Political machineries (USA)

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Political machineries
Location: United States of America
USA map.png
Author: Fran Osrecki
Affiliation: University of Osnabrück

Original Text: Fran Osrecki, University of Osnabrück

Political machineries (from machine – device, engine, instrument) were informal practices for organising political parties in urban centres in the USA in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (synonymous expressions: machine politics, political machines). The term ‘machinery’ refers to the perceived efficiency of this kind of political party organisation. This efficiency was attributed to strong party leaders (commonly known as ‘bosses’) who were able to impose ‘measures of discipline on party members’ and ‘to maintain and use political power on a regular, predictable basis’ (Mayer 2001: 11678)[1].

Its discipline, efficiency and predictability notwithstanding, the term has largely negative connotations, since these features were enabled by gaining voter support by means of ‘patronage jobs, government contracts, and special favors to individual voters’ (ibid.) as well as to voter groups, while excluding non-supporters. Thus, on the most general level, political machineries built their power on a form of organisation that traded specific material rewards to loyal segments of the electorate in return for political support. As a result, political machineries violated the norms of a universalist discharge of duties associated with public roles, and substituted the ideological formation of political will for a system of smoothly interlocking economic exchanges: resources bought votes, votes bought offices, offices bought influence, influence bought resources, and resources bought votes.

The rise of political machineries is explained by a combination of interrelated factors that were specific to urban American politics and bureaucracy toward the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.

First, the American political system of that time consisted of countless electoral offices with relatively short mandates. This practice was rooted in the radical democratic tradition of American politics that aimed to prevent the development of the centralised, hierarchical and often authoritarian bureaucracies commonly found at that time in Continental Europe (Lesoff 1994)[2]. However, an unintended side-effect of democratic bureaucracy and elected offices was that their short-term character impeded the recruitment of professional bureaucrats and attracted persons who regarded public offices as instruments for personal enrichment, sinecures and patronage (Welskopp 2010:224)[3].

Second, the large-scale buying of votes and trading of material inducements for political support were reinforced by a massive influx of immigrants who (a) were dependent on local networks for support and mutual help; (b) were given the right to vote comparatively quickly; and (c) were willing, since they lacked a supportive welfare-state and experience of democratic processes, to trade their votes for more tangible benefits (food, housing and jobs).

Image depicting a political boss dragging loyal businessman and bagger/immigrant to the voting place. The political boss has playing cards and a pistol in his pocket, this identifies him as a saloon owner and/or associates him with organised crime. Artist: Frank Beard

Third, immigration encouraged the extremely fast growth of urban centres and the need for massive investment in urban infrastructure. American cities, however, were not able centrally to coordinate such complex projects, mainly because the democratic structure of local administrations imposed strong checks and balances between administrative units. The resultant deadlocks in decision-making had to be solved informally and on a personal level.

Fourth, the small and ineffective US public sector had to outsource most large-scale investments to the private sector, while leaving this relationship largely unregulated. For politicians and bureaucrats, this created an incentive for personal enrichment by means of insider-trading and commissions, especially in the real-estate and construction businesses, where ‘political bosses’ often acted as both buyers and sellers of services. This was the resource base for the supply of material rewards for loyal voters.

Fifth, in American cities electoral constituencies and administrative units mostly overlapped, so politicians and bureaucrats could trade benefits for political support locally, that is, with people whom they knew personally and who were directly dependent on their help (Welskopp 2010:225)[4].

Sixth, the often puritanical standards of the American legal system (especially regarding gambling, prostitution and alcohol consumption) created a market for ‘protection’ against police forces that, because of the ubiquity of deviant behaviour, often acted selectively and unpredictably. Politicians and bureaucrats often bribed police officers to look the other way in order to protect their clientele when they were engaged in semi-legal or criminal activities.

All these factors intertwined to create complex networks of informal relationships with ‘political bosses’ and the higher echelons of party organisations at their heart. Around them there emerged a tight web of loyal voters, corrupt administrators and law-enforces, businesspeople, criminals and racketeers. In popular culture, the structure of political machines, their connections to immigration and crime, and the role of ‘bosses’ such as William Tweed (‘boss’ of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party political machine in 19th century New York) were graphically depicted in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film, Gangs of New York.

The longevity of political machineries in such cities as New York, Philadelphia or Chicago is usually explained by their latent functions. According to Robert Merton’s (1968:128 ff.)[5] classic and widely accepted analysis, political machineries latently (that is, unintentionally) centralised power and authority that had previously been dispersed among many antagonistic administrative units. Also, as mentioned above, political machineries acted as a personalised and direct proto-welfare system for immigrants and other economically deprived groups and helped to integrate them into the political system. For disadvantaged groups, political machineries were vehicles for upward mobility at a time when there were few legitimate channels for such advancement. Through favouritism, moreover, political machineries created a protected and thereby predictable (that is, non-competitive) market for large and small businesses loyal to the machine.

These functions came at a high price, however. Political machineries primarily served the needs of the bosses and their cronies who not only centralised but in fact monopolised political power. While the political bosses’ cooperation with the business world helped to build infrastructure, it did so at unreasonably high rates that drained city budgets and left cities heavily indebted for decades. Political machineries not only excluded non-supporters but actively terrorised them, often with the help of organised crime groups, while cash flows from the protection business turned political machineries into organised crime groups themselves. Finally, political machineries, by having their power-base in local immigrant populations, contributed to racial divisions in American cities—political support was traded for help for `their’ people only. This spurred racist and isolationist positions in American politics, as immigration came to be associated with political decay, organised crime and private vice.

Political machineries were a specifically American phenomenon of the industrial age. The practice had largely died out by the middle of the 20th century, as local administrations became professionalised, as the US developed a universalist welfare state (President Roosevelt’s New Deal) and as second and third generation immigrants were absorbed into a functioning labour market that made local, personal and mutual help largely obsolete (Mayer 2001:11679 ff.)[6]. While the combination is historically specific, however, some aspects of political machineries can still be found today, largely in countries with democratic party systems but with otherwise dysfunctional welfare systems or labour markets. Tina Hilgers (2011:580)[7] argues that political machineries consisted of a complex combination of several informal and illegitimate practices and that ‘clientelism’ was among the most important. Party organisations that today most clearly resemble political machineries are based on a clientelistic exchange of political support for direct and face-to-face forms of goods and services that are also characterised by a lack of ideological orientations of the parties themselves and of their voters. Classic examples are the Peronist Party in Argentina (Auyero 2000)[8], the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico, or the traditional parties in modern Greece.

However, the roots and sources of durability of contemporary clientelistic parties around the world often differ from those of their American counterparts. In Latin America and Asia, for example, they are often rural rather than urban, while immigration plays a less decisive role than traditional ethnic, regional, religious, occupational and clan loyalties. Often, too, such parties monopolise the national political landscape more effectively than local machineries in the USA could do. A possible explanation is that strong countervailing powers (the Republican Party, independent mass media, established capitalists), the pronounced federalism of US politics, and the concentration of immigrant populations in urban communities prevented the proliferation of political machineries on the national level.


  1. Mayer, W. G. 2001. ‘Political Machines’, in N. J. Smelser and P. B. Baltes (eds), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Volume 17. Amsterdam: Elsevier. 11678-11681
  2. Lesoff, A. 1994. The Nation and Its Cities: Politics, ‘Corruption’, and Progress in Washington, D.C., 1861-1902. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press
  3. Welskopp, T. 2010. ‘”Honest Graft” – “Ehrbare Bestechung”: Korruption als Medium der Politik in US-amerikanischen Städten des 19. und frühen 20. Jahrhunderts’, in N. Grüne and S. Slanicka (eds), Korruption: Historische Annäherungen an eine Grundfigur politischer Kommunikation. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. 221-245
  4. Welskopp, T. 2010. ‘”Honest Graft” – “Ehrbare Bestechung”: Korruption als Medium der Politik in US-amerikanischen Städten des 19. und frühen 20. Jahrhunderts’, in N. Grüne and S. Slanicka (eds), Korruption: Historische Annäherungen an eine Grundfigur politischer Kommunikation. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. 221-245
  5. Merton, R. K. 1968. Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press
  6. Mayer, W. G. 2001. ‘Political Machines’, in N. J. Smelser and P. B. Baltes (eds), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Volume 17. Amsterdam: Elsevier. 11678-11681
  7. Hilgers, T. 2011. ‘Clientelism and Conceptual Stretching: Differentiating among Concepts and among Analytical Levels’, Theory and Society, 40 (5): 567-588
  8. Auyero, J. 2000. ‘The Logic of Clientelism in Argentina: An Ethnographic Account’, Latin American Research Review, 35 (3): 55-81