Corruption vs. Clientelism in the Democratic Primary

One confusion that I see in the Democratic primary has to do with the difference between political corruption and political clientelism. This may seem a bit too academic for a starting discussion on the primary at this stage, but bear with me.

“Corruption” is essentially a quid-pro-quo system. In the most basic example, a person walks into a politicians office and gives them an envelope full of money–throws it on the desk. As the delivery man walks out of the office, he turns to the Congressperson and says, “Vote no on the housing bill.”  That’s the stereotype of corruption in government. I give you money, you do what I tell you to do.

“Clientelism” is a bit different because it is a system whereby patrons and clients act in ways that are mutually beneficial to both–without the explicit quid pro quo, without the smudged brown envelope of sweaty cash.  The big difference between corruption and clientelism is the explicit demand for a political act from the person or entity who wants to influence government. In “corruption” you are paid and then you do what you are asked. In clientism, the politician acts in favor of a powerful interest or entity and then, subsequently, is rewarded.

Now–there are many shades of gray in these two definitions. I have simplified them for the purposes of discussion. And, obviously, clientelism can be rife with acts of corruption, as can corruption give rise to clientelism. But those are the two definitions I want to introduce as a strategy for helping us see a problem that has taken shape in the Democratic primary.

The Sanders campaign is pushing a narrative that Clinton represents and speaks for a system of political corruption, the evidence of which are the enormous and numerous speaking fees she has been paid by firms with vested interest in limiting or ending altogether government regulation (“Wall St.”). In response to this argument, the Clinton campaign has said that there is “no evidence” of any crime–no evidence that any quid pro quo exists. And this has been used to argue that Clinton, despite the huge pile of quarter million dollar checks she’s received from vested interests, is in fact deeply committed to limiting the power and influence of those firms who have cut her these huge speaking fees checks.

And here’s the point I want to introduce to the discussion:

While not guilty of corruption in the explicit sense of quid pro quo, Clinton not only participates in, but actively cultivates patron-client relationships with Wall Street. In the clientelism that Clinton embraces and defends, she claims the American public to be the sole beneficiary via her representation, but she refuses to acknowledge how Wall St. benefits.  And yet, in a patron-client system, both the patron and the client always benefit. Always. That is how it works. In this case: Clinton gets resources to run for office, while Wall Street gets the guarantee that the candidate they gave so much money in one place (e.g., a speech) will tacitly if not explicitly support their views of economic reality in another place (e.g., The White House). It is a long term strategy for both.

Suffice it to say that if a industry seeks to play the long game–seeks to control the rule governing financial sector for the benefit of their firm–then they are much better off seeking to build as many patron-client relationships with government as possible, rather than a few risky acts of corruption.

Goldman Sachs does not want to knock down a few key votes on financial regulation–although it will find ways to do that if necessary.  Rather, Goldman wants to control the universe of common sense that determines which questions get admitted to the overall debate on financial regulation and which questions get dismissed as fools-errands, impossible, or hucksterism.

The issue with the Clinton speaking fees is not that there has been some kind of quid pro quo that will be discovered in the transcripts, I doubt very much that is the case.

Rather, the speaking fees are rewards for being a political career who keeps the debate on financial regulation in the sweet spot for big firms who operate in the dark corners of unregulated, insanely risky, absurdly complex financial products–the success or failure of which hold the entire world economy in the balance.

Secretary Clinton, for all the good work that she has done, has built a career on the belief that she can control these patron-client relationships to benefit the powerless. Yet, she has done so by entering into reciprocal relationships with the powerful–who gain no advantage by legislation that helps the powerless.

To have such powerful clients as Goldman Sachs, who secure their relationships with unfathomably large payments for symbolic services–is to accept both the benefits and the limits of that clientelism. We cannot so easily speak against the interests of the people or entities that bestow so much possibility on us–whose checkbooks make our goals possible.

All those speaking fees that Clinton donated to the Clinton Global Initiative–they made it possible for the Clinton’s enterprise to thrive. And in turn, Hillary Clinton kept the long term debate about the economy away from such potentially devastating topics as: breaking up the banks, prosecuting financial CEOs, and so forth.

Corruption is a problem in government, always. But the problem that must be overcome in the Democratic Party for progressive goals to advance is clientelism–a patron-client system whereby elected Democrats and big money cultivate each other for mutual benefit.

And if ever there was a Presidential candidate who represented that system of clientism–it’s the current front runner of the Democratic Party. As hard as it is to see and to name this, whatever good she has achieved on various fronts–and she has achieved a great deal–it is all tainted at this point by her investment for so long in big money clientelism.

It is a problem that far more people need to call out.

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