"All politics is local."
- Tip O'Neill
Ah, good ol' Tip. The guy knew what he was talking about. He played the political game as well as anyone, and he lived that statement. Like any good politician, he paid close attention to the issues of the day, and how his constituents felt about them. But he also made sure to bring home the bacon each and every year he could - I vaguely recall one (probably half-true) stat that had O'Neill's district as getting more federal programs than most states in the early 80s. He brought home money, he brought home jobs, and the voters loved him for it.
Now, turn the clock back a good century or more. Things generally worked the same - you had to go out and reach each voter, and do it on as personal a level as you could. The difference here is that the federal government was not nearly as powerful as it is now - in every metropolis, the city government held the pursestrings. The city government ran the programs and set up the benefits. And a political machine was what made sure the voters were kept happy.
See, it breaks down like this. When you work on the level of a city, it's easy to organize on a 'grassroots', block-by-block level. And who's on the grassroots level a century ago? First-generation immigrants, mostly. People who don't speak the language, who have no money, no clout. But they (or the men, at least) can vote. And they hold a very large voting bloc - in some cases, a majority. So, a 'machine' springs up around them.
Let's take New York's famous Tammany Hall machine as our model. They were the kings, the best, most well-organized machine ever seen in the States. They worked very simply. Each machine was focused on getting as many votes as possible out of each city block. So every block had a Tammany man, someone who would watch over the people and help them out in times of need. The chain goes to precinct captains, and on up, to honorary titles like 'Sachem' and 'Grand Sachem'. And each does his part to help out each individual voter, such as providing turkeys on Thanksgiving, handing out coal to freezing families, providing no-interest loans to local boys who want to start a business.
This machine hierarchy is just an old boys' network, really, outside of the political party or the government, even though machine men will hold majority positions in both, controlling them. One big trick is that the network is codified, set in stone, and perpetuated by a constant stream of new blood. So a good machine never depends on a single personality (say, a Richard J. Daley) to hold it all together. But more importantly, the voters like the machine, and they will vote to keep them in power. The machine politicians were second-generation immigrants, the voice of the Street, and they understood the life of the poor. It's not exactly the Man keeping the brother down.
Here's a better way to put it - any Tammany Hall politician saw himself as a businessman, and the voters as his customers. And they would do anything to keep on the good side of the voters. Records kept by machine politicians show how they worked 18 hour days, going to weddings, funerals, being the first to the site of the fire and dispensing more aid the the afflicted than is needed. They brought in city construction jobs by the boatloads. And all the voters had to do in return was take two minutes and pull a lever? No contest. The machine worked in very warm and personal terms, bypassing the rule-bound, bureaucratic government structures. Anyone, so long as they knew a voter, could bend the ear of a machine politician, anything that was needed. And the machine provided service with a smile. The poor finally had a voice in government! They had good jobs working for the city! It was good business, and the immigrants and the poor were grateful.
It all sounds just wonderful, doesn't it? Peachy as can be. This system is often romanticized by writers and intellectuals, a system that helps the downtrodden, one that actually works. I think the most famous example of this is Edwin O'Connor's novel, The Last Hurrah, which was made into a movie starring Spencer Tracy as the machine boss and all-around good guy.
Well, not quite. The machine politician thought of himself as a businessman through and through, so let's extend out the politics-as-business metaphor.
First off, in all that nice talk about serving the people and giving the poor a voice in government, did you notice that I never mentioned anything about issues? I didn't, because the politicians never did, either. Anything controversial is bad business. Why alienate people with small potatoes? Stick to the earthy, easily understandable, street-level help. Give out Christmas trees in December. Listen to complaints about overzealous police ruining a local business and take care of the matter. But don't mess with any substantive issues. Don't try and provide any real opportunity for the poor to move up. You might lose votes. Sure, hand out fish, but don't try and teach anyone to fish on their own.
Problem numero uno : machine politics perpetuates the status quo, becuase there is no profit margin in change.
And now what you've all heard about machine politics : corruption. Sure, sure, some of the worse machines, the less effective machines, they will go for voter fraud. But that's not very common for the real machines, the Tammany Halls and the Cook County Democrats. Voter fraud is bad business. Anything listed in the penal code is bad business. No, the corruption here is all about money, making shady but still legal deals. You see, if you work 18 hour days doing what is basically philanthropic work, you feel as though your pay for your generosity should be considerable. And, after all, if you are high in the machine, that means you probably hold at least the level of alderman in the city government, if not higher. So, why not listen for opportunites? You know, the city's building a park or another public work over at so-and-so, but quiet, the word isn't public yet... so you go and buy up the land before anyone knows what's up. And when the city comes calling, you jack up the price and convince your peers that it's not a shady deal, you just saw an investment and now it's paying off. And then you get in touch with your friends in the construction business (they're friends because they voted for you) and make sure that they are the ones who will be doing the work. They're so grateful, they deliberately ask for more money in the city contract, so they can kick a little back to you. Just becuase you're a good friend, mind you; no other reason. You know government, you know business, and you make money hand-over-fist, making sure to drop a few pennies back in the home district to insure that you'll stay in power. Your conscience is clear. You're still helping out people on the street, right? And you're helping out your friends, giving them all the contracts and money they can possibly handle?
Problem number two : the old boy's network is in full effect. Conflicts of interest abound. Graft happens. And there's nothing you can do to stop it.
Past this, the story gets complicated, with middle-and-upper class reformers constantly on the attack, sometimes preaching progressiveness and morality, sometimes acting like a soldier in a class war. But they never really got anywhere; the only way that most machines died was a drop in the level of the immigrants, as they made their way west, and by the Alphabet Soup of FDR, weakening city government and, by extension, the machines. Of course, that didn't stop Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, but that was a special case, one man more or less organizing and embodying the entire machine himself.
And that's the simplified (yes, simplified) story of the American political machine. If you'll allow me to be (more) subjective here, I'd like to say that this fascinates me as a liberal; on the surface, it sure looks good. It's pure democracy; it's a working system. And it happens without any cumbersome bills or laws, no programs and bureaucracies. It is government by the people, for the people. And it is utterly harmful and corrupt.