When thinking about political machines in the United States, it is easy to return to black and white video of campaign marches, party conventions, and visions of hotel room shoe boxes full of bribe money. Machines have been viewed as corrupt political forces where who you know and rub elbows with is more important than what you know and what skills you have developed. In the past, machines have operated as impenetrable monoliths controlling politics without giving ordinary people a voice. For this reason Americans reacted against them in a way that injected the system with more power for individuals through more direct democratic structures.
Unfortunately, the attack on machines left our system without some of the benefits of political machines. In changing laws and the way our system works, little thought was given to the benefits of machines. In his book, Political Realism, Jonathan Rauch looks at machines from a different vantage point and explores the benefits they bring to a political system. They stabilize thought and actors, reduce polarization, and push populations and political actors toward moderation. Rauch writes, “Show me a political system without machine politics and I’ll show you confusion, fragmentation, and a drift toward ungovernable extremism.”
When we do not have machines in politics, we have more political amateur participation. On the surface this seems like a good thing. It seems like we would want more “average Joes” involved in government. Those who run when the system is opened to amateurs tend to be very focused on an issue and not their own career, which seems like a plus. The downside however, is that these individuals often lack the ability to build coalitions and support for their policies and ideas. They tend to be more extreme, especially on their pet issue, and less likely to compromise. Additionally, political amateurs lack historical knowledge of programs and policies that have been tried in the past, leading to policies that ignore historical successes or failures. For all these reasons, political amateurs make the process of governing and the quality of legislation a little worse.
Ruach writes, “Machines tend to be a force for moderation,” describing the ways in which machines favor policies that are acceptable and within the ideals of a majority of people. They put forward and advance candidates who are more mainstream and less likely to advance a policy that only a minority favor. Rauch also writes, “States in which a larger share of political money flows through parties have less polarized legislatures, because the parties, desiring to win, press legislators and candidates toward the center.” Most American’s are actually pretty moderate and are not well defined by the terms liberal or conservative. But we understand the zero-sum game taking place and know what special words to say or beliefs to hold to play for our team. Political parties and machines try to cut across these teams and put forward candidates who can gain broad support from most people, as opposed to candidates who intentionally stoke the flames of passion from one side. A legislature that is less polarized in this way is more likely to be able to work together and advance real legislation that most people in society support.