Clientelism and Political Parties


Imagine a country with a clientelistic political system composed of a series of patronage networks corresponding to political parties, lots of poverty, elections, weak democratic institutions, and low administrative capacity.

The leaders of the patronage networks compete for the spoils of the central government, which they then push down the network. In practice, at the top this looks like envelopes full of cash and juicy contracts handed out to deputies, at the bottom it looks like local leaders handing out bags of grain and minor jobs to poor people (who make up a good chunk of the society). Each node in the network skims some fat off the top. In exchange, each layer swears political to fealty to higher layers in the network, through votes, loyalty, and a willingness to get out into the streets when called upon.

In this country, political parties do not trade in ideology, but rather the exchange of political power for resources. They frequently change names, symbols, and rhetoric. These parties lack strong, formal organizations and instead rely on strong informal relationships.

This appears to be a glass half empty country.

Instead of a point, I have questions; and instead of answers, I’d be happy to settle for more, better questions. My instincts tell me that political parties should be ideological rather than regional/social/clientelistic—there’s a slew of reasons for this, but I’ll leave that to future discussion. But would ideological parties actually be better for the poor? Clientelistic parties yield ongoing benefits to the poor, would ideological parties in an ineffective government be able to do much better? How long would it take the benefits of a central government public project, a major hydroelectric plant for example, to outweigh the ongoing benefits dispersed by patrons to poor clients? Do the poor count more in a clientelistic system where they can exchange a vote for a concrete benefit, or in a system where they trade a vote for the promise of a better long-term future? Where does their vote have more causal power?

Assuming we want to, could we use constitutions to shape the evolution of political parties? Would it be through electoral institutions—proportional representation versus majoritarian and all the little ways to manipulate each system (there’s a long discussion to be had on this topic)? How else could institutions shape political parties? What other, non-institutional variables matter when it comes to political party formation?

Is it really possible to have control over where society wages politics? If patronage networks are entrenched, is it possible to shift politics from the networks to political parties? If not, how can we achieve second best outcomes—i.e. how can we make patronage networks better at serving the public good and leading to more efficient long-run outcomes?

Is 8 > 9?

It is a useful fiction that the Supreme Court is somehow beyond politics. It is a fiction frequently strained by the actual state of things. 5-4 decisions have been an increasing share of Supreme Court decisions since the mid-20th century, my “favorite” of which probably being that time 5 conservative justices outvoted 4 liberal ones in Bush v. Gore, effectively electing the president on a 5-4 ideologically-driven decision.

So when Senate Republicans decided to refuse any new appointment for the late Justice Antonin Scalia made by President Obama on the grounds that presidents shouldn’t make Supreme Court appointments in election years to allow voters to have a saw, it’s hard to take them at their word. I think it’s fair to say that there’s been a bit of doom and gloom about the potential future of the Supreme Court being hostage to Congressional partisanship. For now, we’re stuck with a eight-justice court, which means a lot of 4-4 decisions. 4-4 decisions defer to the decision made by the lower court, and avoid setting a precedent. But is that so bad? If the rise of 5-4 decisions indicates an increasing trend of partisanship in the court, then adopting an even number of justices prevents decisions more likely to be found along partisan lines from setting legal precedent. Supreme Court decisions are meant to be based on an understanding of the law, after all, so wouldn’t it be neat if we automatically decreased the importance of decisions decided controversially?

There are a variety of problems with this theory:

  • The fact that there are an even number of justices doesn’t mean they will always be split along neat ideological boundaries (and assumes that justices fit along neat ideological boundaries, it’s hard to argue that Scalia and Roberts were functionally identical).
  • The Supreme Court provides a unifying and clarifying influence on American law. The Supreme Court already decides on which issues are matters for states instead of the federal governments. This system essentially delegates constitutional powers to the Circuit Courts based on whatever happens to be considered controversial among the justices.
  • Attempts to decrease the importance of partisan decisions made by the Supreme Court this way just increases the importance of partisan decisions made by lower courts.
  • Making the size of the court a subject of open discussion leaves it open to partisan grandstanding. Imagine if every time a justice dies or resigns, critics of the president argue that the new size of the court is actually better now.

So we probably should get around to getting a ninth justice some time or another.

A few programming notes I want to make explicit: I have a lot of thoughts that I am pretty sure are wrong, but I can’t really help but exorcise them through writing them down. I am still partially laying groundwork here, so I have several threads running on the blog instead of competing for space in my head.

Also, I am invoking Betteridge’s Law of Headlines on my own title.

On Strategic Correlation (or, the Importance of looking like you’re doing something when you sort of might not be)

Let’s get this thing started.

At Andrew’s suggestion, I made sure to listen to this China Africa Project podcast on One Belt One Road. The brief summary is that China wants to build infrastructure and set up agreements to make trade flow more easily across a Eurasian land route (the belt), and a Indian Ocean maritime route (the road). It’s a pretty natural extension of the String of Pearls idea meant to protect maritime trade between China and the Middle East, it’s another excuse for China to build sandcastles in the South China Sea, and it happens to totally exclude the Americas in this sweet new trade opportunity. Must have been an oversight.

In the course of the podcast, the discussion turned to the the idea that China doesn’t intend on directing the entire OBOR project. What this means in practice is that Egypt and Sudan might decide to build a new rail line between their countries, and this rail line could be branded as part of the Maritime Silk Road’s East Africa leg. This is a pretty sweet deal for the Chinese: they get to claim participation in every infrastructure project along the belt and road. This likely wouldn’t come in the form of claiming credit for inspiring each individual infrastructure project. Instead, we might see reports touting the success of One Belt One Road that includes every expanded harbor and new rail line created, regardless of Chinese influence. Here we get to the title: correlation doesn’t imply causation, and the announcement of One Belt One Road doesn’t necessarily mean that every new infrastructure project  between Beijing and London is inspired by One Belt One road. But any given project could be.

The lesson: If you’re reasonably certain something is going to happen, claim you’re interested in making it happen. You might actually get credit for it.