Haas Newsroom

Power Breeds Power in Politics, According to New Study of US Congress

Feb. 15, 2007

Media Contacts:
Ute S. Frey
UC Berkeley Haas School of Business

Ronna Kelly
UC Berkeley Haas School of Business

Today's political landscape is peppered with examples of political dynasties: President George W. Bush, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Former Vice President Al Gore, and Senator Edward Kennedy, to name a few.

Although the prevalence of such dynasties has declined, a new study finds some evidence of a self-perpetuating political elite in Congress. In a study of Congress since its inception in 1789, Ernesto Dal Bó, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business, found that legislators who won re-election were 40 percent more likely to have a relative follow their footsteps to the Capitol than those who held only one term.

"In politics, power begets power," Dal Bó wrote with co-authors Pedro Dal Bó of Brown University and Jason Snyder of Northwestern University in their recent working paper, titled "Political Dynasties."

The evidence of a self-perpetuating political elite in Congress suggests that elections today can have political consequences 30 years down the road by paving the way for descendents to enter politics, Dal Bó adds. "Political mistakes by confused electorates may have longer-lasting costs than simply conferring office to a bad candidate," Dal Bó and his co-authors concluded.

The authors were surprised to find that dynasties are far more prevalent in Congress than among other occupations. They find that legislators are more than seven times more dynastic than economists and more than 10 times more dynastic than doctors (after controlling for the share of the population in each profession).

"This level of prevalence of political dynasties is a lens through which we can look at the level of mobility in society," Dal Bó says.

Dynastic legislators – legislators preceded in Congress by another family member – are significantly more likely to have attended an Ivy League school than the rest of the college-educated legislators, Dal Bó found. And dynastic politicians are more likely to start their Congressional career in the more exclusive Senate than other legislators.

Dal Bó believes better contacts and name recognition are likely explanations for the prevalence of political dynasties in Congress.

"People who stay in power for longer develop a series of advantages, such as stronger contacts with the party machine and name recognition," he explains.

Dal Bó reaches that conclusion after considering other possible explanations. He finds that dynastic legislators are actually less likely to have previous public service experience before going to Congress than other legislators. That finding punches a hole in the theory that dynastic legislators pass down an affinity for public service, Dal Bó argues.

The authors considered the possibility that dynastic legislators may learn the ropes of politics at home, conferring them with valuable political skills, which would be appreciated by voters. However, the average tenure of dynastic legislators is the same as other legislators, which makes it hard to support the view that socially valuable skills are being transmitted. It is far from obvious that dynastic legislators are any better at their jobs, Dal Bó argues.

And what about the possibility that politicians simply pass down smarts and charisma to their offspring? Dal Bó rules that out by comparing politicians who barely won re-election with those who barely lost. He hypothesizes that razor-thin victories are primarily caused by luck and mean there is little difference between the winner and loser. He finds that even those politicians who won in close races were significantly more likely to see relatives later elected to Congress than the losers.

If winners and losers are basically identical, then any difference in descendants entering Congress later should be attributed to different outcome in the re-election and not personal or family characteristics, the authors argue.

Interestingly, Dal Bó finds that dynastic legislators are less common in congressional delegations from states where there is more political competition. That may be because when a party safely controls a state, it can afford to favor "elite" candidates from a well-connected family or with certain social ties. But under more severe competition, party elites cannot afford strategies other than fielding the best possible candidates, regardless of family connections.

"It's as if dynasties thrive under political monopoly," Dal Bó notes.

Another interesting finding is that dynastic legislators are significantly more likely to be female. "Dynastic membership seems to have facilitated the difficult progress of female political representation," Dal Bó and his co-authors write.

Overall, the percentage of dynastic legislators in Congress has significantly declined, to 6 percent after 1966 compared with 12% between 1789 and 1858. Dynastic legislators were significantly more prevalent in the South and in the Senate, consistent with South having less sociopolitical mobility and openness and the Senate being a more exclusive governing body.

For a copy of the working paper titled "Political Dynasties," visit http://faculty.haas.berkeley.edu/dalbo/.