Learning to Love the Machine: Some Assembly Required

“When Mayor Marion Barry campaigns for reelection, something magical happens in this city: A political machine goes to work, cleaning alleys, repairing streets and cutting deals,” wrote the Washington Post in 1986. From Tammany Hall to the Green Team, the Daleys, the Costas or the Queens Machine, America has a long history of networks, alliances and organizations that were willing to deliver the goods for their supporters in exchange for wins on election day.

The premise of a political machine is simple: the machine provides voters with constituent services, jobs, patronage, programs, food, housing support and sometimes even cash in exchange for votes.

It is an organization that is almost single-mindedly focused on electing and reelecting its members. As such, it is value-neutral as a tactic. There have been right-wing machines, left-wing machines and even centrist political machines. An important distinction between a political machine and any old politician that does constituent services or shovels snow for their voters is that a machine will look out for its interests as a collective. This occasionally means making compromises or cutting their losses, including sacrificing elected officials. History is full of candidates that served political machines only to realize that they had been cut loose. The machine is first and foremost focused on promoting its own interests and those of the people that run it.

The modern American political machine, especially compared with those of the past, is much more loosely organized, diffused and candidate-centric. Gone are the days when machines were incorporated into actual organizations like the Society of St. Tammany, which held meetings, elected leadership, raised money, appointed ward heelers and more.

Replacing the smoke-filled party committee rooms of the past are now meet and greets with developers, lobbyists, consultants and party donors. This change has coincided with a decrease in the effectiveness of machines to deliver results for their base but has increased the relative power of the politicians within those networks. It has also had profound impacts on their ability to grow and scale beyond just a handful of officials. Call it a “too many cooks in the kitchen” or “army of only generals” type of situation, but it's hard to build a machine when it's comprised of only people who think they should be in charge.

Many of the contemporary politicians that get labeled by the press as having a “machine” are really just well-connected, win elections and are nominally good at constituent services. That being said, machines are a real approach to political organizing and have not yet lost their relevance.

What I hope to address here is what happens after we’ve beaten the machine. Whether you support realignment, a party surrogate, the dirty break or clean break, socialists of all stripes should reckon with the fact that we may need to rebuild, at the local level, the very thing we’ve been fighting for years if we want to retain and expand political power.

The left needs to build our own political machines — ones that are fully active between elections, that can deliver real material gains for working people through mutual aid, protect our elected officials from new challengers, develop accountability to an organized base and promote an organizational loyalty that is only possible when you consistently show up for people over time. I view this as the only path forward for the left electoral project in this country that avoids co-optation (into the Democratic establishment) or alienation (from a material politics that can actually deliver results).

It's time that we learn to love the machine.

Unlearning History

In most American history textbooks there will be some throwaway paragraph that talks about Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed. This is usually accompanied by some cartoons by Thomas Nast. The whole discussion is framed as a go-getter journalist speaking truth to power and rooting out corruption. What’s swept aside for the sake of this neat little narrative is the Klan-ish level of nativism sweeping the country at the time and why Tammany Hall and the Catholic Irish immigrants of New York City forged the political alliance they did.

It is more challenging to discuss in current times — because of the prevalence of pseudo-historical “Irish were slaves too” tropes that have been consistently used by the long-past descendants of Irish-American immigrants to undermine the Black freedom struggle in this country — but Nast was an inveterate racist who routinely called for the blood of Irish immigrants and viewed them as subhuman, servile creatures who were under the command of two masters: Tammany Hall and the Pope in Rome. Nast and his coterie of blue-blooded native-born allies couldn’t stand that an exploited community had dared to organize itself to improve its material conditions. In fact, anti-immigrant backlash was so strong that there were major calls to eliminate the expanded suffrage that had just been won for all white men.

This corruption narrative gets trotted out almost any time a politician shows any level of allegiance towards an organization, whether it was Democrats and organized labor in the ‘70s or civil rights groups in the ‘80s. Like Clinton and Sister Souljah (a dedicated anti-apartheid activist and member of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition) we’ve come to expect every politician to make it clear that they’re accountable to no one but themselves.

This is not to say that the general concept of “good governance,” i.e., fighting for a government and civil service free from corruption and grift, is a bad idea. But somewhere down the line machines, or even the concept of collective accountability for politicians to an organized base, have become so maligned that we seem to have forgotten that the very point of elected representation is to deliver results for constituents. I think a lot of this latent anti-machine sentiment comes from the parts of the (broadly defined) progressive movement that had corruption or greed as their core explanation for why society is messed up and not class domination. The average Republican or Democratic politician voting against working class interests doesn’t do so because they’ve been paid off; they do it because of larger structural and ideological reasons. As socialists, we shouldn’t fall into these traps. Society is divided into classes, and those classes have different interests.

Now, when politicians talk about special interest groups and how they’ll be free from any influence, they still never seem to hesitate to vote for the unique interests of the capitalist class. In Terry Golway’s “Machine Made” about the history of Tammany Hall, it’s repeatedly mentioned that the machine’s opponents tried to reintroduce the idea of the electorate as dispassionate observers, simply hearing out the ideas before deciding on candidates as if politics were a debate society and not a competition over the division of scarce resources and power. But, like a nuclear arms race, once one side mobilizes based on a politics of interests, it's almost impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

It also bears stating, so it does not make a point by its omission, that Tammany Hall and its Irish immigrant base made strong political alliances with the Southern Slavocracy. This partnership with the devil led many in their base to militantly oppose abolitionism. One lesson we should take from this is that coalition partners tend to adopt the politics of those in their coalition, regardless of what their past stated politics might have been. Another example of interest alignment through mutual dependence.

First We Fought Them, Now We Become Them

DSA over the last five years has taken on multiple political machines and won. The same night that former Rep. Joe Crowley was playing a live rendition of “Born to Run”, the new Democratic nominee for New York’s 14th congressional district said of her victory, “We meet a machine with a movement, and that is what we have done today." In DC, our chapter took on the Green Team, the same forces that elected Mayor Fenty, Mayor Bowser and Brandon Todd. In Pittsburgh, they took on the Costas. Later that year, NYC DSA took on Martin Dilan and Julia Salazar released a graphic saying “The movement beats the machine.”

Movements vs. Machines. A framing that pits machines as the tools of the unaccountable, the old, the corrupt, the autocratic and the conservative standing in the way of young, progressive, decentralized, people-powered insurgencies. But what happens after you’re in office? An insurgency against yourself?

If our goal is to govern and change material conditions, that requires us to have governing majorities. What does accountability to a movement look like at this scale? Running an effective pro-left, pro-labor governing majority accountable to anyone but themselves will never work based on vibes and movement temperature checks.

We need an organization that can facilitate this interaction between the base and the electeds. We need an organization that can act collectively and prioritize the needs of the movement over the needs of a particular politician. We need an organization that can build a sense of loyalty with their base through protecting and promoting its interests. We need public displays of mutual aid, so our organization can be seen out there fighting for our base outside of election season. We need a social affiliation with our organization through cultural, fraternal and non-political events. We need to be taken seriously by both our allies and opponents as a force to be reckoned with. And with just a few quick steps, we’ve reinvented the political machine.

A machine built around a working class base would be structurally incentivized to deliver tangible gains for that base. Most of our democratic socialist platform, from jobs for those who want them to guaranteed housing and education, will get slandered as corrupt handouts by our opponents. Think of how every Pink Tide government in Latin America was slandered as corrupt by their opposition for attempting to implement programs that would have been right at home during the New Deal era. We might as well fight for our policies openly, using the most effective electoral tool we have at our disposal. Like bringing a knife to a gunfight, any attempt to solve collective problems electorally with an individual approach will leave us outmatched.

Building the Base

So what does building a machine look like practically? Look no further than New York City DSA, the same organization that has taken on machines and won. Every step of their electoral work attempts to prioritize the interests of the organization over those of the candidates. This is the hallmark of the machine.

Instead of just using a “wait and see who shows up” approach to endorsements, they actively map out and target districts they believe are winnable and strategically important, then recruit and develop candidates from within their ranks. They require their candidates to campaign together and cross-endorse each other. They run their candidates as a commonly branded slate, allowing voters to begin to recognize DSA and not just their individual elected official as the person that “gets the goods.” Future voters may even ask positively, “Who is the DSA candidate in this race?” They run DSA field operations so that candidates know just how much they owe to the organization. Like Tammany Hall appointing ward heelers in the past, NYC DSA develops and trains its own members into field organizers to expand and grow its capacity for future work. Most importantly, NYC DSA and its members have learned through their political work and member education that sometimes it is smarter to sit out races when it suits their interests as an organization. It doesn’t matter how “good” the candidate's platform is or even their record. What matters are the interests of NYC DSA and its democratic, member-run organizing.

One of the most important elements of Seth Ackerman’s “A New Party of a New Type” is his call for “a membership-run organization with its own name, its own logo, its own identity and therefore its own platform, and its own ideology.” This describes NYC DSA’s electoral work exactly. It distinguishes them from almost any left or progressive electoral effort of the last half-century.

“Accountability.” “Candidate accountability.” “Hold electeds accountable.” You hear it constantly in left and progressive organizations. It’s common in DSA for members to wish for a parliamentary style of candidate discipline, where the vote of the candidate in office will magically match the position of the endorsing organization. In the parliament of Bangladesh, it is illegal to vote against the will of your party punishable by removal from your seat. It is viewed as a betrayal of the will of the voters that put you there. But this could not be further from the political context that we live in. One of the only nationwide examples of a politician that acts in this manner, Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative, had a mini-scandal in-district when journalists were shocked to discover that her party decided her vote on issues.

What we as socialists view as the very basis of democratic accountability, American liberal society views as being corrupt. Ironically, this concept of the freedom of elected representatives to be independent and not bound by the opinions of their constituents is at the heart of Burkean Conservatism. Missing from this conversation in DSA are any real discussions of how we get from point A (a country with zero conception of collective accountability to an organization for politicians) to point B (the promised land of candidate discipline). The one serious answer is that candidate accountability only exists in proportion to the degree of power wielded by the organization.

Once again, we must look to our comrades in other chapters. In office, DSA electeds in both New York and Chicago are no longer just random politicians vaguely accountable to an ill-defined movement: they’re representatives, spokespeople and tribunes for an organization. By virtue of running them together, branding them as a team and approaching their campaigning as a collective, it ties their future fates together.

Though we can find plenty of examples of DSA electeds across the country having public disagreements with their endorsing chapters (including MDC DSA among them), this strategy seems to minimize the frequency of these disputes. As much as we should avoid looking at electoral politics through an individual lens, we have to recognize that it is infinitely harder to be a lone democratic socialist in an assembly, facing down pressure from within your district, from party leadership and from your chapter. By taking this slate campaign approach, NYC DSA almost guarantees that their electeds will always have a comrade to rely on and helps keep them from orbiting away from the chapter or machine once in office.

While electoral organizing is just a fraction of the work done by chapters like NYC DSA, all of it mutually strengthens and reinforces the machine itself. Whether it’s mass mobilizations, mutual aid, tenant organizing or labor work, all of these serve to reinforce the ties between an organized base in the working class and a machine that can one day govern.

It is also worth noting — since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez complaints are an entire genre of lazy left critiques — that AOC, through her actions, organizing and deeds, proves that she knows that machine-style politics are the only viable path for left electoral work. Her food distribution work and consistent presence at labor actions around NYC suggest she’s aware that she needs a 365-day-a-year campaign approach. It is only this rhetoric about being anti-machine that we on the left need to think more critically about. If we’re not careful, our critiques about machines may lead us to fear the things we actually need for democratic accountability to a movement.

I’ll end this section with a thought that I think bears consideration, especially by leftists that are always on the lookout for betrayal, creeping liberalism, sellouts, opportunists, etc. Often undiscussed in left circles is the concept of loyalty. Why is it that the Jimmy Hoffa (senior that is) name still means so much to so many Teamsters? It’s because Hoffa, whether true or not, is viewed as having “got the goods.” In Teamster mythos, he delivered for his members. He is viewed as the president that brought hundreds of thousands of his members out of the working poor and into a middle class lifestyle. Homes, cars, vacations and college educations all purchased off of the contracts that Hoffa ostensibly won. Why was it that Hoffa Jr., when running to kick out the reformer IBT President Ron Carey in ’96, ran with the slogan “Restore the Pride”? The power and memory of the “glory days” when bellies and pensions were full, even if the mob was involved, was so strong that it overcame Carey’s movement to clean up the organization and take militant strikes against anti-union employers.

I want no one to overread too many lessons from this, but every democratic socialist must grapple with how powerful loyalty between an organized base and its leadership can be when dealing with bread and butter issues.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I believe the electoral work of our chapter, and many like ours, has stalled in its development. I say this because I know that we can do better.

We were one of the first chapters in the country to help elect an out-and-out democratic socialist to a state legislature in 2017. We were one of the first in the country to run a democratic socialist slate, with our “A County for Working Families'' slate in Montgomery County’s 2018 election. Our legislators in Maryland are already passing laws that ban ICE detention centers from the state and help release the misconduct records of police officers. Additionally, our legislators have paved the way for truly democratic socialist proposals like social housing and social wealth funds. We’ve taken on charter school lobbyists with unlimited money multiple times and won. A local magazine said our endorsement was more valuable than that of the Washington Post. Working in labor-progressive coalitions, we’ve taken on the Green Team, a bona fide political machine of the old sort which elected two mayors and a councilmember, and won. We maintain positive working relationships with almost all of our elected officials and can reliably count on them to support the chapter when we need them, whether it's to champion an issue, join us at a rally or even just ask people to join the organization.

In this region, we are unquestionably one of the most effective electoral forces. Our consistency to move volunteers for canvassing is impressive. But we have had many missteps as well, and we’ve lost more races than we’ve won. Oddly enough, it is not the missteps or election day losses that have set us back, but our lack of proactivity in doing the work necessary to follow in the footsteps of chapters like NYC.

We still maintain a “candidate-centric” approach to elections, instead of thinking and acting like a machine where we choose the districts we want to engage in and the candidates we engage with based on the conditions we think are favorable for our chapter. Instead, our process involves candidates, many of them with great politics and paths to victory, coming to us and asking for assistance. From that very moment, we’ve ceded the ability to chart a course based on promoting our own interests first.

But we’ve made some steps in the right direction over the last few years. We have run candidates that were active members. We ran candidate trainings and tried to shop around for challengers. We created the Political Engagement Committee (PEC), which will start to examine future political opportunities in our region ahead of time, rather than resort to our past “laissez faire” approach to endorsements. Our chapter is blessed and cursed by our jurisdiction to have elections to choose from every year, but we need to learn that this means we shouldn’t feel compelled to engage in all of them. Sometimes the machine's best interests are served by not getting involved.

A shining beacon of hope for our chapter is Councilmember Janeese Lewis George. She is the classic example of a “movement beating a machine” story, taking out a candidate that was the handpicked choice of Mayor Bowser for Ward 4. Lewis George, despite beating a machine candidate, has shown she knows that the key to her future success is developing close, organic ties with her constituents. Her office runs a top-notch constituent services program, going so far as to partner with our chapter to canvass Ward 4 to sign up residents for vaccines during the pandemic. There isn’t a week that goes by where Lewis George and her team, decked out in purple (their campaign’s signature color), aren’t out in the community helping residents and showing up.

But Lewis George is just one vote on a council of 13 members. We owe it to her and to the movement to bring her more allies. Our efforts to elect Ed Lazere in 2020 came up just short, but we can’t afford to leave any of our electeds as just a single or one of two democratic socialist votes in their assembly. We need to get to the point where in DC, MD and VA, each legislature has a recognizable Democratic Socialist bloc that operates as a group.

So how do we go from where we are to running an NYC DSA-style proto-political machine? The PEC should first start by looking at what we’ve done so far, what has worked and what hasn’t. The PEC should look to our comrades in the chapter’s Stomp Out Slumlords campaign for guidance, both on writing thorough organizing reports and their efforts to build out capable organizers that can expand their capacity. We should then look at the future opportunities presented to us in 2022. Where do we believe an organized base for democratic socialism exists in our region? The PEC should map out our membership and look for our chapter’s version of Brooklyn and Queens, where membership density, number of tenants and average incomes make the district ripe for a democratic socialist elected official.

Elections will be occurring in Maryland for County Councils (both Prince George’s and Montgomery County), House of Delegates and State Senate, along with elections for the DC Council as well. We may have no shortage of options of where to engage, but we must ask: what best serves the machine? We may need to narrow our focus in order to maximize our impact. We shouldn’t try to run slates like NYC, if we lack the capacity to follow through.

The PEC should also not shy away from its responsibility to develop and train electoral organizers within the chapter. Many new members have joined over the last half-decade — we owe it to them to run trainings on our past electoral work, develop electoral organizing skills and explain some of DSA’s electoral strategy. Either that or we will be doomed to learn from our mistakes over and over again. We also need to reach the point where every branch is able to run its own electoral campaigns or else we’ll never match the capacity of NYC.

We must also learn from the best machines and run large communal social events like potlucks, pasta dinners, amateur sporting events and more. These must be partnered with outreach campaigns that help build name recognition among our base. There’s a tendency on the left to try and keep mutual aid efforts as distant from the organizations that run them as possible. We need to fight back against this.

Ultimately, I’m hopeful for our prospects. I believe that we have incredible potential as a chapter and with some luck, we can build the working class machine our region deserves.

The original article from the Washington Post that opened this piece went on to share a sentiment that I think should resonate with today's socialists as well:

After the vote count, however, the machine stops. Volunteer precinct and block captains who tended so efficiently to the needs of the voters fade into the background. Election day passes and the city's problems — high infant mortality, teen pregnancy, crime, drug use — remain essentially untouched for another four years. It doesn't have to be this way. What we need is a full-time political machine in Washington. If ward coordinators can be organized to improve the delivery of services during an election year, then let's have ward bosses all year round. Our city doesn't need less politics, it needs more.

I couldn’t agree more.

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