Political Machines, Bosses and Reformers While local government is the level of government most of us are likely to interact with and have the greatest opportunity to participate in, citizen involvement does not characterize the history of local governments in the United States.
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Today, as you can see, 56 percent of Americans do not believe they would be able to bring about improvement in their local community. Why do a majority of American feel they cannot make a difference in local politics?
One reason that local governments have not inspired citizen involvement and participation has been their history of control by political machines, political elites and political corruption. This history has flourished across American cities and in many cases continues to flourish in cities today.
During the end of the nineteenth century, the political bosses that ran the nation’s cities gained their power by controlling immigrant votes. Newcomers to the country arrived in cities without money, jobs or command of English. To fill these voids, political machines stepped up and provided services, jobs and necessities for these new Americans. The machines provided housing, food, recreation and jobs in exchange for faithful and constant political support. In nearly every neighborhood of nearly every urban city, a political meeting place served as an important link between citizens and city hall. If you needed help, you met with and asked the neighborhood political boss. The political boss provided what you and your family needed. In return, the boss “expected” your support of the machine in the next election.
The political machines also performed essential welfare services for local residents. Bribes, kickbacks on contracts and assessments on salary often financed these services. The bosses did not carry out these services because they were committed to public service. Bosses provided these services to residents because of a desire to achieve political power. This system of government became known as the “spoils system” because winning an election and gaining the political power of city hall was regarded as a prize and to the victor went the spoils of that political power.
This attitude of government only looking out for a few big interests continues today.
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