How Patronage Ruined the Democratic Party

By Jay Cost - May 25, 2012

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The Obama Administration has seen the consequences of this logic play itself out fully. Unlike Carter and Clinton before him, who at least tried to tame the party clients, President Obama has time and again acceded to their demands, at the expense of the public good. The stimulus bill, designed by congressional Democrats with Obama’s blessing, pumped $800 billion into the economy, largely through Democratic clients like labor, environmental groups, and African Americans. Obama followed that up with a bailout of the auto industry that gave the United Auto Workers much more than they would have won in bankruptcy court, then proceeded as if the economic crisis had passed. His financial reform legislation was highly preferential to his big-money donors on Wall Street; his cap-and-trade bill tried to award environmentalists, well-heeled businesses, and the poor in one fell swoop; and his health care bill is the apogee of anti-republican, liberal clientelism, a sprawling, trillion-dollar payoff to an array of groups that leaves the average American in no better shape.

The 2010 midterms saw the worst drubbing for the Democratic party since 1938 as the GOP won control of the House of Representatives—due punishment for Obama’s focus on the party clients at the expense of the national interest


In his veto of the Bank of the United States, Democratic party founder Andrew Jackson, “Old Hickory,” as he was known, declared, “There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing.”

It is ironic that Jackson’s heirs would come to stand for exactly what he opposed. But above all it is tragic. It is tragic because the United States needs a healthy, two-party system, and more to the point it needs the Democratic party. There is a reason, after all, that the party survived the disastrous presidencies of Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, both of which contributed mightily to the onset of the Civil War; survived Grover Cleveland’s handling of the Panic of 1893; survived the rebuke suffered by the Woodrow Wilson administration in 1920; survived the “credibility gap” of the LBJ administration; and survived the incompetence of the Carter administration. It is in part because the party’s core message—as articulated by Jackson nearly two centuries ago—still resonates to this day. America is a radically egalitarian country, at least in its outlook; the people are inherently skeptical about special privileges and always ready to listen to a political party that promises an equal playing field.

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. This has created a void in the body politic—one that the Republican party, which has long been the party of economic expansion rather than the ideal of social equality, is simply not able to fill.

With the exception of the Tea Party, there is no real faction out there making the case for an end to special privilege.

What would Old Hickory have to say about that? 

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