Urban Politics

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After the Civil War the domination of the "political machine" over the affairs of government in the urban cities of the north became an undisputed fact of local politics. Their power flowed from creating a form of government that sought to perpetuate the position of its leaders by engaging in a bartering process with voters. The political machine existed during a time of mass migration to our urban centers from both immigrants and those in search of work. It played upon the ethnic composition of the new electorate, and their focus on obtaining basic necessities such as work, housing and food. Likewise, political machines acted as a facilitator toward businesses who chose to support them. If a business provided financial contributions and control over jobs which would be used as patronage, in return the business would receive contracts, licenses, and municipal approvals which were difficult to obtain from the fragmented governmental authorities which existed during the period. Political machines tended to ignore ideology and instead, focused on the circumstances of their electorate, creating a patronage system that dispensed material benefits, available by virtue of their success at the polls, in exchange for votes.

This acquisition of power by local political machines came at the expense of the more educated and more well to do social elite who had previously controlled the social structures of society. As noted by the sociologist, Robert K. Merton in The Latent Functions of the Machine, A Sociologists View, political machines flourished because they satisfied the desires of a citizenry that were "not legitimately satisfied in the same fashion by the legitimate social structure." Their response to the political machine, which represented their own attempt at reclaiming control over government, was to advocate for a new form of government based on the "public interest." The movement to reform government and remove the system of brokering that dominated the...
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