The Encyclopedia of Democracy

Authors: Lipset
Summary: This approximately 1300 word entry defines patronage, discusses its conceptual origins, considers different types of patronage and their environmental preconditions, and concludes by exploring the consequences of patronage.
The entry defines patronage as "a system of power relationships between individuals or groups in unequal positions." The term derives from the Latin patronus, which refers to legal and economic patron-client relationships. Thus, patronage is quite similar to clientelism, but it is also a legitimate and formal procedure available to elected representatives. Patron-client relationships are social interactions based on a reciprocal personal favor exchange between individuals of different status. The relationship's form differs depending upon the type of resources or services involved (direct or indirect), the degree of personal obligation, and the basis of the relationship.
There are two significant types of patronage: traditional and party. Traditional patronage involved notables who used their money and prestige to build networks. As modernization and democratiation ensued, party patronage, where consensus forms around elected politicians who distribute public resources to their loyal supporters, replaced the more traditional form. The emergence of patron-client relationships requires at least four preconditions: extreme social inequality and/or class stratification; cultural values of honor, reciprocity, and kinship; low levels of sociopolitical trust; and socioeconomic transition.
Despite the largely negative connotations associated with patronage, it does have some identified positive functions, such as allowing vertical social integration, offering an alternative to violence for managing conflict, and providing for collaboration between different classes and subsystems. However, patronage does pose risks to democracy. Not only does it undermine the general interest by focusing on individual interests, patronage also negatively effects the party system and bureaucratic structures. Thus, while it might bolster short-run political support, patronage delegitimizes democratic institutions in the long-run.