Primary Ethics: Good and Bad Results for Civic Diligence

The tendency of American voters to hand over the reins of power to the sons, daughters, and wives of popular or successful leaders simply because they shared a last name, a bed or some DNA has always been an embarrassment, proof of the most unfortunate aspects of democracy when it is driven by civic laziness rather than diligence. Beneficiaries of this generations-long deficit in seriousness and responsibility include presidents (Adams, Bush); U.S. Senators (Kennedy, Gore, Clinton, Bayh,**), representatives (Kennedy, Bono, Jackson…), and governors (Bush, Bush…). Some have performed well, some not so well, but all of them were initially elected because voters knew their names, and illogically ascribed to them whatever it was that they admired about their family members, regardless of experience, qualifications, or evidence of governing skill.

In Tuesday’s primaries, voters rectified one especially egregious example of this phenomenon, and committed a new one.

The new outrage: Ben Quayle, the son of former Vice President Dan Quayle, won the Republican primary for an Arizona congressional seat despite the fact that he:

  • …was exposed as contributing material to a racy Arizona website under a fake name;
  • …lied about it, until he had to admit the truth;
  • …wrote statements on the site including: “My moral compass is so broken I can barely find the parking lot;”
  • …sent out a campaign mailer that implied that two little girls pictured were his children, though Quayle and his wife have no children;
  • …has no governing experience whatsoever.

He was elected because his father wise a Vice President, though not a particularly good one, and I am being kind.

His father, however, could find the parking lot with his ethics compass.

This example of voter irresponsibility was offset, to some extent, by the (almost certain) defeat of Alaska Senator Lisa Murchowski in the Republican primary in that state. She was defeated by a Sarah Palin-supported Tea Party candidate named Joe Miller, but she never should have been a senator in the first place. Murchowski got the job in one of the more shameless displays of nepotism in U.S. history, when her father, Frank Murchowski, unconscionably appointed her to fill the vacancy created by his own election as governor of Alaska in  2002. She finished out his term, and then in 2004, lazy Alaskan voters decided “Eh. One Murchowski is as good as another,” and let her stay in the Senate. It took eight years, but Daddy’s appropriation of the government of Alaska for family advancement was finally undone.

Nepotism is unfair and an abuse of power;  hereditary dynasties are un-democratic, based on bloodline rather than merit; and both are the result of  civic indifference by Americans who take self-government for granted. This week, the principles of ethical government broke even, at least on that front.


Update: Originally, I mistakenly included Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo) in the discussion; that was in error, and was flagged by alert Missouri resident Jan Chapman. I apologize to Senator McCaskill for my carelessness. In the process of checking, however, I discovered an exhaustive list of family connection-driven political careers. It is here, and worth looking at.

5 thoughts on “Primary Ethics: Good and Bad Results for Civic Diligence

  1. I’m glad you had the good sense not to include “Roosevelt” in your list of nepotic presidents. The quality teeter-totter between #1 and #2 is more finely balanced between Teddy and Franklin than between the others, although reasonable minds differ over which one might be higher.

    Mark Twain’s musings on this subject are interesting (and yes, he really wrote these, unlike so many spurious Twain quotations). In Chapter IX of his Autobiography he expressed his view with his customary wit and grace (saying, in effect, that Americans scoff at titles but love money and even use it to buy titles), but in his private notebooks, which contained his private thoughts and preliminary drafts, he wrote more colorfully:

    “We Americans worship the Almighty Dollar (, do we?). Well, it is a worthier God than Hereditary Privilege. The Dollar has no contempt for you but the other has. It is amazing — what a European can stand in the contempt of his ‘betters.’ (Better the Almighty Dollar than a tub of rancid guts labeled King.)”

    The Mark Twain Papers: Notebooks and Journals, Volume 8 (May 1889-August 1890).

    The ethical question, of course, remains wide open: Isn’t there something significantly “better” than either of these two alternative?

    • TR and FDR are more like imperfect clones, or history repeating, or dumb luck. FDR consciously st out to copy Teddy’s career path, even to the point of running to be Vice-President (thought Franklin lost) It’s fair to say that FDR would have beaten Hoover no matter what his name was, and after that, he was on his own. I also wouldn’t include Benjamin Harrison, whose grandfather was POTUS for all of one month. I don’t think that helped him any—he was from a different state, and besides, he didn’t get a majority of the popular vote(then again, neither did Bush II).

      • Did I miss something? Because I’m from Missouri, and as far as I know, Claire McCaskill won her seat on her own merits, not because she is related to anyone previously in office. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

        • No, Jan…I messed something, and I’m not sure what. That was in error; I have eliminated the reference. In the process of checking, however, I found a great collection of examples of the phenomenon, which is worse than I thought. I owe you for that!

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