Or, why I don’t vote

I had been rooting for Senator Klobuchar a bit here at NOL over the past couple weeks. Nothing crazy, but I liked what I read. Now, I must eat my words. It turns out the Senator was a government prosecutor before she became a politician, something I did not know.

So, I am glad she’s out of the race. Being a government prosecutor is how most politicians in Washington start their careers. How many people can you put behind bars? How much “crime” can you prevent? If you’re answer is “LOTS” then you’re well on your way to a seat in federal Congress.

I’m not much of a political junkie anymore. I’ve just come to accept that I’m ignorant of far too many things to waste my time in a voting booth, or listening to politicians promise me stuff.

I understand that democracy is the the worst form of government, except for all the others. But I’m ignorant. When I’m old, and bored, I’ll probably get back into politics. I can think of nothing more intellectually stimulating, actually, than participating in political events as a senior citizen. The crowds, the organizational effort, the sense of belonging. I get it now.

The most heartening, encouraging thing I’ve read about the American primaries is that young people are still staying away from the polls. Liberty is alive, well, and aflame.

Be Our Guest: “What’s the Voter’s Value?”

John Lancaster has a new guest post up. Here’s an excerpt:

Even if one cannot verbally clarify the reasoning behind an action, evidence from said action can be gathered and formulated into a coherent reason. Whatever an individual chooses to do, it provides discernible information about the person behind the action.

This phenomenon of voluntary choice extends to abstention. 

Read the rest, and if you’ve got something to say, be our guest and say it!

Nightcap

  1. Same old story, same old song and dance Johanna Möhring, War on the Rocks
  2. Why Britain Brexited Tom McTague, the Atlantic
  3. Is it rational to vote? Julia Maskivker, Aeon
  4. Large countries and bad government Arnold Kling, askblog

What is clientelism and why we should care about it

In my first post, I would like to share with you part of my work as a scholar of politics.

I study clientelism, which is, in my view, a fundamental but understudied and highly underrated phenomenon in politics. In my book, Clientelism and Economic Policy: Greece and the Crisis (2016), I define clientelism as ‘the distribution of resources by political power through an agreement in which politicians – the patrons – make this allocation dependent on the political support of the beneficiaries – their clients’ (page 12). Clientelism emerges at the intersection of political power with social and economic activity.

Why is this phenomenon important? As Harold Laswell put it, politics is the art and science of ‘who gets what’ in society (1936). This famous phrase epitomizes the nature of politics as a competitive process for power and resources. Because these resources are often excludable and rivalrous, multiple social actors and groups are expected to compete with one another for access to political power and the resources it distributes. In addition, as political power decides how scarce resources are to be allocated, there is competition among political actors who wish to gain power and take control of the distribution mechanism. Either way, participation in political competition is costly and occurs in anticipation of higher benefits for each of the participants. Clientelist exchange occurs when political actors competing to gain political power interact with socioeconomic actors striving to persuade political power to meet their demands and claims.

A ‘political market’ for the allocation of economic resources emerges and has distinct characteristics. On the one hand, it generates informal ‘prices’, for the goods and services provided by the government: there is demand by economic actors for preferential treatment and there is supply by political agents of resources, opportunities and benefits. On the other hand, the terms under which clientelist exchange takes place differ substantially from ordinary market transactions, primarily in terms of bargaining power, the enforcement mechanism, externalities, and selection process.

Power asymmetry characterizes the relations between patrons and clients. Clientelism works as an oligopoly. Few patrons occupy the supply side while myriads of candidate clients inhabit the demand side. Depending on what resources each side trades or possesses for future trade, as well as how long one has been – or expects to be – in a position to trade, power asymmetry can tilt in favor of the patron or the client, as in the case of big donors.

Another distinctive element of clientelism is the fact that, while clientelist exchanges is not legally binding or enforceable before courts, honoring the agreement depends on expectations of reciprocation from each party and, quite often, on fears and threats of retaliation in case one party fails to meet the terms of the agreement. On the part of the political agents involved in clientelist exchange, it is a matter of building trust and reputation over time, which, in the absence of formal sanctions, reduces the perceived risk of breaking the terms of the agreement.

In economic theory, clientelism is linked to the concept of rent seeking. Clientelist exchange is actually a subset of rent seeking. It involves explicit agreements according to which the beneficiary must reciprocate by supporting the agent in the political and administrative authority who has offered them the opportunity to extract a rent.

The conventional approach in economics is to view rent seeking as a distortion of market competition for the externalities it imposes on all other non-participating actors. In the real political economy approach, almost all political decisions distribute benefits and costs. My work focuses on the political implications of clientelism.

The process by which the government distributes clientelist benefits inevitably requires some sort of selection of who would be the beneficiary among a pool of prospective clients. Politicians whose political survival and success depend on getting elected to office have a strong incentive to distribute resources to those who would offer them the most valuable form of political support; not just a single vote, but campaign funding, loyal party membership, activist support or favorable media coverage (Trantidis 2016, 18)

The concept of clientelism is mistakenly reduced to a form of vote-buying. This is a narrow view of a much broader phenomenon. Indeed, clientelism serves politicians as a way to strengthen their chances to win elections but resources for clientelist distribution are scarce and the best way to use these resources is to attract those who could made a campaign contribution. It is difficult to monitor voters’ behavior and it is definitely not economical to use resources indiscriminately to buy individual votes, particularly in advanced economies where voters may be too costly to buy and many may simply refuse to be bought off.

Instead, clientelism works as an indirect way of gaining votes (Trantidis 2016, 19). By allocating benefits strategically to attract the biggest possible campaign contributors, politicians can gain an advantage in campaign resources that would allow them to make a stronger appeal to general voters. In short, clientelism is a strategy for political organization and campaign recruitment that has an indirect effect on voters’ behavior. Resource endowments define the capacity of each party to perform a number of tasks necessary for political survival and growth.

As I explain in the introduction of my 2016 book, the first and typical ‘image’ of clientelism is that of an individual agreement. The second ‘image’ of clientelism is that of a strategy for collective mobilization. Politicians create networks of clients that help them organize a campaign infrastructure with a strong support network.

The second image of clientelism refers to the formation of groups of loyal supporters on a more permanent basis. Clientelism is a way by which politicians and political organizations overcome the famous problem of collective action (Olson, 1965). Collective action does not occur automatically from groups having common concerns or a perception of shared interest. This holds especially if the perceived collective benefit is to be indiscriminately shared by multiple actors in large groups. In that case, there are weak incentives for someone to actively contribute to the collective effort. This logic of collective action applies to political organization too. Political parties need active supporters and campaign resources to be able to compete for votes and, for that purpose, they have to find a way to overcome a free-riding problem. For party leaders, the organization of a coherent and active party basis can be achieved through the distribution of targeted benefits to party members and supporters entering a clientelist network. While it is costly to mobilize political support, available state resources allow political actors to pass this cost on society. In forthcoming posts, I will discuss how this phenomenon could affect the design of public policies.

For the time being, let’s summarize the three key characteristics of clientelism:

  1. Clientelism is a common form of distribution of resources by political power. It stems from the intersection of two competitive processes: a ‘market’ for political support and a ‘market’ for rents and other government granted privileges.
  2. Clientelism is more than vote buying. The practice gives preference to those who can make the highest valued contribution to a politicians’ campaign infrastructure and support network: donors, activists, prominent figures, journalists.
  3. Clientelism generates support networks. It is a way for political agents and organizations to overcome a collective action problem regarding how to mobilize, control and discipline active groups of supporters. This is a valued strategy for political organization that can hardly be eradicated from the political process.

Clientelism is a common, expected and inevitable practice in politics. In the next blogs, I will talk about how this practice should make us reconsider the notions of political participation and representation, rethink how public policies are formulated and reconceptualize democracy as a competitive arena in which authoritarian and democratic governments work to become dominant political forces. Thank you for your attention.

References

Laswell, Harold. 1936. Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. New York: Whittlesey House.

Olson, Mancur. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Trantidis, Aris. 2016. Clientelism and Economic Policy: Greece and the Crisis: London and New York: Routledge.

Nightcap

  1. Comedy and humor in the Soviet Union Indra Ekmanis, PRI’s The World
  2. What happened to the children of dictators? Grant Starrett
  3. The most blasphemous idea in contemporary discourse? Ingrid Robeyns, Crooked Timber
  4. Are voting ages still democratic? Bill Rein, NOL

Nightcap

  1. This was an unprecedented right-wing victory” Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
  2. The problem of disappeared states and regions is that they are still here” Jacob Soll, New Republic
  3. The costs have proven steep” Evans, Gandy, and Watts, Aeon
  4. Thinking through the franchise problem Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon

Normal Joe and the 2020 Election

Sorry if this is a little disjointed. Summer has finally arrived on the California central coast. So, I have been trying to recover my toxic masculinity for the beach, not smooth sailing!

Mr Biden declared that President Trump poses an “existential threat” to the nation. This is not what bothers me because it’s unlikely Mr Biden understands the word “existential.” His team put it up for him to read or he cribbed it mindlessly from someone else’ speech, the way he does.

I am beginning to get a bad feeling about the Biden presidency for another, subtle reason so, pay attention. It’s not so much the continuing gap in the polls between him and Mr Trump, although that too, but only in the second position of my worries. What’s most disturbing is the continuing gap in the polls between Mr Biden and all other Democrat candidates.

Ex-Vice-President Biden is like a caricature of Mr Nobody. In politics for fifty years, he has mostly demonstrated a talent for being re-elected. His name is associated with few important pieces of legislation and the ones that are remembered are currently causing him problems. One such is the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, of 1994 which, critics from his party say, resulted in the needless incarceration of many black males. Of course, in his two terms as vice-president, he was vastly overshadowed by his boss, Barack Obama. The thought could cross your mind legitimately that he was selected for the post, in large part for his, this talent, a great capacity for being overshadowed.

I think I may be describing precisely the reason why he is thus far outpacing other Dem candidates. Briefly put: You can’t have everything. Mr Biden ‘s main quality is that he is – for a politician – NORMAL to the point of mediocrity. Repeating myself: In this context, mediocrity is another word for normal.

He is an older white man with a well known political track record (with little to see), one unlikely to generate surprises. His face and his voices are familiar, if nothing else because of his two terms as a vice-president. He is famous for his gaffes but that makes him perhaps a little endearing, like the dear old uncle who invariably drops cream cake on his tie at every family dinner. His main liability may well be his propensity to touch others, including children. But, hey, nobody is perfect and, one suspects, other male candidates – most of them or all of them – probably have much bigger skeletons in their closets, doesn’t every guy?

Just compare Mr Biden to the two current runners up – far behind him, Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elisabeth Warren. The first would, on the surface, also qualify as pretty normal. He looks like a handsome grandfather. He has been married to the same woman forever. He speaks well. He is abnormal mostly in a virtuous way: He did not get rich in office. But, but, most of the time, when he opens his mouth this terrible 1949 narrative comes out of it. (I chose that date because it precedes the death of Stalin and the torrent of revelations about the realities of Soviet socialism that followed it.) Mr Sanders has not learned a freaking thing in 70 years! That’s a lot, even for starry-eyed progressives. It’s a bit much even for millennials who feel existentially cheated (this word again) and thus have their own reasons to consider the absurd.

Or take Ms Warren. Actually, she had an honorable career as an academic. (I checked, little bitch that I am!) She expresses herself clearly. The bits and pieces of her extreme left-wing program make superficial sense, considered out of context, one-by-one. Tell the truth, I am a little frightened of Warren for this reason. However, I cannot believe that independents will forget or ignore the lamentable Pocahontas story. Either, she is a long distance liar who used an imagined ethnic identity to advance her career (and therefore, cheated real ethnic candidates, in the putrid calculus of racial advancement). Or, and this may actually be worse, she fooled herself for all of her adult life into believing that her archetypal WASP face was but a mask covering up strong Native American features. Her reactions on the occasion of the fiasco of her DNA analysis results make the latter explanation credible. She could have stopped publication and quickly changed the subject when it came out that her chances of having Native American genes were about the same as those of a recent immigrant from China. Instead, she dug in her heels. Ms Warren has spectacularly bad judgment. I mean that she is far from normal, that way.

So, I am telling you that Mr Biden’s advantage, perhaps his single advantage, may be that he appears normal, even impressively normal, Central Casting normal, I am tempted to say – but that would be cheap- abnormally normal. That would explain his advance against other Dem candidates in spite of the fact that he violates many tenets of current received wisdom about the Democratic Party: He is a man, an old man, white, heterosexual, (probably, he only sniffs females’ hair), not transgender, not even socialist.

Mr Biden’s normalcy may also explain the polls gap with Mr Trump in a projected one-on-one contest for the presidency. In fact, it’s difficult to think of anything else that explains both the gap between Mr Biden and his Dem rivals and the gap between himself and Mr Trump.

It’s possible that this shift in the electoral game has gone largely unperceived thus far because both left and right commentators are distracted. The pro-liberal media are entranced by the antics of the newest and of the oldest members of Congress. Surely, Bernie Sanders’ 1949 economic and social ideas are more riveting than Mr Biden’s normalcy. Certainly, the many surrealistic pronouncements by the best-looking female member of the House are more exciting than Mr Biden’s normalcy. And then, there is the continuing fascination with the left’s desire to hurt Mr Trump, somehow, sometimes, impeachment or not impeachment.

I, myself, may be typical of a mistake conservatives have been making systematically that would blind us to the importance of Biden’s normalcy. Let me explain. I am not a Trump cultist, not by a long shot. I think Mr Trump is rude, crude, unreliable in his words; I think he often speaks before he thinks, many of the things he asserts are just not true. I decided early in his administration that these kinds of features and mishaps would not bother me. I still think they are unimportant against the background of his successes that liberals don’t like, such as his two Supreme Court appointments, and next to his successes that even liberals ought to like, such as low unemployment and solid economic growth. And then, of course, there is just no way I will miss Mr Trump’s only realistic 2016 alternative, the thoroughly crooked Ms Hillary Clinton.

For the past two years, I have been on kind of automatic exercising my rationalist bias. I have been dismissing the obviously hypocritical mass media and its caste-based hatred of Mr Trump. I have treated lightly the howls of pain of the few liberals with whom I remain in contact. I have been seeing them first as expressing loser’s rage, an especially painful rage because the loss was unexpected. Second, the inability of the few liberals with whom I am still in contact to justify their howling on factual grounds also contributed to making me dismissive. Every time I asked one of them to give a single instance of Mr Trump acting illegally, or unconstitutionally, as they abundantly claimed he did, they failed lamentably. And, of course, I believe that immaturity is one of the sources of liberalism.

But, my approach may be too rational by half. When a liberal accuses Pres. Trump of being a would-be dictator, his words may not matter; he may just be expressing the depth of his indignation within the scope of a limited political vocabulary. He may be simply shouting out his disarray in the face of the abnormality of the current American political situation. His words may not mean what they are supposed to mean; they may simply mean, “I am disoriented and scared!”

So, Mr Trump’s main adversary, in 2020, may not be the uninformed and woolly socialism of the left of the Dem Party. It may not be the climate alarmism of practically all its candidates, which leaves the mass of the American public notably cool. (Yes, that’s on purpose!). It may not be the resonating but hard to pin down claim for greater equality, or “social justice.” In his 2020 campaign, Mr Trump may have to fight the lure of a return normalcy incarnated by Mr Biden. Frankly, the prospect makes me nervous.

If the coming race is all about restoring the republic to normalcy, Mr Trump’s road is going to be rocky. (Strangely, someone in his entourage seems to have such foreboding. The 6/15-16/19 Wall Street Journal describes a markedly conventional organization of the 2020 Trump presidential campaign designed to make the president appear more normal – my choice of word.)

In practical terms, in this context, the strategic questions will be as follows: Are there enough Dem voters who would not otherwise bother who will be enticed to vote by Mr Biden’s conventional looks and actions? Are there enough independents who will take the Trump policy achievements for granted, and who are rebuked by the Democratic Party’s new extremism but who will nevertheless vote Democrat because the Party’s candidate, the colorless, marginally live Joe Biden – seems normal?

And if you are one of those conservatives who airily dismiss polls because of the previous presidential campaign, think again; the pollsters called the popular vote just about right in 2016.