Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Machine Politics: The Concept and Its Implications for Post-Soviet Studies

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Machine Politics: The Concept and Its Implications for Post-Soviet Studies

Article excerpt

As the chaotic electoral politics of the 1990s have given way to dominating monopolistic "parties of power" in Russia and other post- Soviet countries, the concept of "political machine" is gaining increasing recognition in the ongoing research addressing electoral politics in the region. While the heuristics of the concept are quite appealing and seem to provide keys to solving many research problems that loom in the study of electoral authoritarianism, the apparent utility of the concept is circum- scribed by its substantive ambiguity stemming from the fact that the very notion of political machine was not constructed deductively, on the basis of a pre-formulated theory, but rather derived inductively from a fairly limited set of observations and then extended to a much wider universe of phenomena observed in many countries. Under such conditions, the problem of what Giovanni Sartori called "concept stretching" can become endemic, and indeed, in common-day political speech and journalism the term "political machine" is often applied to nearly all known forms of regular political organization.1 A similar tendency is noticeable in some of the scholarly treatments of the subject. Needless to argue at length, the lack of conceptual clarity severely undermines the utility of concepts in any realm of research, and post-Soviet area studies are no exception to this rule.

The main purpose of this article is to delineate the concepts of politi- cal machine and machine politics in a way that allows for avoiding the threat of concept stretching in the study of post-Soviet politics. To achieve this, the first section of the article deals with the concept at a theoretical level by clarifying what political machines are and what they are not, and relating machine politics to several closely interconnected concepts of political science, such as patronage, clientelism, and electoral linkage. In the second section, I provide a brief overview of the historical and contem- porary instances of machine politics. In particular, the purpose of this analysis is to establish the relationship between the presence or absence of this phenomenon and the political regime type. The third section relates the concept of political machine to the specific political and societal settings of post-communism and analyzes the available literature on machine politics in the post-communist electoral democracies, mainly in the 1990s. The final section links the results of conceptual analysis and previous research findings to the current stage of post-communist political development. I do not report any original findings stemming from systematic research, mostly relying instead on the available anecdotal evidence from one country, Russia. Thus the aspiration of this article is not so much to make a contri- bution to substantive research as to delineate and clarify a new agenda for the study of elections, political parties, and political linkages in post- Soviet competitive authoritarian regimes. If used properly, the concepts of political machine and machine politics can add quite significantly to our understanding of this region's politics.

What Machine Politics Are, and What They Are Not

Political machines are political organizations that mobilize electoral support by trading particularistic material benefits to citizens in exchange for their votes.2 This definition, simplistic as it is, provides the basis for distinguishing between political machines and other forms of political organization. The principal feature of a political machine is the specific way in which it builds the linkage between aspiring politicians and the electorate. There are several alternative possibilities. In fact, the traditional normative theories of elections pay little attention to the material incentives to vote, emphasizing instead the programmatic linkage between the voters and their parties or candidates. In the radical formulations of this approach, as exemplified by Anthony Downs, voters support political parties primar- ily because they share these parties' ideologies, defined as generalized images of the ideal society. …

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