The Russian newspapers had generally played down Mr. Obama’s victory, she said, because it got in the way of the establishment line: that the corrupt American democracy is composed of two warring family machines that have the system wired and controlled with the help of their corporate oligarch cronies [bold mine-DL]. It’s not a real democracy but a pretend democracy, and a hypocritical one. This helps the Russians rationalize and excuse their infirm hold on democratic ways and manners. And then the black man from Chicago with no longtime machine or money is elected . . .

So the Russian press muted its coverage. Mr. Obama’s victory upset their story line. ~Peggy Noonan

I have no way of knowing why Russia media covered Obama’s election one way or another. There is an argument that Kenyans responded with such delirious joy at Obama’s victory not only because his father was Kenyan, but also because it helped to console them for the complete breakdown of their own democratic system this year. So it is not obvious that a need to rationalize and excuse an infirm hold on democratic manners translates into muted responses to the election result. Perhaps the Kremlin is less interested in which party controls the White House than it is in the policies the candidates espouse, in which case a lack of interest in Obama’s victory might stem from a recognition that the next administration will not be very different at all with respect to Russia. What should interest us here is now how the Russian establishment line got things (not entirely) wrong, but rather the real flaws in our system, which also happen to provide fodder for other governments to cast aspersions on the integrity of our political process.

If you replace the word family in that passage above with the word political, you have a similarly cynical, albeit far from false, description of our system. Looking at both policy and personnel in the new administration, the cynical Russian (or American) would have to work overtime lately to see where exactly significant change is in the offing and why the description in the passage above is supposed to be wrong. Perhaps the Kremlin actually admires the ability to engage in such a theatrical display to promote the illusion of dramatic political shifts while not changing anything fundamental. It is something of an art form, I grant you, and we have been practicing it much longer than they have, and it is not hard to see why a political establishment would want to learn how to imitate it. It is certainly curious way to frame Russian criticism of the American system by attacking the role of family dynastic politics and oligarchic cronies, but then I suppose the purpose is probably to try to minimize the differences between the two countries.

Even so, consider how debased and broken-down our standards must be that we consider it some kind of vindication of popular government that the two clans that have held executive power for the last twenty years did not happen to have a blood relative on either presidential ticket. Then we would remember that this was to some extent an accident on the Democratic side (had Clinton made any serious effort in the caucus states in early February, the “story line” above would have been almost entirely vindicated), and it was true on the Republican side perhaps only because of the unusual degree of incompetence shown by the current office-holder. Had Bush not been judged an utter failure as early as late 2006, how many of us really think that his brother would have stayed out of the presidential race? Except for his brother’s ruined reputation, how many think he would not have been seriously considered for a VP slot? Remember that a majority of the GOP still approves of George W. Bush even now–imagine what his approval rating among Republicans would have been had he not been quite as disastrous as he was! Does anyone believe that, between his establishment ties and governing record, Jeb Bush could not have won the nomination, had it not been for the great incompetence of his brother? For that matter, does anyone think that a relative outsider such as Obama would have stood a chance of winning the nomination of his party had it not been for the calamitous Bush Era and the complicity of so many leading Democrats in its calamities? Consider how fully this administration had to fail and how deeply unpopular Bush himself had to become to render the Russian “story line” invalid where it might have otherwise been all too accurate, and then tell me that there is not something rotten in our politics.

It seems to me that one of the greatest dangers of the last two electoral cycles is that it will nourish the illusion that our political system self-corrects and is functioning more or less as it is supposed to be functioning, when we should notice instead how atypical the last two cycles have been when compared to the rest of the previous twenty years. The point is not to deny the existence of real grassroots political activism, nor is it to say that such activism is entirely ineffective, nor is it to say that the fix is completely in, but it is to draw attention to a serious malady in our political system, which is, as Glenn Greenwald has observed recently, becoming increasingly inbred and nepotistic. There are families with entrenched power and disproportionate influence in both parties, and this is corrosive and unhealthy for our politics. There is something that rings a bit hollow when we keep hearing that the elite is a meritocracy (leaving aside for the moment how that merit is defined) and then we see political dynasties becoming more and more prevalent. That would be bad enough on its own, and we haven’t even begun to discuss here the question of the oligarch cronies.