Sunday, September 21, 2008

Machine Politics

Political machines are self perpetuating systems generally based on personal loyalty and patronage. In the United States people generally think of political machines in terms of large cities. For example: the Richard Daley machine in Chicago, Tammany Hall in New York. But a political machine can exist at any level of government. At the state level we have had Huey Long in Louisiana and Thomas Catron in New Mexico. At the national level, Tom Delay ran a comprehensive and relatively effective national political machine.

The nature of a machine depends on the power structure of the society in which it is embedded. In societies where political power is influenced by election, the basic mechanics of the machine center on getting votes. In hierarchical societies (feudal, tribal...) machines center on fealty often coerced by violence.

Political machines are not an aberration. They are based on an essential part of being human. As a social animal, we live in groups. We band together for mutual support and protection. We form friendships and animosities. We try to help our friends and expect them to do the same. When someone thwarts our plans, we will undermine him in order to accomplish our aims. Political machines are not unalloyed evil. In order to maintain a power base, a machine may be extremely response to their supporters. In many cases this improves government services. In supporter's areas, the trash is picked up and the roads are good.

Political machines are about power. Its members may espouse, and believe in, a particular ideology, but the heart of a machine is not ideological, it is personal. A machine must have a way to reward supporters and punish enemies. In fact, one of the hallmarks of the machine mentality is an enemies list.

For political machines the source of power is the machinery of government. Government taxation provides a base of money. This money provides direct means to reward in the form of jobs and contracts. Withholding jobs and money provides a means of punishment. Government regulation provides another carrot and another stick. Businesses can be shut down through regulation or over-vigorous enforcement. Conversely, the skids can be greased by removing regulations or declining to enforce them. Taxation itself is a great lever. Taxes can be reduced on friends and increased on enemies. All of this requires that the machine controls the levers of government.

City machines are perhaps the easiest to understand and examine. The Daley organization controlled on the order of 30,000 patronage jobs. There was a strict hierarchy based on electoral politics. The city was divided into wards and precincts. Political appointees were responsible for estimating and delivering the votes in their area. At every level of the machine, there were rewards and punishments. The plus side is government responsiveness. An influential person gets his requests answered. A important precinct might get better city services. On the other hand, precincts where the machine lost might find themselves without city services and city jobs.

Electoral politics are used to ensure control over government, but machines are personal. By cooperating with the machine, you should personally benefit. By defying, you are personally punished. Reward can be through direct payment, perhaps by being given a job that may or may not require work. More profitable is the ability to steer government money. A lucrative government contract can act as payment. If you are the person deciding where the contract should go, that power is worth something. Typical forms of personal payment can be bribes, kickbacks or jobs for friends. Political machines thrive on graft. When personal profit takes precedence over public good, everyone suffers.

In national politics the same basic mechanics exist, but because of the scale the details change. On a national level, campaigns are won with money. Loyalty can be bought with campaign money.

Direct contributions to particular candidates and parties are restricted. Campaigns that address large numbers of individual voters can raise tremendous amounts of money. However, each individual contributor is not that important to the campaign. If you want to gain attention, you can become a "bundler". A bundler gathers together the campaign money from a set of individuals. The bundler may not put up all the money himself but becomes personally powerful by being able to control a large donation. There have, or course, been scandals where bundlers paid the money to the individuals who turned around and contributed it. The bigger the bundle, the more powerful the bundler becomes.

At the national level, lobbyists for industries and particular points of view are very important. Lobbyists must be able to argue persuasively, but another important function is to provide monetary support for those who support them. This support provides access to the political process. Tom Delay took this to a new level. First, he steered contributions to his political action organizations. That made candidates beholden directly to him. He also inserted himself into the lobbying firms themselves. Access required political approval in hiring. This made lobbying itself a patronage job.

At the national level, the personal loyalty and reward structure of machines remains the same, but the amount of money available is much larger.

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