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James Bryce on the autocratic oligarchy which controls the party machine in the American democratic system (1921)

The British jurist and diplomat Viscount James Bryce (1838-1922) argues that American politics is controlled by an autocratic oligarchy of professional politicians and party bosses who provide benefits to their clients and supporters at taxpayer expence:

If he (a professional politician) had the gifts of leadership, boldness, self-confidence and the capacity for quick decision, he became the Boss. Democracies talk of Equality, but Efficiency is after all the first requisite in all governments, be they governments of a nation or of a faction; so in the midst of equality oligarchies and autocracies rise by a law of nature. Where the control of one strong, swift will makes for success, that will brings its possessor to the top. Thus the party organization, based on democratic principles, and respecting those principles in its rules, fell under what may be called an autocratic oligarchy with the Boss for its head, while the rest of the Ring formed his Cabinet council.

The party managers whose methods have been described in a preceding chapter were not slow to profit by such a situation. Every city had a government framed not with a view to efficiency and economy but on political lines similar to those of the State Governments. The differences between one “City Charter” (as the frame of government is called) and another were numerous, but the general character of these instruments was the same, and so were the economic and social phenomena which the cities presented. There was a Legislature, sometimes of one, sometimes of two Councils, composed of persons most of whom belonged to the half-educated class and were unknown to the respectable citizens. There was a mayor and a number of other officials, each directly elected by the people for short terms; and there were judges elected also for short terms with a wide civil as well as criminal jurisdiction.

The process by which a little group of selfish professional politicians gained in each city, first the control of the party organization and then through it the control of the city, can seldom be traced, for the Ringsters conspired in secret, and the public records give only the outer aspect of their actions. Usually a few of the wiliest and most plausible who became prominent in the primaries were elected to the managing committees. There, getting to know one another, and having a common aim, they found it profitable to work together, filled the committees with dependants on whose obedience they could rely, and so grew to be a small irresponsible junta, who kept power because they proved themselves fit to use it. Sometimes they formed a sort of ruling Ring, always small. But in this Ring there was generally some one conspicuous either by his craft or by the popular talents which disposed the rank and file to follow him. If he had the gifts of leadership, boldness, self-confidence and the capacity for quick decision, he became the Boss. Democracies talk of Equality, but Efficiency is after all the first requisite in all governments, be they governments of a nation or of a faction; so in the midst of equality oligarchies and autocracies rise by a law of nature. Where the control of one strong, swift will makes for success, that will brings its possessor to the top. Thus the party organization, based on democratic principles, and respecting those principles in its rules, fell under what may be called an autocratic oligarchy with the Boss for its head, while the rest of the Ring formed his Cabinet council. So highly do American business men value efficiency, that they are more disposed to vest wide powers in a single hand than are the English, witness the concentration of the management of railroads in a President instead of a Board of Directors, and the far larger authority given to the President of a University than that allowed to the head either of any British university or of a college at Oxford or Cambridge. Thus, despite the sacred principle of equality, Bossdom prevailed in the party organizations; and in New York, for instance, the dynasty of Bosses who during eighty years have reigned purely by the gifts of political leadership may be compared with that line of monarchs, neither hereditary nor elective, but most of them rising by their military talents, which ruled the Roman Empire from Nero down to Constantine.

The party organizations laid hold of the city governments. They managed the Primaries and Conventions, nominated the party candidates, looked after the elections, resorting, when necessary, to personation, repeating, and other frauds, and adding to these, if their party controlled the officials in charge of the elections, intimidation at the polls, ballot stuffing and false counting. Most of their candidates were so obscure as to be unknown to the majority of the voters, who were thus obliged to vote the party ticket. Thus a Ring might by the use of those ignorant masses who constituted its voting stock, fill the offices with its creatures, the chief among whom found many ways of making illicit gains out of contracts or the sale of franchises (such as the laying of street railways) or by levying blackmail on firms who desired permission to transgress the law. Sometimes these practices went long unchecked, for the system grew up silently, unnoticed by good citizens who were thinking of the Slavery question or the Tariff. It was hard to fix responsibility upon offenders. Who could say which of the members of the Councils were the most guilty parties, who could examine records and documents in the custody of dishonest officials, who could hope much from legal proceedings likely to come before a judge who owed his election to the party dominating the city? While ward politicians made their petty gains in the lower strata of city life, and the ward leader directed his voting regiment like a colonel, members of the Ring installed themselves in offices where money could be scooped in by large operations; and the chiefs of the party in the State, seldom soiling their own fingers, winked at the methods of the professionals and profited by the voting power placed at their disposal.

About this Quotation:

Viscount Bryce had a chance to observe the behaviour of American political parties first hand when he was the British Ambassador to the United States between 1907 and 1913. Since it had become a fully fledged democracy with organised political parties much earlier than other European states its political system was more mature and the activities of the “party machine” in cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia were well established by the early 20th century. Bryce was struck by how “oligarchical” the American political parties were and how this seemed not to sit very well in a country which prided itself on its “democracy.” He discusses how the party “Boss” rises to the top and controls the distribution of jobs (“the spoils system”), and how the “professional politicians” engage in “log-rolling” to spread the largess which government contracts and legislation (“franchises”) can bestow on the privileged and politically well-connected. His conclusion is that America is ruled by an “autocratic oligarchy” of party Bosses and Organizers and professional politicians which is the “effective ruler of the country.”

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