What’s the Matter with Political Machines?

Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas, looked upon the GOP’s successful 2004 “vote your values” strategy as a corporate Wall Street cover-up: “The culture wars, in other words, are a way of framing the ever-powerful subject of social class. They are a way for Republicans to speak on behalf of the forgotten man without causing any problems for their core big-business constituency.”

Frank, like other economic determinists, finds it inconceivable that religious values can transcend the desire for wealth or status. For people like Frank, values are a mere sideshow in the battle for materialistic gain, or as Karl Marx put it, a superstructure on the forces of production.

This year, Frank has a new conspiracy theory: Republicans are going to paint Obama as an out of touch elitist who represented, in the Illinois State Senate, the Chicago Hyde Park neighborhood which is loaded with leftist University of Chicago professors and the wine and arugula set.

This alleged GOP plan, he guaranteed in his June 11 Wall Street Journal column, will backfire because “the distinguishing characteristic of Hyde Park’s political history – the feature that sets it apart from every other neighborhood in the city – is its longstanding defiance of the Chicago machine.”

The factualness of that claim is not at all clear, but Frank is certain it’s a huge political plus that Obama not only represented Chicago’s “Good Government” district but to this day relies on present generation “goo-goos” for advice. Projecting this reformist image, Frank argues, will trump the underhanded machine-like tactics of desperate Republicans.

Democrats follow this advice at their peril. That’s because the 2008 presidential election will be decided by aging blue-collar Catholics who are products of inner-city political machines.

Here’s some background:

During America’s “Gilded Age,” the urban upper crust began a crusade to take back their municipalities from Catholic pols and to reform what the elite believed to be their corrupt ways. In their private men’s clubs, they lectured one another on the inherent evil of the Irish-Catholic bosses who built urban machines by buying off ignorant immigrants with political favors in return for votes against those most suited to govern – namely themselves. As Chicago sociologist Father Andrew Greeley has observed, “Reform was merely an attempt on the part of native-born Protestants to take what they had lost to the Irish in a fair fight.”

The reformers who claimed credit for saving the cities were, in Tammany Hall boss George Washington Plunkitt’s words, “short-lived morning glories.” The tenure of the good government patricians was always brief. For instead of rolling up their sleeves and mixing it up with the people, they appointed blue-ribbon committees to study charter reform and otherwise attempted to govern the people at arm’s length. The local political machines, on the other hand, as even The New York Times admitted in 1923, “wore human spectacles.” The goo-goos failed because they “attempted to deal with … municipal government as though it were a private corporation, and they a board of directors whose only aims were efficiency and economy. [They forgot] that a city administration must have a heart as well as a head.”

Boston’s colorful Mayor, James M. Curley, held a similar view: “Reform administrations suffer from a diarrhea of promises and a constipation of performance.”

Catholic politicians, unlike reformers, understood that their constituency was not driven by scientific formulas and promises of good government. Their people were concerned with jobs, garbage removal, housing, and a hundred other matters, large and small. The pols who organized a city’s political subdivisions were, especially through their precinct captains, very much in touch with the needs of the people.

“Reform politics,” explains Andrew Greeley, “ultimately does not work because it is incapable of keeping in touch with complexities of urban problems. Political organizations, on the other hand, are more likely to work because machine politicians, bent on preserving their own jobs and being elected, are much more likely to be in touch with the personal needs of a majority of the electorate than are the principal ideological reformers.”

Democrats have lost seven of the last ten presidential elections because liberals, who control the party, are contemptuous of Catholic working class values. Despite all their talk of “change,” Tom Frank and his ilk still reject the fundamental belief that people can and should be relied on to govern themselves.

If the national Democratic Party pursues the Frank strategy, expect them to snatch defeat from the jaw of victory.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.