Justice, Equality, “Clientelism” and Faction: A Response to Jay Cost

Jay Cost, “Spoiling Julia Rotten”

1. The core of Cost’s critique – republicanism is compromised when the electorate that matters is nothing but special interests. To wit:

And that is what “The Life of Julia” [Obama campaign advertising] is all about. It is liberalism, for sure, but it certainly is not a republican brand of it. It is almost a perfect articulation of antirepublican, client group liberalism, which unhappily has come to define the Democratic party under Obama. Put simply, the message of the ad is that this woman should vote for Obama because of all the great benefits he will offer her.

Michael Barone has often referred to Obama’s political approach as the “Chicago way,” and here we can see a version of that method at work. It was the urban political machines—like Chicago’s Daley operation and before it New York’s Tammany Hall—that mastered the decidedly antirepublican relationship of patron and client as well as any organization in world history.

I’ll agree that things can get very ugly for our country when local politics become national politics. I personally think the Founders bet on the “enlarged orbit,” the sheer size of the United States, so that way once in a while people like Dennis Kucinich could be mayor of Cleveland or Jan Brewer could become governor of Arizona and that local factionalism would not play out onto the national level.

Still, despite the strength of the primary contention, that interest groups receiving benefits can be detrimental to republicanism if they become primary focus, I think we can isolate several problems. Can we really distinguish what Cost calls “client group liberalism” from the practice of politics? If that proves problematic, what are compelling reasons for working with “client group liberalism?” Finally, what truly unites us as Americans, what makes our republicanism work? How abstract is the appeal to principle?

2. Cost is aware that it is tricky to distinguish giving stuff to your base and giving too much stuff to your base. Prior to saying that “The Life of Julia” represents a a major antirepublican trend in the Democratic agenda, he says:

Both liberals and conservatives believe they are republicans, that their policies will benefit all Americans, not just a privileged elite. Furthermore, both political parties pay lip service to this republican view of government, but in reality they are often ready, willing, and able to play favorites, doling out government benefits to their supporters (paid for, usually, by their political opponents).

One gets the impression that this paragraph exists to say that the problem with Obama’s advertising is that it is too direct. This isn’t necessarily a trivial complaint. How things are articulated by our leaders matters. Setting the right tone has huge implications for how we deal with each other, what we think is acceptable.

Then again: isn’t it the case we vote for people based on what they do for us? If you want to counter the “hey! free lunch!” promotion, you have to make a coherent case that an emphasis on limited government will help us at the moment. Cost mentions the “public good” as something Democrats are ignoring at the moment, and it is hard to argue with his indictment:

The stimulus, the health care bill, cap and trade, and the financial reform package were all designed with heavy input from the party’s clients, and ultimately each reflects their priorities, so much so that any kind of national purpose the legislation might have served was totally undermined. The stimulus catered far too much to Democratic clients, hence its measly effect on the economy; Obamacare was a veritable smorgasbord of goodies for Democratic backers, from feminists to unions to big business, while the average American will see no material improvement in the cost or security of his health insurance; and financial reform ultimately won the backing of the mega-banks on Wall Street, which not coincidentally had given overwhelmingly to Democrats in the 2008 cycle.

You’ll get no argument from me on that front. The only thing I’ll say is that since I don’t think the Obama administration terribly competent, I’m not sure how much this reflects a serious ideology as much as a gimmick. And it’s the ideological overtones that matter (“antirepublican”). I can conceive of a number of types of governments wanting to give benefits to various interest groups for reasons that matter. Heck, we need to do this. Last I checked, tax cuts don’t help people on reservations where there may be a 60% alcoholism rate and any sort of intervention in a place like Gary, Indiana is a good thing.

To be even blunter: you don’t get justice and equality through limited government necessarily. For that to happen, we all have to be the same, with the same income, the same priorities, the same circumstances. Then strict constitutionalism and fewer laws and less spending work like a charm.

3. One of the more compelling arguments for liberal prescriptions is economic collapse. It isn’t that one wants too much regulation or spending. But it’s also the case one shouldn’t want to cut services in a recession. It’s less a disincentive to work and more giving people one less thing to worry about while we recover.

Unfortunately, when one is arguing more or less based on ideology, FDR has to be seen as not someone dealing with a problem, but just as much a relentless partisan:

Ironically, it was Franklin Roosevelt—the very president who destroyed the Tammany operation—who adapted its clientelism to national government. This is how the antirepublican practices of urban politics found their way into the national Democratic party. FDR had two purposes in mind with his New Deal: to use the vast regulatory and redistributive potential of the federal government to fight off the Great Depression and to establish a permanent Democratic majority. Whereas Tammany had once been limited to ticky-tacky items like contracts and jobs, FDR could use sweeping legislation like the Agricultural Adjustment Act to buy off the entire Southern plantation gentry at a stroke of the presidential pen.

Cost rightly moves away from this narrative and starts seeing how many other factions the Democrats brought under their umbrella in the coming years. The trouble with the story as he presents it is a hundredfold. One reason why Republicans stayed in power for years after the Civil War was that they gave out exceedingly generous veterans’ benefits. You have to pretend that the time before FDR was this mythic time for republicanism in America, where debates were fought earnestly and with tremendous respect for the Constitution and the rights of others. And of course we didn’t have 10 year olds work in mines! Of course there was no economic instability and a ridiculous lack of oversight! We only had the Great Depression because of the Federal Reserve (I love when friends tell this story. The consensus among scholars, as far as I can tell, is that the Fed’s refusal to act was the catalyst for some of the worst damage)!

Can we get serious for a second? I think one can have some issues with FDR’s governance. But there’s no way to look at the “Great Depression” and say this is some insignificant problem that isn’t going to involve a drastic reordering of priorities. As ticked as I am that 50% of the federal budget goes to Social Security and Medicare, I’d be scared to death if I lived in a country where taking care of the old and sick wasn’t important.

Once we see that some “clientelism” isn’t the end of the world – it’s a way of tracking whether government is actually doing good for someone – we can start seeing what a healthy alternative to Obama style liberalism is.

4. The first thing we have to do is come clean and admit that conservatism is, for the most part nowadays, identity politics. There’s no other way to explain how people like this were allowed to thrive at National Review for as long as they did. I’m not saying all conservatism is identity politics that vicious; I’ve made the case above that I think some identity politics (obviously, not the one in the immediately prior link) is good.

But we have to understand that it isn’t clear that the modern Republican party, as constituted at this moment, can offer a “public good.”

The truth is that there is a public good to be had, but it doesn’t really lie in ideological economics. It has something to do with what Cost articulated above, which I’ll fashion into something stronger: you can’t use all of the national treasury to pay off your friends.

You can see that’s more basic than arguing ideological degeneration. It more or less contends that as political science has given us insight into winning elections, we’re using that insight a bit too much. The ability to offer voters a choice between competing but salutary and reasonable alternatives has been compromised by our factionalism and the strategies which engage and exacerbate that factionalism. I’m not placing blame here. To be a viable politician, you have to work with what you’ve got.

We need unity. I used to think bipartisanship was just a lame talking point. Now I think it’s one of the greatest blessings we had and we’re too blind to realize how much we need it. The President is very partisan and I know thoughtful liberals should ask whether the Congressional majorities were handled correctly. If you want this place to be more like Europe, you need to do a lot of convincing, not just win at the ballot box and pass some laws and make a few rounds at talk shows and town halls. And I don’t really want to say anything about the more disgraceful behavior of my party (re: that last link – that is, for all practical purposes, a violation of someone’s civil rights. Real Presidents stand by their staff on such things). The real ideological question is whether we can move beyond a politics of cynicism, apathy and outright hatred, instead articulating a coherent, optimistic vision for the future that’s practical. One that truly benefits all Americans and gets politicians talking to each other about what matters.

1 Comment

  1. As a once very active Republican now contemplating leaving the party and joining a different one, or perhaps going independent, I find your post intriguing.

    I would like to know whose blog this is, as I came across it at David S’s Facebook timeline, and most of the stuff he posts appears to originate at the sites of people he knows personally or whom he has interacted with extensively online. A recommendation from him carries a lot of weight, and I was wondering who is the auther of this blog and what is his/her relationship with gbudavid?

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