Terra incognita: Nepotism’s threat to democracy

Some groups shed light on nepotism in Western states.

President Donald Trump speaks with Jewish leaders via phone  (photo credit: COURTESY WHITE HOUSE)
President Donald Trump speaks with Jewish leaders via phone
(photo credit: COURTESY WHITE HOUSE)
We often think of threats to democracy in the form of violence or extremism. On the same scale there are powerful corporate lobbies, or entrenched political differences. However, one of the greatest challenges to democracy is the persistence of, and even increase in, nepotism.
We tend to think of nepotism as primarily a third world or global south problem. A study by Xiaoming Huang on east Asia notes that “unilateral transfer of political control to family members is often found where there were anti-colonial movements led by charismatic autocrats.” He argues that nepotism “invites economic inefficiency from the diversion of resources towards a single family or cronies in a dominant political party.” Freedom House often references nepotism in its annual surveys of political rights in the world. In its 2014 edition for instance it mentions nepotism in Tajikistan, Vietnam, Liberia, the Congo, Afghanistan, Cambodia, East Timor, Armenia and Pakistan.
Some groups shed light on nepotism in Western states. The anti-corruption group Transparency International expressed concern in January 2017 that “the concerns about the US are the concentration of power, the ideas around conflicts of interest being unmanaged, cronyism, nepotism,” with respect to the Trump administration.
The reality is that this kind of nepotism is on the surface. A president who hires his brother as a government contractor and whose cousin runs the largest government-controlled oil company and whose wife is appointed to the senate does this in the open. Most democracies have anti-nepotism rules within their civil surface. For instance the administrative investigations of the Department of Veterans Affairs against nepotism can be found online. But the real threat of nepotism to democracy is in the shadows, when it is spread laterally among different parts of government, civil society, media, academia, NGOs, elite institutions, boards of directors, think tanks, consultancies and corporations.
The less-corporate world caters to nepotism in democracies precisely because of the myth of meritocracy. In a competitive world that is based on transparency and merit, as is supposed to occur in democracy, people resort to nepotism because they know they cannot get ahead if they try to obtain positions on merit. Nepotism is employed by the wealthy to ensure their continued control in a society that has become more dynamic and where social mobility is increasing.
The problem with nepotism is that it is difficult to identify. Often the discovery begins with the obvious – someone’s last name. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, for instance, is White House press secretary and also the daughter of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Mika Brzezinski, the MSNBC co-host, is the daughter of former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. When one begins to look closer at media the frequency with which the cousins, sons, daughters and nephews of politicians seem to have jobs in journalism does not seem like a coincidence. It isn’t necessarily a reflection on their competence, either.
But we should ask ourselves to what degree what we read and hear is influenced by the fact that so many people in politics, media and other organizations are related. In a country like the US, with hundreds of millions of people, access to certain jobs is made easier through family connections. There are no shortage of children of US senators, governors and former administration officials who just happened to end up as a co-host at a major network. They gain access because of the milieu that they grew up in.
How does sonny get his first access to a publisher, that millions or billions of others cannot obtain? Daddy has the email of “so and so” that he met while he was working for the administration.
A certain entitlement goes along with all this. Growing up with connections and the ease with which a job seeker gets placed at an NGO, for example, leads to demands for more access and a feeling that the usual rules do not apply. All of this subverts democracy. It subverts it quietly because the ideas that we here in media, the agendas of NGOs and government, are in the hands of a group that is more inter-related than it should be. For each co-host of a show, for each member of a board, for each placement gained through connections and family friends, there is one less place for an outsider.
What starts as a wealthy family foundation and employs daughter, son, husband and cousin, leads to daughter, son and cousin eventually moving on to run a different NGO with the qualifications obtained at the first. The problem is that the initial qualifications were tainted by nepotism. But that taint doesn’t follow the person, it is laundered once the person has moved from what was obviously a “family” NGO to a legitimate position. In that way the former senator who gets a relative a job at an NGO that works with veterans avoids the appearance of impropriety when that relative moves seamlessly into a government appointed position relating to veterans.
It is particularly difficult to quantify all this and what effect it has on Western democratic societies. There is a supposition that “this is how it always was,” according to which merit as a qualification was always primarily a myth. There is even a question of whether this is necessarily a bad thing, as the 2004 book In Praise of Nepotism examined.
The problem is that we have a tendency to easily measure nepotism in places like Liberia without looking at the diversion of resources in democracies. Yes, on paper, we have laws against nepotism. But do we? Every time someone says “so and so is related to so and so” or “can you help out my cousin” we must weigh if we are denying access to someone else by helping and acknowledging these connections. The long-term impact on democracies can be felt in the angry populism that has erupted in the US and Europe. People feel correctly that their ability to penetrate large parts of society beyond a certain point is reduced, often via the shadow of nepotism.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.