that political dynasties do not merely reflect permanent differences in family characteristics. On the contrary, using two instrumental variable techniques we find that political power is self-perpetuating: legislators who hold power for longer become more likely to have relatives entering Congress in the future. Thus, in politics, power begets power.


I think we should probably understand political dynasties in democracies as part of the larger story of the importance of elite signaling in democratic politics. Most people have stronger views about individual figures than they do about “the issues.” So the question becomes how do you extend the brand? Most voters are most effectively reached via partisan branding — something like 80 percent of people are robotic party-line voters — but “swing voters” by definition don’t work this way. Family relationships then become an effective means of extending a positive brand that’s doesn’t involve parties.