Legacy politicians and Liz Cheney

The main purpose of this item is a shout-out to Daniel Markham Smith, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Harvard, and a student whose dissertation committee I served on at UCSD. Dan was quoted, and his dissertation, Succeeding in Politics: Dynasties in Democracies, was referenced (and even linked) in a Guardian article on Liz Cheney’s candidacy for Senator from Wyoming.

As the article notes, Cheney, if elected, would be only the latest in a long history of “legacy politicians” in the USA. A legacy politician is one who has at least one family member who has held a public office in the past. As Dan is quoted saying, based on his research, “When candidates are decided more at a local level, as in the US primaries system, the chances of a legacy candidate being selected for nomination is far greater.” The article even delves a bit deeper:

[Smith] draws a distinction between political systems that encourage ‘personal vote’ as opposed to ‘party vote’ based on whether voters lean more on the party or the candidate while voting. The US primaries are certainly built around the ‘personal vote’ since it is essentially an intra-party exercise.

Smith says that political parties and election systems play as much a role in perpetuating political dynasties, as do voters. Smith discovered that election systems which are more candidate-centered than party-centered – as are US elections compared to countries with parliamentary democracy – are more likely to spawn political dynasties. Smith’s findings help explain why dynastic politicians are much lower in Canada – at around 2% – compared to the United States.

Congratulations, Dan, on the publicity. It is much deserved for an excellent work of scholarship, for which he was awarded the 2013 UCSD Chancellor’s Dissertation Award for Best Dissertation in the Division of Social Sciences.

14 thoughts on “Legacy politicians and Liz Cheney

  1. Dan’s probably correct although I would slice the goose not as “the US presidential executive versus other countries with parliamentary executive” but more like “electoral systems that offer intra-party candidate choice versus electoral systems where the voter has to choose either a single candidate, or a single fixed or hard-to-alter ticket, offered by their preferred party”.

    Thus, France has moved a long way toward a US-style presidential executive (direct election 1962, five-year terms 2002, two-term limit 2012) but French voters do not have a choice of candidates within each party. (They have some limited choice between the two largest parties on their side of politics, although as 2002 shows they may need to vote tactically to avoid a perverse result).

    On the other hand, Ireland and Tasmania have parliamentary executives but because they use “open-ticket” STV, voters have a wide intra-party choice. Consistently with this, a familiar surname is an advantage. Tasmania has seen quite young candidates of the houses Wriedt and Hodgman, for example, rising through Parliament. (I can’t speak for Malta, and the ACT has only had self-government for 23 years – although House Adams managed to regain the US Presidency after only 24 years, and House Bush after only 8, so maybe Canberrans are just very big on selection by merit).

    Patrick Dunleavy, Helen Margetts, and Stuart Weir ran some STV model elections in the UK about 20 years ago, exit-polling voters after local government elections and giving them a mock ballot showing the names of a couple of dozen well-known UK political figures. They noted an unusually high first-preference vote for Winston Spencer-Churchill MP (1940-2010) http://www.tinyurl.com/mgw873g, and guessed this was people mixing him up with more famous grandsire. [“Faction replay,” New Statesman & Society (12 June 1992), pp 16-17: longer academic paper cited and critiqued here http://www.tinyurl.com/kxpb9ep in Voting Matters].

    Apart from mere identity confusion or apathy, there can be rational reasons for voters to support a candidate who is related to a former politician (as shown by the fact it can occur even in one-ticket-per-party electoral systems – the two most prominent women in the Queensland Parliament, Speaker Fiona Simpson and Opposition Leader Annastacia Palaszczuk, both succeeded their dads – and it can even help female candidates with different surnames from their father or grandfather). A lot of democracy relies on log-rolling and deal-making. Groups and individuals can live with losing on their second-order issues as long as they get to prevail on their higher priorities. Keeping account of this ledger requires some kind of electoral unit that can outlast the individual incumbent. If s/he dies suddenly, or decides s/he is going to retire (or will lose anyway) so no longer cares about re-election, his/her political “creditors” would suddenly find the promissory notes they had accumulated are void and worthless.

    Party normally performs this function (hence, eg, the “tap on the shoulder” for representatives who are bringing the brand into disrepute, c/f Goldwater with Nixon) but a family dynasty may operate in this capacity as well or instead.


    • Tom, what you say is pretty close to Dan’s wider claims in the dissertation, and is what is alluded to in his quote about candidate-centered vs. party-centered. But there is only so much when get in a couple of paragraphs filtered through a journalist and editor!

      His dissertation, by the way, focuses to a large degree on Japan and the change in the electoral system there. Obviously, in Japan, the executive type is held constant across the different electoral system, one which allowed intra-party choice and a newer one that does not.


  2. Noted, MSS, apologies to Dan if I misrepresented him.

    This seems to be a very common (over-) simplification by US journalists: “In America, we have a presidential system, which squeezes out small parties and guarantees a majority for one of the two largest parties. Other countries, however, have parliamentary systems with proportional representation, which enables minor parties to win seats and entrench themselves in the government.” An Australian (or a Briton) would laugh at the idea that the US has more clearcut election results and decisive majorities (in all elective chambers, not just the one that determines the executive) than many parliamentary systems.

    There’s a grain of truth that you can’t apply PR and/or multi-partyism to a single presidential seat at any given time, whereas both are possible for a multi-seat parliament. However many parliaments are not elected by PR, of course, or they are but have only two parties (the predominant experience of Tasmania, Malta and Austria until two or three decades ago). And presidential systems can (as Lijphart noted) engage in power-sharing coalitions too – using the Vice-Presidency (Andrew Jackson, anyone?) or MSS’s idea of two or three co-presidents; or rotating power among other offices such as Prime Minister and Speaker, as in Lebanon; or having more than two parties with a chance of winning the presidency, as in France, Ireland and Brazil.

    By the way, my use of France as an example of a sort-of-presidential system isn’t the strongest one around. Strike and replace with: Argentina, Mexico and The Philippines have executive structures that are just as presidential as those of Brazil, Chile, and Colombia. But Argentina, Mexico and The Philippines don’t give voters any choice among candidates on each party’s ticket for the legislature: whereas Brazil, Chile, and Colombia do.

    (Switzerland and Finland have the most “voter-determined” national parliaments in Europe: in both countries, inasmuch as in neither case does list order count except in the statistically insignificant event of a tie. Yet both are the most ambiguously presidential/ parliamentary systems in Europe. Finland has both direct elections for a politically powerful Head of State, and parliamentary votes of confidence in the Cabinet; Switzerland has neither).


    • Good points, Tom. I think it is almost as common for US (and probably other) journalists to conflate parliamentary systems with proportional representation as it is for them to call the latter “a complex form of…” (no matter how simple in actuality).

      I am skeptical of the idea of meaningful power-sharing in presidential systems, assuming a unipersonal presidency. At least in recent decades, I doubt there are cases in which a vice president was anything like a coalition partner in the actual operation of the governing process. (I am leaving aside Cyprus before the Turkish invasion in 1974, where the “Vice President” really was essentially a co-president under the constitution.)

      Just a few clarifications. In the Philippines, the co-equal Senate is elected by MNTV (12 elected at a time, voter may vote for up to 12 candidates), so voters can make intra-party choices. (This is sometimes the case even in the House, despite M=1; parties that have internal divisions will declare a “free zone” which means more than one candidate running under the same party label.) Lebanon has never been presidential. Finland no longer has much of any power in the hands of the presidency. The powers of that office were drastically reduced in 2000. It has been premier-presidential all along, but much closer to parliamentary nowadays. Switzerland is indeed ambiguous. Well, rather, I would say it is the world’s most unambiguous case of neither presidential nor parliamentary!

      (And, no apology needed with respect to the Smith dissertation. It is not as if I think you should have read the dissertation and known the things I mentioned. I just wanted to summarize the broader themes that go well beyond what the journalist referenced.)


  3. Does PR work well in Presidential Systems? Costa Rica seems to be okay with PR, but then it legislature is small at 57 members, and the district magnitude is fairly high.

    Would PR in the U.S create more or less gridlock? Let’s say if all the districts were drawn with regions in mind, and communities of interest, and districts would be adjusted every 10 years, and not redrawn. Wow, that would be great to get rid of gerrymandering, the war or reapportionment and redistricting, and by-elections.

    How many multi-member districts would the U.S have if an open-party list or STV system were to be used? How many districts would the state of California have in such a contest?

    Is the Chilean system of PR of 2 member districts PR? or is it a pseudo system like Greece’s and Italy’s system of PR. Does it force Chile’s natural multi-member system into an uneasy 2 party/bloc system? Does the PR system work there well within the Presidential system? Would changing the electoral system to make it more proportionate make things worse?


  4. Thanks, MSS. Noted re Finland – I knew about the phasing-in of direct election; odd that it coincided with a reduction in the office’s legal powers – the opposite of (or perhaps a deliberate reaction to?) what happened in the French Fifth Republic.

    I’d forgotten about the Philippines Senate, knew the lower house lists are closed (interesting parallel with Japan). Having a free-for-all in an SMD with FPTP sounds like electoral suicide.

    I know Lebanon was not presidential, was quoting Lijphart who noted that the presidency was one of several offices shared among the sects.

    Re the US journalism meme: here’s a representative example, although the author, Randy Barnett, is not a mere journalist, but a prof: albeit here he’s writing an op-ed so there’s the usual dumbing-down:

    “Unlike a parliamentary system in which governments are formed by coalitions of large and small parties, our electoral system is a first-past-the-post, winner-take-all one in which a winning presidential candidate just needs to get more than 50% of the vote…”

    – “The Mistake That Is The Libertarian Party,” http://tinyurl.com/kwpqdg4.

    I think the source of confusion behind over-simplifications like these is that, in a presidential system, controlling the executive requires capturing a single office – the presidency. But controlling “the government” requires also winning majorities in one or two other houses, and sometimes winning other separately-elected executive positions as well (Philippines Vice-President, Texas Lieutenant Governor, Virginia Attorney-General, NYC Public Advocate/ Council Speaker, etc).

    By contrast, in a parliamentary system, you win the most seats in the lower house and you usually control not only the executive (head of govt plus Cabinet, and head of State usually won’t block your policies) but also “the government” in general.

    So: Most lower houses are more pluralistic and diverse than the US presidency – but on the other hand, most parliamentary systems have fewer policy choke-points overall than the US system taken as a whole, so whatever is lost in political diversity/ fragmentation under the former swings is regained with interest on the latter political roundabouts.


  5. Canada may not have a substantial tradition of political dynasties, but Justin (apparently, pronounced ‘Zhoostan’) Trudeau has taken a moribund Liberal Party into contention with not much more going for him than his father’s surname.


  6. Re: Suaprazzodi @ 5

    PR “working well” is definitely a matter of opinion.

    Costa Rica has traditionally been a two-party system, with smaller parties relegated to just one or two seats each, and with the ruling party typically at or near a majority in the assembly. Mexico, on the other hand, has been paralyzed by near constant gridlock since democratizing elections, but its’ ruling party has typically had substantially less than a majority of seats. Excluding Mexico’s three party system, most Latin American countries tend to see pre-electoral alliances supporting candidates for the presidency which often have a near-majority in the legislature.

    Most other Latin nations I’m familiar with tend to see a broad multi-party coalition supporting the president and an equally broad coalition in the opposition, and their effectiveness varies based on one’s ideological persuasions and one’s definition of “effectiveness.”

    It’s almost impossible to predict how PR would work in the US or how that would effect gridlock; it’s possible a future Congress could mandate it, or that the law could change to allow states to elect their representatives proportionally. It’s quite possible that even with PR only 2 parties get seats in Congress.

    Mexico, on the other hand, has suffered from almost constant gridlock since the advent of truly competitive elections, making any serious reform almost impossible.

    Chile’s system is technically d’Hondt with 2-members per district, meaning that in most cases the two coalitions with the highest votes each elect one member. There is no other proportionality, nor any Italian-style winners’ bonus. It does force Chile into a two-bloc system, but I’d say it’s inaccurate to call such a system “uneasy.” The center-left bloc has held together with relatively little strife since the 1988 plebiscite (though it does split into two competing blocs for municipal elections, I understand this is because they believe it results in more seats). The right-wing bloc did split for the 2005 presidential election, with each of the two main parties offering a separate presidential candidate, but the two parties fought the concurrent parliamentary elections as a single bloc. Given the stability of its coalitions, I think Chile’s “parties” really operate more like factions of a larger party which compete in primary elections (for instance, the center-right RN resemble moderate Republicans in the US, while the right-wing UDI resemble the Tea Party). A more proportional system might result in a change in the overall balance of parties, but I doubt it would damage the coalitions or increase gridlock in Chile.


  7. Tom (#6), that journalist you quoted may have been attempting to set a record for most errors on political institutions in one sentence!

    Further follow-up on some of the countries mentioned. It is indeed interesting that Finland gradually introduced direct election of the presidency and reduced its powers at the same time. You may be right that there was a deliberate reaction to France at least lurking in the background. (For the record, in 1988 the rule was a popular majority for a candidate was decisive, but the electoral college still existed–elected on a separate ballot, I think–and made the selection if there was no majority. Then in 1994 they went to direct two-round majority.)

    There really is not much “parallel” between Philippines and Japan. I would not even consider the Philippines House system a parallel (MMM) system. It is FPTP with an odd list tier for which the parties contesting the main districts can’t (formally) compete and in which no “party” can win more than a few (2?) seats.

    Chris (#8):
    “Excluding Mexico’s three party system, most Latin American countries tend to see pre-electoral alliances supporting candidates for the presidency which often have a near-majority in the legislature.”

    Actually, Mexico has had some pre-election coalitions contesting the presidency since 2000. The rules on this have not been consistent, but coalitions have been allowed, at least at times. Are such coalitions typical elsewhere in the region? I am not sure. They are present in some cases, not others, and outside of Chile probably usually unite one major-party candidate with one or more small party supporters.

    The case of Chile’s right in 2005 is a fascinating one, which I explored at the time.


  8. The difference between the US and the UK is that one determines its head of state through an antiquated, elitist system that can – for example – enable George to succeed William in office without receiving a majority of votes from the people. The other one has a[n] hereditary monarchy.


  9. Allan, wrong corner of the finca births?

    An addendum (that Dan might have already touched upon?): we 21st-century political scientists might assume that candidate personality only comes to the fore as a determinant only when the electoral system enables voters to separate choice of individual from choice of chief executive (eg, US ticket-splitting) or of preferred legislative party (MMP with a Zweitestimme; open-ticket List-PR and STV).

    However, of course, it can occur that – when the party vote and the candidates vote are inseparably bundled together – individual popularity may prevail over choice of governing (and/or legislative-majority) party.

    Papua New Guinea would be the leading example today, but a century or two ago the Commons was similar (as were most Australian parliaments). You returned your local Member if he benefited the local constituency, even if he switched from Ministerialist to Opposition mid-term.
    Apart from PNG, many developing countries have similarly fluid party allegiances, but this is masked (or continued/ exacerbated) by having the Cabinet appointed by a monarch (Jordan, Tonga) or an elected president (Afghanistan, Philippines) so there’s no institutional incentive for legislators to consolidate into disciplined parties.


  10. [“Finca births” was meant to say “finca virtua“. Gotta love predictive texting. Not as embarrassing as Alan’s goof but still a loss of (virtual) face.]


  11. And back to legacy politicians/ political dynasties… Three people I’ve known personally grew up with parents who were parliamentarians. One followed the parent into politics – indeed, immediately succeeded as MP for the same district. The second stood as a student union candidate a few times, and later married an MP, but has never h/self stood for parliament. The third, sadly, died young but also showed no interest in following his parent into politics. (Indeed, if our posse were out on the town and heard Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” we used to elbow him when the line “I ain’t no Senator’s son” played, which would annoy him no end…). So that’s my personal data-set, for what it’s worth.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.