Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Spoiled Rotten by Jay Cost

I decided to read Spoiled Rotten by Jay Cost because the idea intrigued me. His sub-head is, “How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic”. Lots of words for a sub-head, but it grabbed me.

Even after reading the book, I’m not sure of Cost’s politics. Sure the title suggests this is a hit piece on the Democrats, but the sub-head calls them “the once noble Democratic Party.” So... which is it? After reading the book, I came away with the sense that he really is trying to call attention to the failings of the Democratic Party in order to improve it. Noble goal.

Cost marks the beginning of the modern Democratic Party with Andrew Jackson and the  populist movement. But Jackson made a decision that would unintentionally hurt his party in the future. He abolished the old method of replacing only a few key positions in government with supporters and leaving the rest alone and replaced it with the “spoils” system. He called it “rotation in office” intending to clean out established interests and replace the government workers with those more closely in tune with the people. In reality, he opened the door to our modern bureaucracy and created an environment in which special interests actually thrived. His populism and its incarnation in William Jennings Bryan paved the way for a constituency of farmers and labor battling with the interests of the wealthy.

Once the patronage was cleaned up after Garfield’s death at the hands of an angry man who was denied a patronage job, Democratic President, Wilson, while still espousing a populist and progressive agenda, tried to put an end to the Democratic machines. Little did he realize the power the machines had to generate votes by buying them. Therefore, he was unable to use a lever that might come in handy when the fortunes of the Democratic Party changed. FDR would not make that mistake.

After their multiple defeats following Wilson’s presidency, FDR needed to totally redesign the Democratic Party. Not only did he pursue a progressive agenda, he expanded the power of the federal government to build a permanent Democratic majority. “The New Deal thus pursued nation building and party building simultaneously.” FDR did his best to appease the Southerners, create a client out of Labor, and either use or destroy political machines to his advantage. But by bringing labor into a party build on Southern conservatives, he created a permanent schism. Again and again, the Democrats were forced to serve their Southern clients with legislative carve-outs on such as FDRs refusal to help pass Southern-opposed anti-lynching laws. This mix of clients led to the reelection of FDR an unprecedented 3 times.

With Harry Truman, the Democratic Party had to decide which direction to go. Would it return to the Jacksonian principle of rejecting a large government the could and would play favorites and thus hurt the common man, or would it continue down the progressive path and use the power of the government to reward its clients. The Fair Deal, Truman’s administrative agenda, decisively came down on the side of big government and special payoffs, especially to labor. He opened the door to what Jackson foresaw. The Democratic Party, once on this path would be forever in debt to its clients to continue to provide the votes necessary for success and must therefore kowtow, even when not in the best interests of the country.

This tension, of Southern conservatives, Western progressives, and Big City labor within the Democratic Party became perfectly personified in the candidacy of JFK and LBJ. Kennedy, northern, seeming liberal but actually conservative, and Harvard educated, was balanced by the cowboy LBJ who appealed to westerners and the South. This combination of winning personality and legislative skills would transform the nation as Johnson implemented his Great Society using the ghost of JFK. Yet the fissures were beginning to grow. The Democratic Party would need new clients, and quickly.

The Democrats did not have the support of Blacks until FDR. But as he needed to appease the Southern racists clients, it was not a sterling record on civil rights that shifted them from the Republicans. Rather FDR’s New Deal bestowed material benefits on African Americans as part of its redistributionist agenda. In fact, with Truman and Eisenhower, civil rights became a plank of both parties although neither was able to enact much legislation due to the power of Southern racists. Even Kennedy talked tough, but continued to appoint Southern racists to the federal bench. After Kennedy’s assassination, LBJ decided to finally cement the Blacks as a Democratic client once and for all. He got the Voting Rights Act passed which assumed discrimination was taking place and shifted the burden of proof to the municipalities. Blacks turned out in record numbers and voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats. With that, and the mandated “minority-majority” districts, they became an official client of the Democratic Party. With the solid support of Blacks necessary for any legislative success in Congress, the Democrats now had another group they must satisfy.

The 60s brought a time of social upheaval and the Democratic Party saw its tenuous coalition split. The conservative South would be lost for good to the Republicans who, with the rise of Goldwater and later Reagan would make itself the home of conservatives. The Democrats were pushed farther and farther left with its mix of labor, including the new government unions, and Blacks, two groups who favored redistribution. This liberal shift would lead to stinging defeats until Jimmy Carter, the last Democrat to win a majority in the old Confederacy. 

In the 70s the rise “New Politics” led to feminists, environmentalists, and consumer groups to pressure the governments for the passage of their legislative concerns. These groups found a home in the Democratic Party, the group always willing to welcome new clients. The New Politics groups were able to make huge strides in changing the structure of the party to lead the ascent of these most radical of clients, often at the expense of the older clients. “In time, these groups would overwhelm the party... It would become nearly impossible for party leaders to keep this diverse group of clients happy while simultaneously governing in the public interest.”

Carter was the first Democratic president to fail spectacularly at the balancing act. Carter captured the nomination under the new rules which he exploited to win without the backing of most of the clients. Carter entered the presidency at a time of economic decline. With inflation out of control and no desire to romance his clients, Carter sought to do what he thought was right, but got no support. Without the resources or desire to redistribute any bounty, he lost the support of his own party. His “age of limits” did not fly with his plethora of groups screaming, “More!” This led to a challenge from the liberal Ted Kennedy, which damaged his chances of reelection.

Bill Clinton and his “New Democrats” believed they could circumvent the clients and govern effectively. Clinton partnered with Republican Dick Morris to occupy the broad middle. This gave him a short window of time in which he could truly try to govern free of the client and try to do what was best for the country as a whole. But just like Jimmy Carter, Clintons replacement, Al Gore, was challenged by the left as the clients fled to more pure liberal. This contrast caused by a Democrat who made neither the left or the right happy, only made for a revitalized and more powerful left. Barack Obama would fill the longing of the client groups who had been out in the cold for far too long. 

Unlike Carter and Clinton, Obama has no ties to the South and therefore no understanding of the need to balance clients and the good of the nation. Barack Obama IS a client of the Democrats. He truly represents one of their own. So for him, there is no balance necessary. In fact, all recent Democratic leaders are cut from the same cloth. This portends ill for the Democratic Party being able to overcome the clientist mentality in the near future. 

So what about the future? “Today’s Democratic leaders talk a lot about equality, but their actions speak louder than their words... The party has come to play a double game -- complaining loudly about inequality in society while enacting policies to advance the interests of its own clients.” Who will make the case to end the era of special privilege? The Republicans should be looking in the mirror at this point.

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