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The term patronage describes the practice of distributing public sector posts in exchange for political support. In the absence of binding civil service rules, a party boss (patron) rewards loyal partisans (clients) by providing them with public sector employment. Patronage therefore can be included among a broad range of clientelistic political practices in which parties use public resources to deliver private and club benefits to particular groups of voters in order to maximize electoral support. Different from other types of clientelistic practices, patronage provides the client with a steady source of income whose stability depends on the reelection of the patron.
To successfully develop a patronage system requires: (1) the selection of political leaders through elections, (2) mass adult suffrage, (3) a high degree of electoral competition within or between parties, and (4) weak civil service rules. The first three requirements—elections, mass political participation, and party competition—lead to increasing demands on political elites by their core constituency. In the absence of civil service rules, the distribution of public sector posts becomes an appealing strategy that ties the survival of the voter (client) to the survival of the party boss (patron).
Because patrons can only sustain a limited number of clients, two crucial functions of the patronage exchange are the selection and monitoring of clients. In selecting clients, patrons seek to either maintain their vote or to expand it. For maintaining their vote, patrons target loyal voters. For expanding their vote, patrons target swing voters and invest considerable more resources in monitoring the patronage exchange. The practice of patronage is intimately connected to the rise of political machines specialized in organizing and allocating political influence by controlling the supply of public sector jobs and by monitoring the vote of large constituencies. Because the cement that binds the patron and the client is not ideological, political allegiance to the machine is based on the distribution of particularistic, material rewards over different types of political personnel.
A widespread political phenomenon, patronage is also known in the United States by the term spoils system, where the “spoils” of the political system go to the “victor” of the electoral contest. The spoils system that emerged during the Gilded Age was eventually dismantled by the enactment of the Pendleton Act in 1883 and the creation of the Civil Service Commission, which introduced meritocratic rules for the recruitment and promotion of public service employees. The introduction of these rules significantly reduced the available pool of public jobs that political machines could allocate to voters. Such reforms also weakened the political grip of party bosses, such as William M. “Boss” Tweed in New York, Huey P. Long Jr. in Louisiana, and Edward H. Crump in Chicago. Since the late twentieth century, as an increasing number of countries have democratized, comparative scholars have emphasized the negative consequences of patronage for the development of an independent citizenship capable of holding politicians accountable for their performance in office.
- Cox, Gary W., and Matthew McCubbins. 1986. Electoral Politics as a Redistributive Game. Journal of Politics 48 (May): 370–389.
- Fox, J 1994. The Difficult Transition from Clientelism to Citizenship: Lessons from Mexico. World Politics 46 (January): 151–184.
- Scott, James 1969. Corruption, Machine Politics, and Political Change. American Political Science Review 63 (4): 1142–1158.
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