Opportunistic Politicians and Clientelism:
Explaining Patronage Jobs and Vote Buying in Latin America and Beyond
Politicians should persuade citizens by making programmatic appeals that emphasize policy positions or ideology. Voter mobilization strategies found throughout the world, however, often fall short of this ideal, as many politicians resort to clientelism—the conditional exchange of private benefits, such as jobs, gifts, and services, for political support. By subverting citizens’ ability to hold politicians accountable, clientelism undermines democracy. Yet clientelistic practices are widespread, and current knowledge about the topic is still incomplete. The focus on institutional and demographic factors has led scholars to emphasize economic development and political competition as the causes that make individual politicians resort to clientelism. Politicians’ own motivations, however, have been largely ignored.
In fact, the study of politicians’ intrinsic motivations has been neglected in more than the literature on clientelism. The conventional wisdom in political economy, going back at least to Anthony Downs, is that it matters little whether political candidates are motivated by policy preferences or by the desire for power, as politicians will not be able to introduce policies they favor unless they win elections. If politicians’ utmost concern is winning elections, the other motivations political candidates may have are of secondary importance. In my dissertation and book project, “Opportunistic Politicians and Clientelism: Explaining Patronage Jobs and Vote Buying in Latin America and Beyond,” I challenge this conventional wisdom by showing that motivations matter for the mobilization strategies politicians rely on. Opportunistic politicians who attach high importance to winning elections but disregard policy are more likely to engage in clientelistic practices.
Opportunists resort to clientelism to compensate for reputational costs arising from inconsistent political positions, which these politicians choose so as to maximize electoral support. I use a novel method for identifying opportunistic politicians: they are those who have shifted party affiliation when such switches are not policy or ideologically motivated. Using a close-elections regression discontinuity design examining Brazilian municipalities, original and secondary data, and interviews collected during fieldwork, I show that, compared to politicians with stable party affiliations, those who switch parties engage more in vote buying when they run for office and in patronage once in office.
Examining public health care in Brazilian municipalities, I also demonstrate how politicians use a heretofore unrecognized clientelistic tool: patronage contracting. Contracting out by municipal administrations provides politicians with opportunities to circumvent employment regulations in the public sector. By sponsoring public-private partnerships with health-care contractors, opportunistic mayors outsource not only service delivery but also patronage jobs.
These findings suggest obstacles to reforms intended to reduce clientelism. Institutional reforms promoting good governance and fairness in elections can mitigate the negative consequences of opportunistic politicians. However, these reforms address only the extrinsic causes—and not the intrinsic motivations—that make politicians opportunistic.
My working papers “Who Turns to Clientelism?” and “Patronage Contracting,” available here, present some findings from this project.