Political Machines, local political party organization capable of mobilizing or "manufacturing" large numbers of votes on behalf of candidates for political office. Political machines developed in the United States in the early 19th century, reached the peak of their power toward the end of the century, and declined in importance after 1900. Political party machines dominated political life in most American cities in the decades between the Civil War (1861-1865) and the Great Depression (1930s). In some areas, political machines, such as Chicago's Democratic Party organization, continued to be important into the 1970s. Today, traditional political machines are virtually extinct in the United States.
Strong political party organizations, such as Germany's Social Democratic Party, also developed in Europe during the latter half of the 19th century. European governments tended to be centralized, however, in contrast to America's federal structure, which disperses power between national, state, and local levels of government. For this reason, political parties in Europe were generally more powerful at the national rather than the local level. Today, most European nations continue to possess vigorous party organizations that have strong ties to their members. By contrast, American political parties have weakened as their organizational structures have decayed at the local level and with that their capacity to mobilize and activate voters.
The traditional American political machine consisted of three elements: a county committee, which governed the machine; a cadre of ward and precinct leaders who mobilized and organized support at the neighborhood level; and party loyalists who supported the machine with votes and financial support in return for benefits provided by ward and precinct leaders.
The County Committee
The county committee consisted of professional politicians and the party's top office holders within the county. In some cases, a single leader, called the "party boss," would dominate the committee. In the 20th century, individuals such as Kansas City's Thomas J. Pendergast, Boston's James Michael Curley, and Chicago's Richard J. Daley exercised a controlling influence on their city's political affairs through their command of the county committee. Often, however, no single individual dominated the county committee, which operated through a principle of collective leadership. The Tammany Hall machine that influenced New York City's politics from late in the 18th century until midway into the 20th century was seldom dominated by a single "boss."
The power of the county committee depended upon its ability to dominate both electoral politics and the agencies of county and municipal government within its jurisdiction. The county committee had absolute control over party nominations and almost total control over the money and votes needed to win election. As a result, the machine's leaders possessed enormous influence with elected government officials, including mayors, judges, county commissioners, and prosecutors. Machines also played important roles in statewide and national political campaigns and could therefore demand jobs and other favors from state and national officials as well as local government leaders. In some cases, county committee members held important government posts themselves. For example, Richard J. Daley simultaneously served both as head of the Cook County Democratic Committee and as Mayor of Chicago.
Through their control of local government offices and influence over elected officials, members of the county committee controlled government "patronage" jobs that could be used to reward loyal party workers. At the same time, county committee members were in a position to demand financial contributions from businesses within the county in exchange for preferential treatment from the government. Firms that contributed to the machine might receive government contracts, favorable tax treatment, and prompt municipal services. Those that refused would often be harassed by county health and safety inspectors, find their tax assessments increased, and have difficulty obtaining municipal services, such as trash collection and snow clearance.
Political machines often accepted payments from criminal enterprises in exchange for protection from police interference with their activities. In New York City, for example, protection money paid by gambling and prostitution rackets offered the infamous political machine led by William Marcy Tweed a steady source of income during the mid-19th century. On election day, a massed army of small-time thugs and hoodlums returned the favors of the Tweed Ring by stuffing ballot boxes with votes for Tweed and intimidating voters.
Wards and Precincts
The county committee's control of government jobs and its ability to secure contributions from business firms enabled it to establish and maintain the machine's second organizational tier, the precinct or ward organization. A precinct is the smallest electoral district within a county. Cities are usually divided into wards, each containing a number of precincts, for the purpose of electing members of the municipal council. The machine's ward organization consisted of a ward committeeman who, in turn, directed the activities of precinct captains. Usually the committeeman and the captains received government jobs in exchange for their party efforts. Often these individuals did little actual government work. Their real job was to serve the needs of friends, families, and neighbors; secure the loyalty and votes of these constituents; and thereby strengthen the party. Many ward leaders also benefited financially from the preferential treatment they could offer local businesses and contractors. Among the most famous ward bosses was George Washington Plunkitt, a Tammany Hall ward boss of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Plunkitt's personal credo was "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."
The precinct captains were the machine's workhorses. Each precinct captain was responsible for establishing relationships with the several hundred families in the precinct. Captains offered a variety of services to their constituents. They could help family members find jobs with the municipal government or with businesses obligated to the government. Captains could assist with minor legal problems. Captains often operated informal social service agencies, providing money, food, clothing, and shelter to destitute constituents.
Benefits at the ward and precinct level provided the machine's link to the foundations of its organization, the party loyalists in the electorate. Individuals with city jobs obtained through the machine were usually expected to contribute approximately 10 percent of their salaries to the party. More important, they and members of their families were expected to participate in party work during election campaigns. In a national election, hundreds of thousands of these loyalists knocked on doors, handed out leaflets, persuaded their friends and neighbors to support the party, and helped bring voters to the polls. Party machines were particularly effective in mobilizing immigrant voters who often spoke little or no English and had only a rudimentary understanding of American politics. The machine provided immigrants with social services and jobs in return for their votes.
Decline of the Machine
Political machines began to decline in importance after 1900. Progressive Era reformers at the turn of the century successfully compelled local governments to introduce civil service merit systems to replace party patronage in government employment. Once they lost their control over government jobs, political machines had difficulty recruiting workers and activists. At the same time, the introduction of the primary election diminished the ability of machine leaders to dominate party nominationsthis freed elected officials from the machine's control. During the 1930s the federal government began developing national social service and welfare institutions. As these grew, the capacity of the machine to secure support by providing social services also diminished in importance. By the 1960s, only a small number of political machines remained in the United States, largely in cities such as Chicago that had been able to escape full-scale civil service reform. Democratic Party reformers undermined these remaining machines between 1968 and 1972, though a handful still exist. The Republican Party of Nassau County, New York, for example, retains control of more than 20,000 patronage jobs in the county.
Today, most party organizations in the United States are sustained by social ties and ideology, rather than by control of jobs, services, and favors. This has reduced governmental corruption in the United States. In some municipal governments, however, the loss of the strong leadership of the machine has made it difficult to develop and implement coherent solutions to municipal problems. Under the leadership of "Boss" Daley, Chicago was known as "the city that works." It is now more difficult for some American cities to make that claim.