I am personally pro-machine, both out of filial piety (my Irish grandparents owed their livelihoods to Tammany Hall) and because the known alternatives are so much worse. Perhaps the concept is due for revival, as the retro vintage artisanal alternative to the kleptocrats of our Second Gilded Age? Are we sophisticated enough, technologically or socially, to harness the machines’ benefits without the corruption for which they were infamous?
… How is it possible for Democrats—seemingly the natural “majority party,” on the right side of every significant demographic trend—to suffer such catastrophic losses? Explanations abound, most of which revolve around the money advantage Republicans derived from the Citizens United decision. Or the hoary, self-congratulatory fable of how Democrats martyred themselves to goodness, forsaking the white working class forever because it passed the landmark civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965. Or how the party must move to the left, or the right, or someplace closer to the center—Peoria, maybe, or Pasadena.
But there’s a more likely explanation for these Democratic disasters. While 61.6 percent of all eligible voters went to the polls in the historic presidential year of 2008, only 40.9 percent bothered to get there in 2010, and just 36.4 percent showed up in 2014, the worst midterm showing since 1942. What the Democrats are missing is not substance, but a system to enact and enforce that substance: a professional, efficient political organization consistently capable of turning out the vote, every year, in every precinct.
What they lack is a machine.
New York’s Tammany Hall, the first, mightiest, and most feared of the political machines, went online on May 12, 1789—less than two weeks after George Washington took the oath as president in the same city…. [T]he man who turned Tammany into a full-fledged political machine never actually joined the society: that murky intriguer, Aaron Burr. By 1799, Alexander Hamilton and his Federalists held a virtual monopoly on banking in New York, frustrating smaller businessmen who wanted to start their own banks and “tontines”—investment companies that would not only make them money, but also get around property requirements that kept even most white men from qualifying for the franchise. Burr marched a bill through the state legislature that created the Manhattan Company, which promised to slake the island’s thirst for a dependable water supply. But Burr slipped a provision into the bill that allowed the company to invest any excess funds however it desired—which was the legislation’s main purpose all along.
The upshot was that the Manhattan Company laid down a lot of water pipes that were little more than hollowed-out logs. They leaked badly and absorbed sewage, thus contributing to the city’s constant, deadly epidemics of cholera and yellow fever. But Burr’s company used the money it made from the scheme to found the Manhattan Bank (later to become Chase Manhattan, later to become JPMorgan Chase). The Hamilton banking monopoly was thus broken, and new banks and tontines proliferated, allowing financial speculation to run wild, and untold numbers of middle and working-class New Yorkers to gain the franchise for the first time. In this one coup, Burr established the defining characteristics of political machines for all the years to come: They would be first and foremost about making money, no matter the cost to the general good; they would supply significant public works, no matter how shabbily or corruptly; and they would expand the boundaries of American democracy in the face of all attempts by conservatives or reformers to contain it…
… Republicans have always been, for better and for worse, the truly radical party in this country, from the abolitionists and Lincoln’s “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men” platform, to Progressivism and Teddy Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism,” to the right-wing conservatism of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, to the Ayn Rand utopianism of Paul Ryan. By contrast, machines made Democrats—again, for better and for worse—the party of compromise and inclusion…
By the 1960s, even the mightiest machines were grinding to a halt. The Tammany tiger finally ran out of lives in 1961, put down for good by a coalition of Greenwich Village rebels, whose ranks included Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Jacobs, and Ed Koch. Even Daley’s notorious Chicago organization, the last one standing, was no longer a machine in the old sense, surviving only on a combination of ruthless efficiency and ethnic resentment. The turmoil at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago completely unhinged Daley, who was caught by the cameras screaming “you fucking kike!” at Senator Abe Ribicoff on the convention floor, a previously unimaginable violation of machine etiquette.
Its death, however, did not stop politicians from continuing to rage against the machine. The silliest example of all is the fervent Republican contention that Barack Obama brought “Chicago politics” into the White House, as if the president learned his trade at Dick Daley’s knee. What they really mean by “the machine” is whatever clique of state legislators or local pols have figured out some new means of boodling public funds or soliciting bribes. But that’s simple theft. Today our politicians don’t steal because the machine helps them, but because we have ceded them the entire political system—as reflected in our miserable voter turnouts.
So the machines died, their demise hastened by the sweeping social revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s, which made them look reactionary and ludicrous—pudgy gray men in gray suits and hats, holding back the future. Good riddance. But what was to replace them? For a short time, it was constituent groups: disparate organizations fighting for civil rights and liberties, environmental causes, the poor and the dispossessed, community empowerment, and above all labor, which provided the bulk of the party’s funding and its ground troops. But this new arrangement soon began to unravel as well. As Thomas Frank points out, “Big Labor” was viewed as suspiciously by the Democratic left as the machines were, scourged for its cultural conservatism and support for the Vietnam War, caricatured as hopelessly mobbed-up and resistant to progress…
With the traditional pillars of their party crumbling, the Democrats turned to that balm for all political wounds in America: big money. In the process, they further abandoned their traditional populism, as well as their appeals to working people—appeals that, however imperfectly, stretched all the way back to the start of the machines. And those few leaders in the party who weren’t pandering to corporate and financial interests began to think in idealistic terms that have nothing to do with “practical politics,” habits that prevail to this day. For many years now, liberal/left campaigns have rarely revolved around specific bills or policies, but instead around broader and more abstract demands: climate change, say, or racial equality. The Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements have proven to be balky, fitful vehicles for social change. They lack the ruthless practicality and organization of their right-wing counterparts. Occupy invented the human microphone. The Tea Party took Congress.
Democrats need a Tea Party—less delusional, less hell-bent on destruction—that can do what the machines did…
Baker argues — and I don’t think he’s wrong — that the oligarchs and kleptocrats have bankrolled the Republican “machine” because it’s been a good investment for them. If we’re going to compete with them, Democrats need an equivalent structure that can nuture activists starting at the lowest levels of government (school boards, county commissions). We’ve gotten into the habit of assuming that the “public service” of running for office will mostly be funded by the would-be office holders, which — barring corruption, or outside financial support — means relying on the independently wealthy or the voluntarily penurious. And while we have sometimes been extraordinarily lucky (as when a patrician like FDR or a once-in-a-generation leader like Barack Obama decides to compete) it’s demonstrably not working as a process to keep this messy nation on an even keel.