The most damaging fissure afflicting Europe isn’t a cultural cleavage separating a diligent, Protestant northern Europe and the lazy, self- indulgent Catholic-Orthodox south, says Francis Fukuyama.* The real division is between clientelistic and non-clientelistic Europe, he writes on The American Interest:
Clientelism occurs when political parties use public resources, and particularly government offices, as a means of rewarding political supporters. Politicians provide not programmatic public policies, but individual benefits like a job in the post office, an intervention on behalf of a relative in trouble with the government, or sometimes an outright payment of money or goods.
In my view, clientelism should be distinguished from corruption proper because of the relationship of reciprocity that exists between politicians and voters. There is a real degree of accountability in a clientelistic system: the politician has to give something back to supporters if he or she is to stay in power, even if that is a purely private benefit. True corruption is more predatory, such as a politician accepting a bribe or kickback that goes directly into a Swiss bank account for the benefit of the politician and his family alone. ….. One of the great tragedies of Afghanistan’s long-running civil war is that tribalism (which is inherently clientelistic) has broken down and been replaced by pure predation; returning to clientelism would actually constitute progress there.
An alternative way of understanding clientelism is that it is an early form of democratic mobilization, one that is almost universally practiced in relatively poor countries that hold regular elections. It is pervasive in countries as diverse as India, Mexico, Brazil, Thailand, Kenya, and Nigeria. Clientelism is not the product of a cultural proclivity or a failure of politicians to understand how a modern democratic political system is supposed to operate. Rather, it is often the most efficient way to mobilize relatively poor and uneducated voters and get them into the polling place. Such voters often care less about programmatic policies than an immediate personal benefit like a job or the equivalent of a Thanksgiving turkey.
America’s own history demonstrates this point: when the franchise was expanded in the 1820s and 30s to universal white male suffrage, the political parties responded by mobilizing these new masses of voters clientelistically. Indeed, the US invented both the mass political party and clientelism (or what in American history was known as the patronage system). For a century between the election of Andrew Jackson and the end of the Progressive Era, American politics at federal, state, and local levels was organized around the ability of the two competing parties to hand out government jobs…….
In the United States, clientelism was overcome eventually as a result of economic modernization. Industrialization of the country in the late 19th century produced new social groups like businessmen, professionals, and urban reformers who united in a Progressive Movement to push for civil service reform and merit-based bureaucracy. While the struggle to achieve the latter was slow and stretched over the better part of two generations, the US did manage by the middle of the 20th century to eliminate patronage on both federal and municipal levels. (One can argue that it has come back in a modern form of interest groups, but that’s a story for another post.)
*Fukuyama is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.