The Rise of Political Nepo Babies


  • More and more senators and representatives have a famous or notable parent. 
  • Political families have long been a staple of American politics.
  • Incoming members are more likely to have notable parents than in previous decades. 

When Rodney Frelinghuysen announced he wasn’t running for reelection in 2018, it made headlines. The 76-year-old New Jersey Congressman had served 12 terms and chaired the powerful appropriations committee. But when you consider his Congressional retirement along with the fact that in 2009 he told NJ Monthly that his two daughters were “politically astute, but smart enough not to run themselves,” it becomes even more notable. 

Many Frelinghuysens have served in the federal government. Rodney’s father Peter was also a congressman. In the 1800s, Frederick T. Frelinghuysen served in the Senate and as secretary of state. Frederick’s adoptive father and grandfather both also served in the upper Congressional chamber. In short, the lack of political interest from Rodney’s daughters opens the doors for some non-Frelinghuysens to represent the people of New Jersey.

But how common are people like Rodney Frelinghuysen in Congress? In other words, how often do senators and representatives have at least one parent who is also a senator or representative? Frankly, it’s not that common. 

Given that we grabbed this parent-child relationship from Wikipedia, we decided to take this analysis a step further and answer a related query: How many senators and representatives have at least one parent who has a Wikipedia page? We thought this would help us measure political privilege or nepotism a bit more broadly. In short, if at least one of your parents was notable enough to have Wikipedia page, you likely had some advantages in your political career. We used this data to calculate a nepotism rate, or in the internet’s parlance, a “nepo baby rate.” This rate is notably higher than the much narrower measurement we just discussed.

We see two notable trends in this graph. Primarily, since 1900 the Senate has more nepo babies than the House of Representatives. This isn’t shocking. Given that the Senate is 22% of the size of the House of Representatives, the average senator wields more power than the average Representative. This makes getting a major party Senate nomination more susceptible to intra-party dealings and, thus, nepotism. In fact, this is sort of baked into the history of the upper chamber. Before the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913 senators were not elected directly by the people but by state legislators.

These inter-chamber differences aside, we see a second more glaring trend. Since the 1980s, there has been a dramatic increase in congressional nepo babies across congressional houses.

When we break things down by chamber and party, we see that while there has been growth in nepotism in both parties since the 1980s, the Democratic party has outpaced the Republican party during this period.

But this data might be deceptive for two related reasons. First, incumbents have an electoral advantage, meaning that if you’ve won an election, you are more likely to win again. Second, if you are a nepo baby in your first term, you will continue to be counted as a nepo baby in each subsequent term. 

george h.w. bush, george w. bush, jeb bush

Lawrence Jackson/AP

To illustrate how these two forces might affect this analysis, take Nancy Pelosi as an example. Pelosi is the daughter of Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr., the 39th mayor of Baltimore and a representative for Maryland’s 3rd Congressional district from 1939 to 1947. Thus, Pelosi has been counted as a nepo baby each year since she was first elected in 1987. It’s possible that this trend is the result of the Democratic party electing more nepo baby incumbents like Pelosi. This doesn’t seem to be the case, though.

Since 1900, we’ve seen a decline in the percent of first-time legislators by decade across both parties, meaning more incumbents are being elected across the board. If we focus on the last 40 years, the first-time election rate between the two parties is not large enough to explain the nepo baby disparity. Thus, it’s not surprising that the Democratic Party does not just have more incumbent nepo babies but also more first-time nepo babies.

While there is a good deal of variation by decade, we see that there is generally a higher degree of nepotism among first-time Democrats in the last few decades. This is more notable in the Senate, but Democrats still outpace Republicans in the House since 2000. On top of that, we continue to see that independent of party the Senate elects more nepo babies than the House. 

Does this methodology capture every nepo baby roaming the Capitol? Of course not. Some senator might not have been counted because while their parents were well-connected, they were not notable enough to have a Wikipedia page. Others might have fallen outside the scope of our project because their grandfather or mother-in-law were notable enough for a Wikipedia page, but their parents weren’t. We accepted these shortcomings to avoid the somewhat tenuous connections that often lead to people crying nepotism. Regardless, we found this methodology powerful enough to help us understand the evolution and dynamics of political nepotism.

This analysis also highlights how humans have a strange relationship with nepotism. In most cases, we not only expect it but encourage it. You wouldn’t bat an eye if some guy you went to high school with took over his father’s plumbing business. You also wouldn’t hesitate to push your sister’s resume along if she were applying to a job at the company you work for.

The difference between the child going into the family plumbing business as opposed to the family politics business is twofold. First, the supply of valuable jobs in the latter industry is much smaller than that of the former. The guy you went to high school with taking over his father’s plumbing company will likely have no bearing on you becoming a plumber. But there are only so many seats in Congress. If you are not a Frelinghuysen or Bush or Kennedy, it is harder for you to make it as a federal legislator. Secondly, if you find yourself in Congress long enough, you are likely to make a good deal of money. At present, both senators and representatives make $174,000 per year with fantastic benefits. This won’t necessarily be the case if you work in the plumbing industry for a few years.

How nepotistic is the state that you live in? We aggregated overall and first-time nepotism rates across both the senators and congresspersons for each member of the Union since 1980, the approximate year that nepotism rates began to increase during the 20th century. Please note that the gross number of elections and electees varies dramatically by state. California, for example, has 52 times the number of representatives as Wyoming and, thus, many more elections. In addition, some states, like Alaska, don’t have many first-time electees post-1980.

Additional reporting from Madison Hall.


Source link

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

Leave a reply