In his new book, Spoiled Rotten, Jay Cost explains “how the politics of patronage corrupted the once noble Democratic party and now threatens the American republic.” He talks about what exactly he means by that and even makes a political prediction or two in an interview with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You write that “the Democrats are the party of, by, and for the politically privileged few, at the expense of everyone else.” Is that even remotely credible at a time when Mitt Romney is running for president? His father was a governor, and he himself is a millionaire.
JAY COST: You don’t have to be poor to be what I call a “small-r republican.” It’s all about what you do with the power of government when you have it. Do you use it to serve the interests that installed you in power, or do you use it to serve the public good?
Nobody was a better servant of the public good than George Washington, and yet he was one of the wealthiest men ever to serve as president.
LOPEZ: And they — the Democrats — are “a threat to the American republic itself”?
COST: Right. The idea of republicanism is a government that is by, of, and for the people. The argument of the book is that the Democrats inevitably bless their core interests groups at the expense of the national good, meaning that they are a danger to the republican character of our government.
LOPEZ: What would Andrew Jackson do?
COST: Old Hickory was notoriously unpredictable. Nevertheless, given his limited-government worldview, his military background, and his home state, I’d guess he would be on the front lines of a tea-party rally.
LOPEZ: How might the history of the Democratic party be different if John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated?
COST: JFK was really the last Democratic leader able to hold the older, more conservative elements of the party with the emerging bloc of middle-class liberals who today dominate the party leadership. Whether or not he could have sustained that is difficult to say.
I think he would have done a better job than LBJ, though I am not sure how much that says. Kennedy was inherently more cautious than Johnson. So he would have accomplished less in terms of legislative output. But then again, he would not have suffered nearly the kind of backlash that began in the mid-1960s.
LOPEZ: How did the Congressional Black Caucus get so powerful? Can Republicans get competitive already about black voters?
COST: The 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act greatly expanded the CBC. Previously, district lines could not be drawn with the intent to discriminate against black voters, but the amendments added that lines could not have the effect of discrimination. The federal courts and the Department of Justice have since interpreted this to require the drawing of minority-majority districts, which is why the Congressional Black Caucus has so much power today.
As for the GOP picking up any appreciably larger share of the black vote, I would not put money on it. Above all, African-Americans agree with the Democrats on most of the kitchen-table issues.
For sure, there are areas of synchronicity between the GOP and African-Americans, but it is hard to translate that into political success. The simple reason is that startup costs would be far too great for short-sighted politicians to justify the effort.
Think of it this way: The GOP could spend millions of dollars in Illinois’s first congressional district and win, maybe, 30 percent of the vote, but what would be the point of that? It would still be a massive defeat. So ultimately the party does not compete on the South Side of Chicago, which allows the Democrats to have a monopoly in defining the Republicans to African-Americans in the area. And that is that.
You see something similar on the senatorial and presidential level, too. States with large African-American populations tend to be either strongly Republican (such as Mississippi) or strongly Democratic (like New York). At this point, the only truly competitive states where African-Americans can make a difference are Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. And even in these states, the GOP’s path to victory depends largely on how the white vote moves. That makes it hard for Republican candidates for office or the national party committees to justify an expensive outreach to black voters. Sad but true.
LOPEZ: Is the story of the Civil Rights Act — how it passed and who was on the wrong side and why — one of the least understood stories of American history? (If not, what is?)
COST: The common narrative overplays the moral virtue of some leaders (especially Democrats such as Truman and LBJ) and underplays the extent to which electoral politics was in play.
Following the Civil War, Democrats (including the liberals) were by and large content to let things be until after World War II, largely because blacks were mostly confined to the South, where they were often kept from voting. There were some exceptions, such as New York’s Senator Robert Wagner, but you don’t really see Democrats making a fuss about civil rights until after blacks started migrating to the North. Republicans were the first to make serious noises about civil rights — starting with the 1944 GOP platform — and Democrats followed suit out of fear that Tom Dewey (who had a very strong civil-rights record) would swing the black vote and win the White House.
To be clear, the GOP was no fount of virtue on civil rights, either. For generations the GOP had ignored black voters, who were loyal Republicans from the Civil War to the Great Depression. The party started to care only after FDR trounced them with the white working class in the Northeast.
African-Americans historically have voted as a bloc. Even so, I think it is important to note that the one period in the last 150 years when their interests were not given short shrift — from roughly 1940 to 1968 — corresponded with the period during which their votes were legitimately up for grabs. So long as they are reliably Democratic, neither party has much of an incentive to do anything for them.
LOPEZ: What happened at the 1968 Chicago convention, and how can understanding it be helpful in approaching this year’s convention?
COST: The enduring consequence of the 1968 convention was the decision of the delegates to allow for reforms of the nomination process. That is what eventually stripped away the power of the old-guard New Dealers — the machine bosses, southern conservatives, and industrial labor unions — and gave the New Left power it did not have before. Today, the New Left groups are the dominant partners in the coalition; and to whatever extent the old New Dealers are even in the party anymore, they play second fiddle.
LOPEZ: So when you hear people call this election a turning point, you might agree, but for deeper — or better-informed — historic reasons?
COST: Well, it is always hard to judge which election is going to be historic and which is not.
Take the election of 1960. Nixon and Kennedy were basically indistinguishable, so a contemporary could be forgiven for thinking that the outcome would make no difference. Yet if Nixon had defeated Kennedy that year, the two-party system might be substantially different from what we know today. For instance, what if Nixon had pushed for civil rights and secured for the GOP a lasting share of the African-American vote? What would he have done about Vietnam? And so on. In July 1960, none of these things would have been foreseeable.
LOPEZ: “As troubling as the Obama tenure has been,” you write, “what is even more discouraging is that it is a sign of things to come from the Democratic party.” How can it get worse?
COST: The problem is that there are no reformist factions within the Democratic party at this point, at least none with any substantial base of power. The great advantage the party had through the 1990s was that it remained competitive in Dixie, and southern Democrats came from a tradition that differed from the client-based northern politics. But the southern wing of the party has been really decimated in the last 15 years, meaning that future nominees will probably be from the North and in all likelihood closely tied to the clients.
LOPEZ: Are clients as bad as you make them seem? “Big Labor” are people, too — and so are the schoolteachers and blue-collar guys that we need employed and producing! And special interests are people, too — taxes and all. Don’t they deserve some representation, too?
COST: There are no bad guys in the story I tell. I don’t begrudge any interest group the right to pursue what is best for its members. The real problem is how these interests are managed by the leadership of the Democratic party. After all, the interests of labor unions, schoolteachers, environmentalists, and others are inevitably going to conflict with the national interest. That does not say anything bad about anybody, but it does pose a challenge for party leaders: Are they striking the proper balance between the interests of the groups within their party, or are they forsaking the public good for the demands of their clients? My argument is that national Democrats now do the latter.
LOPEZ: What’s so different about the South?
COST: The South mostly avoided the cultural and social revolution that rocked the North; they also do not have much of a labor movement. This gave Democrats from the region a level of independence that their counterparts in California or New York simply lacked. This is why Carter and Clinton were, at their core, party reformers (although both failed).
LOPEZ: What’s the Democratic party’s equality problem? Isn’t that why people vote for them, to end inequality?
COST: That is certainly the party’s rhetoric. My argument is that the Democrats talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.
LOPEZ: Does the Occupy movement suggest the Left is on to the Democrats? What role does OWS play in the upcoming November elections — on all levels?
COST: The Occupy movement has been captured by the Service Employees International Union, which makes me skeptical. It might be a player in an internecine war between different factions within the party, but the fact that it is attached to the party’s most energetic interest group makes me skeptical that it is a true change agent.
LOPEZ: Is there a likely or even plausible scenario in the short term where there is competition for some of the Democratic-party clients?
COST: I’d say no. They have a tight control over political power in the Democratic party, especially in the House of Representatives. Why should they bolt? Meanwhile, so much of the GOP coalition exists because it sees these Democratic clients as a threat. Why should the GOP try to court them?
LOPEZ: Recapping the 2008 election, you write: “There was something about the junior senator from Illinois that seemed to make everybody on the Democratic side comfortable, Clinton loyalists notwithstanding.” How has that changed? Can Obama fix it?
COST: I doubt he can fix it, but I’m not sure it matters. The Clinton loyalists in the elite ranks of the Democratic party are loyalists until the end. Obama dealt with them by bringing Hillary Clinton in as secretary of state, thus neutralizing her as a future opponent.
As for Clintonites in the mass public — e.g., working-class Democrats in places such as western Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, and West Virginia — 2008 proved that Democrats can win without them, at least for now. These are not so much Clinton Democrats as they are New Deal Democrats who have been in the process of abandoning the party since 1968. These “Clinton” Democrats are just the last of the lot to bolt.
LOPEZ: “Obama’s coziness with the big financial houses did not stop the typical left-wing groups from pitching in to help the Democratic effort; the SEIU led the way with $75 million in total campaign spending.” What does that say about the Left?
COST: It suggests either Machiavellian craftiness or stunning naiveté. I’m not sure which!
LOPEZ: About Barack Obama you write that “unfortunately, the independent thinking of his writing was illusory.” Is this entirely fair? Couldn’t he truly believe that client interests coincide with the public good?
COST: I think he does think that. I think he has a machine-style view of politics, where victory depends on mobilizing the core Democratic voters, and as for the Republicans — well, they’re out in the suburbs, so who cares!
LOPEZ: How did the country dodge a bullet on cap-and-trade? Do you notice how hot it is outside? Doesn’t that mean anything to you? Or are you still without lights and can’t tell me?
COST: Ha ha ha! Kidding aside, cap-and-trade is a great example of how the environmentalist Left operates. I’m of the opinion that global warming is real and that, to some extent, it is man-made (though I think its danger has been systematically exaggerated for political effect). Even so, I totally reject the notion that cap-and-trade is a good idea when the economy is suffering its worst contraction in 80 years.
A balanced view of the public good would take these competing interests into account: Yes, the climate is a concern, but it has to be prioritized in relation to a whole host of other problems, such as the utter collapse of manufacturing employment, which was once the backbone of the middle class. The environmentalist Left is not capable of sustaining this kind of balance. Sure, its rhetoric is public-spirited, always arguing for “clean air,” “clean water,” and the like, but the reality is that it has a very narrow view of what is in the public interest. It wants to sacrifice everything else at the altar of what they define as “environmentalism.” In the case of cap-and-trade, they want to kneecap the industrial sector, recession be damned. That makes it a narrow interest group.
And the level of power it exercises in the Democratic party is startling. The economy was just coming out of recession when the House Democrats passed the single largest regulatory infrastructure since the National Industrial Recovery Act. Amazing.
LOPEZ: You describe the first stimulus bill as having hit “all the erogenous zones of the Democratic party” and as “the single largest payoff in history to the party’s vast clientele.”
COST: It really is startling how huge the payoff was to the Democratic party. The fact that the Democrats got only three Republicans in the Senate to support the bill [Snowe, Collins, and Specter] — and only after serious arm-twisting — was an early signal of how lousy the legislation was. President Obama’s job approval was in the 60 percent range, and you do not defy a popular president lightly, and yet the House GOP did exactly that. Not a single Republican in the House voted for it because the bill was so wasteful.
LOPEZ: “‘Crony capitalism’ is a great way to describe the relationship between big business and today’s Democratic party.” Don’t you have the parties confused? As you yourself write, “Traditionally, we think . . . business aligns with the Republicans and labor with the Democrats.”
COST: Unfortunately, big business still has its tentacles in the modern GOP. See, for instance, Matt Continetti’s great takedown of the Tom Delay years, The K Street Gang.
Even so, since the 1980s, big businesses have been playing both sides of the aisle, and in the last 15 years or so, they have been very successful in getting the Democrats to respond to their needs.
LOPEZ: Why does America “need” the Democratic party? How can you go all Sarah Palin and criticize “crony capitalism” and still say we need the Democratic party in our political lives?
COST: The history of American politics has mostly been a debate between two competing visions — one that emphasizes economic advancement and one that emphasizes equality. Put another way, we have been having the same Hamilton-versus-Jefferson debate for 200 years. The reason for the perpetuation of this conflict is that economic growth often comes at the expense of economic, social, and, ultimately, political quality. Hamilton’s Bank of the United States was good for the whole country, but it also showered its blessings unequally, heaping them upon certain privileged groups. And so it has gone over the generations.
So, the two parties serve as a good check on each other. But when the Democrats actually promote inequality, there is no credible voice out there arguing in behalf of the old Jeffersonian-Jacksonian vision of a society of equals.
LOPEZ: If you insist on this point: How can it be saved?
COST: I don’t know.
LOPEZ: Will the Democrats always be wedded to liberal feminists and abortion? Could a Sargent Shriver successfully fix things today? Create competition for the pro-life vote?
COST: I’d say no — not without some kind of external shock that realigns the two parties. As things stand, the feminists are too powerful in the Democratic party to be challenged.
LOPEZ: If you were going to write a book exclusively about the Republican party, what would it likely be — or are you already booked, so to speak?
COST: I think there has been an interesting tension within the GOP since its founding, out of a hodgepodge of discontented ideological and sectional groups in the 1850s. On the one hand are reformist elements who want to change the country for the better, and on the other are factions who are happy with the status quo and want to keep things as they are. What is interesting to me is that the reformers used to be on the left wing of the party — for instance, Teddy Roosevelt and the progressives — but now they are most certainly on the right.
LOPEZ: You write, “Every time I visit Washington, D.C., I am struck by a single, terrible thought: It is not just that conservatives are losing the various battles over Big Government but they have been losing the war for generations.” What about Reagan?
COST: Reagan had great political success in forging a conservative electoral majority in the country, and he passed substantial tax cuts. But his promise to rein in government remains essentially unfulfilled. There were few substantial structural reforms of government during the Reagan years.
LOPEZ: What was November 2010 about? Will it be repeated — and then some?
COST: In part, it was a reaction to the bad economy. In part, it was a correction of the overreactions of 2006 and 2008 — i.e., the Congress was just more Democratic than the country was, so that had to be corrected.
But the depth and breadth of the party’s defeat also signaled that the Democratic party is not capable of governing to the public’s satisfaction. The party had an epic opportunity to forge an enduring majority, and they botched it as thoroughly as anybody ever has. The public wanted a swift, effective response to the economic crisis, and the Democrats gave it . . . a pork-ridden stimulus bill and a health-care bill that nobody wanted. This was because the party is not responsive to the public at large but to the interests that dominate it.
The next time the Democrats have this kind of majority, I expect an equally large rebuke.
LOPEZ: If “Obamacare represents the single greatest qualitative expansion of federal power in 80 years,” how does every American not realize it?
COST: Many Americans know this. Many others know it but think that is a good thing. And the swing vote that determines which side wins and which loses does not really pay attention. They really have no idea what this bill is about, and they have not taken the time to figure it out. Neither party can say this, because you don’t want to insult the voters who can make you or break you, but the fact is that swing voters are terribly uninformed and do not execute their civic duty to an acceptable degree.
LOPEZ: You wrote the other day, of John Roberts, that “by nominally endorsing an overwhelmingly unpopular bill that is in major trouble anyway, he has created the political space needed to strike directly at the heart of liberal legal theory without inflaming the Democrats.” Do you still feel that way?
COST: I do, but I also figured that conservative reaction would be negative, though not as negative as it has been. So maybe he was being too clever by half. That undermines his long-term project, I think.
LOPEZ: Everyone, it seems, is cynical about politics, and in many cases for good reason — as your book further elucidates. How do you combat the temptation yourself?
COST: Our country was founded on the republican principle, the idea that ours is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. At various times we have lived up to those ideals reasonably well; at other times we have not. We are now in a period of our history when we are not living up to these ideals.
I do not know how long it will last, and ultimately it depends on when the public shouts “Enough is enough!” and votes in representatives who will respond to their frustration. So, really, we just have to be patient and hope that the public will reach a boiling point sooner rather than later.
LOPEZ: In your book, you write, “The challenge of a republican system of government run by political parties is a significant one: The ruling coalition must find a way to balance the particular demands of its partisan loyalists with the broader needs of the public. This is an endemic feature of American politics, and a look at the earliest political history of this nation demonstrates clearly that even John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson all struggled with this.” Is it even possible, then? Are you sure this is the best way to go?
COST: I think it is possible. Democrats more or less managed it through 1965, in fact. And it is absolutely essential for republican government. It can’t survive if both sides simply use the power of the office to curry favor with their own factions at the expense of everybody else.
LOPEZ: What’s your advice for the care and feeding of a well-informed citizen? For the adult, too, who is just beginning to engage?
COST: The best thing to do is read history. And not only the high points that we talk about proudly as Americans, like the Revolution and the trials and tribulations of Abe Lincoln. You have to read and learn about the lowlights as well, to understand how and why our system can stop working the way it was meant to work. So, not just 1776 but also 1876.
LOPEZ: The story you tell in Spoiled Rotten is not one of “right and wrong,” and it has “no good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains.” Is that really possible in politics? Someone’s got to be right, and someone’s got to be wrong, no?
COST: I don’t see things that way per se. There is an ideological battle that in some respects is reducible to right versus wrong, but the first way to understand American politics is as a battle of competing interests. In a lot of instances, it is simply about who wins and who loses. Injecting morality into the story is not going to help elucidate that very important dimension of the conflict.
LOPEZ: Isn’t injecting morality the way to get beyond a client base, to appeal to new voters — to create more of a competition for voters in elections?
COST: The real opportunity to win new voters rarely happens during the campaign but rather through governance. That is when you have an opportunity to build a broader coalition. It is unfortunate in a lot of respects that politicians today are so dependent on campaign gurus, who I think usually have an exceedingly narrow view of how to secure victory.
LOPEZ: It’s not the point of the book, of course, but who makes the most sense as the vice-presidential pick for Mitt Romney?
COST: For my money, it does not get any better than Bobby Jindal.