Political Machines

Political machine is the term used to describe the core body of leadership within a political party that organizes supporters, volunteers and party fund contributors, determines policy and direction. Political machines, which are most active during election campaigns both at the state and local levels, played significant roles through the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Hierarchy and discipline are hallmarks of political machines. "It generally means strict organization," according to William Safire writing in Safire's Political Dictionary. Safire quotes one long-standing U.S. Democrat leader, Edward Flynn, who said: "… the so-called ‘independent' voter is foolish to assume that a political machine is run solely on good will, or patronage. For it is not only a machine; it is an army. And in any organization as in any army, there must be discipline."

Political machines can control official government decision-making through their manipulation of the electoral process, the use of patronage, through payments but also political appointments. The origins of the term can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution in America, when political observers found close parallels between the highly disciplined parties found in some cities and the machines that operated in the new factories.

The waves of immigrants arriving in New York, Chicago and Boston at the turn of the 20th century had a key role in the development of political machines. These systems provided the newcomers with the social services they desperately needed in exchange for their support at the polls. In many respects, such organizations operated as primitive welfare organizations where official, state-sponsored entities were yet to emerge.

The first political machine is attributed to having been developed by Martin Van Buren in New York State, which after 1820 was called Albany Regency. The name referred to the charge that his principal supporters that resided in Albany managed the machine for Van Buren while he served in the U.S. Senate. It was among the first effective political machines that used patronage as well as rigid party discipline to maintain its control.

The political machine is often complex. There were machines having a single city boss with tight control for long periods in a number of cities, including the "Tammany Hall," period in New York City, led by Richard Croker at the end of the 19th century, and Kansas City under the leadership of Tom Pendergast between the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1940s. Far more common were machines resembling what political scientist Gerald Pomper refers to in Passions & Interests (1992) as "opportunistic feudalism."

In cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston, coalitions of ward or aldermanic district party officials largely controlled such machines. One of the most influential figures here was James Michael Curley. According to the Encyclopedia of World Biography (2004), Curley relished his role as Mayor of Boston and was "a political legend" for more than 50 years. This was largely due to his magnetism and ability to attract voters from poorer neighborhoods. Curley wrote about his experiences in his autobiography I'd Do It Again: A Record of All My Uproarious Years (1957). Curley was sent to prison in 1904 for impersonating a friend in an exam. He was given a second sentence in 1947 when he faced an allegation in connection to federal contracts while he was a member of Congress.

Urban political machines and their bosses are among the topics in American politics that are most shrouded in legend and myth. The outright corruption, dictatorial tactics, favoritism, and inefficiency of machine politics outraged many commentators and campaigners at the end of the 19th century. They believed that by manipulating the nomination and electoral processes, the machine subverted the popular will and used the acquired power for selfish aims.

The impact of political machines declined as reforms between 1880 and 1920 took hold in areas such as political appointments and voter registration. In the 1930s, New Deal entitlements and the expansion of the American welfare state after 1945 helped limit the welfare role of political machines. Political machines remain central to many democratic societies. For example, the PRI party in Mexico has maintained its monopoly on power for more than 70 years thanks to organized systems of patronage and control, in spite of a formal multiparty democracy. There are similar ruling-party structures in Japan and, until the beginning of the 21st century, in Taiwan.

Political Machines: Selected full-text books and articles

Harmon vs. the Political Machine By Judd, Dennis St. Louis Journalism Review, Vol. 29, No. 212, December 1998
A Place at the Table: Hot Springs and the GI Revolt By Ramsey, Patsy Hawthorn The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 4, Winter 2000
Building a Decentralized Machine: The New Grassroots Politics By Rasmussen, Sarah Kennedy School Review, Vol. 7, Annual 2007
The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition By Paul M. Green; Melvin G. Holli Southern Illinois University Press, 1995 (Revised edition)
Border Boss: Manuel B. Bravo and Zapata County By J. Quezada Gilberto Texas A&M University Press, 1999
Boss Tweed: The Story of a Grim Generation By Denis Tilden Lynch Boni and Liveright, 1927
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