Tuesday, October 18, 2005

George W. Soprano

Quite an interesting article examining the dynastic dynamics of families like the Bushes, as well as the trouble these can cause.


You cannot understand George W. Bush without an understanding of his family, and dynastic families in general. Indeed, it might be said that Bush’s familial approach to politics has been his greatest strength and greatest weakness — his Achilles heel. Like Bonaparte, the same dynastic habits that brought him to power may bring him down again. They don't teach a course in patronage and nepotism at Harvard Business School — but they should. Instead they pretend that it doesn't exist. That does us all a disservice.

Dynastic families are not like yours and mine (unless your name is Bush or Kennedy). They are self-conscious, multigenerational enterprises displaying strong collective discipline and an innate, untutored grasp of certain perennial modes and orders that advance the family’s interest. All the great dynastic families in history have used these methods, though in our post-dynastic age they are most visibly preserved by the mafia. Indeed, those who compare the Bushes to the Corleone family are not far off the mark. Through a tangled web of marriage, adoption, instrumental friendship, and godparenthood, the typical mafia don creates a series of concentric rings around his family that extends his power deep into the countryside. Likewise, the Bushes have created an enormous social network based on their family. Like other large successful clans they prefer their own company and that of their relatives, friends, and retainers. Such families typically have their own compounds where they gather apart from the rest of society, and when someone useful swims into their view they adopt him as part of the family. This was the way the Bushes dealt with Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, whom they christened "Bandar Bush."

In short, dynastic families are nothing but socially sanctioned mafias based on nepotism and various forms of patronage. Now that we have a dynastic family in office, it is inevitable that this will be exposed to public view. Still, it is more than a little ironic for Bush's opponents on both Left and Right to be crying foul as though cronyism is not a permanent feature of the American political landscape. As Rick Brookhiser points out, cronyism has a long history in American politics. And as Jonah Goldberg noted in his qualified defense of cronyism, it is the soul of all political machines.


[several interesting examples from history]


In all such cases, merit, and patronage were deeply intertwined, since (as I argue in my book on the subject) the informal and unwritten "rules of nepotism" require that patronage be bestowed with discretion on those who will not bring discredit on the patron. The same applies today in modern bureaucratic settings, though considerably modified by the meritocratic values of our technocratic age.

Which brings us to the Bushes. People have been trying to figure out what kind of bubble the Bushes live in for a long time. But it is not the cocoon of wealth that insulates them from reality and explains their frequent missteps and tone-deaf remarks, but that of family itself. The problem for W is that the ethic of friendship and loyalty that the Bushes cultivate and that brought him to power is threatening now to bring him down. He has made the common dynastic mistake of confusing loyalty and merit; in his eyes, the merit of people like Michael Brown and Harriet Miers consists in their being his friends. They are loyal to him, and their loyalty must be rewarded. Thus in Bush, the very loyalty that was a private virtue has become a public vice. His greatest failing is his inability to hold people accountable for their errors. Because they are his creatures, he seems unable to disown them or even to see their faults. This is an inexcusable failing in a democratic leader. As the Machiavellian FDR would be the first to acknowledge, aristocratic virtues have no place in the modern executive. For while Americans do love a prince, they want nothing to do with a king.

No comments: