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“As long as I count the votes, what are you going to do about it?”
Nothing's New About Political Machines
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Political cartoon showing boss tweed holding on the reins of Democratic party vintage line drawing. Courtesy of Shutterstock.
There has been a lot of speculation recently on the vitality of Donald Trump’s M.A.G.A. (Make America Great Again) political machine. As Shane Goldmacher of The New York Times put it over the weekend:
Yet while Tammany Hall, a New York City political machine that endured for nearly two centuries, owed its longevity to its spreading around of patronage, Mr. Trump can be downright stingy.
Trump still has a significant war chest at his disposal and Americans generally pay attention to elections in the eleventh hour. Much of the gold comes from disaffected voters (some old, some new), astonishingly open graft, and the cowardice of a stale or uninterested Washington establishment. (An establishment that has triaged the voices of a majority of Americans for large donor support.)
So, out comes a monster empowered by the mutual excesses of our Second Gilded Age.
Out comes the Trump political machine.
Flashback: The overwhelming influence of corporate power in American politics draws parallels to the Gilded Age.
Arguably, the most famous political machine in American history is Tammany Hall.
It was based around New York City’s 19th and 20th century Democratic politics. The organization’s most notorious years were inspired by the nation’s overall prejudice towards new Irish immigrants who were vilified or ignored by other political establishments. This included the Society of St. Tammany.
Flashback: Nativism towards Irish immigrants was the main motivator for the birth of the Know-Nothing Party.
Before the Tweed years, this elite New York City political organization was also hostile to Irish communities. The organization was very influential in antebellum New York City. Martin Van Buren, a former Grand Sachem, was elected President of the United States of America in 1836.
It wouldn’t be until the 1850s, when Mayor Fernando Wood (a supporter of southern secession and the first New York City mayor linked to Tammany) would influence the city’s budding and diverse immigrant populations while supporting a series of public reforms. But as we have seen multiple times, a democratizing effect can coalesce with elites’ lust for power. Wood lost political currency when his corruption around the city police was revealed.
At the helm of Tammany’s post-Civil War outfit was another Grand Sachem, William Marcy Tweed. He is popularly remembered as “Boss Tweed.”
A system of patronage and corruption characterized his legacy. His patrons were given charity and security (like homes and jobs) by promising loyalty (and votes) in return. By the late 1860s, Tweed saw even more opportunity in the needs of New York City’s Irish communities, who were growing in numbers and influence. They became the heartbeat of Tammany Hall.
Tweed managed to steal over $200 million in funds from New York City. (That’s 1870’s dollars.) Tweed also fell out with a lot of his former henchmen and they orchestrated his downfall. This included aiding The New York Times in their first major news break, which exposed fraudulent bookkeeping behind the Tweed Courthouse.
The political tycoon was unable to pay his bail (set at $3 million) and was locked up in Ludlow Street Jail. Given the ability for weekend home visits, Boss escaped to Spain and was extradited back to the U.S. on November 28th, 1876. He died in prison.
The Tammany machine lasted into the middle of the next century with sparse high points, notably with the 1928 Democratic presidential nominee, Al Smith. However, it gradually waned in influence and was rendered powerless by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s party maneuvering (as they didn’t support his run in 1932).
The stories of various political machines show us of how they are operations that can often be vulnerable to the designs of their operators, for better and for worse.
Today, the former president of the United States of America is running his own machine operations under the moniker of the Grand Old Party. He has reached out to voters who feel left behind, unheard, or unfairly persecuted. He has brought into the fold a number of new voters – people who previously did not participate. Trump saw enormous political capital in Republican voters either moving away from the establishment or moving completely against it. He has taken over the Republican Party’s “under-the-hood machinery” and Trumpified it.
As the Post points out, these changes are reflected in Republican races all across the country:
Republican primary candidate in Ohio that Trump endorsed:
Republican primary candidate in Pennsylvania not endorsed by Trump:
Trump’s political machine is national but still features a system of loyalty built out of perceived grievances. Just as the existential flames of not having a roof or a paycheck can inspire vigorous loyalty, so can cultural and tribal concerns in a nation undergoing a historic transformation.
Though, there are ruminations.
Elaine Karmarck at The Brooking Institution recently wrote about Trump-endorsed candidates’ positions in the overall fundraising race:
There’s an old saying in politics, which became the moniker of EMILY’s List, an organization founded to raise money for women candidates—“Early Money is like yeast.” It was a clever play on Emily, but its message is profound, not just for women but for all candidates at any time. Early money helps a candidate hire professional staff, lock in ad time on radio and TV and, importantly, raise more money. So far, most of Trump’s non-incumbent candidates are behind in the money primary.
It is no secret that some members of the Republican Party want a convenient and easy separation from the disgraced former president. A man who set a riot on the Capitol building and is still actively being investigated by a coequal branch of government for such actions.
Yet, Trump’s appeal to voters (that the Republican establishment repeatedly misled or squeezed) is what keeps the party’s toolkit in Mar-A-Lago.
Thus, the M.A.G.A. political machine continues the ongoing perversion of one of the world’s oldest political parties.
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