American dynasty

The US is a country formed in rebellion against dynasty. So why are 18 members of the country's Senate family legacies?

Posted on June 8, 2007  Posted to The Guardian

American dynasty

The US is a country formed in rebellion against dynasty. So why are 18 members of the country's Senate family legacies?

We Americans know that the head of state in a monarchy is an inherited position. But we rebelled against that system and created a republic, in which men (and later women) would be chosen to lead the republic on the basis of their own accomplishments, not their family ties. Sure, we had the Adamses, and we may well be fortunate that neither George Washington nor Thomas Jefferson had a son. And there are other dynasties, often combined to one state, like the Longs of Louisiana and the Breckinridges of Kentucky. Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen is the sixth member of his family to represent New Jersey in Congress, dating back to the 18th century. One of his ancestors inspired the classic campaign song, "Hurrah, hurrah, the country's risin'/For Henry Clay and Frelinghuysen!"

And today, of course, we face the prospect of replacing the son of a president in the White House with the wife of a president. We may have 24 or more years of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton. One leading Republican strategist has recommended that Florida governor Jeb Bush run for president this year, on the grounds in this of all years he won't lose points for being a dynastic candidate: what are they going to say, "don't vote for the president's brother, vote for the other president's wife instead"?

But it goes beyond Bushes and Clintons these days. In a country formed in rebellion against dynastic government, some 18 members of the US Senate in 2005 had gained office at least in part through family ties, along with dozens of House members.

And now . . . Wyoming? The Cowboy State, the Equality State, the home of wide-open spaces, rugged individualists, and yeoman ranchers - Wyoming is about to choose a replacement for the late senator Craig Thomas. And according to the Washington Post, the most likely choices are:

Lynne Cheney, whose husband served as a congressman from Wyoming before becoming vice president; state house majority floor leader Colin Simpson, the son of former senator Alan Simpson; and two of Thomas's three sons, Greg and Patrick.

Say it ain't so, Wyoming. Show the Washington elite that celebrity and connections don't cut as much ice in the Cowboy State as they do in the imperial capital. This is a republic, not an empire. If we can't demonstrate that in Wyoming, what hope is there for the rest of us?


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Posted on June 8, 2007  Posted to Comment,Comment is free,guardian.co.uk,The Guardian,United States

A toast to Yeltsin

Boris was one of the authentic heroes of the 20th century, and deserves credit for being the first Russian leader to voluntarily give up power.

Posted on April 25, 2007  Posted to The Guardian

A toast to Yeltsin

Boris was one of the authentic heroes of the 20th century, and deserves credit for being the first Russian leader to voluntarily give up power.

Posted on April 25, 2007  Posted to The Guardian

A toast to Yeltsin

Boris was one of the authentic heroes of the 20th century, and deserves credit for being the first Russian leader to voluntarily give up power.

More than any other man, Boris Yeltsin moved the Russian people from tyranny to a rough approximation of freedom. For that he was one of the authentic heroes of the 20th century.

In a way he personalises Mikhail Gorbachev's accidental liberation of the Russian and Soviet people. Gorbachev intended to reform and reinvigorate communism. He brought Yeltsin from the rural region of Sverdlovsk in 1985 to shake up the stagnant party as the Moscow party boss. But Gorbachev set in motion forces that he couldn't contain. Once people were allowed to criticise the communist system and glimpse an alternative, things moved rapidly - partly because of Yeltsin's unexpectedly radical leadership.

Two years later Gorbachev and the party hierarchy pushed him out of the Politburo. But he turned around and ran for the Congress of People's Deputies, won, and then was elected to the Supreme Soviet. He created Russia's first parliamentary opposition (in the Supreme Soviet) and then won election to the new Russian parliament. Against the continuing opposition of Gorbachev, he was elected to the chairmanship of that body, thus becoming president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. He stunned politicos by resigning from the Communist Party.

And then in 1991, less than four years after being pushed out of politics by Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin became the first elected leader in a thousand years of Russian history, winning a popular election for president. Six weeks later he hit his high point. When hard-line communists tried to stage a coup, Yeltsin courageously raced to parliament to rally opposition. He jumped on a tank to address the crowd, creating one of the iconic images of the collapse of communism.

At that point Yeltsin was the boss, eclipsing Gorbachev, and the Soviet Union was on its way out. Yeltsin effectively dissolved the Soviet Union, leaving 15 newly independent states in the vast expanse that was once the USSR. As John Morrison says:

His greatest achievement was to avoid the violent "Yugoslav scenario" and allow the Soviet Union's 15 republics to go their separate ways peacefully in 1991-92 without civil war. Yeltsin defied nationalist demands for the restoration of a greater Russia and made huge concessions to the other successor states, notably Ukraine, but got little credit for it.

Not many political leaders happily let their subjects go. What other political leader ever gave up control over 14 countries? But by doing so, he avoided years of bloodshed. Yeltsin then set about freeing prices and privatising state property, the largest privatisation in the history of the world. As the New York Times notes, he was one communist leader capable of learning from - and feeling shame about - the success of capitalism:

On a visit to the United States in 1989, he became convinced that Russia had been ruinously damaged by its state-run economic system, in which people stood in long lines to buy the most basic needs of life and more often than not found the shelves bare. Visiting a Houston supermarket, he was overwhelmed by the kaleidoscopic variety of meats and vegetables available to ordinary Americans.

A Russia scholar, Leon Aron, quoting a Yeltsin associate, wrote that Mr Yeltsin was in a state of shock. "For a long time, on the plane to Miami, he sat motionless, his head in his hands," Mr Aron wrote in his 2000 biography, Yeltsin, A Revolutionary Life. " 'What have they done to our poor people?' he said after a long silence."

Yeltsin wasn't perfect. He was often boorish and apparently had an excessive taste for alcohol. Despite letting the other Soviet republics go, he launched the devastating war in Chechnya. He unconstitutionally dissolved parliament in 1993; when communist lawmakers defied him, he sent tanks to shell parliament.

But it should be noted that Yeltsin at that time was seeking to defend liberal democracy against a return to communism. Imagine if Nazi legislators had stayed in the German parliament into 1949, resisting Adenauer's policies and threatening to bring back National Socialism. Would it be undemocratic to call out the military to counter them? Fareed Zakaria's worry in 1997 that Yeltsin's creation of a "Russian super-presidency" might be abused by his successors looks all too prescient now. But a reversion to communism would have been worse.

And finally, after becoming the first elected leader in Russia's history, he became something even more important - the first Russian leader to voluntarily give up power. True, he turned Russia over to Vladimir Putin, making him more like Ronald Reagan, who delivered the United States to the Bushes, than George Washington, who left us in the capable hands of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Still, the words that President Reagan addressed to the American soldiers who invaded Normandy could also be applied to Boris Yeltsin: "These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war."

Raise a glass tonight to Boris Yeltsin, the man who freed a continent and helped end the cold war.


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Posted on April 25, 2007  Posted to Comment,Comment is free,Europe,guardian.co.uk,Russia,The Guardian

Is libertarianism history?

American liberals have some shameful things in their past. But what about the conservatives?

Posted on April 3, 2007  Posted to The Guardian

Is libertarianism history?

American liberals have some shameful things in their past. But what about the conservatives?

On Sunday the New York Times ran a remarkably ill-informed reviewof Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement by Brian Doherty.

Over at Cato@Liberty, I responded in great detail. Noting reviewer David Leonhardt's litany of embarrassing moments in libertarian history, I argued:

If that's the sum total of embarrassing libertarian moments, it's a pretty darn good record over 70 years or so. Modern liberals have to deal with the fact - not an embarrassing fact but a shameful one - that many of their forebears supported Stalin and the Communist party, or were at least fellow-travellers.

As for conservatives, I could mention their long resistance to liberty and legal equality for blacks, women, and gays, but instead I'll just say: George W Bush and the Iraq war. In 70 years, libertarians have done nothing to compare to expressing support for limited constitutional government while also supporting Bush, his disastrous war, and his accumulation of unprecedented presidential power.

And I concluded: "No book is perfect, nor is any movement. But contra Leonhardt, Radicals for Capitalism is going to be the standard history of the libertarian movement for years to come. And it tells a story libertarians can be proud of."

The book is about the American libertarian movement, which will obviously reduce its appeal on the other side of the Atlantic. But it's a fine work of political history.


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Posted on April 3, 2007  Posted to Comment,Comment is free,guardian.co.uk,Newspapers & magazines,The Guardian,World news

Is libertarianism history?

American liberals have some shameful things in their past. But what about the conservatives

Posted on April 3, 2007  Posted to The Guardian

Liberalism is good for you

It offers more hope for peace, prosperity and freedom in the Arab and Muslim worlds than the alternatives on offer.

Posted on March 28, 2007  Posted to The Guardian

Liberalism is good for you

David Boaz: It offers more hope for peace, prosperity and freedom in the Arab and Muslim worlds than the alternatives on offer.

Posted on March 28, 2007  Posted to The Guardian

About David Boaz

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