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You Call That a Dynasty?

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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After the Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League won their third championship in six years, ecstatic sportswriters labeled the team a “dynasty.” Political buffs, imagining a possible 2016 presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, worry about the effect on democracy of the battle of two political “dynasties.” Meanwhile, Chinese news media are marveling over the recent and sudden disappearance of a 440-year-old bridge in Shanghai, built during the Ming “dynasty.”

Are they all talking about the same thing? I’d suggest not. We ought to require quite a high standard of achievement before tossing the word around.

“Dynasty” comes from a Greek term meaning “power” or “sovereignty.” Over time, it took on a narrower connotation, neatly summarized by the Oxford English Dictionary: “A succession of rulers of the same line or family; a line of kings or princes.” Thus the Mings are called a dynasty not because they ruled imperial China for a generation or two but because they ruled for 276 years. To be remembered by history, a dynasty has to stick around.

Now consider sports, where any team that wins a championship more than once or twice within a decade has sportswriters talking about dynasty. I’m old enough to remember how, after Villanova defeated defending NCAA basketball champion Georgetown in the title game in 1985, an announcer proclaimed “There will be no dynasty” -- as if winning two years in a row was enough to earn the word.

Usage of this sort represents a debasement of the word -- a debasement, alas, in which the mightiest of dictionaries might come to share. In 2009, the OED proposed the following addition, disdainfully labeled “orig, U.S.”: “A run of success (by a team or club) which lasts for several seasons; a team or club achieving such success.” Here we see an example of the gatekeepers of the language potentially yielding not merely to colloquial usage but to bad colloquial usage. Today’s casual awarding of the “dynasty” label demeans the word.

In sports, we should reserve “dynasty” for teams that maintain their dominance over multiple generations of players. Of course, the most obvious example is the New York Yankees. Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills, in their 1971 book “Baseball: The Golden Age,” refer to the Yankees dynasty as “a juggernaut that would sweep to twenty-nine pennants and twenty world championships in forty-four years.”

One has to marvel at the true scale of the thing. Over a period of four and a half decades, the Yankees won close to half of all the World Series played. More to the point, the team managed this feat with three separate clusters of stars: the Ruth-Gehrig teams of the 1920s and early 1930s, the DiMaggio teams of the 1930s and 1940s, and the Mantle teams of the 1950s and 1960s. After a reboot, the Yankees have won seven more championships, stretching from 1977 through 2009, not the same level of dominance, but reasonably construed as a revival of the same dynasty.

Other teams in sports have been dominant for particular periods -- think the Russell-era Boston Celtics -- but winning championships repeatedly over a long era, while featuring different rosters, should be the mark of a true dynasty. Thus we might want to include, for example, the Montreal Canadiens, winners of 24 Stanley Cups, albeit over almost seven decades. (Perhaps we might do better to think about their 16 championships in 26 years between 1953 and 1979.) On the other hand, we wouldn’t include the Chicago Bulls, even though, at the peak of the Jordan era, they were probably the greatest professional basketball team of all time. And the Blackhawks, for all that we should celebrate their achievement, would not come close to making the cut.

How might we transfer this understanding to politics? I would propose a minimum requirement of three generations of electoral success or other extended public service. Thus the Adams family of Massachusetts was a genuine political dynasty. Its influence on the public affairs of the nation spanned several generations, giving us not only two presidents but also several legislators and, in the brilliant Henry Adams, one of the most astute political observers in U.S. history. If we trace the dynasty from John Adams’s ascension as vice president in 1789 to the resignation of Samuel Adams from the Central Intelligence Agency in 1973, the family’s public service spanned almost two centuries. (And, yes, there are young Adamses around today, so the dynasty might not be done.)

If we stick to the three-generation rule, we can certainly sweep in the Roosevelts and Kennedys as dynastic political families. We would also include the Bushes, beginning with Senator Prescott Bush. The Clintons would not (yet) make the list: Hillary and Bill represent the same generation. Britain’s Foot family, tracing its public service now through four generations, would.

But perhaps the three-generation requirement is itself a corruption of the dynastic idiom -- a mark of our Western impatience. After all, by the standards of history, the U.S. is yet a young nation. I’ve already mentioned the Ming dynasty, which ruled China for two and three-quarter centuries. And that’s nowhere near the record. The Tang dynasty ran things for 289 years, and -- should we expand our list to include pre-imperial houses -- the Shang dynasty ruled for a remarkable 571 years. Outside of China, the Sassanid dynasty reigned over the Persian empire for well over 400 years. The Abbasid caliphs ruled Baghdad for more than half a millennium.

It seems to me that we do those great houses a disservice when we use the same word to refer to political families or sports teams whose accomplishments are contained entirely within living memory. Let’s give respect where respect is due, and reserve the word dynasty for ... well ... actual dynasties.

  1. One could argue that a dynasty need not come from a single family, but might represent instead a single point of view. This was the sense in which Abraham Lincoln used the term in his speech of June 17, 1858, accepting the Republican nomination for the Senate, when he said that the power of a state to refuse to have slavery within its borders might vanish “unless the power of the present political dynasty shall be met and overthrown.” That connotation, quite common in the 19th century, is not what I have in mind.

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To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net