Guest columnist Nicholas Easton is a community activist, former member and President of the Providence City Council during the turbulent Cianci administration version 1, and Political Science Professor.
My recent book, The Political Machine Reexamined, for which I am still seeking a publisher, examines in considerable detail, the political machines that so dominated American politics for over a century. What is unique, though, is that I mount not a critique, but a strong defense of this phenomenon. Furthermore, I make an argument that the Democratic party should return to building machines. I synopsize that argument herein.
To begin let me lay out a few propositions. First is the idea that, generally speaking, for at least a century or so the Democratic Party has represented the economic interests of the poor and the Republican Party has represented the economic interests of the wealthy.
Second is the idea that, generally speaking, there are only two sources of power in our democracy, money, and people.
Finally is the idea that, given the two previous assertions, Republicans will win most political battles based on money and Democrats will win those based on superior organization and mobilization of people.
Many Democrats have come to recognize this problem and urged the party to focus more on capacity building and the so-called ground game. When it does so, however, it tends to approach the problem by trying to raise even larger sums of money and use that to support efforts to knock on doors and make phone calls before individual elections. While this seems to have worked fairly well in the special elections since 2016 one wonders if such an effort is sustainable with nationwide elections this year. There is also the question of whether Democrat’s recent success is simply a function of having a great enemy in Donald Trump.
There are two fundamental problems with this recent approach. First, it again relies on money, a game the Democrats simply can’t win. Second, it addresses only short-term wins and doesn’t really build capacity at all, it simply gins up turn out at a particular time. What’s needed is a fundamental reexamination of the way the party approaches elections.
My invocation of the machine model is not accidental as it serves several purposes. First of all, it is provocative and meant to be so. The Democratic Party needs a profound shakeup. It is absolutely ridiculous that the party that represents the interests of an overwhelming majority of Americans is so out of power. Second, the party needs to re-examine the fundamentals of its approach, not just individual pieces. Knocking on doors is great and communicating with voters is great but communicating with them only at election time is insufficient to building long-term change. And long-term change is indeed what is needed. The Obama election offered an opportunity for sweeping change, but it only lasted for two years as we got completely outmaneuvered in congressional elections for the following six years and with the possibility of losing complete control of the Supreme Court for the foreseeable future the party has to think about long and broad change in its approach.
Third, there are significant reasons why the machine model worked and I lay out some of those reasons in my detailed examination of 18 characteristics of the machine, characteristics that are both significant and separable. Foremost among these is the so-called “exchange system” which basically means you do something for people before asking for their vote as opposed to making vague promises of the Nirvana that will result from your ascension to power. Another very significant characteristic is the 24/7/365 full-time nature of the machine.
Finally, my book debunks the myth that machines were more corrupt than present-day politics. For example, hiring people based on a test as opposed to who they might know only assures that higher social classes will beat out lower ones for jobs that may not require any specific skills. Such practices turn the poor into Trumpers. And contracting out public services means that jobs are handed out by the same people who contribute tons of money to Republicans to get the contracts, and they are certainly no less corrupt. Think Blackwater and Kellogg, Brown and Root (a division of Haliburton).
In my book, I examine these things in much greater detail. Thus, people can reject my central claim of a need to return to the machine and yet, by looking at how the machine worked, find many valuable pieces that can be very useful to rebuilding the party. For example, I note that machines were usually a coalition. The present-day party which relies on women, African-Americans, Hispanics, environmentalists, gays, Jews and others has a lot to learn about the management of coalitions. I also included 80 interviews with former residents of the machine neighborhoods in Providence indicating strong support among the populace for this institution.
At this point in time, I find myself extremely torn. I believe and I hope that the outrages that we have endured under Trump will indeed bring the expected Blue Wave and bring Democrats to significant power in 2018. The question is, in their euphoria will they believe that the problem was messaging and now they found the right one and all is well. The problem is not the message it is the messenger and he needs and deserves a thorough self-examination.
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