On Men and Their Machines
A Response to Betsey Culp's "Deus
When we think about political machines, the tendency is
to personalize the mechanics used to achieve control as an expression of
the persona of the mechanic. While most political machines have titular
heads, Brown/Burton here or Daley in Chicago, others are centered on an
institution, such as the Catholic Church network precursor here or
Tammany Hall in New York City.
But the commonality among these various machines can be
reduced to a set of political tactics frequently employed with the
universal end of perpetuating the grip on power at the expense, if
necessary, of any of the political ideology or priorities that
legitimated the machine initially.
Successful machines are an exclusively male phenomenon,
powered as much by testosterone as by lust for money and/or power. U.S.
Senator Feinstein’s political influence and ability to control patronage
is miniscule when compared with Mayor Brown’s.
The machine method of politics equips and deploys
political armored divisions to militarize the field of politics,
establish political perimeters to be defended using any means against
all comers, frequently by operatives funded by patronage, and to engage
in psychological operations, facilitating the creation of a polemic
mythology based on polar opposites of the designated beneficiaries of
machine largesse and a demonized other which drives the machine by
offering some measure of challenge to its program.
Some of these psychological operations are undertaken by
affiliated publishing enterprises. Whether the Fang family publications
or the Chronicle and old Examiner in transition for Brown and Burton or
the Bay Guardian for Ammiano, the support of allied news outlets willing
to trade their journalistic objectivity for political power works for
Like all war machines, the supply lines must be kept
open, and the mechanics of government itself are put on the auction
block for this purpose. The for-profit as well as the not-for-profit
economies are engines secreting the mother’s milk that fuels the
machines, with access and pork in return. Appointments and sweetheart
deals ensconce political operatives in place, frequently functioning as
vote generators while on the people’s dime.
I wouldn’t be the first commentator to point out the
interconnections between politics and war. The militarization of
politics in our context takes on many faces: the Tenderloin antics of
Fredrick Hobson as Brown’s low-level shin kicker, the tactics of
personal and threateningly violent intimidation used by Daly’s forces
and closely related to that, the scorpions-in-a-jar mentality of many
housing activists, both tenants-rights and nonprofit developers.
Ideological perimeters are secured by the creative
manipulation of semantics, the worst cases of this being the perversity
of the discourse surrounding “Affordable Housing” by the progressives
and Brown’s cynical manipulation of ethnicity to bring out the worst
conceivable examples of diversity in appointments. In both cases, the
end game is to preserve the continued maintanance of power through the
creative manipulation of a space of discourse rather than to actually
build affordable housing or to bring forth the kind of diversity in
appointments that accurately reflects all aspects of our population at
The ideological devices used by political machines to
achieve legitimacy in the eyes of their faithful read more like an
apocalyptic religious liturgical text than an objective political
program. The True Believers reinforce a self-sustaining closed cycle of
groupthink all the while demonizing The Other as the enemy. The
demonization of landlords or homeowners, using the eviction of seniors
as a tug on heartstrings for enhanced renters’ rights is as manipulative
as the current tarring of all homeless people with the infractions of
not only the homeless but also the alcoholic, substance-abusing and
mentally ill communities. The discourse is dumbed down so that complex
issues are framed in a way that benefits the machine.
Machine coalition building is wholesale politics,
gathering leaders of groups together with minimal grassroots
consultation. This strategy fits the machine model, providing points for
easy lubrication without the messy hassles of popular grassroots
legitimacy. And when politics is limited to a close, closed circle of
paid professionals, the imperative switches from advancing a set of
shared values to the perpetuation of each activist, organization, or
institution. Thus, the existence of the community-based organizations
that politically legitimate the machine players is symbiotically tied to
the success of the machine.
Hostility toward democracy on the part of the right wing
and corporations is well documented. But on the progressive side, there
is an elitist wariness of trusting the people to decide issues for
ourselves, a fear that the people won’t make the right, that is, the
doctrinaire progressive decision. So machines are needed by those who
don’t trust the people to agree with them to frame debates based on an
idealized, gilded good versus an evil, damned bad.
And this is where there is differentiation among
progressives and Betsey Culp’s claim that all politicians would create a
machine if they could falls apart. Or, conversely, we now know the
danger posed to progressive politics by those who would choose to use
the machine model. It is this ongoing characteristic of perpetuation
that differentiates ordinary campaigns from a machine.
We know why the conservative, pro-business,
anti-democratic elements would use their unlimited funding to support
such top-down tools such as machines to maintain their control over
politics and the economy. But when it comes to the progressive political
project, a different standard must apply if there is to be any
measurable difference between progressivism as a vehicle for substantial
structural reform and as a means of perpetuating power among a different
set of friends.
A machine is an industrial-scale conspiracy by a
not-so-broad-based group of interests with access to better funding than
most to create the conditions where it can seize and maintain political
power to do its bidding. This approach directly contradicts the
progressive ideals of participatory democracy and self-determination on
the part of neighborhoods, both before and after the election.
We know now the traps and pitfalls of machine politics,
and if we don’t recognize its precursors now as new machines are on the
rise, then we will only have ourselves to blame when the next generation
of Browns and Burtons insinuates its mechanical tentacles into San
Francisco’s body politic. If machines are required to play and win under
these rules, then we need to be changing the rules.