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The Rise, Fall and Mutation of Political Machines

They’ve been around a lot longer than you might think. They keep changing, but they still run on loyalty, as they always have.

Jacob Arvey, left, with former president Harry S. Truman
Jacob Arvey, left, was part of a delegation including Sen. Adlai Stevenson and Mayor Richard J. Daley greeting former president Harry Truman on a visit to Chicago in July 1956 to raise funds for Truman's presidential library. (Photo: Harry S. Truman Presidential Library)
Jacob Arvey, the legendary Chicago political boss of the 1940s, had something important that he liked to tell novices about how to succeed in politics. “It’s very simple,” he would say. “Put people under obligation to you.”

The bare-bones profundity of that advice is something I have carried with me for a long time. At its most basic level, it’s an explanation about how one city’s political machine functioned in the middle of the 20th century. But it’s more than that. It’s a description of the way politics has worked in a wide variety of times and places. Still more, it’s an explanation of how power has been exercised in western societies during most of the past thousand years.

When William the Conqueror came from Normandy to seize control of England in 1066, he set up a hierarchy in which virtually everyone owed something to someone else — military service, or more frequently, agricultural wealth. The tenant farmer was in debt to the larger landowner, who owed something to the local nobleman, who was under obligation, ultimately, to the king himself. It looked a lot different from the system Jake Arvey ran in the wards of Chicago, but the difference was one of nuance, not one of fundamental principle.

Jacob Arvey and William the Conqueror may seem a bit remote to politics in the 21st century, but I thought of them both when I saw what happened in the elections in New Jersey last month. The Democratic Party machine commanded in the southern part of the state by the political boss George Norcross, possibly the last powerful state machine operating anywhere in America, suffered devastating losses virtually across the political board.

Candidates tied to Norcross lost legislative elections in nearly all the counties where he and his organization had been virtually invincible. Most consequentially, state Senate President Steven Sweeney, the most important Norcross loyalist, was defeated by a truck driver who spent virtually nothing on his campaign.

The Norcross debacle raises important questions about whether we are at a turning point in this life cycle of political machines in the United States. For that matter, it raises questions about whether machines in any traditional form have come to an ignominious end. I think those are useful questions. But to make sense of them, we need to take a look at the functions machines have served and the ways in which they have evolved over time.

IN EUROPE, AND IN SOME PARTS OF RURAL AMERICA, machines were important because they held a monopoly of land in a given area. But when most of us think of machines in this country, we think of cities and jobs.

That was certainly the case for the Chicago Democratic machine run by Arvey in the 1940s and later by Mayor Richard J. Daley. In the mid-1950s, under Daley there were perhaps 60,000 patronage employees in city and county government — bailiffs, revenue clerks, sanitation workers and countless other employees, some of whom had real jobs to do and some of whom didn’t. But for many of these workers, their most important function was as precinct captains in the Democratic machine who were expected to deliver votes on Election Day. All of them knew that a subpar vote total in their bailiwick could cost them their jobs. They were loyalists — not out of emotional attachment but out of simple economic necessity.

In the past generation, the more blatant patronage activities of old-fashioned party machines have nearly all fallen victim to court decisions. Perhaps the most extensive one was the Republican machine in suburban Nassau County, on Long Island, where Joseph Margiotta, as county GOP chairman, rewarded loyalty by placing party supporters — and some relatives — in county and municipal jobs. It was common knowledge in much of Nassau County that when you needed to have a broken streetlight fixed, you didn’t call a county agency; you called the local Republican committeeman.

Those arrangements came to an end in 1983 when Margiotta was sent to prison on a variety of corruption charges, most of them relating to patronage. He claimed that as a private citizen who held no public office, he couldn’t be guilty of public malfeasance for arranging government jobs for his friends. The court didn’t buy it.

I FELT AT THE TIME that Margiotta hadn’t done anything terribly wrong, and I had similar feelings a couple of decades later when I came upon the case of Ernie Fletcher, the Kentucky governor who was forced out of office for awarding state jobs to Republicans who had helped him win election. If you wanted a job painting lines on a highway in rural Kentucky, you needed to go through the county GOP chairman.

This was a technical violation of state civil-service law, but whether it was any kind of ethical offense is another matter. Working on a highway crew is a job one person can do about as well as another. Rewarding political allies in this way is a form of political party-building that goes back to Andrew Jackson’s spoils system in the early 19th century. If we want political parties to be effective instruments of democratic government in this country, we shouldn’t be too puritanical about it. At least, that’s the way I felt, as I wrote at the time. Most of the people who wrote to me in response violently disagreed.

But wherever one stands on this issue, it’s clear that the political machines of the Arvey-Daley-Margiotta-Fletcher variety are essentially a thing of the past. We have replaced them with money-based machines. Powerful political operatives secure the loyalty of ambitious candidates by supplying them with the large amounts of campaign cash they need to win election. Once elected, they need to vote in accord with the wishes of the donor if they want to stay in office. Sometimes this is just a matter of individual influence, but sometimes it amounts to a machine.

In the closing decades of the last century, for example, politics in much of Los Angeles were dominated by what came to be known as the Waxman-Berman machine, a network of wealthy west L.A. contributors who provided the money that elected candidates loyal to the desires of state Assemblymen (and later congressmen) Henry A. Waxman and Howard Berman. This was strictly legal, and there was nothing particularly venal about it. Waxman and Berman were looking for votes to move progressive legislation through the legislature and through Congress. Still, it raises questions about the use of cash to maintain an extensive political organization. And it serves as a reminder that political machines didn’t exactly die — they mutated.

“MUTATED” IS A GOOD WORD to describe the machine George Norcross ran successfully in south Jersey for the past few decades. Norcross did a little of everything. He funneled jobs in friendly county governments to Democrats who supported him. He invested huge sums of money in state and local campaigns to guarantee that those governments, and most of the region’s elected Democrats, would listen to his requests. Perhaps most important, he influenced the legislature to approve subsidies and tax breaks for development projects in distressed Camden and other struggling south Jersey towns. Those actions clearly did some good in the places to which they were directed, but they also brought in large sums to the insurance company and other affiliated businesses in which he had an interest.

In election after election, the Norcross machine could assume the support of rank-and-file Democrats who believed that they were deriving benefit from the machine’s myriad machinations. It was that assumption that seemed to crumble at the polls last month. When the New Jersey Legislature convenes in January, Norcross and his organization will have far less clout than they have had in many years.

A simple way of explaining what happened in south Jersey this year is that a very large cohort of blue-collar voters suddenly and unexpectedly shed their loyalties. One thing we know about political machines — from William the Conqueror to Jacob Arvey to George Norcross — is that they run on loyalty. “Put people under obligation to you.” Thousands of Jerseyites no longer felt they were under obligation to George Norcross. It’s possible to overstate the broader significance of that, but it’s possible to understate it as well.

It doesn’t take a genius to notice that loyalty is eroding right now in all corners of American society: not just loyalty to politicians but to police and judges, teachers and principals, priests and bishops, and many other figures of ostensible societal authority. What happened in New Jersey is part of that larger erosion.

One might argue that Donald Trump is running a political machine, but this doesn’t bear scrutiny. Machines are finely tuned instruments, based on careful organization, rewards and incentives. George Norcross had that; what Trump has is a rabble of unaffiliated fans attracted by his belligerence and undisturbed by his falsehoods. I’m not underestimating its vote-getting appeal, but it’s not a machine and it never will be.

So are genuine political machines dinosaurs? You want to be careful saying that, because they have been resilient for such a long time. But if they survive, it is likely to be in a form fundamentally different from the ones that have prospered in the past. We can only guess at what that might be.
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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