Clientelism is the exchange of goods and services for political support, often involving an implicit or explicit quid-pro-quo. It is a political system at the heart of which is an asymmetric relationship between groups of political actors described as patrons and clients and political parties. Richard Graham has defined clientelism as a set of actions based on the principle take there, give here, with the practice allowing both clients and patrons to gain advantage from the other's support. Moreover, clientelism is typified by "exchange systems where voters trade political support for various outputs of the public decision-making process."
The origin of the practice has been traced to ancient Rome. Here relationships between the patron (patronus) and client (cliens) were seen as crucial to understanding the political process. While the obligations between these were mutual, the key point is they were hierarchical. These relationships might be best viewed not as an entity but rather as a network (clientela), with the patronus himself perhaps being obligated to someone of greater power, and the cliens perhaps having more than one patron. These extensions increase the possibilities of conflicting interests arising. While the familia was the basic unit underlying Roman society, the interlocking networks (clientela) acted as restrictions on their autonomy but allowed a more complex society to develop. Historians of the late medieval period evolved the concept into bastard feudalism. There is, as is usual, ambiguity in the use of political terminology and the terms "clientelism," the "patron-client relationship," "patronage" and the political machine are sometimes used to described similar or related concepts.
Mechanics of clientelism
The patron/client System can be defined as a mutual arrangement between a person that has authority, social status, wealth, or some other personal resource (patron) and another who benefits from their support or influence. The patron provides selective access to goods and opportunities, and place themselves or their support in positions from which they can divert resources and services in their favor. Their partners-clients- are expected to buy support, and in some cases, votes. What the patrons see is the low-income and limited assets the client has and uses that resource, which is in great abundance: time, a vote, and insertion into networks of other potential supporters whom they can influence.
Patronage and vote buying are a subcategory of clientelism. Vote buying is a direct transfer of goods or services, in exchange for one’s support and vote. The result for the good or service is a question of did you or will you vote for me? A key to understanding clientelism might come in stressing not only the mutually beneficial relationships of exchange but also asymmetries in power or standing. Implied is a certain selectivity in access to key resources and markets. Those with access, the patrons (and/or sometimes sub-patrons or brokers) rely on the subordination and dependence of the clients. In return for receiving some benefits the clients should provide political support. As Stokes, Dunning, Nazareno, and Brusco emphasize, brokers in turn serve political leaders, and they may also not target resources exactly as leaders would wish; the resulting principal-agent problems can have important implications for understanding how clientelism works.
It is common to link clientelism with corruption; both involve political actors using public and private resources for personal gain, but they are not synonyms. Corruption is commonly defined as “dishonest and fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery.” While political clientelism is seen as, “the distribution of benefits targeted to individuals or groups in exchange for electoral support”. It is common to associate the two together because they moderately overlap. There are different forms of corruptions that have nothing to do with clientelism, such as voter intimidation or ballot stuffing. “Clientelism is considered negative because its intention is to generate ‘private’ revenue for patrons and clients and, as a result obstruct ‘public’ revenue for members of the general community who are not a part of the patron-client arrangement.”
Providing money in exchange for a vote is illegal in the United States. Another form of clientelism that is viewed as corrupt is patronage which is the distribution of jobs to political supporters. This is not illegal in the United States.
Clientelism as a strategy of political organisation is substantially different from other strategies which rely on appeals to wider programmatic objectives or simply emphasize higher degrees of competence. It is often assumed that clientelism is a vestige of political underdevelopment, a form of corruption, and that political modernization will reduce or end it. But alternative views stressing the persistence of clientelism – and the patronage associated with it – have been recognized.
- Big man
- Client politics
- Political corruption
- Political machine
- Pork barrel
- Tammany Hall
- Stokes, Susan C., Thad Dunning, Marcelo Nazareno, and Valeria Brusco. 2013. Brokers, Voters, and Clientelism: The Puzzle of Distributive Politics. Cambridge University Press.
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