How the Political Landscape Hasn’t Changed Much in 150 Years

Yesterday, I finished reading “Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics” by Terry Golway.

Some time back, I heard an interview with the author on NPR’s Fresh Air, and added the book to my Hold list at the library. I might have taken longer to get around to reading it, except that it was immediately available at the library near our house, and I didn’t feel like requesting something else and waiting for it to arrive, nor did I feel like driving to a different library that had other books on my Hold list available.

Before reading this book, all I knew about Tammany Hall was that there was a fellow named “Boss” Tweed who kind of ran it and that it was associated with graft and political corruption.

But that’s only part of the story, and arguably not the most important part. There was much, much more.

To start off, on the first page of the introduction, I learned that “Tammany Hall, the building, was home to Tammany Hall, the controlling body of the Democratic Party of New York County, better known as Manhattan.”

I read about the nativist movement, which espoused the supposed superiority of Anglo-Protestant morality over the culture and religion of Irish Catholic immigrants feeling the Potato Famine. Nativist attitudes of the 1800s seem to share much with some current attitudes expressed about Mexicans and Muslims.

I read about how Tammany Hall provided an early sort of social safety net, providing aid to those who needed it simply because they needed it, without making any kind of moral judgment about whether the recipients “deserved” help. “The Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, a private charity . . . was intent on distinguishing between the ‘worthless’ poor and the ‘modest and deserving’ poor . . . Those who wished the association’s help were required to allow staff, or ‘visitors,’ from the organization to inspect their homes and investigate their private lives and habits.”

This brought to my mind things I have read about limitations placed on the recipients of food stamps about what they are allowed to purchase.

I read about how the face of laissez-faire economics hasn’t changed much in 150 years. Circa 1860, some media outlets (then known as “newspapers”) editorialized thusly: “the government [is] under no obligation ‘to find people employment or food’ “; “society’s ‘less fortunate brethren’ could not demand government relief ‘as a right.’ Instead . . . relief should be administered as the ‘moral obligation’ of the wealthy.”

On the opposite side of the fence, Alfred E. Smith, a product of the Tammany machine and 1928 presidential candidate, “developed a view of political power that challenged the assumptions of the transatlantic free-trader who believed the government had no role to play in ameliorating the inequities of the market. There were, Smith said, who distinct approaches to the use of state power. ‘One group believes that the Constitution and statute law is intended only for the protection of property and money. . . . The other group believes that law in a democracy is not a divine principle but exists for the greatest good to the greatest number and for meeting the needs of present day society. . . . That is the theory I hold.’ “

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