The Magazine

Spoiling Julia Rotten

The Democrats’ clientelism problem.

May 21, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 34 • By JAY COST
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Obama-Biden campaign made quite a splash recently when it released a new web ad called “The Life of Julia.” This unusual piece of campaign propaganda tracks the life of a fictional character named Julia and enumerates the benefits she would receive from the government at successive ages should Obama win reelection. Some examples:

‘Julia’ at 23

‘Julia’ at 23

♦ 3 Years Old. “Julia is enrolled in a Head Start program to help get her ready for school. Because of steps President Obama has taken to improve programs like this one, Julia joins thousands of students across the country who will start kindergarten ready to learn and succeed.”

♦ 25 Years Old. “After graduation, Julia’s federal student loans are more manageable since President Obama capped income-based federal student loan payments and kept interest rates low. She makes her payments on time every month, keeping her on track to repay her student loans.”

♦ 27 Years Old. “For the past four years, Julia has worked full-time as a web designer. Thanks to Obamacare, her health insurance is required to cover birth control and preventive care, letting Julia focus on her work rather than worry about her health.”

♦  42 Years Old. “Julia starts her own web business. She qualifies for a Small Business Administration loan, giving her the money she needs to invest in her business. President Obama’s tax cuts for small businesses like Julia’s help her to get started. She’s able to hire employees, creating new jobs in her town and helping to grow the local economy.”

The ad is certainly a direct play for women voters, and it caused quite a stir in the conservative blogosphere for the blatant pandering. But the pandering is actually quite revealing. In ways Team Obama doubtless didn’t intend, “The Life of Julia” illustrates precisely what has gone wrong with the modern Democratic party. To see this, it is helpful to take a few steps back.

We usually conceive of American politics in terms of just two broad ideological tendencies—liberalism and conservatism. But there are of course other lines of thought present in the body politic, including some ideas and principles that both liberals and conservatives claim to embody. Of particular importance in the United States is the concept of republicanism, or the idea that the government should represent the interests of all the people, rather than just a select few. 

Both liberals and conservatives believe they are republicans, that their policies will benefit all Americans, not just a privileged elite. Furthermore, both political parties pay lip service to this republican view of government, but in reality they are often ready, willing, and able to play favorites, doling out government benefits to their supporters (paid for, usually, by their political opponents).

And that is what “The Life of Julia” is all about. It is liberalism, for sure, but it certainly is not a republican brand of it. It is almost a perfect articulation of antirepublican, client group liberalism, which unhappily has come to define the Democratic party under Obama. Put simply, the message of the ad is that this woman should vote for Obama because of all the great benefits he will offer her.

Michael Barone has often referred to Obama’s political approach as the “Chicago way,” and here we can see a version of that method at work. It was the urban political machines—like Chicago’s Daley operation and before it New York’s Tammany Hall—that mastered the decidedly antirepublican relationship of patron and client as well as any organization in world history. Politics was not a contact sport in the big cities so much as it was a contract sport. Recall Rod Blagojevich’s colorful description of Obama’s open Senate seat: “I’ve got this thing and it’s [expletive] golden, and .  .  . I’m not going to give it up for [expletive] nothing!” Blago is in federal prison for this style of politics, but it really characterized urban government for over a century: The government has lots of services, and you have votes: Want to trade? 

Ironically, it was Franklin Roosevelt—the very president who destroyed the Tammany operation—who adapted its clientelism to national government. This is how the antirepublican practices of urban politics found their way into the national Democratic party. FDR had two purposes in mind with his New Deal: to use the vast regulatory and redistributive potential of the federal government to fight off the Great Depression and to establish a permanent Democratic majority. Whereas Tammany had once been limited to ticky-tacky items like contracts and jobs, FDR could use sweeping legislation like the Agricultural Adjustment Act to buy off the entire Southern plantation gentry at a stroke of the presidential pen. 

The problem, though, is that once the door was opened to this brand of clientelism, it could never again be closed. Over the decades, the Democrats have added scores of clients to their operation: trade and industrial unions, African Americans, environmentalists, feminists, govern-ment unions, consumer rights advo-cates, big business, and big city bosses and their lieutenants. All of them are with the Democratic party in part because of the special benefits it promises them when in office, and all have a major say in how the party behaves in government. With more and more clients who needed constant tending, it became harder and harder for subsequent Democratic leaders to focus on the public good. Thus, in the years since FDR’s tenure, the Democratic agenda has looked less like republican liberalism and more like clientele liberalism—big government activism not for the sake of the whole country, but for the sake of the voters whom the Democrats privilege.

And under the Obama administration, clientele liberalism has achieved a kind of apotheosis. The stimulus, the health care bill, cap and trade, and the financial reform package were all designed with heavy input from the party’s clients, and ultimately each reflects their priorities, so much so that any kind of national purpose the legislation might have served was totally undermined. The stimulus catered far too much to Democratic clients, hence its measly effect on the economy; Obamacare was a veritable smorgasbord of goodies for Democratic backers, from feminists to unions to big business, while the average American will see no material improvement in the cost or security of his health insurance; and financial reform ultimately won the backing of the mega-banks on Wall Street, which not coincidentally had given overwhelmingly to Democrats in the 2008 cycle. 

When viewed in light of these legislative monstrosities, “The Life of Julia” begins to make more sense. It is not merely an artless appeal to a swing demographic, it also symbolizes the modus operandi of the modern party. No longer interested in or capable of operating on behalf of the public good, the party is intent on buying its way to 50 percent-plus-one of the electorate. The message: Vote for Obama and you’ll get stuff!

What a tragic decline for the Democratic party. Andrew Jackson founded the party precisely to fight this kind of governmental favoritism. When he vetoed a bill to recharter the Second Bank of the United States in 1832, Old Hickory warned:

Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society—the farmers, mechanics, and laborers—who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.

This remained a kind of mission statement for the Democratic party for generations. Whether it advocated limited government (as under Jackson) or big government (as under FDR), the party always claimed to be the party of equality, fighting the inevitable tendencies of the government to create “artificial distinctions” that privilege the politically well connected over the “humble members of society.” 

Yet today, sadly, the heirs to Old Hickory constitute a party of privilege, and it offers its clients a simple deal: Vote for us and as long as we’re in office, we’ll take care of you.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard and the author of Spoiled Rotten, a new critical history of the Democratic party (Broadside Books).

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers