Sunday, December 7, 2008

Not machines, but not nothing, either

One of the frustrating features of the literature on party organizations is the tendency to divide the country into areas that have political machines and areas that are disorganized. From my own field research, I know that there are other forms of political organization out there. They may not be classic Tammany-style machines, but they're not anarchy, either. But there haven't been many efforts to examine these organizations and figure out what they do to control politics. (Ehrenhalt does a nice job showing different kinds of organizations in different cities, but doesn't really offer any sort of theoretical explanation of why one type of system would exist some place but not in others.)

Jessica Trounstine's new book, Political Monopolies in American Cities (Chicago), makes a really nice contribution to the parties literature by helping to fill in this hole in our understanding. She compares classic machines like that of Richard Daley in Chicago with "reform" organizations that have run cities like San Jose and San Antonio. She shows that reform and machine politics are really just two sides of the same coin. Both are forms of political monopoly -- they control access to power in their cities and use tools of electoral bias (e.g.: the systematic disenfranchisement of groups of citizens potentially hostile to the regime) to perpetuate their rule.

Reform coalitions are a bit different from classic machines, though. Reformers usually have the explicit support of the business community while machines are usually backed by working class groups; reform supporters are often of native white Protestant stock while machines are kept in office by a hodgepodge of ethnic and racial minorities, etc.

But what these groups have in common is a similar life cycle. When they first come to power, it is usually by legitimate means, advocating for some segment of the population that feels underserved by the the government and winning over a majority of voters. Organizations often turn to anti-democratic tools to preserve their power once in office. (In an interesting finding, Trounstine shows that party machinery is more likely to emerge not when immigrants are flooding into a city, but when they stop doing so; the machine needs to limit challenges to its rule if it can't count on a steady immigrant vote.) That's when the monopoly organization starts channelling government benefits to just a few core groups and limiting the ability of other groups to participate in voting or otherwise influence government.

While the monopolies under study in the book thrive for decades, they all eventually die. Trounstine's chapter on the death of organizations is quite fascinating. Often, these organizations simply can't adapt to some new exogenous shock -- such as the Voting Rights Act or the Shakman rulings -- that make it harder to disenfranchise voters or to hire and fire city employees based on political allegiance. Sometimes, the very fact that these groups are so insulated from political opposition means that they don't see strong public resistance rising until it's too late.

This is a rich book for party scholars, and would make for great discussion in a graduate level class on parties or local government. The book is certainly accessible for upper division undergrads, as well -- I plan to discuss some of it with my parties class next quarter.

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