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

By Golosov, Grigorii V. | Demokratizatsiya, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

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


Golosov, Grigorii V., Demokratizatsiya


Abstract: Political machines are organizations that mobilize electoral support by trading particularistic material benefits to citizens in exchange for their votes. While political machines were characteristic of the political lives of early democracies, most notably the 19th century United States, in recent decades, this model of electoral politics has become associated primarily with competitive authoritarianism. An important aspect of Russia's contemporary development is the integration of regional political machines, tracing their origins to the 1990s, into the power structures of the nascent authoritarian regime. Thus, the empirical study of machine politics is essential for understanding post-Soviet politics.

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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 circumscribed 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 political 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 contemporary 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 contribution 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. …

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