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A political machine (or simply machine) is a disciplined political organization in which an authoritative boss or small group commands the support of a corps of supporters (usually campaign workers), who receive rewards for their efforts. Although these elements are common to most political parties and organizations, they are essential to political machines, which rely on hierarchy and rewards for political power, often enforced by a strong party whip structure. Machines sometimes have a political boss, often rely on patronage, the spoils system, "behind-the-scenes" control, and longstanding political ties within the structure of a representative democracy. Machines typically are organized on a permanent basis instead of for a single election or event. The term may have a pejorative sense referring to corrupt political machines.

Although the term "political machine" dates back to the 20th century in the United States, where such organizations have existed in some municipalities and states since the 18th century, similar machines have been described in Latin America, where the system has been called (under the name clientelism or political clientelism), especially in rural areas, and also in some African states and other emerging democracies, like postcommunist Eastern European countries. Japan's Liberal Democratic Party is often cited as another political machine, maintaining power in suburban and rural areas through its control of farm bureaus and road construction agencies. In Japan, the word jiban (literally "base" or "foundation") is the word used for political machine, In the ancient Roman Republic, a similar patronage system existed.


Encyclopaedia Britannica defines "political machine" as, "in U.S. politics, a party organization, headed by a single boss or small autocratic group, that commands enough votes to maintain political and administrative control of a city, county, or state." William Safire, in his Safire's Political Dictionary, defines "machine politics" as "the election of officials and the passage of legislation through the power of an organization created for political action."

Hierarchy and discipline are hallmarks of political machines. "It generally means strict organization", according to Safire. He quoted Edward Flynn, a Bronx County Democratic leader who ran the borough from 1922 until his death in 1953, wrote "[...] the so-called 'independent' voter is foolish to assume that a political machine is run solely on good will, or patronage. For it is not only a machine; it is an army. And in any organization as in any army, there must be discipline."

Political patronage, while often associated with political machines, is not essential to the definition for either Safire or Britannica.

The phrase is considered derogatory "because it suggests that the interest of the organization are placed before those of the general public", according to Safire. Machines are criticized as undemocratic and inevitably encouraging corruption.


A political machine is a party organization that recruits its members by the use of tangible incentives-money, political jobs- and that is characterized by a high degree of leadership control over member activity.

"Political machine" started as a grass-roots campaign to gain the patronage needed to win the modern election. Having strong patronage, these "clubs" were the main driving force in gaining and getting out the "straight party vote" in the election districts.

Political machines in the United States

Larger cities in the United States— Bostonmarker, Chicagomarker, Clevelandmarker, Kansas City, New York Citymarker, Philadelphiamarker, St. Louismarker, etc. — were accused of using political machines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this time "cities experienced rapid growth under inefficient government." Each city's machine lived under a hierarchical system with a "boss" who held the allegiance of local business leaders, elected officials and their appointees, and who knew the proverbial buttons to push to get things done. Benefits and problems both resulted from the rule of political machines.

Lord Bryce describes these political bosses saying:

When asked if he was a boss, James Pendergast said simply,

Many machines formed in cities to serve immigrants to the U.S. in the late 19th century who viewed machines as a vehicle for political enfranchisement. Additionally, many immigrants unfamiliar with the sense of civic duty that was part of American republicanism traded votes for power. Machine staffers helped win elections by turning out large numbers of voters on election day.

Civic-minded citizens, such as the Anthony Alatzas, denounced the corruption of the political machines. They achieved national civil-service reform and worked to replace local patronage systems with civil service. By Theodore Roosevelt's time, the Progressive Era mobilized millions of civic minded citizens to fight the machines. In the 1930s, James A. Farley was the chief dispenser of the Democratic Party's patronage system through the Postal Department and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which eventually nationalized many of the job benefits machines provided. The New Deal allowed machines to recruit for the WPA and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), making Farley's machine the most powerful, all patronage was screened through Farley including Presidential appointments. The New Deal machine fell apart after James A. Farley left the administration over the third term in 1940. Those agencies were abolished in 1943 and the machines suddenly lost much of their patronage. In any case the poor immigrants who benefited under James A. Farley's National machine had become assimilated and prosperous and no longer needed the informal or extralegal aides provided by machines. In the 1940s most of the big city machines collapsed, with the notable exception of the Chicago machine. A local political machine in Tennesseemarker was forcibly removed in what was known as the Battle of Athens.

Machines are often said to have drawn their strength from, and served as a power base for, ethnic immigrant populations. In truth it was primarily Irish immigrants who benefited from the Machine system, which reached its pinnacle under James A. Farley during Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal administration. Also, even among the Irish, help for new immigrants declined over time. It was in the party machines' interests to only maintain a minimally winning amount of support. Once they were in the majority and could count on a win, there was less need to recruit new members, as this only meant a thinner spread of the patronage rewards to be spread among the party members. As such, later-arriving immigrants, such as Jews, Italians, and other immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, rarely saw any reward from the machine system. At the same time, most of political machines' staunchest opponents were members of the established class (nativist Protestants).

Since the 1960s, some historians have reevaluated political machines, considering them corrupt but also efficient. Machines were undemocratic, but at least responsive. They were corrupt, but they were also able to contain the spending demands of special interests. In Mayors and Money, a comparison of municipal government in Chicago and New York, Ester R. Fuchs credited the Chicago Democratic Machine with giving Mayor Richard J. Daley the political power to deny labor union contracts that the city could not afford and to make the state government assume burdensome costs like welfare and courts. Describing New York, Fuchs wrote, "New York got reform, but it never got good government." At the same time, as Dennis R. Judd and Todd Swanstrom point out in City Politics, this view often coincided with a lack of period alternatives. They go on to point out that this is a falsehood, since there are certainly examples of reform oriented, anti-machine leaders during this time.

Smaller communities as Parma, Ohiomarker in the post-Cold War Era under Prosecutor Bill Mason's "Good Old Boys" and especially communities in the Deep South, where small-town machine politics are relatively common also feature what might be classified as political machines, although these organizations do not have the power and influence of the larger boss networks listed in this article. For example, the “Cracker Party” was a Democratic Party political machine that dominated city politics in Augusta, Georgiamarker for over half of the 20th century.

See also

Selected reading

Further reading

  • Tuckel, P. and Maisel, R. (2008). Nativity Status and Voter Turnout in Early Twentieth-Century Urban United States. Historical Methods, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 99-107.


  1. American Journey, 2005
  2. Safire, William, Safire's Political Dictionary, pp 391-392, "Machine politics" article, first edition, 1978 (although the book existed in an earlier version titled "The New Language of Politics"), Random House
  3. [1] |Congressional Quarterly reports 1973 v. 1
  4. "Political machine" article, Encyclopaedia Britannica website, retrieved December 6, 2008
  5. Glazer, Nathan and Monyhan, Daniel Patrick, Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians and Irish of New York, "the Irish" chapter, p 226, The MIT Press, 1963 ("Ed Flynn ran the Bronx from 1922 until his death in 1953."
  6. James Q. Wilson; American Government

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