When Thomas Paine called America into revolt against the British Crown with Common Sense, he explained at great length that there was nothing divine—nor minimally commendable—about the supposed “divine right of kings.” Warning that “a King hath little more to do than to make war and give away places (grants of power and wealth to favored families),” Paine observed: “Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.”
After outlining the many arguments against dividing society into kings and subjects, however, Paine wrote of an even more unsettling arrangement.
“To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and imposition on posterity,” he wrote. “For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and tho’ himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them.”
The United States has wisely eschewed formal monarchy. But it has, rather too frequently, accepted a dynastic politics that rests power in particular families. This has always been troublesome for those who take seriously the promise of an American experiment founded on the premise that all men—and women—are created equal.
The prospect of a 2016 presidential contest between representatives of two families that have claimed the presidency with some frequency in recent decades is doubly troublesome. This ought to inspire debate in both major political parties, and beyond their narrow boundaries, about whether it makes sense to give Americans a “choice” between the son and the brother of former presidents running as a Republican and the wife of a former president running as a Democrat.
So give former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley credit for opening the debate in an appearance on ABC News’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.When Stephanopoulos suggested that O’Malley sounded like he was ready to challenge presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2016, the host got no objection from the all-but-announced candidate.
Indeed, O’Malley went for it.
“I think that our country always benefits from new leadership and new perspectives,” he said. “Let’s be honest here, the presidency of the United States is not some crown to be passed between two families, it is an awesome and sacred trust that has to be earned, and exercised on behalf of the American people.”
That line got more attention than anything else O’Malley has said in two years of positioning for what everyone accepts would be an uphill challenge to the former First Lady.
O’Malley eschewed direct attacks on Clinton, whom he backed for the Democratic nomination in 2008, and took no great swings at potential Republican nominee Jeb Bush. The former governor avoided going off on tangents about Bill Clinton or Bush 41 and Bush 43. He suggested that his objection was to “any two families” trading off the keys to the White House.
This is the right objection.
In fairness to Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush—while both have benefitted mightily from family ties, and the campaign-treasury largesse that extends from them—neither of these prospective contenders is formally staking a purely dynastic claim on the presidency. Both have records to run on.
Perhaps Hillary Clinton is the best-prepared Democratic contender.
Perhaps Jeb Bush is the best-prepared Republican contender.
Should they run—as is expected—each will have a chance to make their case. And if Clinton and Bush secure their respective nominations, they will find themselves arguing with each other about who is better prepared. And, presumably, about who is more "of the people."
But Democrats and Republicans who dare to infuse their partisanship with reason and reflection should ask whether this is really the choice that they ought to offer the American electorate.
Democrats and Republicans who are of a serious bent have every right—and responsibility—to examine alternatives.
This should be recognized as a very American consideration.
It is difficult to imagine that Tom Paine would have expected—or wanted—Americans to have to pick their president from a select pair of experienced and entitled families.
As Paine is not with us to raise the concern, it is good that Martin O’Malley has done so.