Politics, reform and disbelief: “Imaginary patronage goes hand in hand with imaginary clients.”

Fintan O’Toole begins his IT column this week with a fundamental materialist question about political reform:

If the Government is serious about ending the politics of patronage, it has to address two questions. What will politicians do without patronage? And how will voters respond to being told that TDs and ministers can’t get them favours in return for their votes?

Yep, we don’t just vote people into office for the sake of some abstract moral imperative. We expect things to happen in consequence. Indeed you could make a case for saying that as politics has been to have less of an effect on the broader world, the less popular it has become.

Which thought leads me to Fintan’s final note:

The power of patronage is that it continues to function even when it is pure fiction. Weirdly, politicians for the most part don’t actually do favours in return for votes – and it may not work the other way around either. When, for example, Phil Hogan sends the CVs of constituents to Irish Water, do they actually get jobs? He himself laughed off the very notion last week. So why does he do it? Because the charade satisfies some deep mutual need – for his constituents to feel that they have “pull” and for Hogan to be Big Phil, the local chieftain who can deliver the goods to his people. It’s a form of magical thinking, but beliefs can be all the harder to shift when they do not in fact depend on tangible and controvertible evidence.

At the top, ministers work the patronage system in part to keep alive the bogus notion that the system really works. As long ago as the late 1960s, a famous study of machine politics in Co Donegal found politicians’ “claims of effective intervention” on behalf of their voters to be “imaginary patronage”. The TD’s image as the power broker was found to be generally based on “illusion and manipulation” – a conjuring trick in other words. Typically the rabbit is pulled from the hat by using insider information to discover that a benefit (a local authority house, a hospital admission) is about to be granted anyway and getting in first with the good news.

Some voters are stupid or desperate enough to fall for the trick, but generally there’s something more complicated at work. The evidence is that the “clients” of TDs may not in fact be all that loyal – they trail around every available clinic and presumably know that, if something good happens, each TD will claim the credit. And often – as the parties know to their chagrin – the most demanding “voters” don’t actually vote at all. Imaginary patronage goes hand in hand with imaginary clients.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty