- Democracy and ClientelismHow Uneasy a Relationship?
Is clientelism in the political realm antithetical to the development of democratic institutions and participation? If clientelism undermines efforts to promote democratic processes of governance, then expectations for the emergence of more equitable and rule-based polities must be amended. This concern lies at the heart of a burgeoning literature on democracy and its future in developing countries. Latin America is often privileged in this literature because of the persistence of political clientelism in its “third wave” democracies. Researchers and democracy advocates have noted that long after transitions from authoritarian rule in Latin America and elsewhere, clientelism seems to be flourishing, even though the political arena is now generally characterized by the formal rules of democracy. Does this mean that the quality of democracy in such settings is inevitably compromised and likely to remain so?
In a previous generation of studies, scholars in the 1960s and 1970s explored the durable political relevance of patron-client relationships and clientelist networks, until then usually considered characteristics of traditional societies that had not yet developed universalistic norms for social, political, and economic interactions. Far from disappearing, however, such relationships were found to be important in many countries as underlying structures that helped explain voting patterns, political violence, the actions of political parties and machines, the intricacies of policy making and implementation, and the nature of state-society relationships in many more modern circumstances. This literature emphasized [End Page 241] the capacity of clientelism to adapt to new contexts and its impact on relationships of power at various levels of political interactions.
A more recent set of studies underscores the findings of this earlier work—that clientelistic relationships are strikingly persistent and widespread, that they are important in explaining structures of political power, and that they have consequences for the “who gets what” of resources controlled by the state and by political parties. But these new studies also open up additional avenues for research and understanding about how, why, and where clientelism works and what impact it has on the distribution of public benefits.
Renewed interest in political clientelism is concerned in particular with the relationship between its distributional effects and its persistence. In Latin America’s new democracies, this relationship is particularly engaging in the aftermath of neoliberal policy regimes that significantly reduced the goods and services made available through the state, or sought to target them in objective ways, or decentralized them to local and regional governments, where they were expected to be less available for political use. Yet inequitable patterns of distribution have characterized even these kinds of policies, and, some have argued, have become even more widespread and durable.
Important issues are at stake in this contemporary work on the topic. One is the extent to which political clientelism—enduring patterns of particularistic exchanges of concrete goods and services for political support—undermine or other wise impair democratic institutions and participation, particularly the way in which elections are supposed to signal policy preferences to political elites and ensure that they are held accountable for the decisions they make. Clientelism is rooted in particularism and relationships of exchange; democracy is based on notions of equality and citizenship rights. For many, the impact of clientelism is to deflect and undermine interest-based and programmatic politics, often dividing societies into competing networks for votes and access to state-provided goods and services, creating widespread distortions in their distribution. For others, clientelism is an adaptation...