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Image: Billboard advertising Democratic Party patronage from public funds, April 2021

Elections: Clientelism, Machine Politics and Voter Rigging

Democracy has declined worldwide every year since 2005 and the United States has fallen below traditional democratic peers.(1)  Clientelism, machine politics and voter rigging are methods of electoral manipulation(2) which pervert democratic accountability.(3)


Clientelism and Voter-Buying

Clientelism is “the distribution of benefits to citizens in exchange of electoral support” and in contrast to vote rigging, is “voluntary most of the time.”(2) Clientelism involves an asymmetric relationship with implicit or explicit quid pro quo


Corrupt politicians and their organizations use clientelism and voter-buying to shape the electorate.(4)  Some clientelist strategies may constitute tools for electoral fraud.(5) Katawa wrote: "Clientelism is considered negative because its intention is to generate 'private' revenue for patrons and clients and, as a result obstruct 'public' revenue for members of the general community who are not a part of the patron-client arrangement.(6) 


The political science literature cites both long-term relational clientelism and short-term electoral clientelism. A distinction is sometimes made between clientelism as involving distributions to individuals in contrast to political programming benefiting groups. Research has noted considerable overlap between these forms. Here, we define clientelism in the broad sense of an implicit or explicit quid pro quo of benefits for political support, whether administered individually or through programming intended to reward supporters, and whether short or long term. Clientelism remains prevalent in established democracies, but is more likely to take different forms compared to developing nations. Some of these differences include a trend for clientelism to be implicit rather than explicit, programmatic rather than individualized, and focused on building party loyalty over personal relationships with individual politicians, although most political machines have been noted to use a combination of these tactics.


Voter buying differs from vote buying in that voters are not directly paid for votes, but receive other payments or benefits with the expectation that they will support the sponsoring candidate or party.  Party organizations work to make sure that voters understand who “butters their bread,” or better, who has orchestrated and supported a bevy of government handouts including food, housing, healthcare, and cash payments, and more, usually at taxpayer expense (see photo above).

Clientelism in Ancient Rome

Clientelism was a corrupt tactic of oligarchs in the Roman Republic who provided food, money, and other benefits to win the loyalty of large blocks of voters.  It was also a prominent factor in the Republic’s decline and transition into the authoritarian Roman Empire, and later, to the Empire’s downfall.  


The Roman poet Juvenal, writing in the late first and early second century AD, lamented the loss of the Republic and rising authoritarianism as politicians found that the public dole of “bread and circuses” was the most effective way to rise to power:


“Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”(7)


As today, the funding for such projects did not come from honest surplus of the politician or party, but by coercion of others.  Roman politicians amassed vast fortunes from extortion and enslavement by military force, including in the once-wealthy territories of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Gaul (modern France), Carthage (modern Tunisia) and its colonies, Greece, Egypt, and others.  These practices bore a vast human cost.  


Julius Caesar ironically rose to power professing the cause of the plebeians, or the lower socioeconomic classes, even while enslaving, exploiting, and destroying non-Romans.  Plutarch wrote that Caesar’s subjugation of Gaul, conducted under political pretexts with frequent treachery, resulted in the battlefield deaths of a million Gauls and enslavement of a million more.(8) Pliny cites the number of Gauls killed at 1,192,000 killed.(9) Caesar also engaged in genocide against Germanic Usipetes and Tencteri tribes,(10) murdering hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who had requested amnesty after luring their warriors away under false pretenses.  While early documents claimed that over 400,000 had been killed, modern archaeology supports a death toll of the massacre of at least 150,000 to 200,000.(11) It is far from clear that this figure is comprehensive, given decomposition of human remains over more than two thousand years and the difficulty of archaeologists in accurately quantifying ancient populations even in areas known to have sustained large numbers due to sparsity of remains.  


What is clear is that figures of these ancient authors are not exaggerated by orders of magnitude as some have claimed, that often staggering proportions of local populations in the more thinly populated ancient world were put to the sword or deported as slaves to feed Roman “clientelism,” and these tactics took a vast toll on populations throughout the Mediterranean region.  The achievements of the Eternal City cannot be separated from the vast human cost of mass murder, slavery, and exploitation.  


How Clientelism Exploits Peoples Today

Like Julius Caesar, many modern politicians style themselves as defenders of the poor and downtrodden, delivering “bread and circuses” to client groups at the expense of others even while engaging in shocking exploitation.  Studies on American inner cities have repeatedly demonstrated that clientelism often subverts the interests of those it professes to serve. A wide array of public data compellingly demonstrate that the social ills of African-American communities “correspond with leftism, not racism.”(12)


Notwithstanding trillions of dollars in social spending, ostensibly to “eradicate poverty” or as part of a “war on poverty,” government indicators show that poverty rates in inner cities have barely budged since the inception of such programming more than fifty years ago. Research has found no correlation between US educational outcomes and funding.  In the 1950s, only 24% of African-American children were born out of wedlocks; by 2021, the figure was 77%. The “defund the police” agenda associated with the “Black Lives Matter” movement has contributed to the explosion of crime and violence in American inner cities to levels not seen in decades.

While contemporary advocates cloak such policies in virtuous-sounding language, the hidden agenda is often not to benefit society as a whole, nor to lift the the groups they ostensibly claim to serve, but rather to create dependent clients obediently offering political support. Patrons and brokers of clientelism actually benefit from the cycle of poverty, poor educational outcomes, family breakdown, and crime. A wide array of public data compellingly demonstrate that the social ills of African-American communities “correspond with leftism, not racism.”(12)


At times, patrons and brokers acknowledge the implicit expectation of political support.  In a widely-panned 2020 interview, Joe Biden told a popular African-American radio host that ”'If you have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump, then you ain't black'.”(13) Charlamagne, the host, responded: "It don't have nothing to do with Trump. It has to do with the fact, I want something for my community."


Biden’s statement conveys the classic patron-client mentality, complete with racist overtones. Having “bought” Black voters by funneling money and benefits into their communities, Biden believed he was entitled quid pro quo to their en bloc political support. This notwithstanding Biden’s decades-old record, pointed out by Charlamagne and others, that substantially harmed African-Americans, and his history of racist conduct. Other Black commentators have noted that Biden’s comments were insulting.(14) Derecka Purnell of The Guardian (UK) observed that “Black Americans are in an abusive relationship with the Democratic party.”(15) 

Observation of the harm caused to Black communities by Democratic party clientage is also at the root of Black activist Candace Owen’s BLEXIT movement, which strives to “uplift and empower minorities to realize the American dream.” Owens compared the clientage relationship of the Democratic Party to Black Americans to plantation life.(16)  


Response to Clientelism’s Advocates and Apologists

Writing in the Washington Post, white academic Taylor Parry attacked arguments by Black conservative Candace Owens, Brown author Dinesh D’Souza, and others, characterizing the plantation comparison as “a slur” and accusing them of denying Blacks’ agency.(17)  Owens’ plantation analogy goes too far: clientage, as noted above, is “voluntary most of the time,” whereas slavery-era Blacks could not simply walk away from the plantation. Parry notes vibrant African-American culture and community activism engaging important issues.


Owens’ response to critics notes that her concerns are with clientage groups being held hostage by misinformation, not involuntary servitude, and that maintaining low literacy and breakdown of the family are important to maintaining Democratic party control.(18) She observed that it is Democratic patrons and brokers who primarily benefit from the relationship, noting that African-Americans have continued to vote for Democrats but “our communities don’t get fixed.”


Groups that have used clientelism routinely to acquire and maintain power even while denying the nature of the relationship have cried foul when these same tactics are used on a smaller scale by political opponents.  During the 2020 elections, cries of indignation alleged that Trump was trying to “buy the agricultural vote,”(19)  even while ignoring clientelist tactics of the Democratic party over decades.


Clientelism and Coercion

Parry’s defenses of exploitative clientelism at best jousts straw men, and at worst devolves into absurdity akin to dismissing abusive relationships as proper and healthy on the grounds that some stay in them voluntarily. That clientelism today involves voluntary elements does not mean that it is not exploitative and without coercion


Democratic party clientelism is far from a voluntary relationship based on principled individual choice. Bigoted and racist attacks from white leftists against Black conservatives who defy Democratic Party orthodoxy demonstrate the coercion, harassment, and intimidation applied to enforce group clientelism. Black conservatives like Tim Scott, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Candace Owens have been attacked as traitors, often with racist slurs, even as leftist groups have been silent or complicit. But Parry and other apologists of Democratic party clientelism have had little to say about this, nor have they spoken to publicly repudiate racist claims of Biden and others to a monopolistic entitlement to the African-American vote. 


Clientelism: The Hidden Agenda of Illegal Immigration

The Democratic party’s relationship to illegal immigration is also largely defined by clientelism.  Survey data has shown that immigrants from Latin America and Africa support Democrats by a wide margin. Advocates dispute this, arguing that illegal immigrants cannot legally vote, and that therefore the Democratic party is not acting in self-interest by creating sanctuary jurisdictions and obstructing enforcement of immigration law. 


Yet candid statements advocates of illegal immigration demonstrate that they know precisely what they have to gain.  First, apportionment of congressional representatives is based on census, irrespective of citizenship status. Blue states have an incentive to expand their population with illegal immigrants, securing larger congressional delegations.  Second, Democrats are playing the long game. Although first generation illegal immigrants cannot legally vote - something Democrats have worked hard to change with legislative proposals for mass amnesty and a path to citizenship. Children born in the US become natural born citizens, whereas those brought to the US children may become naturalized citizens.


Few who have carefully studied the situation believe that Democratic party’s calls to defund immigration enforcement and for essentially unlimited illegal immigration are motivated primarily by humanitarian concerns, considering how little is done to improve the rights of others in their native countries, as well as the vast  human suffering that accompanies it. Criminal cartels and human smuggling human trafficking organizations have thrived under the Biden administration’s open borders policy. Tens of thousands of murders by criminal cartels setting new annual records(20) have been largely ignored in the U.S. media and scarcely register in public discussion. 


Mexican democracy has continued to deteriorate as criminal cartels killed at least 89 politicians, including 35 candidates, between September 2020 and June 2021.(21)  The real power in Mexico is welded by criminal cartels, not democratically elected officials. Even Mexican President Lopez Obrador has been too timid to speak out against cartel violence, advocating hugs, not bullets in the face of brazen defiance of organized crime against law enforcement, showing that criminal cartels, not elected officials that hold the real power in Mexico.(22)  In this deteriorating situation long aggravated by U.S. policies that have empowered criminal cartels, it is unsurprising that 65% of Mexicans view the United States negatively(23) - more than for traditional geopolitical foes like Russia and China - notwithstanding that remittances from family members working in the United States to Mexico have risen to record highs(24) and remain the largest single contributor to the Mexican economy.


The record makes abundantly clear that Democratic Party advocacy for illegal immigrants arises not out of any deep-seated conviction in human dignity or universal rights, but is directly tied to the perceived utility of such migrants in helping them to achieve and maintain political power.


Perversion of Democratic Accountability

As competent scholars of election integrity have noted, clientelism results in a perversion of democratic accountability. While pointing to largely unrelated cultural achievements, Parry ignores the elephant in the room. Across a range of indicators, government data show that minority communities have made no empirically documented real progress in breaking out of poverty and improving educational outcomes over more than sixty years of Democratic party hegemony. It is remarkable how little documented progress has been made, and that claims of Democratic party officials to be working to “fix” poverty, crime, underemployment, and broken educational systems continue to be accepted at face value.


As Katawa noted, clientelism is almost always contrary to the public interest.(6) Clientelism perverts democratic accountability, as clients’ votes are governed not by principled understanding of issues,  but by loyalty to patrons and brokers. This gives patrons vast leeway to engage in ineffective, corrupt, and authoritarian practices with little accountability.  


Corrupt, ineffective politicians would be voted out if competency and effectiveness in delivering reform were at the top of voters’ minds. Large blocs of loyal votes obtained in return for material benefits through patron-client relationships push issues of accountability down the list.  Such issues do occasionally arise, yet far less frequently and with less effectiveness than in a free and fair system without such distortions. Often, no scandal is too big or no degree of incompetence, malfeasance, or abuse of power is too great to break patron-client relationships.  So long as the patron continues to “bring home the bacon” in providing material benefits, other misconduct is ignored. Clientelism is thus closely linked with identity politics, facilitating the breakdown of principle-based democracy into authoritarian oligarchy controlled by special interests and power-brokers.  


Corporate Clientelism

Clientelism is not confined to ethnicities or special interest groups.  It can also involve large corporations.  Clientele relationships have been attested between the Democratic Party and media companies including Cable News Network (CNN), as well as Big Tech firms like Facebook  A revolving door has operated between Democratic party administration officials and these companies.  Many Biden administration officials have previously worked for these companies, which have also provided well-paid commentator jobs for corrupt officials fired for lying like former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, FBI agent Peter Strok, and others, who have carried the water for a far-left agenda.  At times, the directionality of the relationship may reverse, such that it is not clear who is the client and who is the patron. An example is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s funding heavily tilted towards promoting Democratic party turnout nationwide during the 2020 election, even as congressional Democrats have sought to give Facebook wide leeway - and even encourage and compel it to censor unfavored political viewpoints.


At times, this relationship is blatantly evident, as in a longstanding policy of Biden calling only on lists of pre-approved reporters from ideologically sympathetic organizations in press conferences, reciprocated by obsequious and pandering coverage, such as CNN reporter Brian Stelter’s questions to Biden press secretary Jen Psaki regarding how the press could better serve the administration’s interests.


A natural consequence of clientage is that some groups are favored with special privileges or benefits in return for political support, whereas other groups are disfavored. The patron and the clients frequently collude to enforce this dynamic.  Disfavoritism can range from third parties being taxed to fund policies contrary to their own interests, to discrepant treatment in a variety of situations, to organized campaigns against unfavored groups and individuals.  Clientage is antithetical to democratic guarantees of “equal treatment under law.”


1. Repucci, Sarah. 2020. “Freedom in the World 2020: A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy.” Freedom House. 

2. Jimenez, Raúl, Manuel Hidalgo and Peter Klimek.  “Testing for voter rigging in small polling stations.” Science Advances, Vol. 3, no. 6, e1602363 (June 30, 2017). 

3. Stokes, S. C. "Perverse accountability: A formal model of machine politics with evidence from Argentina." Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 99, 315–325 (2005). 

4. F. D. Hidalgo, S. Nichter, Voter buying: Shaping the electorate through clientelism. Am. J. Polit. Sci. 60, 436–455 (2016).  

5. J. Gans-Morse, S. Mazzuca, S. Nichter, Varieties of clientelism: Machine politics during elections. Am. J. Polit. Sci. 58, 415–432 (2014).

6. Kawata, Junʼichi. Comparing Political Corruption and Clientelism. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2006. Print.

7. Juvenal, Satire 10:77–81

8. Plutarch, Life of Caesar, XV.5; Life of Pompey, LXVII.10

9. Pliny, VII.91ff

10. Raaflaub, Kurt A. "Caesar and Genocide: Confronting the Dark Side of Caesar’s Gallic Wars." New England Classical Journal 48/1 (May 14, 2021):54-80.  

11. "Julius Caesar battlefield unearthed in southern Netherlands." The Guardian (UK), December 11, 2015.  

12. Agresti, James D. "Social Ills That Plague African Americans Coincide With Leftism, Not Racism." Just Facts, November 2, 2020.  

13. Bradner, Eric, Sarah Mucha and Arlette Saenz. "Biden: 'If you have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump, then you ain't black.'" CNN, May 22, 2020. 

14. Creitz, Charles. “Civil rights attorney blasts Biden for 'insulting' African Americans: 'I'm Black and I'm not voting for him.'” Fox News, July 23, 2020.

15. Purnell, Derecka. “Black Americans are in an abusive relationship with the Democratic Party.” The Guardian (UK), May 22, 2020. 

16. Owens, Candace. "Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape from the Democrat Plantation." Threshold Editions, September 15, 2020.  

17. Parry, Tyler D. "How the ‘Democratic plantation’ became one of conservatives’ favorite slurs." Washington Post, January 8, 2019. 

18. “Candace Owens Responds to Critiques of the Democratic Plantation Argument.” The Daily Wire, September 6, 2020. 

19. Meyer, Gregory and Aime Williams. "Trump accused of trying to buy agricultural vote." Financial Review, September 3, 2020. 

20. "Mexico murder rate hits record high in 2019." Al Jazeera, January 21, 2020. 

21. "Violence eclipses upcoming midterm elections in Mexico." Al Jazeera, June 4, 2021. 

22. Tuckman, Jo. “Mexico's president under pressure over 'hugs not bullets' cartel policy.” The Guardian (UK), November 5, 2019. 

23. "Dramatic shifts in how Mexicans see the U.S."  Pew Research Center, September 14, 2017. 

24. "Remittances to Mexican families rise to record high for February."  Reuters, April 5, 2021. 

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