Politics and Government

What is a political machine?

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Answered 2015-06-22 11:56:46

A political machine is an unofficial system of political organization based on patronage, the spoils system, "behind-the-scenes" control, and longstanding political ties within the structure of a representative democracy. Machines sometimes have a boss, and always have a long-term corps of dedicated workers who depend on the patronage generated by government contracts and jobs. Machine politics has existed in many United States cities, especially between about 1875 and 1950, but continuing in some cases down to the present day. It is also common (under the name clientelism or political clientelism) in Latin America, especially in rural areas. Japan's Liberal Democratic Party is often cited as another political machine, maintaining power in suburban and rural areas through its control of farm bureaus and road construction agencies.

The key to a political machine is patronage: holding public office implies the ability to do favors (and also the ability to profit from graft). Political machines generally steer away from issues-based politics, favoring a quid pro quo (something for something) with certain aspects of a barter economy or gift economy: the patron or "boss" does favors for the constituents, who then vote as they are told to. Sometimes this system of favors is supplemented by threats of violence or harassment toward those who attempt to step outside of it.

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