What do the following ten countries – Belgium, Denmark, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Norway, Spain, Sweden, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom – have in common? Well, they all are prosperous (if even a bit stagnant, as we in the U.S. love to believe) European democracies. They are also monarchies, meaning that the heads of state – Kings, Queens, Grand Dukes, or Princes – ascend to power not by popular elections, but by hereditary succession. And although there is a trend to dismiss monarchies as beautiful yet ultimately meaningless vignettes of the past, those of us who believe that all men are created equal would frown upon the fact that in monarchies, however perfectly constitutional, some men are created more equal than others.
We Americans have long rejected the tyranny of kings. All we pass to our spouses and children is our wisdom and our money. But when it comes to filling in the political office we are about to vacate, we remain perfect meritocrats and expect this office to be contested via free and fair election. Does everyone agree?
A couple months ago, the Washington Post reported that prominent Democrats are pushing Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the widow of Sen. Edward Kennedy, to win back the Senate seat of her late husband which in the January 2010 special election was taken away by a Republican, Scott Brown. Obviously, there is no shortage of experienced and ambitious politicians in Massachusetts dreaming of becoming a U.S. Senator. Why then focus on Mrs. Kennedy, admittedly a brilliant lawyer in the past and a passionate social activist at present, who nevertheless never held a public office? The rumors are that, first and foremost, this was the wish of Ted Kennedy, himself who wanted "his Senate seat to stay in the family."
In the family indeed! The Kennedy family has kept this Senate seat for 53 years, and many folks in Massachusetts seem to sincerely believe that it simply belongs there, so that it must go from one Kennedy to another in the same way as the supreme power in monarchy goes from one sovereign to another.
If Victoria Kennedy decides to run, she'll still have to compete against Brown, who is gaining in confidence and popularity. Some of hers fellow political widows have been luckier. Hattie Caraway of Arkansas became Senator in 1931 after the death of her husband, Thaddeus Caraway. The same happened to Muriel Humphrey, who was appointed to the Senate in 1978 following the death of Hubert Humphrey, her husband. Ditto for Jean Carnahan who was appointed to fill the Senate seat of her posthumously (!) elected husband, Mel Carnahan, in 2001.
Exceptions? Not at all. According to Hendrik Hertzberg, of the 244 women who have served in U.S. Congress, 46 directly succeeded their husbands and 12 their fathers. Am I the only one out here recognizing elements of “hereditary succession”?
And then, there are presidential dynasties, of course. Every student of American political history would tell you that one of the surest ways to get in the White House is to have someone in the family who has already been there. As shrewdly observed by Hertzberg, forty percent of Americans, in 2007, had never lived when there wasn’t a Bush or a Clinton in the White House. If Hillary Clinton had been elected and reelected, our nation could have gone 28 years in a row with the same two families governing the country; 36 with the elder Bush’s vice-presidency. (Smells almost like White and Red Roses.) And make no mistake: it's not only about a persona in the White House; it's also about powerful special interests running the country from behind, be it oil companies, investment banks, or teacher's unions.
True, no American president can simply pass the key from the Oval Office to his son or wife. But they can give them what many European monarchs can't: name recognition, a list of wealthy donors, and a small army of advisers, political consultants, and pollsters. Does anyone doubt that George W. Bush had no chances to become president if not for his dad? And although Hillary Clinton — with her admirable professional and personal qualities – would have eventually achieved everything on her own, could she have amassed such an impressive political clout so fast if not for her stint as First Lady?
For the record: Putin is married with two daughters. (No, they don't participate in reality TV shows.) Yet he didn't push his wife Lyudmila to succeed him — as did his Argentinian colleague, Nestor Kirchner. Instead, Putin opted for Medvedev, whose impressive background in academia, business, and government made him a hardly less qualified candidate than, say, Dilma Rousseff, a personal pick of the outgoing Brazilian President Lula da Silva. Besides, despite the widespread criticism, in Russia and abroad, of the 2008 presidential election, this election did take place, and tens of millions of Russians did vote for Medvedev. Compare that to Gordon Brown, Tony Blair's hand-picked successor, who wasn't elected by anyone, but was rather selected by a bunch of party apparatchiks.
Correct me if I'm mistaken, but no one in the U.S. considers Argentina, Brazil or the U.K. "autocracies."
And why all this fuss about Putin's possible return to the Kremlin in 2012? Despite being completely in compliance with the Russian Constitution, Putin's perceived desire to regain his presidency is universally condemned as yet more evidence of Russia's "backsliding on democracy." But what about Urho Kekkonen who served twice as Prime Minister of Finland (for about 6 years total) before becoming the country’s President for the next 26(!) years. Was Finland "backsliding on democracy" too? (Or we Americans simply unsure what Finland is?)
Curiously, Putin found an unexpected soul mate in former President Bill Clinton who recently argued, in a TV interview, that the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution applying term limits to presidents should be revised. Referring to longer life-expectancies, Clinton suggested that presidents should be allowed to serve a third or even fourth term in office, but only after they took time off following their second term. (Exactly what the Russian Constitution stipulates! And let me point out that Putin is six years younger than Clinton and is apparently in better health.) I'd be curious to know, though, Clinton's opinion on another potential Constitutional Amendment (let's call it tentatively "All in the Family" Amendment) banning individuals from serving in elected offices previously occupied by their spouses.
Our political purism (the "values gap" approach, so to speak) when it comes to some selected countries like Russia, may be seriously tested in 2013 in Georgia. A proposed new draft of the country's Constitution — widely believed to have been written by President Mikhail Saakashvili "for himself" — will shift the bulk of executive power from the president to the prime minister, allowing Saakashvili to "cling onto power" when his second presidential term expires in 2013. Having elevated Saakashvili into the rank of Uberdemocrat, the American political class may find itself in a difficult position. If Saakashvili is a "democrat", then why is he following the "Putin path"? And if he isn't a "democrat", then who is he? I suspect that the sharp edges of both questions will be smoothed over by the money Saakashvili will distribute in DC through his lobbyists.
Whether in the United States, Russia or Georgia, various special interests are trying to establish permanent presence in their countries' political institutions. They do this through incumbency, the politically correct term for the "All in the Family." Arguing which way of creating incumbency is more "democratic" is, in my humble opinion, ridiculous. There is no "values gap" here. Everywhere, the real value of "political values" is the same. It is just measured differently in different places: in dollars, rubles, or lari.