From citizens to clients

George Will sums up Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic by Jay Cost, who argues “that the party has succumbed to ‘clientelism,’ the process of purchasing cohorts of voters with federal favors.”

Before Franklin Roosevelt, “liberal” described policies emphasizing liberty and individual rights. He, however, pioneered the politics of collective rights — of group entitlements. And his liberalism systematically developed policies not just to buy the allegiance of existing groups but to create groups that henceforth would be dependent on government.

Under FDR, liberalism became the politics of creating an electoral majority from a mosaic of client groups. Labor unions got special legal standing, farmers got crop supports, business people got tariff protection and other subsidies, the elderly got pensions, and so on and on.

Government no longer existed to protect natural rights but to confer special rights on favored cohorts. As Irving Kristol said, the New Deal preached not equal rights for all but equal privileges for all — for all, that is, who banded together to become wards of the government.

In the 1960s, public-employee unions were expanded to feast from quantitative liberalism (favors measured in quantities of money). And qualitative liberalism was born as environmentalists, feminists and others got government to regulate behavior in the service of social “diversity,” “meaningful” work, etc. Cost notes that with the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act, a few government-approved minorities were given an entitlement to public offices: About 40 “majority-minority” congressional districts would henceforth be guaranteed to elect minority members.

Walter Mondale, conceding to Ronald Reagan after the 1984 election, listed the groups he thought government should assist: “the poor, the unemployed, the elderly, the handicapped, the helpless and the sad.” Yes, the sad.

Republicans also practice clientelism, but with a (sometimes) uneasy conscience. Both parties have narrowed their appeals as they have broadened their search for clients to cosset.

via George Will: An election to call voters’ bluff – The Washington Post.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Michael B.

    Also, Proverbs say that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God. How can a nonbeliever fear a god he doesn’t believe in? And so how can he be wise?

  • Michael B.

    Also, Proverbs say that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God. How can a nonbeliever fear a god he doesn’t believe in? And so how can he be wise?

  • Michael B.

    darn it. I just realized I posted this response to the wrong article. Sorry.

  • Michael B.

    darn it. I just realized I posted this response to the wrong article. Sorry.

  • DonS

    Cost is right on. FDR did begin the conversion of the Democratic Party from one which cared about all people, and focused its spending efforts on public infrastructure benefiting all people, to one which is only interested in pandering for votes by promising public funds to favored constituencies. The Democrats are all about using tax money for transfer payments, and funding any infrastructure through bonding. Stupid, terrible policy, and an approach which naturally divides, rather than unifies.

  • DonS

    Cost is right on. FDR did begin the conversion of the Democratic Party from one which cared about all people, and focused its spending efforts on public infrastructure benefiting all people, to one which is only interested in pandering for votes by promising public funds to favored constituencies. The Democrats are all about using tax money for transfer payments, and funding any infrastructure through bonding. Stupid, terrible policy, and an approach which naturally divides, rather than unifies.

  • SKPeterson

    DonS – I would argue that the transition of the Democrats happened most decisively under Wilson who made his bed with the early populists exemplified by William Jennings Bryan and turning away entirely from the “Bourbon” Democrat party that had been largely successful from 1872 to 1898 exemplified by Grover Cleveland.

  • SKPeterson

    DonS – I would argue that the transition of the Democrats happened most decisively under Wilson who made his bed with the early populists exemplified by William Jennings Bryan and turning away entirely from the “Bourbon” Democrat party that had been largely successful from 1872 to 1898 exemplified by Grover Cleveland.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Government no longer existed to protect natural rights but to confer special rights on favored cohorts.

    This is the exact opposite of equality before the law. It is a new feudalism.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Government no longer existed to protect natural rights but to confer special rights on favored cohorts.

    This is the exact opposite of equality before the law. It is a new feudalism.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    FDR did begin the conversion of the Democratic Party from one which cared about all people,

    Um, what?!!

    Do you mean the same Democrat party that instituted Jim Crow and largely opposed the Civil Rights Act? They just transition from favoring one group, segregationists, to favoring different groups. Buy votes from one group till it is untenable, then buy votes from a new group. That is not equality before the law. It is influence peddling and bread and circus politics.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    FDR did begin the conversion of the Democratic Party from one which cared about all people,

    Um, what?!!

    Do you mean the same Democrat party that instituted Jim Crow and largely opposed the Civil Rights Act? They just transition from favoring one group, segregationists, to favoring different groups. Buy votes from one group till it is untenable, then buy votes from a new group. That is not equality before the law. It is influence peddling and bread and circus politics.

  • DonS

    SKP @ 4: I won’t strenuously argue the point, because I essentially agree with you. Certainly, the federal income tax gave the federal government access to adequate funding for such transfer schemes. However, it is the case that the Depression gave FDR the opportunity to implement this “new deal” involving transfer payments to client groups by establishing the basic entitlement programs which continue to haunt us today. And, it is also the case that FDR still focused much of his recovery plans on public works, through the WPA, whereas Obama paid no more than lip service to the notion of public infrastructure. Little was built using stimulus funding — most of which went to shore up state and local government payrolls and various welfare and unemployment insurance programs.

  • DonS

    SKP @ 4: I won’t strenuously argue the point, because I essentially agree with you. Certainly, the federal income tax gave the federal government access to adequate funding for such transfer schemes. However, it is the case that the Depression gave FDR the opportunity to implement this “new deal” involving transfer payments to client groups by establishing the basic entitlement programs which continue to haunt us today. And, it is also the case that FDR still focused much of his recovery plans on public works, through the WPA, whereas Obama paid no more than lip service to the notion of public infrastructure. Little was built using stimulus funding — most of which went to shore up state and local government payrolls and various welfare and unemployment insurance programs.

  • DonS

    sg — we’re talking about the national Democratic party and its image and emphasis. Not the local Democratic politicians in the Jim Crow south. Though you are correct — the Jim Crow laws and discrimination schemes of that era were implemented by Democrats, who dominated the south at that time, not Republicans.

  • DonS

    sg — we’re talking about the national Democratic party and its image and emphasis. Not the local Democratic politicians in the Jim Crow south. Though you are correct — the Jim Crow laws and discrimination schemes of that era were implemented by Democrats, who dominated the south at that time, not Republicans.

  • Steve Billingsley

    SKPeterson,

    Excellent point. But I would argue the truest and oldest meta-narrative to describe the Democratic Party (particularly in light of today) isn’t prairie populism, academic progressivism or New Deal coalitions – it’s Tammany Hall

  • Steve Billingsley

    SKPeterson,

    Excellent point. But I would argue the truest and oldest meta-narrative to describe the Democratic Party (particularly in light of today) isn’t prairie populism, academic progressivism or New Deal coalitions – it’s Tammany Hall

  • SKPeterson

    Steve B and DonS – I agree. I just think Wilson was the watershed that allowed FDR to so brazenly do what he did. I suppose Tammany Hall has its role as well, but the era of Tammany was equal parts Republican. Machine politics were emblematic of late 19th Century American government.

  • SKPeterson

    Steve B and DonS – I agree. I just think Wilson was the watershed that allowed FDR to so brazenly do what he did. I suppose Tammany Hall has its role as well, but the era of Tammany was equal parts Republican. Machine politics were emblematic of late 19th Century American government.

  • Frank Matheis

    I have said it before and will say it again.
    God is not a Republican. Nor a Democrat.
    The Evangelical church (Lutheranism as it is here) is not a Republican religion.

  • Frank Matheis

    I have said it before and will say it again.
    God is not a Republican. Nor a Democrat.
    The Evangelical church (Lutheranism as it is here) is not a Republican religion.

  • Hanni

    Good one, frank. Also, God did not come down (AFAIK} and set borders, making some countries bad and good. People do that.

  • Hanni

    Good one, frank. Also, God did not come down (AFAIK} and set borders, making some countries bad and good. People do that.


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