Patrons, Clients and the “New” American Tribalism: Why I Will Not be Voting in this Year’s National Election (Part 1)

Posted: 26 August 2012 in Faith and Life
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For more of this series go here for an “excursion”, here for Part 2 and here for Part 3

My doctoral research in the West African nation of Mauritania concerned how people in extremely risky environments (multiple risks with broad covariance) use informal (non-contractual) exchanges as a kind of insurance mechanism.  I spent many months cataloguing how the various “gift giving” and offers of help to others are used to create obligations towards the giver that the giver can call upon in times of need.  Times of need might include health crises, crop losses, loss of houses or cattle and other unexpected, if probable, life outcomes beyond the control of the people involved.  There was no doubt that people use gift giving and other kinds of service provision to obtain these things and that they very much mirror the kinds of things for which people in wealthier nations purchase insurance in formal markets.

What was interesting to me is the role of powerful figures in this entire process and how they use their power to obtain more “premiums”, while dispensing minimal “insurance payouts.”  Their power is derived from many sources: in some cases they are literate while those who seek their support are not. At times there is a racial/ethnic dimension to their power that has historical roots (that in my research I could not fully understand).  In some cases their power was described to me as “spiritual” (this is linked to their education) in that they understand and dispense teaching on religious tenets that support their power.

These “patrons” also need insurance in these environments and thus participate actively in the exchange mechanisms that I was studying.  The main differences between them and their clients is 1) they are in a position to create many more obligations than their clients and at more advantageous terms because they are more sought out and; 2) they are able to leverage the “gifts” they receive to further increase their power, prestige and financial status in the communities. The patrons typically have something of value that no one else in the community has: a car, connections in a local hospital or access to cash. In other words, the things they offer in exchange are unique.  Everyone can offer grain or manual labor but they can offer something else, something only they or a very few others have.

Make no mistake, the clients benefit from the gifts they give to the powerful. In the broader scheme of their lives the fact that they provide grain or manual labor to a person to whom they can turn in a time of crisis is a wise, if inefficient, investment. Though I never analyzed it, the reason I think the whole system hangs together is because, though the transactions are not “balanced”, what the patrons supply represents rare but rarely used services while what the clients offer is in greater abundance and of lower marginal cost to the client.  So, if I am a client I can give a little of something I have a lot of (and I can give it to several people) and, in return I can get help for something I rarely need but is of great value to me when I do.  Sounds like premiums—pay a little each month and get insurance when something happens that would ruin me.

Okay, enough of the background.  What does this have to do with our electoral process?  One thing I noted as I got into this study was how the patron/client exchanges were being transferred into the “new” democratization process sweeping through the country (this was the mid-1990s).  Democratization started at the periphery in municipal and “departmental” elections. In the process of seeking electoral victory, the patrons spared little (relative) expense in using their network of clients to secure victory.  And why wouldn’t they? Victory meant access to a whole new network of resources dispensed via the state or directly from the international community for “development projects” that could line the pockets of the patrons while marginally improving life for the clients who would, in turn, be eternally grateful for the help they received.

How this worked in practice was quite simple and it drew on old and new alliances.  The old alliances were familial and tribal and so the first place the patrons went was to the families aligned with their tribes. The new alliances were interesting because they were geographically (rather than tribally) based and involved a powerful patron solidifying a local power base. I even had a few examples of communities from a certain tribe that “switched” tribal alliances to benefit from the largesse of a locally-dominant tribe. The actual operation of all of this is pretty simple: you vote for me and I will do what I can for the community.  Do you need an improved well for gardening? I might be able to help you, if you vote me into office.  Most of this is probably above board but some of it is not. There were examples of tribes trucking (yes trucking) people in huge open-air transport trucks to vote in elections outside their voting district.  There were also examples of patrons punishing clients who vacillated in their support.  This happened rarely but always involved clients who felt that the patron had not come through on prior commitments made. These situations got nasty.

What was perhaps most surprising to me was how little the clients asked for, how little they actually received and how a single gift made by a patron could go a very long way (temporally speaking).  So, in one village, the people had been trucked over 100 miles away to vote for a candidate (I won’t go into how we learned about this illegality but it is a fun story). As we discussed this with them and asked what they got out of it people responded that the patron (they did not refer to him in that way) would “do anything” for them. When asked what he specifically had done they showed us a couple of very deep but very dry wells that he had paid to dig years before. That was it!  They noted that the person would do anything they needed but that they did not need anything just then.  The poverty of that place suggested otherwise, but their allegiance to the patron and their abiding hope that he would provide what he promised created a powerful bond that they would not—indeed could not—risk giving up.

And that brings us back home. I will not be voting this year because our political system is one of powerful patrons and their clients and I am refusing to continue in that relationship with elected officials. Like in Mauritania, the patrons in our two political parties derive their power from having initial endowments that their clients do not have. I will not even try to explore what all of these endowments are but like the patrons I met in Mauritania, our patrons derive most of their power from history and an ability to cling to certain advantages that were conferred on them rather than earned by things they had actually done. Our patrons promise a great deal and every now and then confer the crumbs of their excess—their unique gifts—upon us, the clients who desire them. This gifting is minimal but it is carefully calibrated and celebrated by the patrons so the clients will not soon forget the largesse.

Do you need proof?  If you are a Republican ask for how many years your party has promised action on shrinking government while dispensing the crumbs of tax cuts. Cuts that are accompanied by huge expenditures on homeland security and wars (whose costs are kept under the table) that balloon the deficit. How long have you heard that the GOP will get government off your back while voting to allow it to invade your every phone call, text message and email. They give you the rhetorical crumbs that all this makes you safer and you grab the crumbs and cower while the state grows bigger and costlier.

If you are a Democrat ask how you could have traded your request for universal, single payer health care for the tidbits of the ACA that has some nice morsels but solves very little in the short or long run.  How much longer will you have to wait for the promise of Guantanamo’s closure and an end to the endless, now drone-waged GWOT while you get only the gift of “no more torture” of prisoners?

And if either of you—Republican or Democrat—claim that the failure of your patron to deliver your request is the fault of the other guy then you will have merely proven the point that your allegiance makes you blind to the way your patron manipulates you.

Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who willingly confronts the vacuity of the patrons of both parties, asks why we continue to give our allegiance to them and asserts that we do so because it simply takes so much effort to challenge their power.  To that I would add the twist that we give the allegiance because we are afraid of losing the crumbs tossed our way. Further, we give allegiance because, just like the tribal members I met in Mauritania, we find that our very identity has become bound to the identity of the patrons.  So much so that we have even changed our “tribal identity” at times (more on that in a later post in this series) to join their tribes.

By not voting this year I am refusing to give the patrons what they want—my gift of a vote that legitimates their patron status.  I am expressing my disgust with the crumbs they toss my way. I am telling them that my identity is not tied up with theirs. I am renouncing my commitment to support their practice of using me as a lever to obtain ever-greater power so their commitments to me (to us) can further shrink because they “need” me (us) less and less.

I know what you are thinking: “You are one person Robb. What’s the point? You are not going to slow down these machines.”  And then you will start getting angry at me and you will think (but probably not say) “You are making yourself irrelevant Robb. The stakes are so high!  If the GOP/Dems do not win then (insert your favorite apocalyptic vision here).”  The stakes are high indeed.  This is not about our freedom (you know, that freedom our chosen patrons are always talking about) but rather our liberation. I would ask you to listen to your arguments and ask you whose they are.  Yours? Or the patrons?

And if you join me and others join in to reject the terms of our patron/client relationship then one day the whole system of patronage will be shown for the stinking injustice it is. So… join me.

I have more to say on why I am not voting this year in national elections and I have alluded to it above.  The second installment of this series must focus on the violence done in our names.  Installment three will return to tribalism, allegiance and identity from a Christian theological position. And somewhere along the line I will get into why I am focusing on national elections and how I see them as different from local ones.

  1. John Hansen says:

    I am saddened by the truths that are brought to light in this article.I have said,that even thought I don’t agree with you on many things, you often give me reason to ponder the ideosyncracies of our nation and its definition of freedom. I have always considered myself a patriot. I wonder if the original signors of the decleration of independence would recognize our government?

  2. You know says:


  3. storydoula says:

    Robb, I shocked a whole group of activists (and myself!) recently by even considering what you’ve just articulated here so well. Thank you for your clear thinking and huge heart. I’ve needed to explore this option more deeply and you’ve provided an excellent lens. I look forward to Part 2.

  4. johnkstoner says:

    The man speaks wisdom; he speaks, in short, the truth. And you know what? Both of those qualities are so rare in this culture that what he says sounds to most of his “fellow tribespeople” foreign and unbelievable. Robb’s thoughts are rare, but not totally unique.
    I’m part of a small group of disciples of Jesus in Pennsylvania who are urging people to think what it really means to vote for either the two (sic) parties in this national election. (Kurt Vonnegut said this country has one party with two right wings.) I wrote some thoughts on our website–have a look
    I’m eager to see what Rob writes next, on the violence done in our names. My take on that for some time has been that this is the biggest protection racket ever–the military is the biggest tax expenditure by far and the biggest false promise a corrupt system makes to us. I invite anyone to show that it is not exactly that.

  5. […] series of highly thoughtful blogposts on why he is not going to vote in the presidential election (part one, excursion, part two—part three is promised soon). Robb’s general perspective is terrific, […]

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