How political dynasties corrupt


(re: “Escaping the shadows of larger-than-life leaders,” Oct. 8)

In the past few weeks, we’ve learned that Andrew Giuliani is thinking about running for mayor, and that then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016 nearly named his daughter Ivanka as his running mate.

Closer to home, Eric Dinowitz is moving assuredly to the end of a grooming years in the making, one in which he and his father hope to effect a smooth transfer of power from one generation to the next.

It all reminds me of a story. Early in my career, I spent a year adjudicating tourist visas at the U.S. Embassy in Manila. In the 60 seconds or so that I had to interview each applicant, I often asked about their occupation and their family.

An outsized share of the applicants that came to my window were mayor of this or that local town or city, or had just retired after a long tenure doing the same. Quite often they proudly added that a parent or grandparent had also been mayor, or that a child had succeeded them in office.

It didn’t take long to realize that individual families across multiple generations dominate Philippine politics at all levels of government, and that they trade political offices like American boys of a certain generation once traded baseball cards.

The Philippines was a colony of the United States for nearly a half century, and its constitution and system of democratic governance are modeled on our own.

What you may find surprising, though, is that Article II of the Philippine constitution reads: “The state shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service, and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.”

The problem therein lies in that last phrase. Political dynasties have never been outlawed because the Philippine house and senate are dominated by members belonging to dynastic families.

Doing so would threaten the power of an entrenched class of local and national elites.

We should be thankful that, here in the United States, the problem of political dynasties is not nearly so widespread and corrupting as it is in the Philippines.

But that doesn’t mean we should let our guard down, especially at the local level.

It’s not uncommon for children to follow in the footsteps of their parents’ careers. Dinner table conversations shape who we are and how we think. They shape our attitudes and our outlooks, our sense of the possible.

But there’s a different between the son of an accountant going into accountancy, or the daughter of a businesswoman becoming an entrepreneur. Most professions offer a plentitude of opportunity. The same cannot be said of local elected officials, of which there are just a few.

I once asked a mayor at my window there in Manila if the fact that three generations of his family being mayor didn’t turn some people away from politics because of the perception that it wasn’t a level playing field. He assured me that wasn’t the case, got his visa, and went on his way.

In line right behind him was a taxi driver who had overheard the conversation. As he stepped up to my window, the first thing he did was to thank me for the question I had asked.

He went on to say that so many young and bright Filipinos who should be going into public service to make the country a better place instead leave to work abroad or go into the private sector simply because they didn’t have the right last name to win a local election.

The passion and eloquence with which that taxi driver spoke made it clear to me that he was likely one of those self-same talented by frustrated citizens tired of dynastic politics.

Absent constitutional limitations on single families holding public offices, what are we to do as citizens of a country that, at its very founding, soundly rejected the dynastic politics of an entrenched aristocratic class?

A good start would be to pass term limits for all New York state office holders. This is not in the self-interest of any lawmaker, nor does it seem likely to be on the public’s mind anytime soon.

Short of that, as democratic citizens, I recommend that we all scrutinize our own voting choices, even more when that name we see on the ballot is the same name that our parents saw on the ballot decades earlier.

Perhaps doing so will help us to avoid another presidency like that of Donald Trump, whose own ascent to office I am still convinced had more to do with the last name of his erstwhile opponent than many a good liberal would care to admit.

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Jeffrey Otto,