Political Machine; noun, as defined by Encyclopedia Britannica- “in US politics, a party organization, headed by a single boss or small autocratic group, that commands enough votes to maintain political and administrative control of a city, county, or state.” Political machines are by their very definition a means of exerting control over a civil society. How firm that control is, and on what scale – is left solely to the skill of its operators. This series of articles will expand on the definition of a political machine by cataloging its structure, composition, and goals. Furthermore, we will look at the American politician Huey Long’s very successful Great Depression era political machine as a model to analyze Vladimir Putin’s contemporary regime as President of Russia. Political machines are not purely an American phenomena, by using similar methods that helped Long secure total control of the State of Louisiana, Putin has been able to secure control of an entire country.
In order to understand this, it is first necessary to analyze the operational dynamics of a political machine itself. Political Machines consist of three types, centralized, decentralized, and hybrid. A centralized political machine is probably the most common and stable. A single leader, or boss, makes all of the important decisions, and delegates day-to-day operations to his subordinates. The direct subordinates of the boss owe him their positions, as their own subordinates owe their positions to them – creating a pyramid like hierarchy with the system of patronage serving as the life blood the centralized political machine.
A decentralized machine is much looser in its organization; at its head is usually a collection of powerful individuals who each maintain control of various factions. When the factions work together the machine functions much in the same way as a centralized machine with a system of loyalty and patronage. However the decentralized machine is vulnerable to factional infighting which can cause it to rapidly disintegrate.
The hybrid system is a combination of the centralized and decentralized machines. The hybrid system is perhaps the most common as it usually combines the most effective elements from the other two subtypes. Generally hybrid machines contain factions but are led by a singular boss rather than a collective of factional leaders. The boss maintains his authority by dispensing patronage to the factions and playing the various faction leaders against each other.
Every political machine, regardless of type will focus on controlling three basic elements. First the machine will seek to control the means to power – exercising control over the electoral process on all levels of society that the machine competes. This control will manifest through various, and often-fraudulent, means. The machine will seek to continue using these means to remain in power. After the acquisition of power, the machine will seek to exercise the reigns of power, focusing on controlling all aspects of a society’s governmental infrastructure. This includes the legislative, judicial, and administrative aspects of government on as many possible levels. The machine will also seek to control or at least influence the media either through direct sponsorship or coercion.
A political machine is not something that appears spontaneously, it is a complex hierarchy that is built up over a period of time. In the centralized model this is often the result of actions by a single, charismatic, and forceful individual. This is the situation, in the case of Huey Long, the Governor of the State of Louisiana 1928-1932 and U.S. Senator 1932-1935. Long constructed what is regarded as the most successful American political machine since the Civil War Era Tammany Hall. At the time of his death, Huey Long was the uncrowned king of Louisiana. He and his allies controlled almost every facet of state, parish, and city government. What strengthens his accomplishments is that Huey Long built this empire from the ground up, gaining enough popularity and power to overturn the existing and vested interest of the oilmen, planters, and businessmen who ran the state. When Long came to power in 1928 in Louisiana, the economic and social situation of the state was in crisis. The state had the lowest literacy rate in the country- only 75% and only 300 miles of paved roads, further intensifying the effects of the Great Depression. Long ran on a populist platform promising to rectify these issues, and won the election with a landslide of 96.1% of the vote.
It is easy to see draw parallels to Putin’s first election to office, even though Mr. Putin took power acting as a Kremlin insider rather than running as a populist outsider like Long. Putin also came to power while Russia was in a state of economic and political chaos following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the disastrous and inept leadership of Boris Yeltsin. Like Long’s Louisiana, Russia was under the control of an alliance of powerful business leaders referred to as oligarchs who informally exercised a great deal of influence over the government. Many of these oligarchs also had strong ties to the black market and organized crime. In addition to corruption at the top, ordinary Russia was suffering horribly. Crime was out of control, drug and alcohol abuse were rampant, currency was worthless, and there were constant shortages of staple goods.
Vladimir Putin rose to power in a very different manner than Mr. Long, who had been a lawyer and a political outsider. Mr. Putin on the other hand is a perfect example of a political insider. Starting with his service with the KGB from 1975-1991, then a stint in the St. Petersburg Governor’s office, he climbed the ranks of Presidential bureaucracy until his appointment as Mr. Yeltsin’s Prime Minister in 1999. At this point Mr. Putin had been in democratic government for almost ten years and had never once run for office. He was, however, well schooled in every facet of Russian bureaucracy -a skill set that would serve him well in the coming years, as he sought to rectify his nation from the state of disarray it was in.
This is the first piece in a three part series, look out for the next piece which will detail how these leaders exercised their power. It will be published next Friday- April 4, 2014. Be sure to follow us on facebook for more updates.
End of Part 1
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