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Our political gentry
Posted by: Billy Hollis on Sunday, June 17, 2007

Next fall, some voters will go to the polls who are voting in their first election because they just became old enough. Those voters have lived their entire lives under a president named Bush or Clinton.

Here in Nashville, we have a mayoral election coming up. On my bike ride today, I noticed yard signs for only two candidates – Bob Clement and David Briley. Bob Clement is son of a former governor of Tennessee, and David Briley is grandson of a former mayor of Nashville. And let’s not even begin talking about the Ford family in Memphis.

That led me to do some back-of-the-envelope math. There are 535 members of Congress (both houses combined). Throw in the President, his cabinet, and a few other high office holders such as the Joint Chief of Staff, and we’re probably up around 600 high office holders in the federal government.

Let’s assume the average tenure of those office holders is six years. That’s obviously true for six-year-term senators, and given the incumbency re-election figures in the House, I’m sure it’s true for representatives, too. In fact, I’d bet that number is conservative.

In that case, we only get about four sets of those people in a generation. So for an entire generation, we get perhaps 2400 high office holders.

Throw in governors of states and mayors of large cities, and we’re probably up around 3000. Of course, that group overlaps with the federal group, as politicians move back and forth between federal, state, and local offices, so again the numbers may be high.

This country has over 300,000,000 people in it. The political elite make up only one thousandth of one percent of the country.

Yet, children and other relatives of previous political elites make up a substantial fraction of the next generation of political elites. Right now, the leading Democratic candidate for president is the wife of a former president, and one of the major Republican candidates is the son of a senator.

There’s been a fair amount of talk lately about how out of touch our political elites are. At least part of the problem is that our political elites are effectively a separate social class. A “political gentry” if you will. They mostly move among their own social class, and it’s increasingly clear that they look down on the “common people”. The tendency for us to see second and third generation politicians is evidence, I think, of how much they set themselves apart.

In some respects, perhaps a “political guild” is a better description. It’s been common in the past for guilds to prefer new members who were children of existing members. Guilds have typically had an emphasis on restricting competition. Guilds normally require an apprenticeship; for politicians, think city councils and state legislatures. But "political gentry" has the right connotation of separation from the common people.

I realize there are other professions in which it’s common for children of existing professionals to gain easy entry into the profession. Medicine is an example.

But politicians are supposed to be our elected representatives. They’re supposed to have our interests at heart. The more separated they are from the people they represent, the less likely it is that they can do that.

Instead they’ve become more and more protective of their own interest. Public choice economics explains most of the motivations for that, so no need for me to recapitulate that whole argument. It’s worthwhile to note, though, that the problem is worse the bigger government gets.

Mark Steyn says that our political elites are members of the one-party Republic of Incumbistan. I think that’s a good description. They pass campaign finance regulations that make it harder on challengers. They create rules that make third party candidacies expensive, difficult, and practically impossible to succeed.

But the real problem is their isolation. They don’t live in their states or districts. They live in Washington, DC. Even if they didn’t have the attitudes of the political gentry before they got there, after a few years, they’re almost certain to acquire them.

The senatorial career of Bill Frist is as good an example as any. Elected in the conservative takeover of 1994, he campaigned as an anti-government, Reaganite conservative. But he turned into the ultimate insider, and his out-of-touch problems were a big part of why the Republican floundered under his leadership and lost the Congress in 2006.

I don’t know what to do about this problem. There are a few obvious things to do. I’m generally disposed not to vote for second generation politicians, for example. I think the plastic nature of Mitt Romney is because he came up in political family in the television era of politics, and learned that being tall and having good hair are important attributes for being a leader. I intuitively distrust his persona, and I think his political heritage is part of the reason why.

We clearly need to do away the travesty that is McCain-Feingold. Here’s hoping the Supreme Court will pave the way, and declare part of it unconstitutional in one of this year’s cases.

Term limits are another potential remedy. But it’s not likely that they will ever become law in Incumbistan. And while I think on balance term limits are positive, there’s something to the argument that they elevate the influence of career bureaucrats, who are harder to remove than politicians and at least as likely to work in favor of their own well being instead of that of the general citizenry.

The electorate is growing restless, and I think the political gentry’s isolation is the biggest reason. I’ve never seen approval ratings for both the Congress and the President this low in my lifetime. Percentages of eligible voters going to the polls has been dropping for decades (though there was an uptick in 2004, presumably because of the war plus the facts that the left really, really hates Bush, and one of the most clueless candidates of my lifetime was running for the Democrats).

We’re starting to see some very tentative backlash. Jeb Bush probably realizes by this point that his chances of ever being president are pretty much gone. Hillary’s negatives are, I think, due in part to the general distaste people have for her because she’s the ultimate insider. John McCain has lost his renegade reputation, and his chances of winning the GOP nomination are dropped to the negligible level. The rising stars on each side right now (Obama and Thompson) are both positioning themselves as outsiders who are not beholden to the elites.

But I’m afraid the problems of the out-of-touch political gentry are just going to get worse. Much worse, in fact, until they engender some kind of extreme backlash. The fact that toads such as Trent Lott and Robert Byrd are still in office suggests that the political gentry still has enough clout to hold onto power for the foreseeable future.

One of the advantages of being a blogger instead a columnist is that you don’t have to pretend to have answers you don’t have. So I’ll be upfront about this: I have no clue what to do. I’ve never trusted politicians, but their isolation and contempt for the citizenry is worse now than I’ve ever seen it, and I don’t know what will reverse that trend.

Oh, no doubt there will be some elections that go against the general trend. Maybe there’s someone out there who is Ross Perot without the wackiness. And we do have a few Tom Coburns in office now.

But I can’t help being pessimistic. I’ve felt that way since the Supreme Court approved McCain-Feingold. I’ve had the feeling that we’ve now started inexorably down the path of more and more unaccountability for our elected representatives. Blogs can squawk all day about what jackasses they are, and how they are limiting our freedom or making bad decisions of various kinds, but if a bunch of them don’t lose their office as a result, our squawking means nothing of consequence. And the political gentry have made it clear – if they can rig the game in their favor, they’ll do it. I think they’re very close to having it so rigged that we can’t overcome it through the normal political process.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

What is interesting —- and utterly exemplary of the Liberal media —- is the "Kennedy myth" (producing one presidential victory), notwithstanding the fact that it is the Bush family on the GOP side which has produced winners in three presidential cycles.
Written By: James Young
Two thoughts which would appreciate your addressing, Mr. Hollis.

1) As opposed to term limits, how about a ban on consecutive terms? No one ever has the advantage of incumbency, but a well regarded candidate with a good track record can still serve frequently, especially in the House.

2) You wrote:
I think they’re very close to having it so rigged that we can’t overcome it through the normal political process.
What do you conceive of as being an abnormal political process? Amendment by convention? Or politics continued by other means?

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, & pfpp
Written By: Tom Perkins
URL: http://
What do you conceive of as being an abnormal political process? Amendment by convention? Or politics continued by other means?
Amendment by convention would certainly be partially outside the normal process. However, to bypass Congress, the support of state legislatures is required. Since many of those very people aspire to become part of the federal political class, it’s difficult to conceive that they would be supportive.

Another path that would be outside the normal process would be extreme measures required by severe economic conditions. An economic meltdown could prompt an extreme amount of turnover in the political class, and related major changes. We saw something like that in the 1930s. Of course, the problem there is that more authoritarian measures are probably more likely in such a case than less.

The final path that would be outside the normal process would be an insurrection. I see that as even more unlikely. The American citizenry has been told since birth that they live under the most perfect form of government imaginable. Rejecting that wholesale in a general insurrection does not sound plausible to me. But I could see a state or region taking such a position, and insisting on secession. That’s unlikely too, but I don’t see it as impossible.

The problem in trying to predict anything outside the normal flow is that none of us have yet seen the extreme conditions that would bring the people to such a state of mind. Reliably predicting anything in extreme conditions one has never seen is not realistic.

If such extreme conditions come to pass, they are quite likely to come to pass in Europe first. Europe’s economic prospects in terms of a possible meltdown of a welfare state and/or extreme domestic unrest are far worse than our own. Perhaps seeing such conditions will shock our own political class out of their complacency. But I rather doubt it.

I’m pessimistic these days. I’m sorry if that pessimism is seeping into everything I write.
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
Oh, and Tom, on your first question, I certainly think the "one-consecutive-term limit" is better than what we have now. I’d have to think about it before deciding if I believe it’s better than standard term limits. It certainly would mix things up, and it might promote the idea of the citizen legislature.

That’s assuming that politicians "in between" terms would have to reside in their own state and do something that exposed them to the general citizenry. If they simply alternated office-holding with lobbying or some such, nothing of consequence would change. The political gentry would just get a little bigger, and have to do a bit more back-scratching to alternate terms with each other.

Anyway, I think it has no more chance of passing than normal term limits. In fact, we used to have such a setup in the governor’s office in Tennessee, and it was repealed about forty years ago.
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
1) As opposed to term limits, how about a ban on consecutive terms? No one ever has the advantage of incumbency, but a well regarded candidate with a good track record can still serve frequently, especially in the House.
I have also heard the idea floated that we raise the pay for these offices. Make them something more people in the General population want. Say maybe a salary of $1,000,000 a year. That would be enough to lure successful business people away from their private jobs, and could possibly generate enough interest that keeping the office for more than a term or two unlikely.
Written By: meagain
URL: http://

Thank you for your replies.

It seems to me that if the experience of the blogosphere vs the immigration bill remains a positive one—as I imagine we would mutually view it—that the issue of persons serially being lobbyists and then officeholders will be minimized by sunlight.

Also if the untoward advantages accruing to the political class of being an incumbent are not exaggerated, then the advantages the electorate obtains by preventing ANY consecutive terms are necessarily equivalent to the elimination of incumbent advantages. I do feel there is a fairly tight correlation.

There are 7,382 state legislators in the US. The pay for these positions is frequently so small that they are necessarily otherwise employed, and only the very tiniest fraction of them can hope to reach higher office. I do not see that their personal self interest is greatly impacted by a constitutional amendment preventing consecutive federal terms—although fear that it’s passage might encourage local state efforts is a certainty.

Thank you, Tom Perkins, ml, msl,& pfpp
Written By: Tom Perkins
URL: http://
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Written By: John

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