We’ve witnessed many politicians who make promises on the campaign trail in exchange for votes. However, promises transform into corrupt practices when they’re transactional and made with a wink and a clear reward offered in return.
The name for this particular brand of political quid pro quo is clientelism, and it remains a subtle yet pervasive form of corruption.
Read on as we explore the concept of clientelism, how clientelism occurs, and its impact on the political landscape of the United States. We’ll illustrate how it works using real-world and hypothetical examples to highlight the nuances of this phenomenon and discuss how electing independent candidates can serve as an effective countermeasure to corruption.
Clientelism refers to a political system where goods or services are exchanged for political support. In practice, politicians or political parties offer tangible benefits, like jobs, contracts, or services, in return for votes, campaign support, or other forms of political backing. This tit-for-tat arrangement often undermines democratic principles, encouraging a transactional rather than merit-based political culture.
Clientelism operates through a network of patron-client relationships. Patrons, usually politicians or establishment parties, have resources or influence to distribute. Clients, usually constituents or interest groups, want to benefit from these perks.
The exchange is mutually beneficial, but it often occurs at the expense of broader public interests and fair governance.
Although it’s often difficult to prove clientelism, there are several real-world scenarios where the term could apply. For example, patronage appointments are common forms of clientelism. Similar in many ways to nepotism, this is the appointment of supporters to government jobs regardless of their qualifications.
In this scenario, a newly elected official might fill administrative positions with campaign donors or loyal party members (rather than relatives, as in a case of nepotism).
There are potential examples of clientelism in targeted public welfare programs as well. In these cases, politicians might direct entitlement programs or benefits to specific communities that form their voter base rather than basing allocations on need or fairness.
Clientelism could also involve promising improved infrastructure or other projects in neighborhoods who voted heavily for the candidate even though the need is greater in a district that didn’t vote so favorably.
Imagine a small town where a mayor promises to allocate funds for road construction to a particular neighborhood. In return, the residents of that neighborhood pledge their votes in the upcoming election.
This scenario exemplifies a form of clientelism where public resources are used to buy political loyalty, disregarding the broader needs of the town.
Finding recent and specific examples of clientelism in American politics is challenging due to the nature of the topic and its overlap with legal and ethical gray areas. Outside of blatantly buying votes, it’s generally measured as a corrupt practice based on the extent to which is affects six areas of governance:
Voice and accountability
Rule of law
Control of corruption
In a historical context, the United States has experienced clear instances of clientelism. The practice was particularly glaring from the Age of Jackson, the historical period delineating the administration of our seventh president, Andrew Jackson, through the Gilded Age, a period known for its excesses and political corruption.
During this time period, which spanned from 1829 through the turn of the 20th century, political parties built their power by strategically distributing patronage to their allies. This system, often referred to as the "spoils system," involved appointing supporters to government jobs in return for political and financial support during elections.
In fact, the term came from a quote by New York Senator William Macy in response to criticism of a political appointment by President Jackson: “To the victor belong the spoils of the enemy.”
This practice of patron-client relationships became deeply ingrained in American political development, affecting various aspects of national consolidation, foreign policy, and economic development.
One of the first pieces of legislation to address the problem of clientelism in government appointments was the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883. It was initiated, in part, by the assassination of President James Garfield by a constituent who was disappointed at not having received a civil service job in exchange for his support of Garfield during the election.
As for more recent examples, one could look at specific cases or allegations where political support was exchanged for tangible benefits, such as government contracts, jobs, or targeted welfare programs. These things were once more difficult to uncover and prove in the days before everything was transacted electronically.
Government officials in Malta discovered this when journalists uncovered texts transmitted via the Whatsapp messaging platform that exposed long-term, widespread clientelism and corruption in the country. This particular scandal, one of many in Malta, involves the ability of ordinary citizens to make appointments for driving tests, which were prioritized by flagging supporters for preferential treatment.
Wording in the messages left nothing up to interpretation, with phrases like “That's from [name of party loyalist]. Take care of him” and “Make a note next to his name, you understand me.”
It was also discovered that administration offices for several Transportation Department and Labour officials were staffed by those who were owed favors by those officials. What the government termed “staying close to the people,” others recognized as a mutually beneficial quid pro quo arrangement.
Closer to home, a run-off candidate for a council seat in Hoboken, New Jersey, recently came under scrutiny after accusations of vote-buying from his opponent. It seems that residents of a building in the First Ward received $50 each for mail-in ballots. The candidate, Paul Presinzano, called it a smear campaign timed to coincide with mail-in voting. Others called it attempted clientelism.
However, these instances are often subject to legal and ethical scrutiny, and many aren't as overtly documented as historical examples. Research into this phenomenon mainly delves into incidences and impacts in developing countries.
Like many forms of corruption in politics, clientelism erodes trust in the political system and alienates voters. The practice skews the political process in several ways, including:
Undermining Meritocracy: When clientelism is at work, positions and resources are allocated based on loyalty rather than competence or need.
Perpetuating Inequality: Favored groups gain disproportionate benefits, widening social and economic gaps.
Weakening Democratic Institutions: When votes are 'bought,' the legitimacy of electoral processes is compromised.
Promoting Short-termism: Politicians focus on immediate rewards rather than long-term policy planning.
Independent candidates, who are free from party affiliations, might offer an antidote to clientelism. Without the pressure to cater to party donors or established voter bases, independents can prioritize policy over patronage. Because they aren’t beholden to party politics, they're also more inclined to champion transparency, accountability, and merit-based appointments.
Clientelism is a subtle yet pervasive form of political corruption that distorts democratic processes and priorities. By understanding its methods and impacts, voters are better prepared to guard against such practices.
Electing independent candidates offers a pathway towards a more merit-based and equitable political system.
The best way to combat corruption in all its forms is to elect independent candidates to offices at all levels of government. Join Good Party in its mission to make transparency an important qualification for office by supporting qualified, Good Party certified candidates. You can also run for office yourself and become a voice for anti-corruption and democratic reform. Good Party’s free tools for independent candidates are ready for whenever you’re ready to take the leap and make a difference in your community.