Commentary Magazine


Big City Machines and Liberal Voters:
Need We Throw the Bosses Out?

Last month, the American public was treated to an illuminating display of the earthy intricacies of machine politics in connection with the Democratic nominations in New York City and State. But above and beyond the bickering, negotiations, and high strategy, one fact was clear from the outset: the Democratic platform would be a militantly liberal one and Mr. Flynn and his associates would finally have to choose from among candidates at least pub licly friendly to the Fair Deal and organized labor. What would Lincoln Steffens have made of this?—what has happened to urban political machines since he wrote The Shame of the Cities? Is the social liberalism of the bosses mere tactical opportunism—or does it represent a new political actuality? It is these and similar questions that Irwin Ross here tries to answer. 

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Three years ago, during the initial agitation over the Taft-Hartley Act, New York City’s Mayor William O’Dwyer proclaimed an official, city-wide day of protest against the measure. O’Dwyer’s action was without precedent in New York’s long history. He was denounced by conservatives and applauded by labor—with the fondness reserved for “one of our own.” Indeed, O’Dwyer could hardly have done more for the unions’ cause had he been a labor or socialist mayor on the European model. Instead, he was, of course, a Tammany man—the nominee of the oldest, and at times the most malodorous, political machine in America.

Politics, we know, makes for strange bedfellows. But the present spectacle of the bosses in the ward clubs on one pillow and the Washington Fair Deal planners on the other must have the respective ghosts of Boss Tweed and Morris Hillquit turning madly in their graves. Certainly the dethroning of the boss and the demolition of the big city machines has been for decades a primary aim of liberal politics. To the liberal, Tammany and its like were the symbol—and often the actuality—of everything reactionary, the chief road-block in the path of reform. “Throw the rascals out” was the rallying cry of virtuous and indignant progressives.

Yet after almost two decades of New Deal and Fair Deal, the bosses and the machines are still very much there. Moreover, on virtually every issue of public policy—labor law, housing, welfare economics, civil rights—they have been liberalism’s powerful allies, and it is quite possible that without them neither Roosevelt nor Truman would have got anywhere—not even to the White House. In election after election, the machines have proved themselves the most dependable mainstay of the Democratic coalition; and no one doubts that they are anywhere but in the center of Mr. Truman’s astute calculations for his own and the Fair Deal’s future.

In the struggle to strengthen and expand the liberal program that will mark the years ahead, are the machines only fair-weather friends, or is this likely to be a permanent alliance, based not merely on vote-getting considerations, but perhaps on some measure of mutuality of interest and shared conviction? And if the latter is the case, what happens to the liberal’s ancient pledge to throw the rascals out, and to his perennial yearning for a machineless third party?

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For a good seventy or eighty years, the oldline machine undoubtedly earned its place as the whipping boy of liberals and reformers. It subverted local democracy by making corruption the norm. It fragmentized and deflected the political energies of ambitious young men which might otherwise have flowed naturally into channels of social reform, for while the machine was plebeian by birth, it seldom looked kindly at any reckless disturbance of the status quo. Whatever progressive tendencies were developing in the two-party structure found their limits quickly defined by the machine professionals who were in the business of politics.

Yet even in its most unsavory days, for millions of immigrants the city machines tempered the rigors of Americanization with a genial benevolence, pioneering in a form of primitive hand-to-mouth social welfare long before more disinterested agencies entered the field. Indeed, it often seemed that the machine was an informal means of providing ethnic representation in government. Moreover, in the crowded, polyglot slums of our dozen largest cities, the machine boss has always been, by the nature of things, an enemy of racial and religious discrimination.

Today, in many ways, the traditional city machine has lost its grip; its older methods are no longer so effective; new forces oppose it in the community. Labor unions and citizens’ groups have shown that they can, if pressed, develop political machines of their own. Yet despite harassment on all sides, the machine still retains a large measure of strength and the local bosses remain the kingmakers. To maintain its preeminence, however, the machine has had to change, to adopt new methods and support new programs to an extent undreamed of by political thinkers a generation ago. The most visible—and important—alteration in the machine is its new liberalism. In the past, the bosses were normally oblivious to any issue more remote than the bridge over the Watackamuck Creek or the new streetcar franchise; their local patriotism was most aptly expressed by one Brooklyn politician: “The Democrats run the city, the Republicans run the state—and who gives a damn who’s President?”

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Thirty or forty years ago, the machines did not have to bother about issues—liberal or otherwise. Their strength was located in organization, not ideology—in the control of a disciplined block of voters in every precinct, not in allegiance to any kind of program. The machine retained its following by a judicious distribution of jobs and favors. The ward boss was a one-man employment and social service agency. He controlled hundreds—or thousands—of jobs in both city offices and private concerns. He provided legal advice, adjusted complaints with city bureaus, loaned rent money, called off the policeman who was harassing a pushcart peddler. Every legal infringement—from truancy to second-story jobs—might be adjusted if the boss was favorably disposed. “Murder, rape, and robbery with a gun I never touch,” Peter McGuinness told the New Yorker’s Richard H. Rovere. “But something like housebreaking—what the hell, the first couple times don’t prove there’s anything wrong with a boy.” A diligent ward boss was always available to his flock, on winter evenings at the clubhouse, or, when the weather was good, at a popular street corner. In season and out, he ardently wooed the voters, never failing to put in an appearance at funerals, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs. The voters repaid this attentiveness by backing the organization ticket.

While much of the machine’s strength depended on this intimate relation between boss and voter, other methods, somewhat less benign, were also employed. They included the stuffing of ballot boxes, filling out ballots of loyal voters who had—in past decades—gone to a premature death, and defacing opposition ballots. In a close contest there was always a block of voters who could be bought. Indeed, some citizens were loath to vote, under any circumstances, without remuneration. “If I don’t get a dollar, I’ll vote my principles”—as Frank R. Kent summarized the attitude years ago.

In this atmosphere of genial corruption, the machines prospered. While the pickings were slim on the precinct level, a Tammany district leader like George Washington Plunkitt could make a million dollars, and Richard Croker, head of the Hall, amassed several millions before he retired. “I work for my pocket all the time,” Croker told Lincoln Steffens. Yet a certain morality tempered this preoccupation; for, as Plunkitt pointed out, “There’s all the difference in the world between honest graft and dishonest graft.” Dishonest graft, which was officially reproached, involved police bribes, blackmail, and outright theft. Honest graft, of which Plunkitt boasted, usually meant capitalizing on inside tips—buying up all the land where a new park was to be established, to name only one example. This, Plunkitt declared, was business. “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em. . . . Ain’t it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight?”

The bosses, big and little, not only accumulated wealth but acquired great power as well. They controlled mayors and governors, and often personally owned one or two senators and several representatives. They cowed businessmen, created fear if not adulation in the press. Not infrequently they controlled the opposition party as well as their own. The bosses, in short, completely dominated their communities—Murphy in New York, Hague in Jersey City, Cox in Cincinnati, Pendergast in Kansas City, Crump in Memphis.

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Twenty-seven years ago, in The Great Game of Politics, Frank Kent wrote: “. . . who has more influence in New York than Charles F. Murphy, the boss of Tammany Hall? J. Pierpont Morgan? William Randolph Hearst? Governor Alfred E. Smith? William H. Anderson?”

Today Kent could certainly not say the same about the present leader of the Hall, Carmine G. DeSapio. Similarly, throughout the country, in the last dozen years, most of the old bosses have either been retired from the anxieties of public life or have had their claws filed down to fingernail length. In Jersey City, Frank Hague has been ousted by a former lieutenant, John Kenny, who is now solidly in control but is hardly the dictator Hague was. In Kansas City, after the jailing of Tom Pendergast, no new boss assumed undisputed mastery of the machine. Boston, though still fond of the demagogy of James Curley, has not had a boss or even a machine worthy of the name since city elections became non-partisan. Even in Memphis, Ed Crump, the last of the old bosses, can no longer regard his power as unassailable. Of the younger men, only Chicago’s Jack Arvey has been able to maintain power comparable to the old-timers’—and then only because he has revised his political handbook to bring it smartly up to date.

The eclipse of the bosses has been reflected in the shadow that has fallen over the oldline machines. They no longer monopolize the business of winning elections. Both the AFL and CIO have built local machines that often rival the “organization” in effectiveness. In some communities even so refined a bunch as the Americans for Democratic Action can throw its weight around vigorously enough to be noticed. In New York, during the last dozen years, both Democrats and Republicans have, been dependent on the endorsement of the splinter parties—American Labor or Liberal—to win close contests. (In deference to the current line of the Communist party—to which it is firmly hooked—the American Labor party plays a lone hand these days, but the Democrats still find themselves disconcertingly dependent on the Liberal party. They can win a city election with the Liberals in opposition, but not a state election.)

The machines not only face strong competition from the “amateurs,” but the ties of sentiment that bind the voters to the “organization” have atrophied in an age which sometimes considers ideas to be more important than affections. The ward boss is no longer a revered figure in his community. Today half his constituents might not know who he is.

There are a number of other reasons, some already mentioned, for this crisis of the machine. For one thing, the growing sophistication of the voters in matters civic has had its effect: a district leader would be swept from office were he to make as candid a defense of “honest graft” as did Plunkitt. A gradual strengthening of the merit system has reduced the number of jobs available to the machines, although city civil service can still manage to find merit where political expediency suggests; new methods of fiscal control and accounting, centralized purchasing, and other innovations of “scientific” city management have also inhibited—but hardly ended—old-fashioned raids on the treasury. The rise of the welfare state has tended to make the boss’s philanthropy superfluous. In time of depression the federal government provides relief jobs—and it is not necessary to have political connections to get one. Home relief is the function of the city’s Department of Welfare, not of Tammany Hall. For services which government does not provide, one can more readily turn to private welfare agencies than was the case forty years ago. Moreover, trade unions in the larger cities provide health services, pension programs, and a whole range of welfare benefits unimaginable in the simpler days of Croker and Murphy.

Only in the poorest parts of a city do the machines maintain their old strength to the full. The colorful Peter McGuinness, who died in 1948, ran a district operation in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn that barely changed in thirty years. As leader of the Greenpoint People’s Regular Democratic Organization, he was the voice, conscience, and undisputed master of his district. Vito Marcantonio, who is a relatively young man, is also one of the few old-fashioned local bosses left in New York. He has an elaborate organization, and he ministers to the needs of his impoverished flock—mostly newly arrived Puerto Ricans, Negroes, and Italians—with a diligence that is in no way lessened by his chores in defense of the Communist party line. Marcantonio keeps a lawyer on his payroll, employs a secretary for each language group in his district. His influence is so pervasive that many constituents believe the only way to get on relief is to see “Marc.”

The continual influx of Puerto Rican immigrants bolsters Marcantonio’s position. Other machines have seen their influence diminish since the end of large-scale immigration. For the millions of new arrivals had always provided the bosses with a huge reservoir of new supporters to be succored and cajoled. Today the reservoir is empty.

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Forty or fifty years ago, the grossest pandering to national or racial loyalties was often enough to put the ticket over. The slate had to be “balanced” with representatives of each group—the Irish taking precedence because of their earlier initiation into politics—but beyond that, and beyond passing mention of the crimes of the British in Ireland and the Hapsburgs in Bohemia, little in the way of platform planks was required. On the other hand, an election might be lost if a rumor gained credence that a candidate was sailing under false religious colors. In 1923, when Jack Arvey first ran for office in Chicago’s predominantly Jewish 24th Ward, his detractors spread the word that he was not Jewish. To counteract this canard, his mother was produced at a public meeting. “Is Jack Jewish?” she was loudly asked. And she replied, in Yiddish: “What else?” Arvey was elected.

There are, of course, still places like Massachusetts where an unknown candidate can win because his is the only Irish name running for a particular office, but in general the exploitation of racial and religious sentiment has become less blatant The same ethnic groups still carry weight in city politics, but the considerations they demand from the bosses have changed from the personal to the political, from the rhetorical to the legislative. In the past five years the demands have been for state and federal FEPC laws, liberalization of DP legislation, anti-poll tax and anti-lynching laws in the South. Negro agitation for these last measures has vastly increased in recent years, and Jewish lobbying for a friendly policy towards Israel has been an important political factor since 1946. Sometimes, of course, the religious groups differ hotly over an issue—most strenuously, for example, over the Catholic demand for a measure of federal aid to parochial schools. Only in such a case do the machines encounter difficulty in energetically demanding everything that everybody who can vote wants.

The change in the relation between the ethnic blocs and the machines derives in great part from what is nothing less than an invisible revolution in American politics: the heightened “issue consciousness” of a large part of the electorate, perhaps most startlingly demonstrated in Truman’s election to the presidency in 1948. In 1923, it was possible to agree with Frank Kent that the voter had little to choose from between the Democratic and Republican platforms; that platforms, in general, were humbug and that the choice in practical politics was largely between honest and dishonest men. The Roosevelt era altered this, for the New Deal platform affected every area of American life. The combination of fireside chats with the more tangible tokens of WPA money, farm subsidies, mortgage insurance, and the whole bundle of federal benefits made political notions a highly practical reality to millions of citizens. Issues became as meaningful as personalities; the promises of politicians began to count and be counted.

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These developments—the growth in political interest, the emergence of the welfare state, the decline in immigration—have lessened the hold of the machine on American city electorates. But while the machines’ influence has waned, they are still the major political forces in most urban communities. Being realistic to the core, the machines quite characteristically faced up to the new facts of American political life. Over the past two decades the machines emerged as votaries of progressive legislation. “If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em.”

So it is that the machines have become, year by year, as uninhibited in support of the Fair Deal, as tireless in their assaults on privilege, as bold in their designs for federal intervention in the economy, as the most militant brain-trusters in Washington. The result is that the Democratic platform of 1948 was as liberal a document as the general political atmosphere of the country would allow. Today a conservative Democratic candidate—in sharp contrast to ten years ago—is an anachronism, except in the South.

The extent to which the machines have “got religion” is most vividly seen in Chicago. Ed Kelly, the old boss and mayor, had long been a Roosevelt supporter, but he had never deviated from the accepted methods of machine politics. Jack Arvey, a Kelly lieutenant, overnight blossomed forth as a “new model” boss when he succeeded to the leadership of the party in 1946. Arvey deftly handled his public relations, creating a beguiling image of himself: the boss who was leader rather than dictator, who was as idealistic as the “do-gooders” but far more practical, who put patriotism before pocketbook rather than equating the two. The legend spread that while in the Pacific, Arvey had undergone a foxhole conversion to an unabashed and selfless liberalism.

Arvey’s actions actually gave substance to the legend. He apparently persuaded the aging Kelly to step down as mayor: the people wanted a change. In casting about for a successor, Arvey avoided organization men (there was grave doubt that he could elect one). Instead, he sounded out community leaders on whom they wanted, an unprecedented tactic for a boss to take. The choice became Martin Kennelly, a business man and a Democrat who had always fought the machine. Arvey elected Kennelly; he also elected a city council that was as agreeable to the dictates of the machine as in the past.

Kennelly, in turn, gave Chicago an honest administration; he made many independent appointments in the higher echelons, but he was also quite willing to place loyal Democrats in lesser jobs. The machine was satisfied; civic probity was assured; and the reformers, on the whole, were content. Ironically, Kennelly’s major deficiency has been his timidity in handling racial incidents—an area in which old Boss Kelly was particularly strong.

Having given Chicago his own reform administration, Arvey lifted to the political heights two liberal stalwarts renowned for their independence. He obtained the Democratic nominations for Adlai Stevenson for governor and Paul Douglas for senator, and saw them sweep the state. Reversing the usual procedure, they pulled President Truman through to a slim victory in Illinois. Arvey had his assumptions confirmed: an uncompromising liberalism and able independent candidates for top offices—“perfuming the ticket,” it used to be called—were good politics.

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The Chicago pattern has been substantially repeated in every Northern city which has a Democratic machine. For more than a decade, Tammany Hall opposed Roosevelt and the New Deal. A maverick Republican, Fiorello LaGuardia, basked in the reflected glory of the New Deal’s achievements—and thereby gained considerable political benefit. Today the picture has entirely changed. Until recently, William O’Dwyer, a long-time Roosevelt follower, dominated the Hall; and the Democratic organizations in the other four boroughs doted on Truman’s program. The bulk of the AFL and CIO unions, as well as a great many professional liberals who have always looked askance at Tammany, supported the city administration rather than the reformers. All this did not remove the atmosphere of discreet corruption which surrounded the O’Dwyer regime, but it buttressed it with a strength which Tammany itself never possessed. “It was difficult to muckrake O’Dwyer because fundamentally he was running a labor government,” the editor of a New York liberal publication recently remarked. It is a fact of which a minority of the New York labor movement, led by David Dubinsky and organized in the Liberal party, was sadly aware after its unsuccessful attempts to oust O’Dwyer in the 1949 mayoralty election.

In New York, as in Chicago, the liberalism of the city machine insures decent statewide candidates and some good choices for Congressional representatives, however unchanged the character of city councilmen and state legislators remains. In other cities the machines do not always get behind good candidates, but they never desert the liberal banner. Sometimes this makes for incongruous alliances. In Kansas City, the late Charles Binaggio achieved considerable success in capturing sections of the local Democratic party; his political interest solely involved protection for the gambling rackets, but his political accent was impeccably Fair Deal. In Boston, James Curley has, both in prison and out, always remained close to the head of the Roosevelt and Truman processions.

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Along with the new liberalism of the old line machines has come the creation of revitalized Democratic machines in those communities where no effective party organization previously existed. Labor and liberal groups have usually moved in, won control of the skeleton organizations, and rebuilt them from the precinct level up. Philadelphia has recently seen this type of Democratic renascence. For decades, the Democratic party apparatus was effectively controlled by the Republicans. In the past three years, Richardson Dillworth and a group of ADA members have taken over the party and gone on to dislodge the Republicans from a number of city offices.

A similar development has occurred in the Democratic party in Michigan. In 1948, the United Automobile Workers encountered virtually no resistance as it moved into the Detroit party. It captured what was the shell of an organization and built it into a machine. Some months later, after careful preparations, it was able to win over a majority of delegates to the state convention. Today the Michigan Democratic party is a labor party in all but name.

The same is true in Minnesota, where, during the long years of Farmer-Labor government in the 20’s and 30’s, the Democratic party was little more than a paper organization. A decade ago the Farmer-Laborites lost control of the state to the Republicans. Subsequently, the Democrats and Farmer-Laborites fused. The left wing, which was in liaison with the Communists, was completely routed by Hubert Humphrey in 1948. Today the liberals own the Democratic machine. An analogous situation exists in the Wisconsin Democratic party, in which a number of ex-Socialists have attained positions of power. In Oregon, too, the liberal militants, led by ex-Socialist Monroe Sweetland, have won title to a machineless Democratic party. All these developments have strong backing from William Boyle, an old Pendergast hand from Kansas City who now heads the Democratic National Committee. A courageous man, Boyle is even trying to build a Democratic machine in the state of Maine.

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The changes that have overtaken the machine have in turn had a significant impact on American liberal politics. That impact can be simply phrased: for the foreseeable future, the Democratic party will probably remain the main vehicle for liberal advance—and the new streamlined Democratic urban machines will be there to keep the party in power.

During most of the Roosevelt era, the machines had not yet undergone a whole-souled conversion to New Deal politics, nor had the labor groups won an independent base within the state or city organizations. Roosevelt alone held the party together and forced the professional politicians to acquiesce in his program. In those circumstances, it was possible to speculate that Roosevelt’s departure would have a disruptive effect on the party, that the city machines would revert to their traditional conservatism, the Southerners would relapse into their normal torpor, and the New Dealers and their labor allies would be cast off. With that prospect in view, liberals reasonably theorized about the need for a third party to continue the New Deal tradition.

But events have taken a different course. President Truman has manifested a boldness in his political programs almost equal to Roosevelt’s, however inferior his political effectiveness. Labor’s huge investment in the Democratic party and its alliances with the machines have paid off handsomely. The result is that the Democratic party in the North has gained a new cohesion, with every element united in support of the Truman program. Under the circumstances, a new liberal party would seem to be as unnecessary as it is impractical. The Southern Democrats, of course, still hobble Truman’s program in Congress—but the problem of creating a liberal party in the South would remain whether or not a third party ever came into existence.

Although labor and liberal groups are firmly committed to the Democratic party (except in a few communities where maverick Republicans can be endorsed), they remain coy about avowing that commitment. Both the CIO’s Political Action Committee and the AFL’s Labor’s League for Political Education stoutly affirm their independence of both parties; and at the last national convention of the Americans for Democratic Action, reference to cooperation with the Fair Deal was stricken from the political resolution.

Why this reticence? For one thing, many liberals are sentimental mugwumps at heart; they make a fetish of independence because that somehow connotes moral superiority in politics. Some of the liberals and laborites, too, are ex-Socialists and they cannot bring themselves to make the final psychological commitment to one of the two “capitalist” parties.

More significant than this nostalgic yearning for independence is a desire to maintain bargaining power. Though the liberals and the bosses agree on program, they don’t always agree on candidates. The bosses are often eager to nominate machine hacks who have immaculate voting records but rarely provide inspiring leadership. The liberals want better choices. They cherish their independence, however nominal, so that they can trade their support for acceptable candidates.

This, indeed, is the tactic employed by the Liberal party in New York, which instead of endorsing approved Democrats, nominates them on its own ticket. It is a useful tactic, since the 400,000 votes which the Liberal party commands will assure the bona fide liberalism of the top Democratic nominees in any state campaign. On the other hand, a policy of organizational aloofness from the Democratic party means leaving the old-line machines masters of the party apparatus. It is a policy of surrender.

The alternatives, however, are not between submergence of identity within the Democratic party and a free-wheeling independence outside. It is possible for ADA, PAC, and LLPE to work as caucuses within the party and to retain considerable bargaining power. For if they do not win their demands, they can withhold their money and their ward heelers. That is always the tactic of a faction within a party—and it can be effective if the faction is strong. Moreover, ultimately the hold of the old machines can be weakened.

The prospect of completely eradicating machine influences is remote, however. For the machines are tenacious opponents. They are protected by elaborate organization, an intricate web of patronage, and often by the technicalities of the primary election law. Moreover, they are infinitely adaptable, having already given way on all ideological points.

Any single machine might be broken, but many of its parts would re-form about the new group. Indeed, it is almost impossible to defeat the old machine unless you win over part of it. Yet such contests are worth the effort, for in the reshuffling of forces, a more enlightened leadership might emerge in the local party.

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On any realistic assessment, the best that can be anticipated is a continual tug of war between the new liberalizing elements and the machine politicians. In the prevailing balance of power, the prospects for local “clean government” are none too promising, for the liberalism of the bosses in national affairs buttresses their position on the local scene. Moreover, the slogan of “clean government” is—except in the face of flagrant thievery—not a very exciting one. The average man is content if the rules of equity are not too brazenly flouted, and if everyone gets “his.”

We will probably always be plagued by a measure of old-fashioned machine politics. Even if a successful third party should ever emerge—an unlikely development, given the structure of American politics—it would unquestionably be infiltrated by the followers of the old city machines. They would not own the new party outright, but they would be too ubiquitous not to share control. For the machine men are the full-time politicians; they often have no other occupation; they are the true professionals, agreeable to any ideological coloration, concerned only with power and the perquisites of power that politics brings. That their coloration at present is Fair Deal may be taken as a tribute to the strength of social democracy in America. For these are the boys who only play to win.

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