Political Machines: Have They Disappeared Essay

essay A

Get Full Essay

Get access to this section to get all the help you need with your essay and educational goals.

Get Access

Political machines, political organizations controlled by a boss or group that gives constituents services in exchange for their votes, at one time ruled political climate of the nation. Popular reports recall times and tales of the past that included kickbacks, thefts, bribery, insider trading, and criminal cover-ups. George William Plunkitt and his dealings with Tammany Hall is one of the many lessons students of political policy and public administration are taught throughout their coursework. However, does this machine style politics still exist today?

With the emergence of the merit system in the 1900s, has the old patronage system been done away with the machine? This analysis seeks to provide more information on the historical context political machines: the height of its rise and its ultimate decline. In addition, this analysis will focus on the changes of the patronage system and how it contrasts the merit system; precisely, looking into the theories of power that are at play. The author seeks to provide information on how the changes in the system created a shift in power structure.

Finally, this analysis will examine if the patronage system has disappeared or is it being masked as something else in today’s political climate. Literature Review The evolution of cities helped spur the growth of the political machines and the boss culture grew together is one central focus in William Shannon’s article, “The Political Machine I: Rise and Fall the Age of the Bosses (1969). ” He researches cities where growth far exceeded expectations and were made up of people from throughout the world with a wide-range of backgrounds.

In American cities at this time, he says newcomers had nothing in common with one another except their poverty and their hopes (Shannon, 1969). From this chaos the author cites the emergence of political bosses during a period of change and growth. Bosses, he describes as “acting out of greed, a ruthless will for mastery, and imperfect understanding of what they were about, bosses imposed upon these conglomerations called cities a certain feudal order and direction (p. 01).”

He also points out that by 1890 virtually every major city had a political boss or was actively moving in that direction; but by 1950, only sixty years later, almost every political machine was in advance state of obsolescence and its boss in trouble (p. 01). He attributes the decrease in the boss system to the rapid and overwhelming growth and changes that took place in cities, coupled with the slow and limited growth of political bosses. Although the bosses didn’t survive the system their memories sometimes did.

Shannon examines former bosses and their contributions and use of power. George Cox is just one of the bosses Shannon writes about. Cox, according to Shannon, was the turn-of the century Republican boss of Cincinnati, pasted together a coalition of Germans, African Americans, and old families like the Tafts and the Long-worths. The bosses would made all sorts of deals with members of each group, and even join community organizations such as the N. A. A. C. P.

The bosses built “organized neighborhoods, smoothed out antagonisms, arranged ethnically balanced tickets, and distributed patronage in accordance with voting strength as part of their effort to win and hold power,” which was typical of most cities according to the researcher (p. 03). He adds that bosses like, William Tweed, first and famous big city boss who died in jail, were romanticized. The bulk of poor people revered him, and looked at him as victim of elite power, whereas, others saw him as criminal and deserving of imprisonment; these types of split of reverence and disgust were indicative of many cities.

Community action organizations and city antipoverty planners stimulated apathy and disorganization of the slums, and this lead to a change from the political boss system to the merit system. Joseph Reid and Michael Kurth study, “The Rise and Fall of Urban Political Patronage Machines,” explores the history of urban patronage, political organization and government models, and the nature of political exchange. The authors assert that patronage is the efficient means to effect direct political exchanges. Direct political exchange refers to the patronage jobs and other favors citizens received for their votes.

On the other hand, general political exchange according the authors, “is favored when public wants are sufficiently homogenous to be learned and the necessary payment to be predicted by surveys or by communicating with special interest representatives, and when wants are satisfied efficiently by supply independent receipt”; such cases would in public good like building parks, highways, museums, etc. (Reid and Kurth, 1992). The study looks at the historical trend of the patronage system and how it was deployed throughout many major cities in the United States.

Dating back to the late 1880’s, patronage machines ruled many large cities – St. Louis, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and Detroit – and many smaller cities and towns, too (p. 427). The authors go further to suggest that the patronage systems did not begin to collapse until merit system was form. Under the merit system, governmental services were rendered to general users rather than sporadic favors to individuals; as such, civil servants – professionals with education and experience credentials – assumed the roles of political appointments, promotions, and other civil service jobs.

Their research explains why the merit system, which was once set by founding fathers, was abandoned for the “Jackson democracy. ” The Jacksonian democracy was referred to by the authors, as spoils system that asserts, “To the victor go the spoils (p. 438). ”Basically, the spoils system supported the exchange of services and favors for the votes of lower socioeconomic groups. The unintended consequence of doing so, was an “efficient service of myriad votes with diverse wants subject to moral hazard in representation (p. 445).”

The authors concluded that “patronage fell because the political value of general services increased, not because of the efforts of reformers, even though reforms tended to reduce the cost of general services relative to direct services (p. 445). ” In order to provide services impartially, the system was required to change. They also point out that the merit system dominated the public-sector until the 1960s. Susan Stokes wrote an article in the American Political Science Review titled, “Perverse Accountability: A Formal Model of Machine Politics with Evidence from Argentina (2005).”

The author explores how political machines mobilize electoral support by trading benefits to voters in exchange of their votes; specifically analyzing how political machines work. The concept of perverse accountability, according to Stokes occurs when “parties influence how people vote by threatening to punish them for voting for another party (Stokes, 2005). ” She asserts this can be done by analyzing the strategic interaction between machines and votes. Stoke observed in Argentina that poverty had an effect on one’s willingness to sell their votes.

The exchange of services for votes transpires “when the voter values the private reward highly, but the party values it relatively little (p. 322). ” The author points out this proposition is consistent with the findings of other researchers on the subject matter, such was the case of Wilson and Banfield’s (1963) study which explain that U. S. machines operated in a city’s “river wards,” where working-class residents lived, but not in the “newspaper wards,” where middle-class residents lived (p. 322).

When comparing the probability of a constituent selling their votes in a middle-income household versus a lower-income household, Stokes found that there was a 0. 02% chance that a middle-income individual’s vote would be influenced as compared to a 13% chance of a lower-income individual. The author explores compliance of voters to support political parties and how it is monitored. In Argentina, voters are able to secure their ballots directly from party operatives. This system increases the likelihood of political machines being able to influence or control a voter’s decision.

As mentioned earlier, 13% of poor people who would sell their votes, are also more likely to get those rewards if they choose to receive their ballots directly from party operatives; contrarily, Stokes points out that when voters receive their ballots at the voting booth, “the probability [of receiving rewards] is cut almost in half, to 7 percent (p. 323). ” This unique relationship makes it easier for party leaders in Argentina to monitor their constituents. The author completes her case by focusing on the types of voters political machines pursue.

Stokes predicts that “machines focus their vote-buying efforts on people in the middle of the distribution of partisan predispositions: ones who are indifferent whether to vote for or against the machine, and ones with a weak predisposition against it (p. 323). ” The author would suggest this pursuit of independent voters is a direct result of avoiding voters who are loyalists or strong opponents of the party in concern. Analysis Political machines undoubtedly controlled American cities during a period of time. History has revealed that this system of power and influence did not live long.

The growth and change that occurred in cities is a common factor that contributes to the fall of the political machine. Neo-elitism, the policies and programs that maintain or enhance the economic position, social prestige, or political power of the city, taken as a whole, also adds to the demise of the political machine. City interest began to take precedent over political relationships, and citizens started requiring elected officials to offer services in a nondiscriminatory manner. This shift in expectation, called for a shift in power.

Power was no longer wielded by machine bosses, but instead business elites who know how to grow cities and control jobs as well as wealth. City interest supersedes the individual personal agenda of business elites, political affiliations, or public interest groups. Has growth machines disappeared? Unequivocally so in its original sense, but in cities like Chicago a new form of growth machine still exists or never left to begin with. Further analysis will be conducted to examine this relationship. Due to time and page constraints the present study does not sufficiently evaluate this factor.

Get instant access to
all materials

Become a Member