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Under the United States constitution, the President is empowered to appoint Federal judges, foreign ambassadors, cabinet officers, military officers, and many other high-level government officials. When these appointments are awarded on a partisan basis, to individuals who have politically supported the governing party, we observe a practice known as political patronage.
What is Political Patronage?
Political patronage is the practice of dispensing state resources as a reward for political and electoral support. State resources can include lucrative public sector contracts or a prestigious role in the civil service.
An act of political patronage requires two parties: a patron who can use their influence to assist, protect, or benefit someone else, and a client, who receives benefits from the patron in exchange for political allegiance or some other service.
Some nations follow a political “spoils system” where the practice of political patronage is normalized and the winning party in an election is expected to give civil service jobs to its friends, relatives, and supporters. Nations with more stringent anti-corruption controls and standards are likely to follow a merit-based system, requiring civil servants to pass through a fair hiring process and demonstrate genuine competency to perform the duties of their role.
Political patronage is common in regions with a legacy of tribalism and localized power structures. It is often accompanied by other corrupt acts, such as nepotism (favoritism toward family members), cronyism (favoritism toward friends), or trading in influence.
What is an Example of Political Patronage?
We can point to several examples of political patronage, both in the United States and around the world:
- During his Presidency, Donald Trump awarded record numbers of ambassadorial posts to his political backers – about 44% of his total appointees compared to a historical average of 30% for other Presidents.
- An analysis of political patronage in the Obama Administration found that over half of those fundraisers who raised over $500,000 for the Obama campaign had been given jobs within the administration and nine were appointed to Presidential boards and committees.
- The Canadian Senate consists of 105 seats, each one a lifetime position with a $132,000 salary and a pension. Senators are appointed by the Prime Minister as seats become available, and the Prime Minister may nominate whomever they choose. Appointees often include former candidates and long-time organizers for the Prime Minister’s party, as well as campaign donors and other political supporters.
Is Political Patronage Illegal?
Political patronage in the United States is not itself an illegal act, but it may give the appearance of corruption or involve other corrupt and unethical practices. Political patronage varies around in the world in terms of its presence and perception in the political process.
Some have argued that political patronage is a necessary part of generating the social capital needed to build successful coalitions in a democratic political system. Critics of political patronage have argued that it leads citizens to doubt whether the government is appointing the most qualified people to the public service and diminishes faith in public institutions.