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Why Political Machines Were Good for Government

They may have had their negatives, but unlike Congress today -- and to some degree, the states -- they got the job done.

An 1870s cartoon of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party political machine in New York
Thomas Nast
Of all the columns I have written for this magazine over the past 24 years, the one that brought the biggest response by far was a column on political patronage. Actually, it was a defense of political patronage. Most readers hated it. Sorting through dozens of letters and emails, I found only one that agreed with my point of view. Everybody else seemed to feel I was defending corruption and insulting the principles of merit and integrity that a decent democratic government ought to strive for.

The background was this: In 2004, Ernie Fletcher took over as the first Republican governor of Kentucky in 32 years. He proceeded to hand out jobs all over the state to GOP loyalists, not just in the higher reaches of public office but in every one of the 120 counties of the commonwealth as well. Anybody who wanted to fill a vacancy on a highway crew or in a state welfare office had to survive an eight-step hiring process that included getting the approval of the governor’s designated Republican contact in the applicant’s county.

I made what seemed to me the simple point that when it comes to painting yellow lines on a blacktop road, there is no such thing as “merit selection.” One ordinary person can do a routine job about as well as any other. Andrew Jackson said that 180 years ago, and he was right. If a Republican governor wants a Republican line painter, the polity doesn’t really suffer.

But there was no disputing that Fletcher had violated state law, which provided that for 80 percent of the jobs on the state payroll, nobody could be hired on the basis of political affiliation. Fletcher was eventually indicted for this, although his case never went to trial.

Still, it seemed to me that for most lower-level and mid-level state jobs, there was nothing wrong with a governor rewarding the people who had contributed their time and money to getting him elected. If the law precluded this, then it was the law that was wrong.

Hardly anyone in Governing’s audience seemed to buy that. I wasn’t offended by the angry response to my column, but I did feel that I had learned a valuable lesson: Merit hiring had climbed to a place near the top of the pyramid of American political values, even if it was frequently honored more in the breach than in the observance.

Since that minor fracas died down, I haven’t had anything new to say on the subject. Now, however, I find that a writer I admire has made a similar point, and in a much more sweeping way. In a paper published recently by the Brookings Institution, Jonathan Rauch not only defends patronage as a morally acceptable political practice, but also argues that it is one of the most important means by which political parties keep themselves intact and ultimately provide stable and reliable government.

Rauch quotes the words uttered a century ago by George Washington Plunkitt, the sage of Tammany Hall: “Parties can’t hold together if their workers don’t get the offices when they win. If the parties go to pieces, the government they built up must go to pieces too.”

Rauch’s paper is not merely about patronage, but also about the political machines that employ it. For much of the past century, in most of urban America, political machines got the job of government done. They did this in part with sticks, but even more with carrots. Patronage was one of the crucial carrots that machine bosses had at their disposal.

Why does that matter? Why shouldn’t we be thankful that machines, with their aura of sleazy backroom deal-making, have largely disappeared from American life? Because, says Rauch, machines bring into politics the kinds of people government now has trouble attracting. Machines draw competent and unassuming professionals, elected officials willing to take a long-term view of public policy, people who know how to compromise, people who demonstrate an enduring loyalty to the institutions in which they serve. Machines breed followers. Or, I might as well say it: hacks. Rauch believes we have lost the valuable habits that any self-respecting hack understands implicitly. “Without hacks,” Rauch argues, “the machine fails.”

And when the machine fails, as it did in the late 20th century almost everywhere in American politics, it is replaced by a much different and ultimately destructive set of political players. It is replaced by individualists who are loyal to causes rather than institutions, who believe that compromise violates their personal moral code, who would sooner see gridlock than have to make deals with people whose values they despise. It is supplanted by the dysfunctional system now in place in our national government.

In matters like this, I am a product of my upbringing. I came to political consciousness in the Chicago of the 1950s, where Richard J. Daley ruled as mayor and treated the city as a fiefdom in which all significant policy decisions were made in his office. There has been a lively debate for decades over whether Daley was a vindictive tyrant or merely a benevolent autocrat. I won’t get into that. But I will say that the Daley years provided an object lesson in how to run a competent city government based on the creative use of a highly disciplined political party.

Daley believed in loyalty more than any other political virtue. In holding that view, he was demonstrating the lesson he had learned from one of his own mentors in city government, the longtime alderman, ward boss and party chieftain Jacob Arvey. It was Arvey who told aspiring leaders that the secret of political success was very simple: “Put people under obligation to you.”

In Daley’s Chicago, just about everyone in local government was under obligation to somebody. In particular, tens of thousands of city employees had acquired their jobs through the Cook County Democratic Party and held onto them by performing well as precinct captains who were expected to deliver a healthy vote for the party’s candidates in their neighborhoods on Election Day. A rank-and-file worker who slipped up at the polls not only risked losing his position as a precinct captain, he risked losing his job in an office somewhere in the musty corridors of city hall.

Mayor Daley possessed exceptional skills as a political leader, but he also had something that may have been more important: a whole army of followers. Without those city workers and precinct captains who understood their place in the system and comported themselves cheerfully within it, all the leadership skills in the world might not have benefited the mayor very much.

Daley had put an enormous number of people under obligation to him, as Arvey had advised him to do. These people had not only an incentive to produce, but also a long-term interest in keeping the entire system in operation. That was as true of an alderman on the city council as it was of the lowliest functionaries pushing paper in city hall or mowing the grass in city parks. One doesn’t have to endorse every decision that Daley made in order to admire the competence of a government that loyalty and patronage made possible.

I can anticipate the reaction that many of you will have at this point. You will object that the rigidity and unyielding hierarchy of the Daley machine, or of any highly disciplined political organization, is simply too high a price to pay for whatever stability it provides. My response is not to deny that the price is substantial and alien to most 21st-century political sensibilities. It is to argue, alongside Rauch, that in the past 50 years we have moved too far in the opposite direction.

Exhibit A, of course, is Congress, where elected leaders have few loyalists to rely on and lack the authority to negotiate on behalf of their party with the members on the other side of the aisle. House Speaker John Boehner presides over a Republican caucus whose 243 other members are his clients rather than his followers. They are loyal to their own careers and principles, not to the maintenance of a party, a government or the broader public good. When the time comes to make a political sacrifice in the interest of sensible long-term policy, no majority exists. The leader has few weapons that he can use to create one. Rauch quotes Trent Lott, who served as Senate majority leader in the 1990s, to the effect that “trying to be a leader when you have no sticks and very few carrots is dang near impossible.”

Most state legislatures have not reached the level of dysfunction that Congress currently exhibits. The legislatures that turned red after the 2010 election have generally managed, for better or worse, to maintain enough party solidarity to enact substantial portions of a coherent Republican agenda. But the most difficult tests lie ahead. In the next decade, largely as a result of exploding entitlement costs, a majority of states will confront structural fiscal problems serious enough to require the opposing parties to cooperate and individual members on both sides of the aisle to accept taking political risks for the greater good.

In order for those problems to be solved, legislators all over the country will need to unlearn the habits of ideological purity and unyielding devotion to principle that it has taken the better part of a political lifetime to absorb. They will need to behave more like hacks. Let’s hope they can summon the courage to do it.

Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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