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Political Machines in the US Urban Politics


Most of the US cities were run by political machines in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century (Tuckel & Maisel 99). A political machine is an organization controlled by a powerful boss or group of people who enjoy the support of a section of the population (Tuckel & Maisel 100-101). The support base is large enough to deliver victory during elections. Political machines exist for mutual benefits to the members. In this case, politicians get votes while voters are rewarded with jobs and money. Business people contribute campaign funds and they are rewarded with government contracts (Tuckel & Maisel 101).

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In the US, political machines had membership at three levels. There was a party boss or group of people at the top who controlled all members and activities in the organization (Tuckel & Maisel 103). There were electoral district captains operating under the command of the boss. Electoral district captains were responsible for mobilising, organising and soliciting support from a section of the electorate. At the bottom there were voters who made their contribution by voting for the machine’s selected candidates in return for favours. Most political scientists have rated political machines as most corrupt and unfortunate form of leadership (Tuckel & Maisel 104)). However, a closer look at the activities of political machines reveals that they played a crucial role in infrastructural modernization and political reforms in US cities.

Birth of Political Machines

Most of the US cities experienced high population growth rates in the19th century due to arrival of immigrants from Europe and other parts of the world. As Tuckel and Maisel notes, this population growth led to over-stretching of services provided by city authorities (105). As a result, city governments became infamous, forcing politicians to devise other methods of gaining and retaining political power. In this regard, politicians resorted to political machines (Tuckel & Maisel 107-108).

Role of Political Machines in City Modernization

Political machines were introduced at the time when most city governments were experiencing inefficiencies and lack of faith among the constituents. For example, one of the most talked about political machine was the Tammany Hall of New York City (Tuckel & Maisel 87). Tammany Hall was a Democratic Party political machine that controlled political activities in New York from late 19th to early 20th century. As Tuckel & Maisel observes, the machine experienced most memorable times under the command of William Tweed who was famously known as “Boss” (88). Under the command of Tweed, this machine won the mayor’s post and majority seats in the legislature (Tuckel & Maisel 89). Tweed was appointed together with other members of the machine to occupy important positions in the city government. He engineered the government to embark on streamlining service delivery.

Tweed manipulated the legislature to formulate a new charter that brought the city budget under control of the city government (Tuckel & Maisel 91). He was able to leverage the city with municipal bonds and start the crucial process of modernization. This brought some efficiency even though the city population was still growing. Tuckel & Maisel (92) notes that other cities that had political machines such as Boston, Chicago and Cleveland had the same experience.

Although political machines were strong and well organised, they were also highly corrupt. Members of the machine were well rewarded while non-members were intimidated. This led to formation of reform movements to fight the injustices perpetrated against a section of the population (Tuckel & Maisel 93). As a result, more efficiency was realized, leading to further modernization of infrastructure.

Role of Immigrants

Political machines were majorly used by immigrants to access political power. Majority of the immigrants were Irish people who had relocated to pursue jobs (Tuckel & Maisel 93). The population of Irish immigrants in the US had increased to a level where they could challenge for political power. As new immigrants arrived, they were recruited into the machine and rewarded with gifts. This further angered the nativist Protestants who advocated for Civil Service rather than patronage (Tuckel & Maisel 99). The federal government under Theodore Roosevelt also mobilized citizens to vote against political machines. This led to elimination of most machines by the year 1960.

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City Governments

In the US, state governments have significant influence on the running of city governments. According to Hannarong & Akoto (40), the powers that city governments enjoy are donated by state governments. In this case, state governments can change the operations of city governments provided that such changes are in agreement with the state laws. However, organization of city governments may differ from one state to another (Hannarong & Akoto 41-42). In this regard, different states may have different laws governing local governments. It is also worth mentioning that some states have given more powers to city governments than others. Sometimes states make laws that frustrate the operations of local governments.

Source of Funding for Local Governments

Most of the funds used by US city governments come from direct taxation (Hannarong & Akoto 43). These include property tax, personal income tax, general sales tax, business income tax, and tax on real estates. In most states, taxation laws are made by state governments. City governments also get funding from state and federal governments (Hannarong & Akoto 44). Contributions from state and federal governments make the second largest source of funding for most of the city governments. Direct investment also contributes to the funding of city governments (Hannarong & Akoto 45).

City Government Budgeting

City government budgeting is done by the mayor (Tannenwald 467). After preparing preliminary estimates, the budget is taken to the city council for approval. Before accepting or rejecting the proposed budget, it is taken for public hearing by the relevant council committee to have the opinion of tax payers and other stakeholders (Tannenwald 467). Budget making is not always a smooth process.

During public hearing, stakeholders may make a lot of demands; some of which may be unrealistic. As Tannenwald notes, common demands include cutting taxes and delivery of quality services (468). At this point, budget makers also get the opportunity to explain to stakeholders some of the constraints that may be guiding their budget decisions. After public hearing, the council makes a decision on whether to accept or reject the budget. This is normally done through voting.

Sometimes approved budgets may have to be adjusted. This may happen due to changes done on taxation laws by the state (Tannenwald 469). Under such circumstances, the city government can look for alternative funding or adjust the budget. Alternative revenues can be raised through borrowing which has to be done in accordance with the state rules. This dilemma can be addressed by giving city councils more control on taxation laws.


Political machines were invented by politicians as a survival mechanism at the time when their performance was in question. The machines were strong, highly organised but very corrupt. They were mostly used to obtain political power by Irish immigrants. The corrupt ways of political machines attracted reforms that led to their elimination. On the other hand, US cities are run differently in different states. Most of them still operate under strict control by the mother states. Sometimes this causes confusion, especially in the budget making process. Since city councils are in close proximity with the working of city governments, they should be in charge of the laws that govern local government taxation.

Works Cited

Hannarong, Shamsub & Akoto Joseph. State and Local Fiscal Structure and Fiscal Stress, Journal of Public Budgeting, Accounting & Financial Management, 16.1(2004): 40-61. Print.

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Tannenwald, Robert. Are State and Local Revenue Systems becoming Obsolete?,National Tax Journal, 3(2002):467-489. Print

Tuckel, P. & Maisel, R. Nativity Status and Voter Turnout in Early Twentieth-Century Urban United States. Journal of Historical Methods, 41.2(2008): 87–108. Print.

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