Although these elements are common to most political parties
and organizations, they are essential to political machines, which rely on hierarchy and rewards for political power, often enforced by a strong party whip
structure. Machines sometimes have a political boss
, typically rely on patronage
, the spoils system
, "behind-the-scenes" control, and longstanding political ties within the structure of a representative democracy. Machines typically are organized on a permanent basis instead of a single election or event. The term "machine" usually is used by its reform-minded enemies in a pejorative sense.
The term "political machine" dates back to the 19th century in the United States, where such organizations have existed in some municipalities and states since the 18th century.
Similar machines have been described in Latin America, where the system has been called clientelism
or political clientelism
(after the similar Clientela
relationship in the Roman Republic
), especially in rural areas, and also in some African states and other emerging democracies
, like postcommunist
Eastern European countries. The Swedish Social Democrats
have also been referred, to a certain extent, as a "political machine", thanks to its strong presence in "popular houses".
The Encyclopædia Britannica
defines "political machine" as, "in U.S. politics, a party organization, headed by a single boss
or small autocratic group, that commands enough votes to maintain political and administrative control of a city, county, or state". William Safire
, in his Safire's Political Dictionary
, defines "machine politics" as "the election of officials and the passage of legislation through the power of an organization created for political action".
He notes that the term is generally considered pejorative, often implying corruption.
Hierarchy and discipline are hallmarks of political machines. "It generally means strict organization", according to Safire.
Quoting Edward Flynn
, a Bronx County
Democratic leader who ran the borough from 1922 until his death in 1953,
Safire wrote "[...] 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 patronage, while often associated with political machines, is not essential to the definition for either Safire or Britannica.
A political machine is a party organization that recruits its members by the use of tangible incentives—money, political jobs—and that is characterized by a high degree of leadership control over member activity.
Political machines started as grass roots
organizations to gain the patronage
needed to win the modern election. Having strong patronage, these "clubs" were the main driving force in gaining and getting out the "straight party vote" in the election districts.
The United States of America
1869 tobacco label featuring William M. Tweed
, 19th-century political boss of New York City
In the late 19th century, large cities in the United States—Boston
, Kansas City
, New York City
, St. Louis
—were accused of using political machines.
During this time "cities experienced rapid growth under inefficient government.”
Each city's machine lived under a hierarchical system with a "boss"
who held the allegiance of local business leaders, elected officials
and their appointees, and who knew the proverbial buttons to push to get things done. Benefits and problems both resulted from the rule of political machines.
This system of political control—known as "bossism
"—emerged particularly in the Gilded Age
. A single powerful figure (the boss) was at the center and was bound together to a complex organization of lesser figures (the political machine) by reciprocity in promoting financial and social self-interest. One of the most infamous of these political machines was Tammany Hall
, the Democratic Party
machine that played a major role in controlling New York City
and New York politics and helping immigrants, most notably the Irish, rise up in American politics from the 1790s to the 1960s. From 1872, Tammany had an Irish "boss". However, Tammany Hall also served as an engine for graft
and political corruption, perhaps most notoriously under William M. "Boss" Tweed
in the mid-19th century.
describes these political bosses saying:
An army led by a council seldom conquers: It must have a commander-in-chief, who settles disputes, decides in emergencies, inspires fear or attachment. The head of the Ring is such a commander. He dispenses places, rewards the loyal, punishes the mutinous, concocts schemes, negotiates treaties. He generally avoids publicity, preferring the substance to the pomp of power, and is all the more dangerous because he sits, like a spider, hidden in the midst of his web. He is a Boss.
I've been called a boss. All there is to it is having friends, doing things for people, and then later on they'll do things for you... You can't coerce people into doing things for you—you can't make them vote for you. I never coerced anybody in my life. Wherever you see a man bulldozing anybody he don't last long.
, before he became president in 1901, was deeply involved in New York City politics. He explains how the machine worked:
The organization of a party in our city is really much like that of an army. There is one great central boss, assisted by some trusted and able lieutenants; these communicate with the different district bosses, whom they alternately bully and assist. The district boss in turn has a number of half-subordinates, half-allies, under him; these latter choose the captains of the election districts, etc., and come into contact with the common heelers.
Many machines formed in cities to serve immigrants to the U.S. in the late 19th century who viewed machines as a vehicle for political enfranchisement
. Machine workers helped win elections by turning out large numbers of voters on election day. It was in the machine's interests to only maintain a minimally winning amount of support. Once they were in the majority and could count on a win, there was less need to recruit new members, as this only meant a thinner spread of the patronage rewards to be spread among the party members. As such, later-arriving immigrants, such as Jews, Italians, and other immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe between the 1880s and 1910s, saw fewer rewards from the machine system than the well-established Irish.
At the same time, the machines' staunchest opponents were members of the middle class, who were shocked at the malfeasance and did not need the financial help.
In the 1930s, James A. Farley
was the chief dispenser of the Democratic Party's patronage system through the Post Office
and the Works Progress Administration
which eventually nationalized many of the job benefits machines provided. The New Deal
allowed machines to recruit for the WPA and Civilian Conservation Corps
, making Farley's machine the most powerful. All patronage was screened through Farley, including presidential appointments. The New Deal
machine fell apart after he left the administration over the third term in 1940. Those agencies were abolished in 1943 and the machines suddenly lost much of their patronage. The formerly poor immigrants who had benefited under Farley's national machine had become assimilated and prosperous and no longer needed the informal or extralegal aides provided by machines.
In the 1940s most of the big city machines collapsed, with the exception of Chicago.
A local political machine in Tennessee
was forcibly removed in what was known as the 1946 Battle of Athens
Smaller communities such as Parma, Ohio
, in the post–Cold War Era under Prosecutor Bill Mason's "Good Old Boys" and especially communities in the Deep South, where small-town machine politics are relatively common, also feature what might be classified as political machines, although these organizations do not have the power and influence of the larger boss networks listed in this article. For example, the "Cracker Party" was a Democratic Party political machine that dominated city politics in Augusta, Georgia
, for over half of the 20th century.
Political machines also thrive on Native American reservations, where the veil of sovereignty is used as a shield against federal and state laws against the practice.
Japan's Liberal Democratic Party
is often cited as another political machine, maintaining power in suburban
areas through its control of farm bureaus and road construction agencies.
In Japan, the word jiban
(literally "base" or "foundation") is the word used for political machines.
For decades, the LDP was able to dominate rural constituencies by spending massive amounts of money for rural areas, forming clientelist bonds with many groups and especially agriculture. This lasted until the 1990s when it was abandoned after becoming less effective.
Japanese political factional leaders are expected to distribute mochidai
, literally snack-money, meaning funds to help subordinates win elections. For the annual end-year gift in 1989 Party Headquarters gave $200,000 to every member of the Diet. Supporters ignore wrongdoing to collect the benefits from the benefactor, such as money payments distributed by politicians to voters in weddings, funerals, New year parties among other events. Political ties are held together by marriages between the families of elite politicians. Nisei
, second generation political families, have grown increasingly numerous in Japanese politics, due to a combination of name-recognition, business contacts and financial resources, and the role of personal political machines.
The phrase is considered derogatory "because it suggests that the interest of the organization are placed before those of the general public", according to Safire. Machines are criticized as undemocratic and inevitably encouraging corruption.
Since the 1960s, some historians have reevaluated political machines, considering them corrupt but efficient. Machines were undemocratic but responsive. They were also able to contain the spending demands of special interests. In Mayors and Money
, a comparison of municipal government in Chicago and New York, Ester R. Fuchs
credited the Cook County Democratic Organization
with giving Mayor Richard J. Daley
the political power to deny labor union
contracts that the city could not afford and to make the state government assume burdensome costs like welfare
and courts. Describing New York, Fuchs wrote, "New York got reform, but it never got good government." At the same time, as Dennis R. Judd and Todd Swanstrom suggest in City Politics
that this view accompanied the common belief that there were no viable alternatives. They go on to point out that this is a falsehood, since there are certainly examples of reform oriented, anti-machine leaders during this time.
In his mid-2016 article "How American Politics Went Insane" in The Atlantic
, Jonathan Rauch
argued that the political machines of the past had flaws but provided better governance than the alternatives. He wrote that political machines created positive incentives for politicians to work together and compromise – as opposed to pursuing "naked self-interest" the whole time.
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Last edited on 9 April 2021, at 17:16
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