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.