Commentary Magazine

A Fool for a Client

Spoiled Rotten:
How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic
By Jay Cost
Broadside Books, 368 pages

Jay Cost’s Spoiled Rotten tells the story of the Democratic Party’s transformation over the past 100 years—from an alliance of local Catholic political machines such as Tammany Hall and Dixiecrat racialists to today’s assemblage of bureaucrats, environmentalists, feminists, African Americans, public-sector unionists, and rent-seeking corporations. The 2012 Democratic Party is organized, Chicago-style, as a patronage-dispensing national version of the old Tammany political machine. What remains constant, as Cost explains, is clientism, the process whereby “factions of voters” are transformed “into loyal members of the party’s coalition by offering them special privileges.”

Spoiled Rotten is a profoundly important book that locates President Barack Obama’s precipitous fall from grace in the insatiable demands placed on the American government by the Democratic Party’s entitled interest groups.  “This is a story,” he writes, “not about morality” but about the effect of patronage politics on national policy. “The more client groups the party has brought on board,” he argues, “the more it is obliged to tend to their needs, and the less able it is to govern for the people as a whole.” 

Obama entered office with unemployment at 7.8 percent. He had a 70 percent approval rating and a mandate to repair the damaged economy. But by the time he pushed through the stimulus bill—“the single largest payoff in history to the party’s vast clientele,” Cost says, with goodies for the teacher’s unions, construction unions, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the green lobby—the impact of the bill’s spending on the overall economy had become an afterthought.  By the end of 2009, unemployment was up to 10 percent, the national debt was skyrocketing, and the president’s approval rating had sunk by 20 points. The president promised a “pivot towards jobs” but instead dedicated his second year to the passage of a health-care package that would create vast new clienteles for the Democrats. 

Cost journeys back to describe the process whereby FDR remade the Democratic Party by sharply reducing the power of the two groups—Southern segregationist landowners and Tammany Hall urban profiteers—that had long dominated the party. In their place FDR created something new: Federal patronage, in the form of the Works Progress Administration (later found unconstitutional) and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (the so-called Wagner Act that gave unions legal privilege).

FDR developed the concept of collective and economic rights as represented first by the Wagner Act (which gave organized labor the power to displace the declining political machines in the North’s manufacturing cities) and then by his Second Bill of Rights, issued in 1944, which asserted the importance of the government’s providing material benefits to citizens without listing any corresponding obligations. In this way, FDR began the process whereby a constitutional order organized around individuals was subtly displaced over time in favor of a social order reorganized around group interests vested with claims against the society and the treasury. Cost does not go into this, and his failure to do so is the book’s primary weakness.

The party of FDR derived its legitimacy from its claim to represent the great majority of Americans. Its clientism was not inherently at odds with political majoritarianism. That cannot be said of the party under the dominance of rights-based client groups. Those groups looked to courts, not to the political process, to secure their aims. Abortion, racial quotas, and environmental overreach were delivered not by presidential or congressional majorities but by courts and an iron triangle of interest groups, congressional subcommittee staffers, and the liberal media. The new clients had little interest in the compromises needed to allow Democratic presidential administrations to succeed—which explains why there has been just one, Bill Clinton’s, over the past half century. The party, Cost writes, became “so dominated by clients that it became virtually impossible for it to govern for the public at large.” 

Spoiled Rotten is at its best when explaining the failures of Carter and Obama beside those of Clinton. Here Cost, a staff writer for the Weekly Standard, makes an interesting and unexpected argument that Jimmy Carter actually tried to fight the good fight against his party’s newly dominant powers-that-be: “Carter in office saw himself defending the national interest against clients like labor at a time when the growth machine had slowed down.” They did not take it lying down. When Carter reduced the subsidies to cities that went to the rising power of often heavily minority public-sector unions, the United States Conference of Mayors denounced him as a “traitor to urban America.” And when Carter backed the Hyde Amendment banning federal funds for abortion, he set off the greatest firestorm of feminist denunciation a president had yet seen.

In 1980, the interest groups revolted against Carter and backed Ted Kennedy for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Carter adviser Stuart Eizenstat noted that Kennedy “took little cognizance of the roaring inflation, high interest rates, and a ballooning federal deficit…and pushed instead for a huge domestic spending package.” Despite Kennedy’s failure to unseat the sitting president, it was Teddy’s troops who wrote the Democratic Party platform, featuring desiderata that were echoed eerily 29 years later when the Obama administration came into office.

After landslide Democratic losses in 1980, 1984, and 1988, Bill Clinton broke partially free of the clients. The governor from Arkansas ran, like Richard Nixon in 1968, as “the voice” of “the forgotten middle class.” Clinton’s denunciation of the reverse-racist rapper Sister Souljah established his distance from the racialist interests of Jesse Jackson; his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement made it clear that he placed the health of the national economy ahead of the interests of private-sector unions.

Still, Clinton’s success depended on his party’s devastation by the Newt Gingrich Republicans in the 1994 midterm elections. That freed him from the millstone of the Congressional Democrats who represented client groups more than geographic areas. As a result, he became the first Democrat elected to two terms in the White House since FDR. Alas, thanks in part to the foolish Republican attempt to impeach him, Clintonism left no lasting political imprint on his party.

Al Gore’s subsequent loss of the 2000 election displaced the centrists and turned power over to the increasingly left-wing, client-driven Democrats in Congress. It was at this time that public-sector unions instead of private-sector unions began dominating the labor movement. This was a major change. Private-sector unions have an interest in a growing economy because growth leads to higher wages and more jobs for their ranks. But public-sector unions, which became the mainstays of the Democratic Party’s electoral machinery locally and nationally, are extractive. They are interested in the “socialization of private-sector income” regardless of the overall condition of the economy, because the more money the government collects, the better they do. A Democratic Party dominated by the public-sector unions came to believe without question that what is good for government is good for society.

Cost argues that a Democratic Party “dominated by its clients” can’t “govern for the public at large.” His argument would have been stronger if he had noted the plight of the overtaxed yet fiscally stressed Democratic-voting states run by an alliance of gentry liberals and public-sector unions. Illinois, California, and New York would have provided neat case studies for Cost’s thesis. Their client-driven politics, embossed with the ideology of rights, have sent middle-class families streaming to the exits.

President Obama is often likened to Jimmy Carter. But while their problems with over-mighty interest groups were similar, their responses were dramatically different. Carter, a former governor, tried to constrain the clients. Obama, by contrast, owed his political career to clients descended from the New Left, such as the corrupt voting-registration group ACORN and the Service Employees International Union. He handed over the power to write his major legislation to the aging Congressional Democratic leadership—and they gave the clients, who supposedly represented the interests of social justice, unprecedented influence.

In 2009 and 2010, the public good required a focus on economic recovery and job creation. Instead, Obama expended his efforts on feeding the beast with the stimulus and creating new ones with Obamacare. FDR dismantled Tammany. Thanks to changes in demography and the vast growth of government over the past half century, Obama wants to build on the group rights FDR first created, and which were expanded in the 1960s, to impose a national version of Tammany on the entire country. As Cost notes, this poses a “threat to the Republic itself.”

About the Author

Fred Siegel is a scholar in residence at St. Francis College in Brooklyn and a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. His article “How Highbrows Killed Culture” appeared in our April issue.

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