I’ve enjoyed Jay Cost’s original blog and his later articles on the web and found him to be an astute analyst. So when I saw his book I decided to pick it up. The book is about the development of the Democratic party in the last century or so. The thesis is that the party has become a collection of contending client groups so much so that the ability of the party to effectively govern is gone.
In the early 1900s the Democrats were a coalition of ‘anti-Republicans’ opposing the dominance of the GOP. The traditional ‘common man’ was one such group, but there also were the city machines, urban reformers, and the ‘Solid South’ which traded its support to keep anyone from interfering with the south. As such, much like the Whigs a century before, they had trouble uniting behind a candidate and winning national elections. The solution was to increasingly lock in voters in client blocs with national patronage, replacing the local patronage that had let city machines dominate local politics.
One of the first was the progressive wing, then in the 30s came the unions. Both of these blocs were a threat to the southern wing. The liberals and Republicans were a threat to the segregationist cultural policy, and the unions wanted to expand south which was also anathema to the bloc. As the Solid South was easing out, the Democrats replaced them with more firm client groups – the Black Caucus, and then other liberal ideological groups – women’s groups, the gay lobby and so on.
The problem is that these groups expect returns when the Democrats are in power, and increasingly the changing needs of the electorate are opposed by the desires of the pressure groups. And still, the party has trouble with candidates representing the party – the last three Presidential winners (Carter, Clinton, and Obama) were outsiders who then had to try to steer the party in ways that it didn’t want to go, Carter failed to do so, Clinton was able to get some things pass when the Democrats lost power in the Congress, and Obama essentially abandoned the electorate to satisfy the pressure groups alone.