Dan's Reviews > Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic

Spoiled Rotten by Jay Cost
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's review
May 26, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: 2012
Read from May 26 to June 03, 2012

I was conflicted about this book going in. I have been a Jay Cost reader for 5+ years, going back to his time with Real Clear Politics (RCP). Initially, I intuited that he was a conservative (as I am), though it was not obvious from his analysis at first; over time, he became increasingly forward about his ideology. He wrote an FAQ on RCP explaining his conception of politics and policy that I found myself agreeing with almost 100 percent, down to notions of uncertainty, epistemological modesty, and a belief in the virtues of the private economy. So I am quite sympathetic to Cost's political views.

With that said, his writing has grown far more partisan since his migration to the conservative Weekly Standard. While I still agree with much of what he writes, he has become extremely forward about his ideological preferences in his writing. It often makes for arguments that convince me but tend to enrage ideological opponents rather than to provoke thought. This is a shame.

So going into this book, I wanted to know which Jay Cost would be writing: the 2008-era RCP blogger? Or the Weekly Standard columnist?

With the exception of the title, I can happily report that this was more RCP than TWS.

Back in late 2009, Cost wrote a very interesting blog post lamenting the process behind the passage of the health care bill. I suspect it was that post which stimulated the research and publication behind this book. (From http://www.realclearpolitics.com/hors...)

Let's not forget the process that got us here. All year, the Democrats have talked about some form of public option. Besides the Senate Finance Committee bill - which nobody except Max Baucus really liked - the plan was always to link an individual mandate with some sort of public option. Then, in an instant, simply to win the vote of Joe Lieberman, the Senate leadership drops the public option element. There was no talk about whether what was left was perverse, whether this is a compromise in the worst sense of the word. And now, there is a push to get the bill passed before Christmas, not because that's best for the country - but because the startlingly irresponsible 44th President correctly intuits that health care is pushing his numbers down, and he wants to move on to talk about jobs.


Welcome to the new gilded age. The original hope behind the 17th Amendment - the direct election of senators - was to get the upper chamber out of the pocket of mega-industries that could buy and sell senators. So much for that, I suppose. This has to be one of the biggest giveaways to corporate interests in the nation's history.

Andrew Jackson must be spinning in his grave this evening. The Democratic Party was founded in opposition to "corrupt bargains" among entrenched interests that Democrats believed were undermining the will of the people. Today, such interests are called "stakeholders." They are to be wooed, bought off, and neutralized. Can't afford a K Street lobbyist? Sorry, you're not a stakeholder. Don't like this bill? Eh...you don't know what's good for you. You're either a tea-bagging moron or a gutless liberal who will fold sooner or later.

Like I said, Jackson must be spinning.

From that observation, Cost must have thought: how did we get from Jacksonian populism to THIS?

Cost's argument is extremely neat: essentially, Cost asserts that contingency, structural shifts, and legal shifts in American politics have resulted in a political party that is too bogged down in conflicting priorities to tend to the "public interest." The toughest part of making an argument like that is in defining the "public interest," but Cost is fairly convincing when attempting to discern it. (He views "taming inflation" as the public interest under Carter, "restoring faith that the government could solve big problems that had basically been ignored for twenty years [mostly crime, welfare dependency, and the deficit]" under Clinton, and "jobs" under Obama. I find all of these convincing.)

His conclusion on this is rather sad:

Today's Democratic leaders talk a lot about equality, but their actions speak louder than their words. As we have seen over the past three chapters, the party has come to play a double game--complaining loudly about inequality in society when enacting policies to advance the interest of its own clients. This has created a void in the body politic--one that the Republican party, which has long been the party of economic expansion rather than the ideal of social equality, is simply not able to fill. (282)

For someone trained in political science, Cost also spends very little time dealing in inscrutable models, and a LOT of time in history. I am all for that approach, provided that the author does his/her diligence with his/her documentation. Cost more than fulfills that responsibility, opting to include 55 pages of footnotes on a 286-page book. I spent a lot of time with the footnotes; the sourcing is really, really good.

All told, it's a provocative, compelling argument--even if you're not persuaded. In applying his framework to current events, he also manages to pose the best critique of the Obama Administration that I have yet read.

I have two minor criticisms that keep me at 4 stars, though:

1. I really dislike the title. In addition to feeling self-conscious and uncomfortable reading it on a train, I don't think it's fully fair, considering that his emphasis is more on institutional failure than individual failure. I'm sure they picked it to sell books, but I still don't really like it. (I probably should have just sprung for the Kindle version rather than taking it out from the library, in retrospect.)
2. I wish Cost had included a little more explaining how the Republican Party is less susceptible to this problem, in his judgment. He notes that the Republicans have a similar problem at times, but if the two parties are equivalent, why write THIS book and not a more even-handed one on the problem of clientelism in general? I suspect he could explain that distinction, and I'd like to hear him try.

Still, on balance, I recommend this heartily, if you're interested in politics, public policy, or history.
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Brian Great review. I would say, though, that when Cost's ideological opponents become enraged by his thoughtful, dispassionate analysis (and I find him to be both throughout Spoiled Rotten and in everything I've read from him), that is more a reflection of them than it is of him.

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