A political club is an organization to which members are attracted primarily by nonmaterial, associational incentives in order to influence the outcome of elections, the leadership of political parties, or the conduct of public affairs. These associational incentives are nonmaterial rewards accruing to members because of their sense of belonging and their relations with other members. It is this incentive system that distinguishes a club from other forms of political organization. A political organization that relies on specific, material incentives (usually money or things easily valued in money terms) is a machine; one that relies on the personal attachment of the members to a particular leader is a following, especially if the connection is not formalized and club quarters are not provided. An interest group is distinguished from a club by its relying on a shared interest or purpose (group serving or public serving) rather than on the satisfactions that arise from solidarity with other members or with the club as an entity.
The distinctions among these kinds of political organizations are analytical, not concrete; in reality, many organizations are mixed cases. Where the dominant mode of attachment—the primary incentive—is the sociability, camaraderie, and prestige of membership, we may use the term “club” with assurance. Generally speaking, a clublike attachment is evidenced by certain tangible criteria: a formal membership roster that distinguishes those “in” from those “out,” a regular meeting place where members periodically come together, and a series of planned events that serve to affirm the members’ solidarity and organize their conviviality.
Political organizations that have all the characteristics of clubs—nonmaterial incentives, formal membership, regular meetings—except that they rely for inducement entirely on common purposes (for example, an ideology) and not at all on sociability are hard to classify. In principle persons may associate together for the loftiest political purposes even though they dislike each other intensely; in practice such cases are rare. In general, nonideological incentives are important even in ideological associations; the more important they are, the more appropriate is the term “club.” Organizations that rely wholly on ideology as an inducement rarely, if ever, display all the outward and visible signs of a club.
Functions of clubs. Political clubs perform different functions, such as the following: (1) Symbolic—the club may form, manifest, or intensify political opinion or loyalty, drawing like-minded persons together both to heighten and make articulate their commitment and to demonstrate this commitment to others. (2) Resource—political resources, particularly money and prestige, may be mobilized by a club and made available to a party or to a faction within a party. (3) Leadership— efforts to mantain or capture the leadership of a political party may be organized and stimulated by a political club, the target of such efforts being either the party’s general organization (for instance, the convention or executive committee) or the party in the legislature, or both. (4) Electoral —the voter, rather than a party, may be the object of action, the club seeking to register him, convince him, and bring him to the polls.
A club may—and usually does—perform more than one function, but some combinations are more likely than others. The symbolic and resource functions tend to be associated in one kind of club, the leadership and electoral functions in another. In the first case the club exchanges associational benefits for the member’s funds, the member’s assent to a statement of purpose, or the right to use the member’s name; in the second case the club’s inducements must compensate the member for considerable expenditure of time and effort, often on tedious and unrewarding tasks (soliciting votes, for example). The first kind of club might be called a solidary association, the second a “combat” organization. Clubs suitable for one role are as a result often unsuitable for the other (for example, persons who join a club to partake of its status or to lend it theirs are not likely to attach a high value to routine electoral work among lower-class voters).
Age and class influence the functions of clubs. Men whose success in life has given them the prestige and funds valued by a political club are likely also to be men sufficiently advanced in years, in career, and in status to have little time or inclination for the routine, conflict-laden aspects of politics; on the other hand, men too young or too lacking in family connections to have money and status are also likely to regard political labors as an opportunity rather than a burden.
History. The earliest political clubs in England and the United States tended to be primarily solidary associations brought into being by political notables in order to symbolize (and in part to create) an emerging political party and to mobilize resources for the conduct of its affairs. In London the most influential aristocrats, ministers, and members of Parliament had for years gathered informally at White’s or Brook’s, private gambling and drinking clubs that began as business ventures but acquired political overtones owing to their patronage by the various pariamentary factions that were beginning to coalesce into the early Tory and Whig parties. These clubs were essentially social organizations (Brook’s was made famous by the gambling exploits of Charles James Fox and the Prince of Wales); although each acquired a partisan flavor, there were some Whig members in the predominantly Tory White’s club and some Tories at the Whig center, Brook’s.
After passage of the Reform Act of 1832, British party managers faced the necessity of registering a sizable number of newly enfranchised voters and of bringing together into an electoral organization the various factions and “connexions” that had flourished in the era of “rotten borough” politics.
The Tories organized the Carlton Club and the Whigs the Reform Club. Both were intended to be political associations, but neither relied on party program to maintain the support of the members; rather, elegant dinners, the prestige of membership, and comfortable quarters kept the subscription lists filled. Because the clubs were almost exclusively upper class, many rank-and-file party workers and parliamentary backbenchers were not members. Status was often more important than ideology; several prominent members were allowed to remain even though ideologically they were backsliders, but not even the most ideologically pure candidate was admitted if he was not a “gentleman.” The more middle-class clubs were often ideologically rigorous (the Conservative Club, founded in 1840, was apparently more intolerant of deviants than was the Carlton).
In the United States no great national political clubs arose comparable to the Carlton or Reform; the localistic nature of American politics led to the establishment of local clubs. The Boston Caucus Club met irregularly in the 1760s. In the 1790s Democratic and Republican societies (often modeled after Jacobin clubs) were established in most states to challenge the Federalist domination of the national government; these short-lived associations served, under the leadership of “mother societies” in Philadelphia, as intermediate forms between the politics of the great family “connexions” and the politics of the mass parties of later years.
In both England and the United States the clubs attempted to unite various wings of the parties, to provide central meeting places for activists and stopping places for sympathetic travelers, to supply funds and candidates for the constituencies, to influence newspapers and public opinion, and, in a few cases, to direct parliamentary strategy. It is easy to exaggerate their success in these matters; the clubs were, after all, a transitional political form whose functions were in the hands of part-time, lay members, many of them more interested in conviviality than in conviction. The need for full-time, professional party management grew increasingly evident, particularly as the franchise was steadily widened. The clubs began by supporting paid party managers and were ultimately supplanted by them.
Clubs grew fastest in periods when the franchise was being enlarged and in areas where party competition was keenest. The club was an appropriate device for defining the party’s identity and mobilizing its resources as long as the party consisted to some degree of like-minded persons; with the growth of a mass party, particularly under conditions of two-party competition, the party became too heterogeneous to be represented by a single solidary association and the requirements of party combat too demanding to be left to part-time amateurs.
A centralized political structure, as in England, vested power increasingly in the parties’ parliamentary leadership; party managers became the agents of this leadership. In the United States a highly decentralized political system saw the growth of local, not national, clubs (the Tammany Society, founded in 1789, was a conspicuous example) that either were assimilated into the regular party apparatus (the “members” becoming in fact paid party workers, precinct captains, and ward leaders for whom the “club” was a source of tangible more than intangible benefits) or became organizations through which insurgents challenged regular party leadership in hopes of obtaining the perquisites of power or of reforming the system of politics.
Between 1868 and 1885 the number of political clubs in London grew from 5 to 14 and the number of members from approximately 6,700 to over 25,000 (Hanham 1959). Most of this growth was accounted for by middle-class clubs, many of which provided London quarters for visiting politicians and dignitaries from the provinces. In addition, both parties—from about 1867—sought to extend their influence among the lower classes by fostering the growth of workingmen’s associations and clubs in the wards. Such clubs, created from the top down, provided, for a small subscription fee, “plain and homely facilities” in which the principal attraction was the bar. In New York City and other large American cities such working-class clubs grew up spontaneously; whereas in politically centralized England there was little incentive other than sociability to bring persons together in such clubs, in America there was in addition the lure of the power, offices, and jobs available from ward and city politics.
From the nineteenth century on, there were in England and America a number of clubs devoted as much to political argumentation as to sociability; in England these “local Houses of Commons” consisted of zealous young men, eager for a variety of causes and candidates, who were debarred by poverty or lack of connections from the traditional entry route (via the university) into politics. In the United States a hundred years later local Democratic clubs sprang up in New York, Illinois, California, and several other states where zealous young men and women felt themselves debarred from the traditional entry route into politics because they had a university education and strong convictions. These college-educated liberal Democrats sought to use the club as a device for (in New York) “reforming” the party leadership from within or (in California) committing the party’s candidate to a particular policy position. The political club, which began as a device for bringing the prestige and wealth of aristocrats into a regularized association with nascent parties, now exists most commonly in the United States as an association in which young middle-class amateurs struggle against the regular party machinery in order to advance both their principles and their ambition. Where the earliest clubs stressed elegance and exclusiveness, contemporary clubs are likely to stress Robert’s Rules of Order and community issues.
The role of clubs. The club, whatever its form, has only seldom been successful in overcoming class differences. Naturally the solidary political club had no interest in becoming a multiclass association; its exclusiveness was a principal incentive. The combat club often strove to attract members from a variety of groups, but the middle-class and often professional or even intellectual leadership of the club was typically unable to make club life attractive to working-class members. Many of the Jacobin clubs in late eighteenth-century France achieved a very diverse membership, but usually only after the advent of the Terror had transformed the club from a middle-class gentlemen’s literary, social, or freemason society into a powerful instrument of ideology and local government. Aaron Burr used the Tammany Society as a vehicle for mobilizing both wealth and votes, but by 1872 the Irish had driven the Anglo-Saxon Protestants out of leadership, and men of lower-class antecedents had displaced the merchants. In England, after 1883, the Primrose League attempted, by the use of elaborate fetes, carnivals, and vaudeville entertainments, to mobilize working-class voters on behalf of an ultraconservative position represented by Lord Randolph Churchill. The “reform” clubs of New York City in the 1950s and 1960s emphasized community and neighborhood service projects and servicing of tenants’ complaints as a way of attracting working-class support. Both the Jacobin clubs and the Primrose League “habitations” (as the local units were called) placed heavy reliance on elaborate, quasi-masonic rituals, handclasps, litanies, titles, and ceremonies (the Tory Primrose League pledged its members to secrecy and “the Imperial Ascendancy of Great Britain” and conferred the title of “knight harbinger” and the order of the Jubilee Grand Star; the radical Jacobin clubs celebrated the Cult of Reason, revered busts of Jean Paul Marat and Louis Michel Lepeletier, and insisted on the single title of “citizen”).
In general, ritual, entertainment, and refreshments have proved more useful than ideology or community service in attracting working-class support to clubs led by, or under the patronage of, middle-class activists. In tsarist Russia during the early twentieth century, for example, there were a number of intellectual “study circles” (such as Martov’s circle in St. Petersburg), which discussed and debated the imperatives of history; there were, in addition, workers’ circles to which intellectuals were invited as teachers. The intellectuals discovered, however, that the workers were often more interested in being taught how to read and write Russian than how to appreciate Marx, Georgi Plekhanov, and Pavel Akselrod; instead of arousing a revolutionary consciousness, the intellectuals usually succeeded only in assisting the workers in their efforts to acquire the attributes of bourgeois respectability. Another kind of semipolitical club (there were practically no clear-cut examples, owing to the absence of electoral and party politics) were the older middle-class professional societies, such as the Moscow Society of Jurisprudence and the St. Petersburg Economic Society; discussion at these associations was sufficiently political for the government to order them either closed or curtailed.
The decline of traditional political clubs in the United States has been the result of the decay of the political machine (of which the clubs were, in many cities, a part), the assimilation of the lower classes into a style of politics in which newspapers and television are more important than clubhouse conversation as a source of both entertainment and information, and the withdrawal of the old elites of wealth and prestige from an active role in local politics. Perhaps the last major upper-class male political club movement was the Union League Association. Union League clubs were founded in New York and Philadelphia in 1862—1863 to strengthen the Federal cause, counteract Copperhead influence, and support the war effort; after the Civil War they attempted to organize the freed slaves for political purposes. Following Reconstruction the Union League clubs turned their attention to political—particularly municipal—reform and to the difficult task of maintaining their expensive clubhouses.
Political clubs today are more likely to be combat than solidary associations and to attract the ideologically militant rather than either the prestigious or the needy. The volunteer spirit of the club movement has brought to it many young women (ladies having more time than men for door-to-door politics); in this the clubs associated with the California Democratic Council or the New York Committee for Democratic Voters are like the Primrose League and the Jacobin clubs, which gave a major political role to women as early as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Some of the constituency associations of the Conservative and Labour parties in England function as political clubs and attract the more zealous elements of the parties; as a result, constituency association views are often more extreme than (and at odds with) the views of central party managers or parliamentary leadership. Lord Randolph Churchill’s efforts in 1883 to capture the leadership of the National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations by mobilizing the local units against the influence of the party whips and professional leaders presaged the efforts, seventy years later, of the reform-minded clubs of the New York Committee for Democratic Voters to capture the executive committee of the New York County Democratic party (that is, Tammany Hall). Club leaders are almost invariably in competition with the party’s elected officials and managers; the former are constrained by the need to maintain the enthusiasm of like-minded volunteer club members, the latter by the need to win votes from a heterogeneous and slightly bored electorate.
Little comparative research has been done in the following areas: (1) the consequences for goals and strategies of differing kinds of club incentives; (2) the institutional or socioeconomic conditions under which associational incentives will be highly valued by political activists and hence under which political clubs will flourish; (3) the methods by which professional party managers deal with political clubs when the supply of, or demand for, other inducements (such as money) is insufficient to permit leaders to abandon the club form altogether; and (4) the relationship between ideology and sociability as organizational incentives.
James Q. Wilson
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"Political Clubs." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/political-clubs
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