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

Viscount James Bryce

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.

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.”