This is a follow-up on my previous post on Plato’s Republic and his proposal to redefine the family. I’ve already argued my view that this is an ironic proposal rather than a straightforward proposal. In reflecting on this, though, I thought about the influence of families on American politics. Consider this — our Constitution is designed to make political office as free of ancestral or titled constraints as possible. The idea behind this, even if it has not been consistently carried out, is that the people most suitable to govern will be placed in positions to govern. However, even with this structure in place, in periods of American history, a few families have exercised enormous influence. This is not a conspiracy theory, but a statement of fact on the undeniable influence of families in government, even in a republic which has been designed to remove barriers of ancestry.
Think of the following. Since 1988, the office of President of the United States has been occupied by three families: Bush, Clinton, and Obama. According to current wisdom, the front runners for the presidential nomination for 2016 for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, are Hilary Clinton and Jeb Bush, making it likely that we will have another President from either the Bush or the Clinton families. However, this is nothing new.
If we look further back at American history, other families have been elected to high office and exercised extraordinary influence. The Kennedys the Roosevelts, the Tafts (with William Howard as President, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Robert Taft as Senate Majority Leader), the Gores (Albert Gore Sr. as longtime Tennessee senator and Al Gore as Senator and Vice -President), and John and John Quincy Adams who both occupied the White House. More obscurely, both John Marshall Harlan and John Marshall Harlan II served on the US Supreme Court.
I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. In the providence of God, families will arise who have unique abilities, opportunities, and resources. Families will arise who have a heritage of relationships, connections, and experience in governing will be entrusted with the task of governing. The difficulty here is not with this process, but with the corruptibility of the persons holding high office, and the temptation to enrich their personal circumstances through governing.
Plato attempts to insulate the philosopher-king from corruptibility, yet seems to believe in corruptibility of human nature and illustrates this reality in Book VIII of the Republic, when he writes of the inevitable degeneration of good government.
Does the historical pre-eminence of a few families exercising enormous power and influence detract from the Constitutional design protecting individual liberties? Does this reality hinder what would be the best possible government that America would be able to have? I’d love to hear your thoughts!