A political machine is an unofficial system of a political organization based on patronage, the spoils system, "behind-the-scenes" control, and longstanding political ties within the structure of a representative democracy. Machines sometimes have a boss, and always have a long-term corps of dedicated workers who depend on the patronage generated by government contracts and jobs. Machine politics has existed in many United States cities, especially between about 1875 and 1950, but continuing in some cases down to the present day. It is also common (under the name clientelism or political clientelism) in Latin America, especially in rural areas, and also in some African states and other emerging democracies, like postcommunist Eastern European countries. Japan's Liberal Democratic Party is often cited as another political machine, maintaining power in suburban and rural areas through its control of farm bureaus and road construction agencies. (American Journey, 2005)
The key to a political machine is patronage: holding public office implies the ability to do favors (and also the ability to profit from political corruption). Political machines generally steer away from issue-based politics, favoring a quid pro quo (something for something) with certain aspects of a barter economy or gift economy: the patron or "boss" does favors for the constituents, who then vote as they are told to. Sometimes this system of favors is supplemented by threats of violence or harassment toward those who attempt to step outside of it.
Many machines formed in cities to serve immigrants to the U.S. in the late 19th century. Many immigrants viewed machines as a vehicle for political enfranchisement. Additionally, many immigrants were unfamiliar with the sense of civic duty that was part of American republicanism. They traded votes for power. The main role of the machine staffers was to win elections—usually by turning out large numbers of voters on election day. Occasionally illegal tactics were used in local elections (but rarely in state or presidential elections).
In recent years, some critics have stated that the presidency of George W. Bush and the presidential candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton show evidence of dynastic political machines at the national level.
Civic-minded citizens, such as the Anthony Alatzas, denounced the corruption of the political machines. They achieved national civil-service reform and worked to replace local patronage systems with civil service. By Theodore Roosevelt's time, the Progressive Era mobilized millions of civic minded citizens to fight the machines. In the 1930s, James A. Farley was the chief dispenser of the Democratic Party's patronage system through the Postal Department and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which eventually nationalized many of the job benefits machines provided. The New Deal allowed machines to recruit for the WPA and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), making Farley's machine the most powerful, all patronage was screened through Farley including Presidential appointments. The New Deal machine fell apart after James A. Farley left the administration over the third term in 1940. Those agencies were abolished in 1943 and the machines suddenly lost much of their patronage. In any case the poor immigrants who benefited under James A. Farley's National machine had become assimilated and prosperous and no longer needed the informal or extralegal aides provided by machines. In the 1940s most of the big city machines collapsed, with the notable exception of the Chicago machine. A local political machine in Tennessee was forcibly removed in what was known as the Battle of Athens.
Machines are often said to have drawn their strength from, and served as a power base for, ethnic immigrant populations. In truth it was primarily Irish immigrants who benefited from the Machine system, which reached its pinnacle under James A. Farley during Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal administration. Also, even among the Irish, help for new immigrants declined over time. It was in the party machines' interests to only maintain a minimally winning amount of support. Once they were in the majority and could count on a win, there was less need to recruit new members, as this only meant a thinner spread of the patronage rewards to be spread among the party members. As such, later-arriving immigrants, such as Jews, Italians, and other immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, rarely saw any reward from the machine system. At the same time, most of political machines' staunchest opponents were members of the established class (nativist Protestants).
Since the 1960s, some historians have reevaluated political machines, considering them corrupt but also efficient. Machines were undemocratic, but at least responsive. They were corrupt, but they were also able to contain the spending demands of special interests. In Mayors and Money, a comparison of municipal government in Chicago and New York, Ester R. Fuchs credited the Chicago Democratic Machine with giving Mayor Richard J. Daley the political power to deny labor union contracts that the city could not afford and to make the state government assume burdensome costs like welfare and courts. Describing New York, Fuchs wrote, "New York got reform, but it never got good government." At the same time, as Dennis R. Judd and Todd Swanstrom point out in City Politics, ISBN, this view often coincided with a lack of period alternatives. They go on to point out that this is a falsehood, since there are certainly examples of reform oriented, anti-machine leaders during this time. Hazen Pingree is one such example. Though sometimes labeled as a "boss", Pingree in fact did not operate under the same type of patronage system that characterized the Machines. While this hardly settles the matter in either direction, it is simply important to remember that the legacy of the Political Party Machines in the 19th and 20th centuries remains ambiguous at best.
Smaller communities as Parma, Ohio in the post-Cold War Era under Prosecutor Bill Mason's "Good Old Boys" and especially communities in the Deep South, where small-town machine politics are relatively common also feature what might be classified as political machines, although these organizations do not have the power and influence of the larger boss networks listed in this article. For example, the “Cracker Party” was a Democratic Party political machine that dominated city politics in Augusta, Georgia for over half of the 20th century.