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Though the term ‘political machine’ is sometimes used to describe any party or electoral organization noted for its eﬃciency and eﬀectiveness, its principal signiﬁcance, especially in American political science, is to refer to a particular kind of party organization, that draws much of its support from patronage jobs, government contracts, and other ‘spoils’ of oﬃce. This second type of machine once dominated the political landscape in most large American cities, though by the late twentieth century most such machines had declined or disappeared.
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1. Two Deﬁnitions And Their Application
The term ‘political machine’ is used in two related, but distinct ways. Particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, it was often used to refer to any party or electoral organization distinguished by its eﬀectiveness and eﬃciency (see, e.g., Gottfried 1968). Usually, such an organization was headed by a leader or small leadership group and imposed some measure of discipline on its members (otherwise it would not have functioned quite so eﬀectively), but its most important quality was its ability to acquire, maintain, and use political power on a regular, predictable basis. Hence, the comparison between a human organization and a mechanical contrivance. When used in this sense, the term has a generally neutral connotation, and the study of political machines is simply one aspect of the larger subject of political party organization.
More often, however, the term political machine has been used to refer to a particular kind of party organization: one that derives its eﬀectiveness from the extensive use of what organizational theorists call speciﬁc, material inducements. As laid out most clearly by Banﬁeld and Wilson (1963), a speciﬁc (as opposed to general) inducement is one ‘that can be oﬀered to one person while being withheld from others.’ Material inducements include money and any other ‘physical ‘‘thing’’ to which value attaches.’ Thus, a political machine attracts support to a much greater extent than other party organizations through the use of patronage jobs, government contracts, and special favors to individual voters. Because these sorts of inducements conﬂict with certain widely held civic norms, and because their use frequently leads to other forms of corruption, this second use of the word machine has a decidedly pejorative connotation. Indeed, those actively involved in political combat sometimes use the term as little more than an epithet. As Theodore Roosevelt once noted, one’s own organization is invariably described as a ‘club’ or a ‘party’; it is only the opposition that has a machine.
When used in this second sense, political machines have a particularly celebrated history in American politics—and American political science. Almost every large and medium-sized city in the United States was run by one or more political machines, often for extended periods of time, during the latter half of the nineteenth century and the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century. Among the cities in which machines played a particularly powerful and signiﬁcant role are Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Jersey City, Kansas City, and Memphis. Moreover, since some of the most important work in the development of political science as an academic discipline dealt with city government and politics, machines also served as the principal subject matter for what are now regarded as some of the classic early works in American political science (see especially Merriam 1929 and Gosnell 1937).
It is diﬃcult to say with much certainty how often and in what sorts of circumstances political machines have ﬂourished, primarily because it is diﬃcult to get reliable information about how much various organizations used patronage or graft and whether such practices were essential to their success or just an ancillary way of enriching the leadership. There is, as has just been noted, widespread agreement about the importance of machines in American urban history. Many commentators also believe that many rural counties in the South and Midwest were once run by machines, though there seems to be little beyond anecdotal evidence to support this contention. American historians and political scientists once regularly asserted that political machines were a uniquely American institution. Over the last thirty years of the twentieth century, however, it has been recognized that machine-like organizations also exist in a number of Third World or developing countries, as well as in speciﬁc locales or regions of other Western nations, such as southern Italy (see especially Scott 1969).
2. Explaining The Rise Of Political Machines
Why did political machines play such a dominant role in American urban politics? Three principal theories have been put forward to explain the origin and survival of machines in American cities. For shorthand purposes, these theories can be described as governmental, economic, and cultural.
According to the governmental theory, machines came into existence as a solution to the unique governing problems that beset American cities. On the one hand, cities faced an extraordinary array of diﬃcult challenges in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their population and geographic area grew at an explosive pace. Partly as a result, and partly as a response to new technological discoveries, cities were suddenly required to provide an array of important services—water, gas, electricity, paved streets, sewer systems, mass transit—that no American city had previously had to worry about. Unfortunately, the structure of American urban government was dramatically unsuited to these tasks. Governmental power and authority in the cities was widely dispersed among the mayor, city council, and a large number of special boards, commissions, and independently elected oﬃcials. The special function of political machines, then, was that they provided an informal way of centralizing the political power that had been fragmented among the formal organs of city government (for the classic statement of this argument, see Merton 1957).
The economic explanation for machines, by contrast, argues that machines came to power because they helped serve the needs of the large number of poor and economically insecure people who lived in American cities. When a city’s population doubled in the course of just one decade, as often occurred in the late nineteenth century, the new residents necessarily consisted primarily of immigrants: sometimes from farms and rural areas within the United States, more often, especially in northeastern and mid-western cities, from foreign countries. In either case, the newcomers generally faced severe problems adjusting to their new environment and satisfying such basic human needs as food, housing, and employment. Yet, American government at this time provided little or no help at all in the way of welfare or social services. Political machines did not completely ﬁll the gap, of course, but they were one of the few agencies that even tried, providing at least some of the urban poor with jobs, occasional gifts of food and fuel, and help when they came in conﬂict with the law. One early twentieth-century social worker went so far as to call the machine ‘a kind of crude socialism.’ In return, the lower classes, especially those of foreign background, provided a reliable fund of votes for machine candidates, and were not particularly upset if the resources the machine distributed were ultimately derived from illegal or corrupt activities.
The cultural explanation also sees foreign immigration as a key factor in the rise of urban machines, but places emphasis not on the immigrants’ economic predicament, but on their political culture. Of the immigrants who came to America after 1840, few had any experience with democracy; almost none had ever cast a meaningful vote. On the contrary, most had learned to view government only as a hostile and authoritarian presence. Against that background, most immigrants naturally saw their votes less as a way of working large-scale transformations in the urban social order than as a commodity that could be exchanged for short-term personal advantages. One widely quoted formulation of this argument has been provided by historian Hofstadter (1955), who saw the clash between immigrants and natives as having been grounded in ‘two thoroughly diﬀerent systems of political ethics.’ Where the middle-class natives ‘argued that political life ought to be run … in accordance with general principles and abstract laws,’ immigrants ‘interpreted political and civic relations chieﬂy in terms of personal obligations, and placed strong personal loyalties above allegiance to abstract codes of law or morals.’
3. The Decline Of The Urban Machine
If political machines were once an all-but-ubiquitous feature of American urban politics, they are no longer. It is diﬃcult to be precise about exactly when the machines lost their capacity to deliver votes on a regular and reliable basis for their favored candidates. In Chicago, for example, Mayor Richard J. Daley continued to win easy re-election all the way up until his death in 1976, but it is questionable if the machine per se had much to do with his last several victories. A good case can be made that he won less because of the organization’s precinct captains and patronage army than because most city voters genuinely thought he did a good job of governing the city. There is, moreover, no easy way to say who is and who is not a ‘machine candidate.’ Many self-proclaimed ‘reformers,’ once in oﬃce, would begin rewarding their supporters with jobs and contracts in ways that were largely indistinguishable from the machines they defeated.
That said, it was primarily in the years between about 1945 and 1965 that the most celebrated machines in American history suﬀered a series of major defeats and lost their capacity to dominate politics on a citywide basis. By the late 1960s, it was frequently asserted that of all the large cities in the United States, only Chicago still had a functioning political machine.
In general, when a machine started to weaken, the ﬁrst major oﬃce it would lose control of was the mayoralty. Yet, long after many machines could no longer dominate these sorts of highly visible, media-centered campaigns, they could still reliably elect a number of their supporters to posts on the city council and to many of the less publicized oﬃces in city and county government. In these weakened circumstances, the vestiges of machine politics linger on in a number of cities.
Why did the machines die out? Each of the three theories developed earlier to explain the growth of machines also provides a ready explanation for their decline. According to the governmental theory, machines died out because, over time, many of the worst problems aﬄicting urban government became more tractable. Cities stopped expanding, they gradually learned from experience how to deal with such basic demands as paving streets and providing water and electricity, and, in many cases, city charters were changed in ways that brought a greater measure of order and coordination to the formal agencies of government.
Advocates of the economic theory, by contrast, argue that machines went into eclipse because the demand for their services declined. On the one hand, a series of laws passed in the 1920s eﬀectively shut oﬀ the ﬂow of foreign immigration; those immigrants who were already here—and their children—gradually learned to adjust to their new environment and, especially after World War II, escaped poverty and even made it into the middle class. Equally important, with the dramatic expansion of the American welfare state in the 1930s, government now provided many of the goods and services for which the machines had once held a near-monopoly.
The cultural theory, like the economic theory, sees the passage of restrictive immigration legislation as an important, long-term threat to the machines’ existence. It would also point toward agencies, such as the public schools and the mass media, that were attempting to assimilate the immigrants’ children and grandchildren and socialize them into a new set of political norms.
According to several of these theories, an important demographic trend of the 1950s and 1960s—the massive migration of American blacks from rural southern areas to northern cities—at least had the potential to revivify the machines. Like the European immigrants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the black migrants faced enormous social and economic problems and had little previous experience with voting, and there is little doubt that their arrival in northern cities posed huge new problems for urban governance. Yet, for a variety of reasons, blacks proved to be an uncertain and unreliable constituency for the established machines. Racial antagonism and prejudice made many white ethnic groups unwilling to seek common cause with blacks—and made blacks unwilling to take their place as just one more group in the machine coalition. Equally important, the civil rights movement encouraged blacks to think of their votes as a means of eﬀecting social change, and not just as a way of gaining particularistic beneﬁts.
4. Legacy And Enduring Signiﬁcance
How well did political machines govern American cities? To answer to this question, one must pose a further one: compared to what? It is, for example, easy to criticize the aid machines gave to the urban poor: such aid was clearly inadequate to the scope of the problem and was often given out in an arbitrary fashion. And it came at a price: most of the money that the bosses skimmed from the public treasury wound up in their own pockets, not as assistance to the less fortunate. Still, when compared to the contemporary alternatives—the almost complete absence of governmental aid and the paternalistic and demeaning nature of private charity—it is hard not to feel that the machines deserve a more favorable assessment.
At the very least, one can say that there is little compelling evidence to suggest that the machines governed worse than the ‘reformers’ they competed against—and some reason to think the opposite. All too often, reformers proved to be personally honest but largely ineﬀective, and to have strikingly little appreciation of the real problems and concerns of immigrants and the urban lower classes (see in particular (Holli 1969)
Good or bad, machines are simply not a very signiﬁcant presence in contemporary American politics, national, state, or local. Nor is there any obvious reason to think they will be revived at any time in the foreseeable future. Yet, for several reasons, political machines are still worth studying. Most obvious is their historic importance: for at least a century, machines were one of the principal centers of political power and political conﬂict in almost every large city in the United States. No one can hope to understand American urban history without coming to terms with the machine. Second, the struggle between machines and reformers left an enduring imprint on the structures of contemporary urban government. Many of the most common institutions in city government, including nonpartisan elections and the city-manager form of government, were originally developed as ways of undercutting the power of the machine. Long after the machines have declined or disappeared, these institutions remain.
- Banﬁeld E C, Wilson J Q 1963 City Politics. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
- Gosnell H F 1937 Machine Politics: Chicago Model. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
- Gottfried A 1968 Political machines. In: Sills D L (ed.) International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Macmillan and The Free Press, New York, pp. 248–52
- Hofstadter R 1955 The Age of Reform. Knopf, New York
- Holli M 1969 Reform in Detroit: Hazen S. Pingree and Urban Politics. Oxford University Press, New York
- Merriam C E 1929 Chicago: A More Intimate View of Urban Politics. Macmillan, New York
- Merton R K 1957 Social Theory and Social Structure. Free Press, New York
- Scott J C 1969 Corruption, machine politics, and political change. American Political Science Review 63: 1142–58