The Transition to Programmatic Politics
Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

In our last post, we discussed the political attraction of patronage politics to leaders bent on clinging to power or self-enrichment. But then, how is it ever possible to get a transition towards more inclusive, “programmatic,” politics?

Martin Shefter, whose work we discussed in our previous post, suggested some circumstances that made such a transition feasible. He distinguished between two types of political parties, those that were “externally mobilized” and those that were “internally mobilized”. Internally mobilized parties are those that emerge from inside a political system like the Liberal and Conservative parties in Britain. Externally mobilized parties are those that form outside of the political system, such as the Labour Party in Britain which came from the trade union movement. (There are of course hybrid cases where a movement mobilized outside the system strongly influences or even takes over established parties, similar to what happened with the Progressives heavily influencing the platforms of both the Democrats and Republicans, as we discussed in Chapter 11 of Why Nations Fail, and in this paper).

We have already met another example of such a party, the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) in Bolivia (see here and here). Another good example which we discuss in the last chapter of Why Nations Fail is the PT (Workers Party) of Brazil. Both of these parties were started by trade unions and social groups previously uninvolved in formal politics, but decided to mobilize to influence politics.

Shefter argued that one can expect a transition from patronage to programmatic politics precisely when an externally mobilized party organizes and becomes influential (perhaps even winning power). There is a very good reason for this: the main spigots of patronage are government jobs and contracts, which, by definition, externally mobilized parties do not have access to (recent work by Horacio Larreguy provides evidence from Mexico supporting the idea that patronage politics is strongly linked to the control of government resources). Instead, these externally mobilized parties have to mobilize their supporters by ideological and universal appeals. Shefter suggests that once they adopt this strategy, they stick to it.

This seems a promising and empirically plausible idea, though the exact mechanism isn’t clear and Shefter doesn’t provide an explanation for why an externally mobilized parties can’t gain support by promises of patronage or why, once they get into power, they don’t switch strategy and indulge in patronage. But whatever the reason, as Shefter points out, the entry of such parties do seem to change politics, as illustrated by the entry of the Labour Party into British politics, which spearheaded a shift from the patronage politics of the Conservative and Liberal Parties of the “old corruption” style. It seems that the entry of the PT has unleashed similar dynamics in Brazil and the MAS may do likewise in Bolivia.

But the attraction of patronage politics, and the already-existing complex patronage machinery, means that the temptation will always be there for these parties to start using patronage themselves and for business-as-usual patronage politics to continue.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
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