John Dingell, the venerable lawmaker from Michigan announced his retirement this week after serving a record 58 years in congress. In the statement announcing his plans not to run for another term, he explained that he did not wish to be carried “feet first” out of congress, adding he “did not want people to say he stayed too long”. One would assume he said this with tongue firmly in cheek.
It is noteworthy that John Dingell was first elected in 1955 to fill a seat his father, John Dingell Sr had held. And now as a crush of aspiring politico’s step forward to declare for the soon to be open seat, a report has been released announcing that his wife, Debbie Dingell, plans to run for the seat being vacated by her husband. Even before she formally declares her intentions to run, she is already being touted as a favorite to win the “safe” democratic seat. Among the advantages that may clear her path to the nomination and on Election Day are name recognition, her husband’s formidable war chest, and the political machinery she will inevitably inherit from him – call it royalty by another name.
Our political and economic system is one that is ostensibly predicated on the idea of merit based advancement, American’s have an inherent disdain for hereditary class distinctions and privileges common in some parts of the world, and rightly so; it is therefore curious that these values and beliefs notwithstanding, we have a long standing tradition of political dynasties extending to the very infancy of the republic with John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams; the 2nd and 6th American presidents respectively. The marquee names of modern American political history immediately come to mind; the Kennedy’s, Bush’s, and Clinton’s. They are an extension of a well-worn American political tradition that rewards, and some might argue, venerates, family ties and blood lines.
The high retention rate for members of congress, despite the institutions’ unpopularity, is well documented; we call it the power of incumbency – it takes a lot of courage, and not a little naivete to presume to take on a sitting member of congress. For every unlikely story of political success – think Barack Obama – there are a hundred like Bruce Lunsford; you ask who Bruce Lunsford is? Exactly! The power, prestige and influence we bestow on office holders from President on down to the local mayor goes some way in explaining the extraordinary longevity of politicians like John Dingell, or Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd before him. American voters despise royalty – unless we’ve bestowed it ourselves at the ballot box.
In the shadow of giants like John Dingell, our democratic system of government seems, in some cases, to be a good deal less open and democratic than we would want to believe. Whether we call it name recognition, or the power of incumbency, or the influence of an established political machine, it amounts to the same thing – royalty by another name – and when you have it you can seemingly bend the forces of democracy to your will.