How Patronage Ruined the Democratic Party

By Jay Cost - May 25, 2012

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Later, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt implemented a new philosophy to secure equal treatment for the downtrodden—an active, “progressive” federal government that would reshape society to make it more just. To this day, this remains the public-spirited message of the Democratic party: that the whole country will be better off if all its people are treated equally.

Yet the Democrats wasted little time before committing the very errors they had pledged to rectify. Andrew Jackson’s principle of “rotation in office” evolved from a leveling, democratic institution into the crooked “spoils system” of rewarding political cronies. In time, the spoils system became the foundation for morally bankrupt political machines like Tammany Hall, whose only purpose in winning office was to pay off the supporters who had put it there. The nineteenth-century patronage regime was modernized in the twentieth century by the liberal Democrats who expanded the size and scope of the government with the New Deal. The Democratic party would no longer use mere patronage to reward a few thousand loyalists; now it would take advantage of the massive new regulatory and redistributive powers of Washington to reward millions of new party clients—not only with federal jobs but with beneficial laws that reshaped society to advance their particular interests. The party could take care of whole classes in society—farmers, union workers, urban ethnics—with a single stroke of the presidential pen.

Of course, most voters are not clients of the Democratic party, or of the Republican party for that matter. Most voters expect no special favors after Election Day, and the parties compete for their support only by offering broad-based programs ostensibly designed to benefit all (or, at least, most) Americans. It’s always been this way—even at the height of the New Deal majority, the Democrats could never claim half-plus-one of the public as their clients.

Thus, the political challenge facing modern Democratic leaders is to keep the party clients happy while simultaneously governing for the whole nation. Franklin Roosevelt was the master of this balancing act, and to varying degrees, FDR ’s early successors—Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson—were more or less able to juggle the party’s clients with the public interest in a similar fashion.

However, the tumult of the 1960s interrupted the party’s ability to tend to the clients and the public interest. The major problem was the addition of new clients, all of whom had their own power bases within the party and their own unique set of demands. African Americans entered the electorate as Democrats in the 1960s, demanding increased social welfare spending. Feminist groups demanded regulations to secure equal treatment in the workplace, more generous welfare benefits for poor women, and greater access to abortions. The environmental and consumer rights movements wanted new layers of government regulations to protect the quality of life. Finally, the rise of public sector labor unions consistently pushed the Democrats to expand the scope of government at all levels and inhibited its ability to reform the federal bureaucracy.

Add these groups to industrial and craft unions, which had belonged to the party more or less since the 1930s, and the Democrats suddenly had too many clients with too many demands. No longer, it seemed, could Democratic leaders tend to their interests while focusing on public concerns.

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