Historical Patterns in Political Dynasties

Last week, Andrew Giuliani announced that he plans to run for Governor of New York in 2022, after previously considering a run for Mayor of New York City this year (an office previously held by his father, Rudy Giuliani). If he were to win, he would replace the current governor, Andrew Cuomo, whose father Mario Cuomo also previously held the post. Meanwhile, in Arkansas, Sarah Huckabee Sanders is already running for governor, a post once held by her father, Mike Huckabee. In North Carolina, Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, is considering entering the race to replace retiring Senator Richard Burr next year.

Given these high-profile cases, and other examples from recent years like Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney, it might seem that American politics is unusually teeming with political dynasties––i.e., politicians who are preceded in office by a close family relative. However, a closer look at the comparative and historical record reveals that the US is not considerably different from most other democracies, and has followed a common historical trajectory when it comes to the dynastic composition of the political elite.

This post briefly explores the empirical patterns in American dynastic politicians’ share of legislative power in both historical and comparative perspective, and considers how women’s pathway into politics through dynasties has changed over time.

Democracy and Dynasties

For most of recorded history, and in every corner of the world, political power has been concentrated in the hands of dynasties, with the title and powers of king (or queen), sultan, maharaja, chief, shogun, emperor, etc., passing to a designated successor based on ties of blood or marriage. This form of dynastic selection is thought to have aided political stability and the peaceful transition of power, and is still common (in some form or another) in many nondemocracies. As Jason Brownlee argues, hereditary succession in modern autocracies might persist so long as the party system or leadership selection mechanisms are weak, and power distributions among the broader elite class are sustained.

In principle, democracy offers an alternative method for political selection, supplanting hereditary entitlement to rule with popular election. Scholars from Vilfredo Pareto to C. Wright Mills have noted, however, that even following the introduction of democracy, elite families tend to maintain their dominant positions of power in politics. Italian political theorist Gaetano Mosca provides a succinct description of this observation:

The democratic principle of election by broad-based suffrage would seem at first glance to be in conflict with the tendency toward stability which…ruling classes show. But it must be noted that candidates who are successful in democratic elections are almost always the ones who possess the political forces above enumerated [resources and connections], which are very often hereditary. In the English, French and Italian parliaments we frequently see the sons, grandsons, brothers, nephews and sons-in-law of members and deputies, ex-members and ex-deputies.[1]

America’s experience would appear similar in many respects. As Stephen Hess chronicles in a history of America’s most prominent dynasties, many share a common elite background: “old stock, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, professional, Eastern seaboard, well to do.”[2]. The various resource advantages enjoyed by members of dynasties (name recognition, campaign finances, network connections, etc.), and how these contribute to their perpetuation of political power within democracies, has been the subject of several recent empirical studies in political science and economics, focused not only on the US (e.g., Dal Bó et al., 2009; Feinstein, 2010), but also other democracies around the world (e.g., Chhibber, 2013; Asako et al., 2015; Querubín, 2016; Rossi, 2017; Cruz et al., 2017; Fiva and Smith, 2018).

However, if we look more closely at the historical data from the US and elsewhere, we see that the political advantages of the former aristocracy and other elite families tend to decline over time. Figure 1 illustrates this pattern, using comparative data on national legislators in twelve advanced industrialized democracies.

Figure 1: Political dynasties in democracies over time.
Note: Adapted from Smith (2018). Each line indicates the share of dynastic politicians among members of the lower chamber of each country over time.

In the early decades of American democracy, more than 15% of the House of Representatives were members of political dynasties, but this figure declined to 6-8% in the 1900s.[3] The Senate once featured more dynasties––over 20% of members at some points in the late 1800s and early 1990s––but has since come to resemble the House. Brenda van Coppenolle similarly documents that the share of dynasties in the British House of Commons (not shown in the figure) declined from more than 30% in the late 1800s to less than 10% in more recent years. The exceptions to this general pattern are Ireland and Japan, where a relatively high proportion of dynastic legislators has been attributed to highly personalistic elections and decentralized party organizations.

What explains the decline in dynasties over time? Alfred B. Clubok, Norman M. Wilensky, and Forrest J. Berghorn suggest that it can be attributed to political modernization, rather than population growth or social change. Other theories developed to explain patterns in India and Japan would point to institutional changes, such as the development of strong parties or the introduction of primaries for candidate selection, as contributing factors in the diversification of the political elite.

The debate is still unsettled, but one thing is clear: although dynasties get considerable attention in the US media, their prevalence in Congress is not exceptional when viewed in comparative and historical perspective.

Gender Differences in Dynastic Selection Over Time

A second noteworthy pattern in both the US and other democracies relates to gender representation. As Olle Folke, Johanna Rickne, and I show in a recent study, women have historically been more likely than men to enter politics through the dynastic channel. Often, this pathway into politics has taken the form of the so-called “widow’s succession.”

We argue that dynastic ties function as a signal of quality to the party selectorate or voters, with the (unknown) quality of a would-be junior member of a dynasty being inferred from the known quality of the senior member. This signal will be more important for the selection of women candidates due to their informational disadvantages in a male-dominated political marketplace. However, as more women enter politics (and coinciding with a longer time since women’s enfranchisement), the reliance on the dynastic channel to politics should decline.

Figure 2: Dynastic bias in women’s representation over time
Note: Adapted from Folke, Rickne, and Smith (2021). Data from 1945 for the same twelve democracies as in Figure 1. Left panel pools the data and plots the share of women in the legislature (green circles; dashed lowess curve) and the share of dynasties among the women (purple plusses; solid lowess curve). Right panel plots, for each legislature, the dynastic bias in women’s representation (share of dynastic MPs among women minus the share of dynastic MPs among men) and the share of women in the legislature.
Figure 2 illustrates this pattern for the twelve democracies from Figure 1 (pooling the data, and focusing on the post-1945 period). The left panel illustrates how the share of dynasties among women legislators decreases as the overall share of women in the legislature increases. The right panel plots the “dynastic bias” in women’s representation (the share of dynasties among the women minus the share of dynasties among the men), and illustrates how it is larger when women’s representation is lower. Finally, Figure 3 separates out the case of the US, and plots the share of dynasties among men and women in both the Senate (left panel) and the House (right panel) for the entire historical range of the data.
Figure 3: Dynasties among men and women in the US Congress over time.
Note: Based on data compiled from ICPSR Study No. 7803; replication data for Dal Bó et al., 2009; and the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

The empirical evidence from the US and other democracies implies that dynastic ties help women to overcome high initial barriers to entry, but that this early channel to representation creates greater opportunities for non-dynastic women in the future. Indeed, in the most recent congresses, the dynastic bias in women’s representation has been almost entirely erased (Figure 3). There has also been a qualitative shift, in the US and elsewhere, in the types of dynastic women who run: from mostly widows or wives in earlier decades, to daughters, nieces, and other second-generation relatives in more recent times. The examples of Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Lara Trump reflect this evolution.

These brief explorations of the empirical record serve to contextualize recent high-profile cases of political dynasties in the US, and also to highlight how, for scholars of historical political economy, dynastic politics can serve as a useful lens through which to view and evaluate the development of representative democracies in general.


[1] Mosca, Gaetano. 1939. The Ruling Class (Elementi di Scienza Politica), pp. 61–62. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co.

[2] Hess, Stephen. 1966. America’s Political Dynasties: From Adams to Kennedy, p. 3. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

[3] The top image of this post depicts “The collapse of John Quincy Adams from a fatal stroke on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, February 21, 1848” (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.). Adams was a member of America’s first political dynasty. His collapse and death in 1848 appropriately coincides with the beginning of the gradual decline in dynasties.


  • Daniel M. Smith

    I am an associate professor of comparative politics in the Department of Government at Harvard University, where I am also an affiliated faculty member at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, Program on US-Japan Relations, and Institute for Quantitative Social Science. My research interests cover a broad range of topics in comparative politics, comparative political economy, political behavior, and historical political development. A core substantive focus of my research and teaching is political representation in democracies, especially how institutions such as electoral systems affect voting behavior and the demographic backgrounds and behavior of political elites. I am also an expert on Japanese politics and co-organize the Japanese Politics Online Seminar Series (JPOSS), in addition to co-editing the Japan Decides election series. My first book, Dynasties and Democracy (Stanford University Press, 2018), introduces a comparative theory to explain the persistence of political dynasties in democracies, and why they are only now beginning to wane in Japan. The book examines the advantages that members of dynasties reap throughout their political careers—from candidate selection, to election, to promotion into higher offices—and provides lessons from Japan for other democracies around the world seeking to widen democratic representation beyond a limited number of elite families. My research also appears in the American Political Science Review, The Journal of Politics, Comparative Political Studies, Political Analysis, and many other journals and edited volumes. My CV gives a complete record of my research and professional activities. Current working papers are available on the Working Papers tab. I earned my MA (2009) and PhD (2012) in political science from the University of California, San Diego, and my BA (2005) in political science and Italian from the University of California, Los Angeles. From 2012 to 2013, I was a postdoctoral fellow at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) at Stanford University.

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