‘It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” So begins Spoiled Rotten, Jay Cost’s new history of the Democratic party. Cost is referring to the presidency of Barack Obama, who was going to be a post-partisan, post-racial leader for the 21st century. More importantly for Democrats, Obama was also going to usher in a new era of Democratic dominance based on the changing demographics of American society.
Since the 1960s, Democrats have increasingly pinned their electoral hopes less on white working-class voters and more on an alliance of upper-middle-class professionals, minorities, young voters, and women. The election of 2008, which included Democratic victories in previously Republican states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, Florida, Nevada, and Colorado, at the time seemed to have proven the 40-year strategy correct. Amid an economic crisis, Obama was inaugurated with high approval ratings, a strongly Democratic Congress, and a Time magazine cover showing the new president as the reincarnation of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Liberals, it seemed, finally had their new New Deal.
In 2012, those dreams are a distant memory. Although no longer in a reession, the economy has been limping along with anemic growth. President Obama’s signature policy change, health-care reform, is not widely popular, and many of the initial claims about its contents and costs are proving to be untrue or exaggerated. The stimulus plan now looks more like a grab bag of political handouts than a serious economic policy.
So why did things go so wrong? Part of the problem is with President Obama himself. He has proved to be a far less adept politician than many people once believed. He routinely shows a political tin ear and has expended little of the energy required to make the wheels of government turn. The president seems oddly disengaged and even uninterested in leadership. Speeches, not policy, drive Barack Obama. On top of this, the president’s overweening narcissism gives the administration an odd, disconnected feel. The president seems to be saying by his body language that the country doesn’t deserve a president as gifted as Barack Obama.
Cost is a writer for The Weekly Standard who brings a political scientist’s keen eye to the analysis of campaigns and elections. Spoiled Rotten is part polemic, part history, and a must-read for political junkies. There are many flashes here of the political smarts and good sense that fans of his writing have come to expect.
In this book, Cost claims that the problems of the Obama administration go far beyond the failings of the president and extend to a fatal flaw within the modern Democratic party. He argues that the party has increasingly succumbed to the vice of what he terms “clientelism,” which he defines as “transforming factions of voters into loyal members of a party’s coalition by offering them special privileges.” The Democratic party breaks down the American population into discrete groups and then proceeds to win their votes with government benefits. In doing so, Cost writes, the Democrats have “become a threat to the American republic itself.” Instead of working for the public interest, “the Democrats are the party of, by, and for the politically privileged few, at the expense of everybody else.”
Readers of the book will be treated to a lengthy tour of Democratic-party history, from Andrew Jackson to Obama, although most of the book focuses on the post–New Deal period. In his detailed and persuasive recounting of political history, Cost shows how Democrats continually sought to expand the powers of the federal government and create programs they believed would both solve social problems and win the allegiance of voters. They broke down the American public into discrete groups and tried to make those groups “clients” of the New Deal coalition.
Discussing the post-1960s period, Cost takes us into the era of the “New Politics,” where increasingly the most pressing issues became social and cultural rather than economic. He ably shows how Democrats added new “clients” to their coalition: African Americans, abortion-rights supporters, environmentalists, and gays.
In our own time, “clientelism” is really another term for “crony capitalism,” and therefore the book is firmly rooted in the Age of Obama. From energy policy to health care to the stimulus, special interests have certainly had a strong hand in the shaping of policy under this administration. Attacks on cronyism have become one of the most potent Republican criticisms of the Obama administration.
One small issue with Spoiled Rotten is that Cost borrows a rhetorical trick often used by liberals, who criticize Republicans by complaining that the current party has drifted from its noble past. Liberals argue that the GOP is no longer the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, or even Goldwater and Reagan, but instead in the thrall of extremists.
As his subtitle states, Cost believes that the Democratic party has become unmoored from its “once noble” past. To Cost, that means the era of Andrew Jackson in the 1830s, when the Democratic party stood for the interests of “humble members of society” against special interests. Count me skeptical, both on the history and on the usefulness of this trope. As Cost correctly notes, factionalism is rooted in the very nature of party politics, a development that the Founding Fathers despaired of and hoped to avoid in the new republic; yet in the nation’s infancy, factionalism and party politics took hold with the participation of many of those who had just years earlier fretted about the problem. Even the Jacksonian Democrats that Cost lionizes played the game of factionalism and patronage.
Cost demonizes Gilded Age Republicans and argues that their support for high tariffs during the late 1800s was akin to a “shakedown racket” to use government policy to support Republican manufacturers. But Democratic policies during the Gilded Age were just as guilty of “clientelism.” Free silver was an attempt to inflate the currency to assist debt-ridden farmers and others who suffered during a time of deflation.
Nor does Cost grapple with the fact that Republicans during the presidency of George W. Bush also tried to play the “clientelist” game. The Bush administration pursued policies that targeted specific groups in the hopes of building a new, stronger Republican party. Economic conservatives got tax cuts. Religious conservatives got faith-based initiatives. Laxer policies on homeownership were especially geared toward minorities. Suburban independents got No Child Left Behind. Seniors got the Medicare prescription-drug benefit. Immigration reform was supposed to attract Hispanic voters, while young voters were offered Social Security reform. The latter two ideas never came to fruition, and the strategy largely failed as both politics and policy.
Cost’s attack on “clientelism” is mostly a moral one. Spoiled Rotten is a spirited defense of the virtues of republican government and the general idea that our public policy should be created in the interest of the public good, not for the fostering of a political base. It is a compelling argument that dates back to the American Revolution, one that is written into the nation’s ideological DNA.
The problem, however, is that while it may in fact be immoral and anti-republican, “clientelism” makes rational sense as a political strategy for the Democrats. Sure, “green” energy companies and other crony capitalists get subsidies and benefits from government, but the “humble members” of society also get benefits at the same time, including Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, student loans, housing assistance, WIC, food stamps, and myriad others. Too often Cost writes as if only well-connected fat cats make out from Democratic policies, not mentioning that lower-income Americans vote disproportionately Democratic for good reasons. Those “humble members” turn out to be clients as well.
As the size of government grows, so does the number of potential clients for future Democratic politicians. One of the biggest problems that fiscally conservative Republicans in Washington have had over the years is that the constituencies to keep federal programs are always bigger (and louder) than the constituencies to abolish or cut back those programs.
Even with the sputtering economy and the problems that Obama has largely created for himself, the 2012 presidential election will probably be very close largely because of the fact that there might just be enough Democratic “clients” to forge a new political coalition. In Spoiled Rotten, Jay Cost provides a much-needed history lesson for Republicans trying to figure out how to appeal to 21st-century voters, as well as for Democrats seeking to reshape their party away from the divisiveness of “clientelism.”
– Mr. Cannato teaches history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.