In 1782, William Pitt became prime minister of Great Britain at the age of 24, “Pitt the Younger” taking the office that Pitt the Elder — his father the Earl of Chatham — had earlier held. In 1886, Robert, Marquess of Salisbury, became prime minister. Three of his sons would be members of parliament, and Salisbury brought his young nephew A.J. Balfour into the cabinet before anointing him as his successor at Downing Street (a piece of genial nepotism that gave us the phrase “Bob’s your uncle”). And in 1924, Winston Churchill was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, to his intense pride, since this was the office that his father Lord Randolph Churchill had held, albeit briefly.

That was then, now is now. Dynastic politics has all but vanished in England, if you overlook the unlikely Benn family, who have been in the House of Commons for four generations. That is true elsewhere in Europe, with the odd noxious exception such as Marine Le Pen, and in almost all other advanced democracies. After the British general election of 1997, which brought Tony Blair to power, the House of Commons for the first time in centuries, brief intermissions apart, contained no member of the Churchill family, unless one counts Nicholas Soames, Sir Winston’s grandson through his daughter. Today there are no Cecils in the Commons, where a hundred years ago Lord Robert and Lord Hugh Cecil sat, as had Salisbury, their father, and their eldest brother, and as would their nephew, great-nephew, and great-great-nephew. Nor, looking further afield, is there much prospect of another Menzies as prime minister of Australia or Mackenzie King as prime minister of Canada.

To be sure, dynastic politics are very much the fashion in, for want of a better euphemism, less developed countries, from the Philippines to Argentina, whose President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner only holds her office in the first place as the widow of President Néstor Kirchner. Or see both India, with the Nehru–Gandhi dynasty, and Pakistan, where the twenty-four-year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has just entered politics in the footsteps of his mother and grandfather, which shows pluck if nothing else, since Benazir Bhutto was assassinated and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged.

But there is one other country where birth, marriage, family connection and dynastic alliance continue to play a dominant political role. And that, curiously enough, is the nation that believes it overthrew old corruption and kingly rule to become the land of the free and give the world government of the people, by the people, for the people. Every country is sustained by what Giovanni Giolitti, the Italian prime minister at the beginning of the last century, called beautiful national legends. For Americans, one of their legends is “from log cabin to White House”, the idea that worth can triumph over obscurity and adversity, and that political opportunity is equal to all. A mere glance around Washington shows how false this belief is.

No sooner had Barack Obama been re-elected this past November than feverish speculation began about the next presidential election four years thereafter. Specifically, as one headline ran, could it be “Clinton v. Bush in 2016?” This sounds very much like a case of Yogi Berra’s “déjà vu all over again”: just over twenty years ago, Clinton defeated Bush for the presidency. But then, “Clinton v. Bush” meant Bill Clinton winning against George H.W. Bush. The reprise envisaged for 2016 would be Hillary Clinton against Jeb Bush: Bill’s wife against George H.W.’s son, or rather his second son, after George Bush the Younger served two terms as president in between the first Clinton and Obama.

Few Americans ever stop to ask what such dynasticism says about their democracy, or indeed what either of Jeb or Hillary has done to merit the most important political office on earth. Clinton’s career especially is a very curious reflection on democracy, meritocracy, and feminism, not to say on the self-promoted myth of American egalitarianism. Far from becoming more open as the past century progressed, some of the highest offices in the land have been increasingly restricted to members of certain families.

In part this is a consequence of the dysfunctional American political system. Thanks to the ideologists who drafted the American constitution, the US lacks the blessings of parliamentary government, whose essential definitions are that there are a separate head of state and head of government, and that the head of government is whoever commands a majority in the lower or representative house of the legislature. The advantages of such a constitutional arrangement become more obvious every times one looks at Pennsylvania Avenue as it runs from the White House to Capitol Hill. More like a monarch than a prime minister, the president is elected directly, and separately from the legislature. Thus he may or — as at present — may not enjoy the support of Congress. And direct election, along with the limitless expense of American campaigns, has encouraged the growth of personality-driven politics, and inconsequence of dynasticism. “Clinton” and “Bush” have brandname recognition, and they are both marketable.

That should scarcely confer on them any hereditary right of succession, and yet that is the only explanation for “Bush v. Clinton 2016?” British prime ministers will have served as members of parliament before reaching Number 10: for nearly forty years in Winston Churchill’s case, twenty in Margaret Thatcher’s. There were no equivalent years of such hard political toil at all in Hillary Clinton’s case. To be fair to the Bush brothers, George W. and Jeb, they could at least claim to have run something, as governors of Texas and Florida, but Clinton’s story has been one of inexplicable entitlement, part of a larger pattern of “heritable right”.

With what might have seemed either magnanimity or cunning, Barack Obama chose as his first secretary of state his defeated rival for the Democratic nomination in 2008, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, wife of President Bill Clinton. Following her departure from the State Department, Obama has nominated to replace her Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate in 2004, whose mother came from the Forbes dynasty of rich Boston bankers. Four years before Kerry lost, the Democratic candidate, also defeated, was Bill Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, son of Senator Albert Gore Sr of Tennessee.

He was beaten in 2000 by George Bush the Younger, son of George Bush the Elder, whose father was Senator Prescott Bush, a Wall Street banker as well as a senator from Connecticut. And now there is Jeb Bush, Bush the Elder’s younger son, who was Governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, overlapping with W’s presidency. Over the years, the family has spread its wings and acquired new roots, or claimed to, while reinventing itself in the process. The offspring of an unmistakably WASP, Ivy League, New England clan have turned into populist Southerners, even adopting new religions in the process. Like his forebears, George the Elder is an Episcopalian, the most patrician of American churches, but George the Younger is a Methodist as well as a Texan, and Jeb is a Roman Catholic as well as a Floridan — Methodism and Catholicism being both decidedly more popular in following than Episcopalianism.

At any rate, both George Bushes, father and son, actually won presidential elections. Today the Republicans are licking their wounds after the resounding defeat of Mitt Romney by Obama. Romney lost the election at a time of financial crisis, economic recession, and much hardship for very many Americans; with American troops stuck in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan; and many other woes besides. Some months before the election, the conservative columnist George F. Will of the Washington Post said that if the Republicans couldn’t win the presidency this year they should get out of politics. He had a point, but then the nihilistic conduct of Congressional Republicans might indeed suggest a kind of death wish.

But the Republicans’ problems, and the sprouting of Bushes, are not more remarkable than the career of Hillary Clinton, which is really one of the oddest things ever seen in any democratic country. Indeed she didn’t have a political “career” at all until she was well into her fifties, when one was created for her by her husband as a form of recompense. Until the last days of Clinton’s presidency, his wife had never run for, let alone won, any kind of elective office whatever, not for the House of Representatives or a state legislature, not for governor or even small-town mayor. Nor had she worked in any administrative position except on the occasion when her husband put her in charge of his proposed health care reform, in the course of which fiasco she exhibited all the failings, from incompetence to petulance, which have marked her ventures in public life since.

She is a most wooden speaker, quite without her husband’s gift for glib if shallow blarney, and any idea that she is a woman of intellectual gifts should not survive a reading of her footling book It Takes a Village. All in all, nothing she had ever done until the tail-end of her husband’s erratic and lurid years in the White House could possibly justify the way that, having spent her life in Illinois, Arkansas, and Washington, she turned up in New York and demanded to become a senator as if by right.

What’s more, she did. She was nominated and elected, and spent the next eight years on Capitol Hill. Once again, an objective view would suggest that nothing she did in her time in the Senate justified her candidature for the presidency, although Bill Clinton, who remains widely if unaccountably popular, did everything he could on her behalf. One has known errant husbands who tried to placate their wives with lavish presents of clothes or jewellery; this must be the first time a man hoped to atone for his infidelity by giving his wife not frocks and rocks but the presidency of the US.

After Obama had won the Democratic nomination and been elected, Hillary Clinton said — privately, sourly, and correctly — that her support for the Iraq war had tipped the balance against her. In fact it was worse than that. Her first year in the Senate saw the September 11 attacks. The following autumn, in October of 2002, she was one of the large majority of senators who passed a resolution authorising the use of force against Iraq, a blank cheque to President Bush and a shameful abdication by Congress of its fundamental constitutional right to declare war.

She then did nothing to halt or even criticise the administration’s drive to war — or not until years later, by which time the Iraq enterprise had gone horribly wrong. But then her chief characteristic has been her expediency. As the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen put it, she has always been “dead centre in American public opinion, foursquare for what’s popular and courageously opposed to what’s not”. By the beginning of 2007, with eyes now fixed firmly on the White House, she belatedly deplored the fact that removing the Iraqi dictator had been an “obsession” with Bush.

“From almost the first day they got into office,” Clinton said, the Bush administration was “trying to figure out how to get rid of Saddam Hussein.” She seemed to think she should be congratulated for this brilliant insight, noticing years too late what anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear had realised at the time, and she made no apology for her own part in encouraging that obsession. Having championed the war when it began, and when most Americans supported it, what value was her repudiation of it once most Americans had decided that it had been a mistake? And what had she thought that Bush was going to do with the congressional resolution if not use it as exactly he did?

By election year in 2008 she was once again as bellicose as Bush had ever been. Clinton said that if she were president and the Iranians attacked Israel, “we would be able to totally obliterate them”. She rattled her sabre again over the sharp little conflict between Russia and Georgia that summer, demanding that Georgia, and Ukraine as well, be admitted to NATO, a ridiculous proposal that, if acted on, might have precipitated an international war.

That is to say nothing of the way that her campaign against Obama was tainted by a kind of genteel racism. Bill Clinton suggested that Obama was unelectable by comparing him with Jesse Jackson, which had a very audible undertone. Hillary then said that “hardworking Americans, white Americans” would never vote for Obama, which wasn’t even an undertone.

Anyone who follows American politics from afar must have been struck, and shocked, in recent years by two responses towards President Barack Obama. One is the envenomed — and quite irrational — hatred from the Right. The other is the sheer sycophancy of the liberal media. Five or six years ago it was quite possible to see that Obama was an intelligent and engaging man while also recognising that he was gravely over-rated and under-tested. No one knew whether he had in him the steel to cut through bitter conflicts, or what it takes for the hardball of everyday politics, and events since have suggested that he did not.

That did not stop an awestruck claque from treating him even before he reached the White House as a combination of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. To be sure, nothing any American has done or said in this respect could match the sheer absurdity — or even indecency — of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama almost before he had been inaugurated. That looked bad enough at the time, but it looks positively macabre after the ensuing years, when Obama — and Secretary Clinton — did nothing at all to revive the supposed Israeli–Palestinian “peace process”, while using political assassination by drone attack as a standard form of statecraft.

And yet there have never been such beneficiaries of sycophantic adulation as the Clintons. Roger Cohen of the New York Times now acclaims Hillary as a great Secretary of State. Perhaps he forgets that, at the time of her appointment to that office he wrote that “If anyone can persuade Israel that its self-interest involves self-criticism, that occupation is corrosive, that its long-term security demands compromise, and that a new Palestine is emerging, it’s Clinton.”

But then what does that say about the woman who was a “great” secretary of state from 2009 to 2013? For that matter, what does it say about the US that she ever became secretary of state, or a senator, or a presidential candidate? Without the name Bush, George the Younger would never have reached the White House, and without the name Clinton, Hillary Rodham would never have held high office. Americans are fond of lecturing other countries about the merits of democracy and meritocracy. Maybe it is time they spent less time fretting about misgovernment elsewhere, and looked harder at themselves.