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How Patronage Ruined the Democratic Party

How Patronage Ruined the Democratic Party

By Jay Cost - May 25, 2012

The following is adapted from the Conclusion of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, By Jay Cost. 

The story told here is not a tale of right and wrong. There are no good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains, in this account. American politics is regularly cast in such moralistic terms, but that has not been our approach here. Instead, our focus has been on the factions within American society, and how the Democratic party has transformed the interests of those factions into public policy.

That is the great challenge of a republican system of government such as ours—one in which the people are sovereign and the government operates on their behalf. Such governments are easy to envision in theory but hard to realize in practice. People are fundamentally self-interested, always ready to put themselves over the community, so it is very difficult to devise a government run by people that puts the whole community first.

Our two great political parties—the Democrats and the Republicans—regularly offer public-spirited platforms that are in keeping with those principles, at least on the surface. Even a casual observer of the political scene could not fail to note that both sides couch their arguments in communitarian language: what is good for our national defense, our prosperity, our shared sense of justice, and so on. In other words, both sides publicly argue that everybody would benefit from their particular programs.

Unfortunately, the public faces of both parties often mask some decidedly anti-republican tendencies. Governed only by the ambitions of politicians and a slender set of rules, parties are not constrained to act only on behalf of all the people, and they regularly do not. While the rhetoric of both sides may speak to the public good, behind the scenes Democrats and Republicans are often eager to make deals with various factions within society—if that is what it takes to win.

We have called this practice clientelism—the exchange of votes for governmental favors between a faction and a party. The great oversight of our Constitution was the framers’ failure to anticipate the inevitability of political parties, and thus to provide for better mechanisms to control their behavior. For if a political party is behaving in an anti-republican manner, and it controls the government, then the government—even with all of its checks and balances—will likewise behave in an anti-republican manner.

Opposition to clientelism brought the Democratic party into existence in the 1820s. Andrew Jackson and his allies formed it as a vehicle for their vengeance against the “corrupt bargain” of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, and more generally to fight the public venality of the “Era of Good Feelings,” wherein politicians in Washington and moneymen in New York and Philadelphia seemed to conspire for their own benefit rather than doing the work of the people.

As an alternative, Jackson and his Democrats would stand up for the “humble members of society”—the small farmers, the laborers, and the urban ethnics who did not have connections to get a special deal from the government. While the party lost this identity to the sectional grievances of the late nineteenth century, William Jennings Bryan reignited the old Jacksonian flame at the dawn of the twentieth century.

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