Sunday, March 9, 2014

Where have you gone, Tammany Hall?

In American politics today, the most common complaint is, why can't politicians get anything done?

Of course, our political system of checks and balances was intentionally set up to make it difficult to govern, lest we slide into tyranny. However, in recent years, it seems like our politicians have gone from governing and legislating into simply engaging in deliberate gridlock. It does "We the people" no good.

The people, of course, are at the heart of any democracy -- because here the people rule. At least, in theory. In practice, of course, people powered government is rough and messy business, much like the people themselves. That is why political parties came into existence, as a way for people and groups with similar interests to organize and claim power. It's always why the engines of political parties, i.e. "machines", became so vital in the 19th and 20th centuries: they helped people claim power and use the government to improve their lives.

A machine works like this: the people who work and vote for or finance the dominate political party in their respective city or state get benefits when the politicians they support get into the power. This can be a job or social services or various government favors. It's very much a transactional, back scratching way of governing. It is the "business" side of politics and government. 

Political machines, of course, have long been derided as sources of corruption since they can warp the machinery and priorities of government and leads to bad policies. Government ceases to function properly when instead of being used an instrument to help the population at large it is used simply to benefit the people who run and support it. However, political machines were not always sources of patronage and corruption. Instead, they were mechanisms to help the poor and dispossessed grab away the levers of government from the rich and connected. 

Here in NYC, from the early nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, Tammany Hall was the most powerful and notorious political machine in America. Tammany Hall ran NYC like the Vatican runs the Catholic Church: absolutely. The "bosses" of Tammany, like the infamous Boss Tweed and later people like Carmine DeSapio, would handpick candidates for mayor and other municipal offices and they were almost guarenteed victory on election day. At its height, Tammany's power reached to Albany, with even governors needed the backing of the powerful organization to get elected. But Tammany was not just a cease pool of power and corruption. In its early days, before the government granted social services, it was also a place where poor people and immigrants could go to get a job, food, shelter, even winter clothes. It helped the people at a time when the government and the wealthy didn't, and all it wanted in exchange was a vote. For many New Yorkers at the time, this was a great deal. 

In many ways, Tammany became a victim of its own success and power. By the mid-twentieth century, many of the politicians it had supported, like Governor Al Smith, had instituted social welfare programs in New York State that made the services Tammany used to provide people irrelevant. In the 1930s, the New Deal and the election of Fiorello LaGuardia as mayor made Tammany both irrellevant and, for the first time, politically weak. And, of course, corruption went from the "honest graft" of the 19th century, when politicians and bosses helped the people and themselves, into the vile corruption of Mayor Jimmy Walker -- who spent his days and nights drinking and chasing women while his city fell apart, thanks to the Great Depression and incompetency of City Hall. 

By the 1960s, Tammany Hall was dead. Many said and would say today good riddance. But is the city better off because of it? At its height, Tammany Hall was a strong advocate for New Yorkers who had no other. It truly cared and helped everyone. Today, who does that? Unions? The rich? Ha! And when you see ineffective the city, state and federal governments have became at truly improving the lives of ordinary people, Tammany Hall in its glory years seems truly glorious indeed. 

There is a new book that looks to reexamine the legacy of Tammany Hall. Perhaps, it argues, Tammany Hall has been unfairly condemned. And perhaps the people of our city would do better if another Tammany Hall could rise, a political organization that simply looked out for everyone without regards to wealth or connections. 

P.S. Where was Tammany Hall? It was originally located right off Union Square on East 14th street. The original building was demolished in 1927 but then moved to East 17th. 

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