The Magazine

Spoiling Julia Rotten

The Democrats’ clientelism problem.

May 21, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 34 • By JAY COST
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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).

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