Clientelism – another reason to worry about US democracy

The last several months have given us many reasons to worry about US democracy – not least the riot at the US Capitol and the president’s refusal to accept the results of the November election, with Republican support. Rachel Gisselquist argues that clientelism is yet another reason to worry

Modernisation reduces clientelism, we assume…

We often associate clientelism with ‘developing’ much more than ‘developed’ countries. Political science and economics devote a lot of research to it. Susan Stokes provides a useful definition: ‘the proffering of material goods in return for electoral support, where the criterion of distribution that the patron uses is simply: did you (will you) support me?’ Vote-buying, patronage, and machine politics are all a part.

Some scholars posit a sort of modernisation story in which economic development erodes clientelist practices over time. Historical timelines in a number of countries seem to fit. Until recently, I would have placed the United States without question in this group as well. It is in history class that we learn about Boss Tweed and the 19th century heyday of machine politics in New York and other cities; the spoils system in the civil service before the Pendleton Act of 1883; and the passage of the Hatch Act in 1939 to limit political activities by federal employees.

 Focusing on clientelism as a method of electoral mobilization, I define it as 'the proffering of material goods in return for electoral support, where the criterion of distribution that the patron uses is simply: did you (will you) support me?'

Susan C. Stokes, in the The Oxford Handbook of Political Science (p.649), Edited by Robert E. Goodin

Yes, clientelist-type practices still exist – selected ambassadorial posts are rewards for big donors; every four years some federal staff turn over as each new administration brings in its own political appointees; and members of Congress as well as presidents influence the distribution of federal funds for electoral gain (i.e. pork-barrel politics, which some consider a form of collective clientelism). But overall, the broad trend has been a decline in clientelism, along with the adoption of various institutional safeguards.

But clientelism is returning to US politics

Recently, however, there are signs of shift. In the weeks before the US elections, I was struck by two news items in particular. First, on 12 October, the New York Times reported that federal payments to US farmers were projected to reach $46 billion this year, a high since 2005, with concerns that they have been distributed on the basis of politics – not only need – and disproportionate amounts going to big farms and southern states.

Relatedly, the Office of the Special Counsel determined that the Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had violated the Hatch Act at an event in August about the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, in a speech that urged attendees to vote for Donald Trump. Perdue was ordered to reimburse government for the costs of his political activity.

A second news item that raises more systemic concerns is the executive order signed on 21 October, creating a new category of federal workers, Schedule F, to be governed by ‘a greater degree of appointment flexibility… than is afforded by the existing competitive service process.’ It directs agency heads to review positions to identify those of a ‘confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating character’ and to petition the Office of Personnel Management to place these positions in Schedule F. Agency heads have greater ability and discretion in hiring for such positions ‘without the limitations imposed by competitive service selection procedures,’ and in adverse action without following the procedures set forth in chapter 75 of title 5, United States Code.

A step back towards patronage

While the executive order was seen by some as important action against government bureaucracy, for others like me it points precisely to one of the big reasons we worry about clientelism. As Francis Fukuyama has been warning for months, the Trump Administration’s fight against the ‘deep state’ has put the US public service ‘under grave threat.

The post-election round of firings only exacerbates such concerns. A professional, highly qualified, and impartial civil service, where competence trumps loyalty, is at the heart of a modern state. In changing the rules to provide new ‘flexibility’ in federal employment, this executive order has the potential to move the US one giant step back towards a civil service based on patronage, the sort of system we had before the Pendleton Act – which was described in 1868 as ‘no organization save that of corruption,’ ‘no system save that of chaos; no test of integrity save that of partisanship; no test of qualification save that of intrigue.’

In decently functioning democracies, politicians serve the entire polity, not only those who elected them

Another big reason that we worry about clientelism is its effect on democracy. Political equality is core to democracy, as Sidney Verba sets out well. It is not only about equality in the right to vote and stand for office; it also about fairness in governance. In decently functioning democracies, politicians serve the entire polity, not only those who elected them. Not everyone will benefit equally from all public, tax-funded activities, but who you voted or will vote for should not be a criterion in their allocation. If it is, or appears to be, the costs in terms of democratic legitimacy are high.

Combatting clientelism should be a priority for the Biden-Harris administration

A perennial debate among scholars who work on these topics is how much the terms used are influenced by the region studied. How much are similar things labelled pejoratively ‘clientelism,’ ‘vote-buying,’ and ‘patronage’ for Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and more benignly ‘campaigning,’ ‘constituency services,’ and ‘political appointments’ for North America and Europe?

the line between clientelist and non-clientelist politics is sometimes blurry

Part of the debate stems from the fact that the line between clientelist and non-clientelist politics is sometimes blurry. Politicians everywhere try to win elections by persuading voters that they will be better off if they do so, and it makes sense for newly elected governments to bring in some of their ‘own’ staff to implement their policy agendas.

Recent US politics, however, steps us over the blurry part of the line; clientelism is the right term. Shifting the trend here should be a priority for the Biden-Harris administration from 20 January.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Rachel M. Gisselquist
Rachel M. Gisselquist
Senior Research Fellow, United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER), Helsinki

Rachel is a member of the senior management team at UNU-WIDER.

She works on the politics of developing countries, with particular attention to inequality, ethnic politics, statebuilding and governance and the role of aid therein, democracy and democratisation, and sub-Saharan African politics.

Her work has been published in various journals and edited volumes, most recently World Development, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Journal of Development Studies, Social Indicators Research, and Oxford Development Studies.

Rachel holds a PhD in Political Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Master’s degree in Public Policy from Harvard University.

She tweets @RGisselquist

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