Critical Analysis: Political Machines
Political machines and bosses ran rampant in the late 19th and into the 20th century, controlling the local governments of multiple major US cities like New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Offenses like corruption, inefficiency, and minority abuses were par for the course, but political machines and bosses also provided some positives to their communities. They socialized and Americanized immigrants, provided welfare services in areas where the federal and state government lacked, and facilitated urban development. It looks like the scales were balanced between the positive and negative consequences of machine actions. Why then, do we remember them as the big bad wolf? Were machines as bad as history books remember them as, or do they deserve some praise as well?
Kweit and Kweit describe the four major characteristics of political machines as having a disciplined party hierarchy, control over nominations for office to control those in office, party leadership that usually does not hold office, and a support base that is maintained by a mixture of material and non-material rewards. A machine’s manifest function is to get candidates elected while its latent functions include the provision of welfare services and the socialization of immigrants. Kweit and Kweit argue that public displeasure with machines leads to urban reforms, and that this happened in the post-World War II era. Contributing factors to the decline of political machines, most specifically the Tammany Hall machine in New York City, included the expanded role of the government into welfare provision, the assimilation of immigrants, demographic changes, economic restructuring, demand for civil service employment, and reform movements in the social, electoral, and administrative sectors. (Kweit and Kweit, Political Machines.)
Steffens’ muckraking article centering on Philadelphia politics describes his feelings of disgust about the corrupt structure of machines in American cities. He titles Philadelphia, “the worst governed city in the country.” The mayor of the city, James McManes, is a major machine boss. “Bullitt Law” gives all power to the mayor and none to the people which allows the machine to exploit the city and everyone in it. The machine controls every aspect of the political process, down to the way citizens’ votes are cast, which lets the machine profit off of the entire system. (Steffens, Philadelphia: Corrupt and Contented.)
While Steffens’ piece is much more passionate than Kweit and Kweit’s, both are against machines. Kweit and Kweit offer a more holistic look at the structure and functions of machines but through the lens of corruption and their inevitable demise. Steffens shows how an extremely corrupt (however extremely efficient) machine at its height goes through the processes that Kweit and Kweit define and also how detrimental the fallout can be for the citizens who get ignored or abused by it. Steffens shows that while machines might have some positive consequences (welfare, socialization, etc.), that’s not what they intended. The end goal is either the next election or material gain.
In Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, there is a different perspective to be considered in the machine debate. George Washington Plunkitt vehemently defends political machines, as he was a powerful and influential Tammany Hall machine leader for his entire life. Plunkitt starts off by explaining the difference between honest and dishonest graft, arguing that he has never earned a dishonest dollar in his life. He simply takes the opportunities that are offered to him, even if that involves taking advantage of someone else. He curses civil service reform and says it will never last, draws great distinctions between ethnicities, praises patronage, and discourages aspiring politicians from going to college. (Riordon, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall.)
Plunkitt’s piece echoes many machine boss stereotypes. It also shows that bosses and leaders were able to treat corruption and power abuse like simple everyday things with no consequences, which for machine bosses, there usually weren’t. Plunkitt’s attitude is one of entitlement. He feels he’s earned his position through “honest graft” that doesn’t seem very honest to the people he took advantage of. He refers to groups of immigrants not as people, but as pawns for him to use at his leisure which shows that machines didn’t intend to help those in need but that it was a happy consequence.
Kweit and Kweit, Steffens, and Plunkitt describe the workings and consequences of machines in differing tones but the themes that emerge are the same: corruption, greed, and a lack of true compassion for minorities and the poor. The fact that the help that was given to new immigrants (welfare and socialization) is categorized as a “latent function” by Kweit and Kweit, which can be interpreted to mean an unintended consequence, is evidence enough that machines were out for only profit and power. It might be worth mentioning the positive consequences that came out of their actions, but their corruption and inefficiency should never be overshadowed by happy accidents.