Patronage and Ideology in Politics

Explained by Zack Lerangis in his introductory video on patronage:

What is patronage? … It’s a kind of relationship in which you have a patron and a client: the patron provides favors to the client … in exchange for the client’s support, especially political allegiance.

A particular person can be in many different patronage relationships, and they can and often do fulfill both roles. You can have a patron who has multiple clients, who themselves have multiple clients – and you can have two patrons who are allied, who share clients. The result of all this is an interlocking web of patronage which you can call a patronage network. These patronage networks can be very powerful social and political entities: they can take control of institutions, and they can have a tremendous influence through this means on their society.

People often think of political parties as unified by shared ideology, and although shared ideology is an important part of their functioning, what’s actually more fundamental usually is patronage. …. The particular politician is very often motivated much more by personal interests than by ideological commitments.

He expands on this by describing how patronage shapes ideology itself:

The common view here is that the ideologies of political parties are these natural worldviews, … and the people who make up the political party coalesce around them and that forms the basis of the party. Instead, I think the way it works is that the different components of the political coalition that makes up the party each have their own ideologies, and these different component ideologies are often not compatible. But nonetheless, these different coalition members come together because of a shared political interest, even if they don’t agree on everything about the way the world works or the way the world should be. In order to reconcile or patch over these ideological differences, the different component ideologies are stitched together into this patchwork in which the differences between them are suppressed or not brought to the forefront of people’s attention.

Another corollary of this is that ideologies need a strong institutional basis in order to spread and in order to take hold politically. A lot of people think that if they can just find the true ideology, and if they can communicate it to people clearly, then it will naturally spread throughout society. It would be great if this were the case, but in fact, an ideology needs to have a strong institutional basis in order to spread and in order to make its way into the core institutions of a society.

Some examples of this system of patronage are described in the Interest Group Advocacy and Role of Public Opinion in Policy Making models.