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political machine

A political machine is an unofficial system of political organization based on patronage, the spoils system, and "behind-the-scenes" control within the structure of a representative democracy. Machine politics has existed in many United States cities, especially between about 1875 and 1920, but continuing in some cases down to the present day. It is also common (under the name clientelism or political clientelism) in Latin America, especially in rural areas.

The key to a political machine is patronage: holding public office implies the ability to do favors (and also the ability to profit from graft). Political machines generally steer away from issues-based politics, favoring a quid pro quo with certain aspects of a barter economy or gift economy: the patron or "boss" does favors for the constituents; constituents vote as they are told to. Often, this system of favors is supplemented by threats of violence or harassment toward those who attempt to step outside of it.

Political machines in the United States

In the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, it was mainly the larger cities that had machines — Boston, Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago, etc. — and each city's machine was run by a "boss", a man who had the allegiance of elected officials and who knew the buttons to push to get things done.

The machines, formed in cities largely as a result of the waves of immigration to the US in the late nineteenth century; the immigrants were demanding resources far faster than legislation and construction could provide them, and political machines came into being as they encouraged immigrants to exchange their votes for favors. The power of the bosses was based on their ability to help new immigrants to become established in the U.S.—securing licenses, negotiating rent, helping with naturalization, finding jobs, etc. A boss could have a pothole fixed; he could have someone burn your rival's business and then make sure the fire department never showed up; he could rig an election at any level from ward leader to president (e.g., Matthew Quay and Benjamin Harrison).

The corruption of the political machines, especially Boss Tweed's notorious Tammany Hall in New York City, eventually became too obvious for the middle class to ignore, and by Theodore Roosevelt's time the Progressive Era was established. By the end of World War I, so many immigrants had been socialized that the machines had no real reason to be; nevertheless, some of them lingered as late as the 1960s. Some cities are accused of machine politics even today.

In recent years, historians have reevaluated political machines. If machines were undemocratic, they were at least responsive. If they were corrupt, at least they were able to contain the spending demands of special interests. In Mayors and Money, a comparision of municipal government in Chicago and New York, Ester R. Fuchs credited the Chicago Democratic Machine with giving Mayor Daley the political power to deny unions contracts that the city could not afford and to make the state assume burdensome costs like welfare and courts. Describing New York, Fuchs wrote, "New York got reform, but it never got good government."