Political Machines

views updated Jun 11 2018

Political Machines


The term “machine,” when used in a social context, describes a hierarchic organization whose members perform different functions, play various roles, and occupy various statuses. It has a leadership which defines and pursues goals and policies with sufficient effectiveness and regularity so that it can be compared to a mechanical device. The term also suggests efficiency, impersonality, and ruthlessness in operation and in the pursuit of goals. The analogy between the human organization and the mechanical organization can be elaborated by pointing to the need of both for fuel, lubricant, and an operator, or headman, or boss.

A political machine is a stable, well-functioning party organization headed by a boss or leader or by a small leadership group. It may be rural or urban. It usually operates on a city or county basis, although state-wide machines can also be found. It is a group composed in the main of professional politicians whose principal objective is the acquisition, maintenance, and enlargement of political power.

Development of the concept. In the past (see Sait 1933) it was usual to distinguish between the political party, the political organization, and the political club on the one hand, and the machine on the other. The machine was wicked. It sought power secretly and through the use of corrupt and sometimes criminal methods. Its objectives were not the public or party good but private and personal gain. Ostrogorskii (1902) promulgated this view. For him, machines were legitimate party organizations which had been “captured” by mercenaries. He believed that honest machines were not natural. Such views are less common today but are still widely held, especially outside scholarly circles. They emphasize “ruthless efficiency,” bribery, patronage, graft, and rigging of elections.

In the past and certainly currently, the term has also been applied without such sinister connotations. This was true in such cases as the “La Follette machine” or the “Taft machine.” The neutral connotation is more useful, since it makes a greater contribution to an understanding of the phenomenon. Thus, any stable, effective, political organization which has a leadership, a hierarchy, and disciplined members should be considered a political machine. Theodore Roosevelt was correct when he observed that the opposition’s organization is habitually called a machine, and its leader a boss or a politician. One’s own is a club or party, perhaps even a faction or a caucus, and its head is invariably a political leader. Sait insisted that “the boss generally claims the title of leader and the machine, usurping the name as well as the thing, calls itself the party organization” (1933, p. 657). Roosevelt and other commentators recognized that both leaders and machines were necessary as well as inevitable. However, machine and boss are generally considered by press and people as evil both in purpose and in method.

Bryce considered “machine” as simply a synonym for “party organization.” His chapters entitled “The Machine” dealt with the hierarchy of party committees and conventions (1888, vol. 2, chapters 60—62). Most contemporary scholarship follows this lead. For example, according to V. O. Key, Jr., the party consists of all those who consider themselves members, while the “inner core” of the party is the “party machine or organization”—“the more or less cohesive group held together by the ambition to gain power” (1942, see p. 337 in the 1953 edition). What the machine does with the power if and when it gains it is much less important in Key’s approach. The machine may be corrupt and vicious, or clean as a hound’s tooth and publicspirited to boot.

Avery Leiserson cogently sums up these attempts to distinguish between “political” bosses and machines, without principles or ideology, etc., and the presumably principled, nonpolitical organizations and leaders. With respect to these legitimate as against nonlegitimate forms, he concludes: As a conception of political organization, the picture of party organizations as being necessarily dominated more by the motives of private, personal gain than are so-called non-political organizations suffers from two defects: (1) substitution of a logical or ethical criterion for empirical, functional analysis, and (2) failure to realize that any kind of organization that enters the political process commits the “sin” of mixing ideal with material motives. If there is a distinctive motivation and attitude characteristic of political parties, it is the survival and the power of the organization, but in this the party is no worse than the church, the army, the corporation, or the trade union. (1958, pp.199—200)

The history of machines. Machines and bosses are as old as politics. They have existed in many parts of the world. Pericles was a boss; so were Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus—and the last three constituted the leadership of a “machine.” So was Robert Walpole in eighteenth-century England. Today Latin American dictators, General Franco of Spain, Premier Ky of South Vietnam, and the heads of most of the emerging countries could be considered bosses. Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy” discovered bosses in European socialist parties. Everyone is familiar with the description of Nikita Khrushchev as a boss.

Hamilton, Jefferson, and Burr were bosses; and their “factions” or “caucuses” were “machines” composed of members of the gentry. Jacksonian democracy ushered in an era which required the ordering and mobilization of large numbers of newly enfranchised frontiersmen. This was a great opportunity for the creators of effective political organization. The “gentlemen” were pushed aside by this new breed, who brought new skills to the political arena. They cared less for niceties and manners than for effectiveness and private pelf. The spoils had been increased by the multiplication of offices and the destruction of the civil service.

The Jacksonians succeeded in this enterprise because of widespread antipathy toward the gentry, because their tactics were rationalized by a primitive democratic theory, and because the attention of most of the population was on the conquest of the continent. A division of labor was made between “the people” and the political machine. By mid-nineteenth century, effective, disciplined machines were active in most cities. Because of their near monopoly of nominations, they became in a real sense the governments of the cities. Highly organized local politics became the rule, while national politics remained chaotic.

Local machines continued to be characteristic in both urban and rural areas at least until after World War ii. Since then there has been a decline. But in the 1950s Philadelphia, which had formerly been a Republican fief, created an old-style Democratic organization.

Why were many of these machines so corrupt? Tocqueville noted that Americans believed that politics was disreputable. It was considered suitable only for those who had failed in private business. In those early days the public business was believed to offer fewer challenges than private realms.

American party conflict has been unusually nonideological in character as compared with that of parties elsewhere. Issues between parties, especially local parties, have tended to be nonexistent or dull. Gifted or imaginative men have not been attracted to party life, especially if they are genteel. This continued to be the case at least until the time of Theodore Roosevelt, and even then friends tried to cajole him away from dealing with the low fellows in politics.

The apathy of the “decent” person, that is, one who shunned politics, was not the only reason for abdication of the responsibilities of republican citizenship. The machines succeeded to complicate government machinery and the electoral process to such an extent that many amateurs became frustrated. This was even more true of the growing number of poorly educated, sometimes illiterate, usually non-English-speaking voters.

The functions of machines. Machines developed in part to compensate for the fractionalization of governmental authority decreed by the national and state constitutions. The wide dispersal of power made effective and responsible government difficult, if not impossible. The inability of the national government to act with energy was a serious matter. A similar situation existed at the state and local levels. In state governments, long lists of administrative officials were elected. In cities and counties it was worse. There was confusion, overlapping, and duplication between cities and counties, and also among the myriad school districts and specialpurpose governments.

Thus, frequently when important problems occurred and the people or some interests demanded firm, quick action, no one had adequate authority to act. The machine filled this lack. It was the only available means of redressing the rigidities of formal government structure. Structure, in the form of law, was stifling necessary function. The machine volunteered to redress the balance.

This process was accelerated by the rapid growth of cities as the industrial revolution transformed an agrarian land into an embryonic urban society. By 1890 the population of urban centers had increased sixfold while the rural population had only doubled. The crazy-quilt system of local government which had already demonstrated its inadequacy could not begin to meet the grave new challenges. Then, as now, the new urbanites were not prepared for their changed life—nor were their governments and their public officials.

City life of those days was more harsh and more cruel than it is today. Many immigrants were terrified. Even native-born, rural-reared Americans found adjustment to the impersonal and dangerous city difficult. Both needed and wanted help.

Middle-class people, especially businessmen, also had needs: streets, sewers, police and fire protection. Building permits and other licenses were required. Protection was wanted from sometimes debilitatingly rigorous administration of regulatory ordinances. Valuable franchises for public utilities and mass transportation were desired. Many fled to the suburbs in order to escape corruption, boss rule, and high taxes, surrendering the city to the machine and the poor.

Criminal and twilight enterprises require permission and protection: bookmaking, gambling, prostitution, horse and dog races. The best available broker for the criminal and the racketeer was the corrupt machine and its captive police force. The quid pro quo was not only money but also votes and manpower on election day. Chicago bosses “Hinky-Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse” John Coughlin had a horde of pimps, prostitutes, and their cohorts regularly available on election day.

Mass immigration was the source of an important part of the population growth. The majority of immigrants settled in the cities, which became ethnically heterogeneous, so that the machines were able to appeal to national pride and prejudice. Often the immigrants received nearly instant citizenship and franchise. Because of their inability to speak English, because of their poverty and illiteracy and lack of experience with voting, their votes were often purchasable. The machines had the manpower, experience, incentive, and effrontery to manipulate the new citizens.

The task of the machines was made easier by the legacy of Jacksonian democracy and populism. Aided by the loose national governmental structure, the spoils system had become institutionalized. So had the long ballot. Only a few people had the energy, time, and knowledge to comprehend the complexities of the electoral process and the unreasonable burden of seriously evaluating dozens of candidates in every election. Being unable to do this, many voters were prepared to be assisted by the willing machines.

In a society in which there is rapid and dramatic concentration of wealth coupled with a developing tradition of an ever-widening franchise, it is inevitable that the wealthy attempt to control the growing number of enfranchised poor. Ethical restrictions could not stand in the way of furthering this goal. Machines were used because they possessed the skills and resources to control the multitudes.

In part, machine politics developed for these reasons. In a deeper sense, however, the growth of machines was inevitable. Organization is required in all complex undertakings, and in any organization there is a tendency for a few to dominate, no matter how many may seem to participate. This tendency is exacerbated by the lack of effective, integrated leadership which can produce coherent policies and viable government and which the people can hold accountable. Because this sort of leadership was absent and unavailable in the formal structure, it had to be supplied from the outside as the only alternative to chaos. Leadership thus went to the party organization, the political machine, and the boss.

Corruption and reform. The political, social, economic, and financial costs of corrupt machines are incalculable but enormous, whatever their inevitability or functional utility. The cost in terms of the “degradation of the democratic dogma” cannot be measured. Tens of millions of Americans have developed cynical attitudes toward the myths of our political system, expressed by “You can’t fight city hall.” The low prestige of politics and politicians is another result, since it has served to keep many potentially able people away from the public arena. The civil service has been degraded. The United States lagged fifty years behind European countries in adopting public welfare and social insurance programs. The physical city and the quality of life therein have deteriorated. Few cities have been specifically planned, and thus lack parks, beaches, and other public amenities. Inadequate schools, inadequate fire protection, inadequate and/or brutal police service, the development of slums, lack of minimum standards for housing, neglect of tenements, rent gouging, lack of consumer protection, wholly inadequate hospital and public health services, an almost total lack of protective labor legislation, and long delays in legislation for the protection of women and children— all have been caused by rapacious machines.

From the early days, attempts have been made to bring about structural changes to improve the quality, tone, and probity of government. Most of these have not succeeded. There is evidence that good government can come into being without structural changes and that bad government can continue despite great changes in form. On the one hand, high-quality leadership by the mayor and city council can rectify some systems considered wretched; on the other hand, wily bosses have successfully circumvented reform.

The major reforms attempted included the following: the nonpartisan election; the commission form of government; the council-manager form of government; the election for councilmen-at-large; the proliferation of the merit system at all levels; the initiative, referendum, and recall; the Australian secret ballot; the short ballot; centralizing power and responsibility at state and local levels, including the state government reorganization movement and the public administration movement. [SeeLocal politics.]

The decline of the machine. In recent years, machine politics has been in decline. Local sources of machine power have been significantly eroded. A study of the 1956 national elections in the United States reported that only 10 per cent of its respondents had been contacted by party workers. If only residents of nonsouthern cities of over 100,000 population are considered, this proportion increases to nearly 20 per cent. But even this figure is a modest one for an effective machine (Greenstein 1963, p. 40).

The reasons for this decay are in part conjectural. There has been a great reduction in traditional rewards of money, perquisites, and jobs offered by the machine to the poor and the ethnic minorities. Some of this is doubtless due to accretions of various reforms and the loss of patronage. There has also been a vast increase in governmental social welfare programs. And the dramatic increase in the general standard of living has reduced the value of the rewards that the machine is still able to offer. The number of persons so attracted has declined as the poor have decreased. Material security has altered attitudes toward the self, government, and society. “Recognition” and other emoluments no longer seduce blocs of voters as they once did. Boss control was further weakened as the intensity of group identification diminished and as many old ethnic neighborhoods changed.

The rise in strength and influence of trade unions, with their strong pension, health, and welfare plans, has further reduced the value of boss rewards to yet another clientele. Moreover, union members receive political directions from union political action committees which may rival political machines in resources and manpower. Generally the electorate is now better educated and the mass media offer much political information, increasing the sophistication of the electorate.

In some places machines have been brought down from the outside. In New York, Carmine DiSapio was unseated in this way, and the forces of Eisenhower and Goldwater each defeated the “regular” Republican machines in enough states and localities to win presidential nominations by landslides. An important element in these defeats of the machine was the availability of what the constituents accepted as attractive candidates. In addition, especially in the Goldwater campaign, control of party machinery was wrested from the regulars.

Reformers in New York and California have displayed more political insight and greater willingness to “play” organizational politics than their predecessors did. Although the new reformers abhor bosses and machine politics, they have worked within the parties and have challenged the machine at its own game of face-to-face voter persuasion.

Machine politics still survives. There remain large pockets of poverty amid American affluence where conditions are similar to those which accompanied the rise of the machines. By various estimates 17 per cent or 20 per cent or 25 per cent of the population is poor. Negroes and Puerto Ricans make up a significant portion of the poor, and their problems are somewhat similar to those of the earlier waves of immigrants. Both groups have made important, though insufficient, gains in political representation. The power that Congressman Adam Clayton Powell had in New York and the increasing number of Negroes in Congress testify to this. In California and the Southwest, citizens of Mexican origin are similarly increasing their political activities.

Machine politics is not yet dead, even in the invidious sense. There have been major transformations; there will be more. But the need for organizations, for leadership, and for political responsibility has increased in the contemporary world. Some promising new organizational forms are developing. They coexist side by side with the remaining weakened and modified older forms and with the still developing structures in the troubled Negro, Puerto Rican, and Mexican-American ghettos. Perhaps we are now wiser than we were fifty years ago. Perhaps we can devise structures that will permit access and integration for those groups which are still dispossessed, without paying the enormous price we have paid for ineffective and often venal local governments.

Alex Gottfried

[Directly related are the entriesCity, especially the article onmetropolitan government; Local politics; Political clubs. Other relevant material may be found inCommunity; Local government; Nonpartisanship; Office, misuse of; Parties, political.]


Banfield, Edward C. (1961) 1965 Political Influence. New York: Free Press.

Bryce, James (1888) 1909 The American Commonwealth. 3d ed. 2 vols. New York and London: Macmillan. → An abridged edition was published in 1959 by Putnam.

Flynn, Edward J. 1947 You’re the Boss. New York: Viking.

Gosnell, Harold F. (1937) 1939 Machine Politics: Chicago Model. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Gottfried, Alex 1962 Boss Cermak of Chicago: A Study of Political Leadership. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.

Greenstein, Fred I. 1963 The American Party System and the American People. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Greenstein, Fred I. 1964 The Changing Pattern of Urban Politics. American Academy of Political and Social Science, Annals 353:1–13.

Key, V. O. Jr. (1942) 1964 Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups. 5th ed. New York: Crowell.

Leiserson, Avery 1958 Parties and Politics: An Institutional and Behavioral Approach. New York: Knopf.

Mckean, Dayton O. 1949 Party and Pressure Politics. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Martin, Ralph G. 1964 The Bosses. New York: Putnam.

Merriam, Charles E. 1929 Chicago: A More Intimate View of Urban Politics. New York: Macmillan.

Merriam, Charles E.; and Gosnell, Harold F. (1922) 1949 The American Party System: An Introduction to the Study of Political Parties in the United States. 4th ed. New York: Macmillan.

Merton, Robert K. (1949) 1964 The Functions of the Political Machine. Pages 215–226 in Frank J. Munger and Douglas Price (editors), Readings in Political Parties and Pressure Groups. New York: Crowell.

Ostrogorskii, Moisei I. 1902 Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties. 2 vols. London and New York: Macmillan. → An abridged paperback edition was published in 1964 by Quadrangle.

Riordan, William L. (1905) 1948 Plunkitt of Tammany Hall. New York: Knopf. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Dutton.

Rogow, Arnold A.; and Lasswell, Harold D. (1963) 1964 The Boss and His Past: Game and Gain Politicians. Pages 207–217 in James D. Barber (compiler), Political Leadership in American Government. Boston: Little.

Salt, Edward Mcchesney 1933 Machine, Political. Volume 9, pages 657–661 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Salter, John T. 1935 Boss Rule: Portraits in City Politics. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wilson, James Q. 1960 Negro Politics: The Search for Leadership. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Machine, Political

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MACHINE, POLITICAL. To its critics a political machine is a corrupt urban regime ruled by a boss and his cronies. To its defenders, the machine steps in where city government has failed to provide essential services to its residents.

In New York during the 1860s, William Marcy Tweed built an organization of Democratic Party functionaries and building contractors that became known as the "Tweed Ring." The city had experienced extraordinary growth over the previous several decades, as Irish and German immigrants streamed into Manhattan. New York's infrastructure was totally unequipped to deal with this population surge. With his allies in the state legislature, Tweed engineered a new city charter that gave New York City control over its own budget. An advocate of labor unions and the Catholic Church, Tweed gained the support of immigrants, particularly the Irish—the largest foreign-born group in the city—although he was neither Catholic nor Irish. He leveraged the city heavily with municipal bonds and embarked on a massive, and very corrupt, campaign of public works to modernize the city. Although

Tweed was arrested in 1871 and cast from power, machine politics continued in New York and developed elsewhere.

The Irish and the Democratic Party would dominate this form of politics in many cities, including New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, until reforms in both civil service and elections over the course of the twentieth century brought about its demise. The Irish were the first immigrant group to arrive in American cities in large enough numbers to challenge the leadership of the British-descended colonial elites. Irish politicians made a populist appeal to immigrants that came after them, offering cultural tolerance and a voice in government in return for political loyalty. The Democratic Party made much greater efforts to court urban immigrants than the Republicans, so it often became a vehicle to power for local bosses.

As immigration grew from the 1880s to the 1910s, cities became very ethnically diverse and newcomers dominated some of the largest. New York was three-quarters foreign-born by 1920. The Irish clung tenaciously to the power they had won, but stinginess in handing out favors to newly arrived ethnic groups gave reformers an edge against them. Progressives struggled to centralize urban government to eliminate the ward system that divided cities into fiefdoms controlled by vassals of a machine boss. They wanted experts to expand infrastructure rationally and honestly and hoped to eliminate vice.

During the New Deal in the 1930s, when the federal government vastly expanded the social services it offered to urbanites, opponents of machine politics hoped the patronage of bosses would be eclipsed. In some cases, however, city control over distributing federal money only further entrenched a boss.

The style of urban politics developed by Boss Tweed in New York during the 1860s, died with Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago in the 1970s. In 1970, only one-third of Chicago's population was first or second-generation immigrant. But its African American population was about thirty-three percent, and these Chicagoans demanded power. The politics of race would supersede the politics of ethnicity in the postindustrial city, and declining urban populations and wealth undermined the patronage basis for new machines.


Allswang, John M. Bosses, Machines, and Urban Voters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.


See alsoBosses and Bossism, Political ; Corruption, Political ; Irish-Americans ; Political Cartoons ; Tammany Hall .

Political Campaign Law

views updated May 23 2018


Statutes and court rulings that govern candidates running for public office.

Political campaign laws have been enacted to ensure fair elections and to prevent misleading or false information from being given to voters. Though federal and state laws that govern campaign financing dominate the headlines, there are a host of state laws that a candidate must follow during a campaign. A candidate who violates campaign laws risks criminal prosecution or the forfeiture of the public office.

Political campaigns are protected by the first amendment, but freedom of speech is not unlimited. For example, state laws prohibit candidates from using the term "reelect" in campaign signs and literature if the person is not the incumbent of that office. Candidates are also barred from making "false claims of support" that falsely state or imply the endorsement of a political party or an organization. Moreover, a candidate cannot state in printed campaign literature that specific individuals endorse the candidate without first obtaining written permission from those individuals. All of these laws speak to fraudulent misrepresentation by a candidate.

More difficult situations arise when one candidate alleges that another candidate has intentionally misrepresented the position of the other. Open political debate is expected in a campaign but candidates can be prosecuted if the claims are judged to be objectively false. Candidates who retract or withdraw challenged campaign literature may escape any penalties for these actions if done in a timely manner. However, false claims made in the closing days or hours of a campaign will be scrutinized more closely.

Up until the early twentieth century political campaigns were marred by corruption. Citizens traded their vote for money or the promise of a government job or benefit. Progressive Era reformers sought to diminish the power of political machines that used bribery, as well as coercion, to assure the election of their candidates. States have enacted criminal laws that prohibit bribing persons to vote or not vote in an election. For example, a person may transport voters to the polls on election day but may not solicit votes. Persons who directly or indirectly threaten the use of force, coercion, economic reprisal, loss of employment, or other harm to compel individuals to vote or not vote for a candidate are also subject to prosecution.

Political advertising on television and radio is also subject to regulation. For example, newspaper print ads, along with radio and television broadcasts, must convey to the public that a message is a paid advertisement. Such laws seek to prevent voters from believing that the message is actually news. In addition, the name of the candidate, party, or organization that paid for the advertisement must be disclosed at the beginning or end of the advertisement. This requirement has been evaded at times when a shell organization is created to disguise the true identity of the sponsor.

Candidates who violate these types of campaigns laws can be prosecuted. A losing candidate typically lodges a complaint with the local district or county attorney, alleging certain violations. If the district attorney finds merit in the allegations a prosecution will follow. This type of prosecution is rare but a candidate who is convicted of a campaign law violation may forfeit the nomination or office in question. However, forfeitures will occur only if it is proven that the candidate committed the act or knew that another person committed the act. Courts will reject forfeiture if the act was trivial or accidental and it would be unjust to declare forfeiture. Even if a court declines to declare forfeiture, legislatures have the right to determine their membership. Occasionally, a legislative body will refuse to seat a person who has committed campaign violations.

Candidates must follow campaign financing rules. State and federal laws authorize public financing of many campaigns. Candidates who accept public financing must abide by the strings that are attached to this funding. In addition, political campaigns must maintain financial records of contributions and expenditures, which are filed at designated times before, during, and after a campaign. Campaign committees may be fined for failing to file reports on time or for substantive violations. The federal election commission (FEC) oversees campaign financing for federal elections. At the state level a campaign finance board or the secretary of state may oversee this task.


Election Campaign Financing.


views updated May 23 2018

cam·paign / kamˈpān/ • n. a series of military operations intended to achieve a particular objective, confined to a particular area, or involving a specified type of fighting: a desert campaign. ∎  an organized course of action to achieve a particular goal: an advertising campaign his campaign to win her heart. ∎  the organized actions that a political candidate undertakes in order to win an election.• v. [intr.] work in an organized and active way toward a particular goal, typically a political or social one: people who campaigned against child labor.DERIVATIVES: cam·paign·er n.ORIGIN: early 17th cent. (denoting a tract of open country): from French campagne ‘open country,’ via Italian from late Latin campania, from campus ‘level ground’ (see camp1 ). The change in sense arose from an army's practice of “taking the field” (i.e., moving from a fortress or town to open country) at the onset of summer.


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campaign army's operations in the field. XVII. — F. campagne — It. campagna (used in the mil. sense XVI) = (O)F. champagne CHAMPAIGN.


views updated Jun 27 2018


CAMPAIGN. A campaign is "a connected series of military operations forming a distinct stage in a war; originally, the time during which an army kept the field [campagne]" (Webster's Unabridged Dictionary).

Campaigns, Presidential

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CAMPAIGNS, PRESIDENTIAL. SeeElections, Presidential .

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