Nobility

If there is one person that I would say represents everything typical of dynastic politics in America, it would be Ted Kennedy. His path to power began in 1960, when his father, one of the most powerful men in America, asked the governor of Massachusetts to name a Kennedy family friend to the senate seat recently vacated by Ted’s older and much more capable brother John, as Ted was too young to be a senator. Other than being a lawyer and his political experience serving on his brother’s election campaign, he had few qualifications, and already a troubling past, having been expelled from Harvard College for cheating in 1951 (after serving in the Army for two years, he was re-instated and later graduated from Harvard).

His personal life was characterized by partying and drinking, and most famously the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident, where the most reasonable interpretation is that Kennedy’s drinking killed a 28 year old woman. Once he became the democratic senator from Massachusetts, he was virtually unbeatable, having had no serious primary challenges and few challeges from the opposing party.

If there is one person who would represent the idea of citizen rule, or democracy in action or whatever you want to call it, it would be Sarah Palin. A graduate of the University of Idaho, she first ran for political office in 1992, winning a seat on the city council with a grand total of 510 votes. Her career moved her up to mayor, eventually leading to Governor of Alaska and famously the Vice Presidential ticket of the republican party in 2008.

If there’s any reason to be in favor of nobility, it is the above two statements. One the one hand, we had a hard partying loosely ethical man who got to where he was purely on his father’s connections and his family name, on the other, an all American girl who through sheer pluck was able to rise to the top and become one of the most famous, if not powerful, politicians in the country, and most neutral observers agree that the first case was better, that it’d be better to be ruled by Ted Kennedy than Sarah Palin. (ok, time out, neutral is a tough claim here, as its very hard to get truely neutral opinions, and I’m comparing two of the most polarizing politicians of my lifetime, and there are tons of people who would say that Palin is much better than Kennedy was, so if nothing else, this is just my semi-biased opinion).

Kennedy has had very big legisaltive accomplishments: the ADA, Children’s Health Insurance (CHIP), the immigration bill of 1965, etc. Basically, if you are a liberal judging him on the basis purely of his legislative conduct (as opposed to personal character), you’d like him. If you’re a conservative, yeah, you wouldn’t, but thats borderline tautological. (perhaps, a more reasonable question is this: is Sarah Palin held in higher esteem by conservatives than Ted Kennedy is by liberals? I think the answer is no).

Sarah Palin is, in my opinion, one of the most intersting persons in contemporary American politics. She splashed onto the scene in 2008 when John McCain named her his running mate, and at that point basically nobody outside of Alaska had much of an opinion about her, in many ways she was the clearest example of a political blank slate, which people could project their ideas or wishes onto. To Republicans, she became the embodiment of Tea Party Republicans (before the Tea Party actually became a thing, mind you), cutting pork, and opposing the “bridge to nowhere,” although in many cases that wasn’t the case (Alaska still received the half billion dollars alloted for the bridge, it was just never built). However, she almost instantly became that, morphing into what others expected to be in a very seemless transition, becoming (at least for a while) the figurehead of the Republican anti-establishment; never squandering an opportunity to criticize the “lamestream media.” What’s most interesting to me isn’t that Palin was able to play chameleon and appear to be whatever the voters wanted, politicians do that all the time. Whats interesting to me is the sincerity of it all, Palin seemed to go beyond adapting or even embodying the nation’s perception of her, she became that perception.

The advantages of nobility are simple, they’re similar to the reasons we have tenure for professors and why judges have lifetime appointments; it mutes the temptation to go with whatever is popular in the moment, to act above the whims of the public. Rule by nobility isn’t so much an idea that there is a class of people better than the commoners but that, not facing re-elections, the nobles are free to pursue long term interests.

But that’s not illustrated by our example. Ted Kennedy, due to his name, position and history, was free to choose some positions not entirely based on the will of Massachusetts, but I doubt he really did this much more than any other Senator; he was a liberal senator from a liberal state. The story of Ted Kennedy is one of being given an office which he did not deserve, and sought to be worthy of the office.

None of this is to say that I support going back to rule by a hereditary nobility; I don’t want to change the government structure based off of a single example, there are also hundreds of things which can go wrong with nobility, and you can make the argument that the virtue of democracy isn’t so much that it produces great leaders, but rather that it prevents horrible leaders.

One thing I’d like to see is the ways that functional nobility work; meaning things like life peers in Britain, or senators for life in Italy, to attempt to gauge whether they have “better” records than elected representatives (although how to measure their records is an open question).

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