Are we becoming more tolerant of nepotism?

January 31

Mark Palko quotes an article by Julia Ioffe about Michael Needham of the Heritage Foundation. Ioffe wrote:

After [Michael] Needham graduated from Williams in 2004, Bill Simon Jr., a former California Republican gubernatorial candidate and fellow Williams alum, helped Needham secure the introductions that got him a job at the foundation. . . . Ambitious and hard-working, he was promoted, in six months, to be Feulner’s chief of staff. . . . In 2007, Needham, whose father has given generous donations to both Rudy Giuliani and the Heritage Foundation, went to work for Giuliani’s presidential campaign. When the campaign folded, Needham followed his father’s footsteps to Stanford Business School and then came back, at Feulner’s bequest, to run Heritage Action.

Palko writes, perceptively:

You’ll notice Iofee goes out of her way to suggest that Needham got his first rapid promotion by being “ambitious and hard-working,” and there is, no doubt, some truth in that, but pretty much everybody who goes to work for a big-time D.C. think tank is ambitious and hard-working. These are not traits that would have set Needham apart while being the socially well-connected son of a major donor very well might have.

As Palko notes, it’s hardly news that a rich kid uses Dad’s money and college connections to get ahead. What’s new, perhaps, is how this is presented. Here’s Palko again:

Would this angle have been handled differently a few years ago? Obviously nepotism and advancement through connection have always been with us, but until recently I get the impression that this career path was seen as somewhat suspect; people who obviously got their positions thanks to string-pulling were put on a kind of public probation until they had proven themselves.

Now, the public (or at least the press) seems to me much less likely to discount the accomplishments of the well-connected children of the rich and powerful. Along similar lines, though you can certainly still find jokes about the boss’s son/nephew/brother-in-law, but they don’t seem nearly as pervasive as they were through most of the 20th Century. Anyone else see a trend here?

Good question. As a political scientist, my question is: Can this be studied empirically in some way? I’m not quite sure how, but I think it could be worth looking into. It fits into some of our general questions about political discourse and economic perceptions.

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Joshua Tucker | January 30