Opinion & Analysis

Is the philosophy of the political Tammany  relevant in our modern democracy ?

A careful consideration of the political philosophy that underpins the Tammany Hall in American politics from the days of the revolution to the evolution of the democratic culture and the reforms in the political landscape, gives a deeper understanding of a sort of political culture that pertained, and announces much concerns, then, and even now.

For the benefit of the lay reader, let us do you the service of throwing a bit of light on the Tammany Hall as a political philosophy, and a strong political machine that existed functionally in the late 19th century, and early part of the 20th century. Again, the word functionally is used advisedly in context.

The Tammany Hall was a political machine, and practically existed as the most dominant block of the Democratic Party in New York, in the 1890s through 1930s. For historical purposes, it had its headquarters in the gargantuan building of the Tammany Hall Society, a separate form of a Secret Society that operated with all intents and purposes in philanthropy, social relief, community services, and adherence to a unique philosophical inclination. Ironically, most of the members of the Tammany Society were also members of the Democratic machinery called by the same name Tammany Hall, as enumerated above.

The party machine in the Democratic Party in the state of New York was indeed very powerful, but our concerns in this medium has no bearing on how powerful a block or party machine existed, but how relevant it was to the public administration, sustenance of democratic tenets, adherence to the modus of operandi of the entire Democratic Party, and maintenance of the welfare of the citizenry, vis –a –vis its trend of assumption in our current democratic culture and sustenance remains rather, our focus.

One of the key philosophical calling of the Tammany Hall as a Democratic machine was on the principle of “Patronage Democracy” or the “Spoil System.” Every nook and cranny of the bosses shared this belief and made it a calling, equally giving it a snowballing effect in the decentralized local government system of administration. Cronies of the Tammany Hall, believed in shared responsibility to those who gave them the “pull” or followership.

The ideological speculation of the nature of the machine politics did not center much on who qualified or had the best academic qualification for the job available. The “Merit System” actually was relegated to the background, whilst nepotism and favoritism assumed a radical dimension in the political landscape of the geo-political and socio-economic administration of the New York City and for that matter the State. Off course, the City was figuratively the State and Tammany Hall invariably; the Democratic branch in the State of New York, even though other seemingly blocks of the Democratic Party machine existed in the State.

The geo-political philosophy of the Tammany Hall vehemently resisted Public Service Reforms, which pertained in education, employment and allocation of social services and infrastructure. The multi-dollar question is why the vehement opposition and resentment from the “Bosses” of the Wards and from the District and Municipal administrative hierarchy? Do you believe in the moral value of the principle of “Honest Graft?” Do the citizenry need to share in the joy of the Honest Graft? Were the citizenry, really conscious of the principle of the “Honest Graft” in that political and democratic evolution? Was dictatorship shrouded in obscurity and enforced in the will of the people?

These were the revelations that brought enlightenment in the face of the culture of comfort that the social class or the bourgeoisie carved for themselves in the party political machine of the 20th century. And today we ask: How relevant is this political philosophy to our cherished democracy? Is the party political machine still in operation? If yes, of what trend is it different from the 20th century historical demonstration of the Tammany Hall?  

A critical development, worthy of note, was how the urban political administration, influenced and hijacked  supposed democratic elections, through a mechanism called repeated voters or simply “repeaters”, just to ensure that the Tammany Hall secure power for the Democratic Party and continue to “build the nation”, as purported. To them, Civil Service Reforms was a curse, and amassing wealth through a political office was just an opportune blessing of Mother Nature, and just like the discovery of hidden treasury.

It is significant to indicate that as we recall this significant political milestone, a critical introspection and retrospection is made of the current dispensation of the geo-political and democratic governance. Has the party machine improved or deteriorated overnight? If the purpose of politics is to seek the common good of the citizenry, then must the citizenry bear the blunt of a unique inclination to a political philosophy by the core of the groupings?

What is perhaps required in the reform administration of the current dispensation of politics and government, is social and economic justice, which is interwoven with equality, equity, preservation of human dignity, good governance, accountability, rule of law and respect for the constitution. These reforms do not only improve our governance system, but equally, they help sustain the very moral fabric of our socio-cultural norms, values, love for humanity and fear of God.

Again, in the current dispensation of the reform administration, bribery and corruption is a crime prosecutable under the law, and in the circumstance, the giver and the receiver are both at fault. In fact, the power of the instrument of the law was perhaps, inefficacious or unmindful under the regime of the political machine – Tammany Hall, as crime was compensated, at the expense of justice administration and correction. So we ask: Has the law resumed its efficacy since? Or the law is still an ass? At what point in time do we feel convinced that the fundamental human rights of the citizenry is marginalized under the full glare of the instrument of the law, and do we still have such machines that guarantee the barbaric continuity of this system? To this extent, we seek to clarify, how relevant the political philosophy of the Tammany Hall is to our modern democratic culture, and to make a full assessment of their ramifications on the wellbeing of the citizenry. 

Are there any useful lessons for the political hierarchy and the citizenry? As published in his book: “The shame of the cities,” Lincoln Steffens, also a former city editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser, remarked, “Tammany kindness was real kindness and went far” its power “gathered up cheaply like garbage in the districts.”

We cannot assume to take anything for granted. As patriotic citizens, our active participation in the democratic process of decision making is as equally important as the power and role invested in our representatives in government, and we have a collaborative role to ensuring the sustenance of true democratic governance, devoid of undue manipulations. To partner this contract effectively, we must do away with apathy and indifference in the governance of the country. Our political representatives, who are entrusted with enumerated powers, must also ensure that our civic responsibilities are honored through effective and efficient civic leadership engagements, and citizenship active participation in the democratic governance in a welcoming manner of our inclusive democratic political culture. 

A critical observation of the Tammany machine, may conclude that perhaps, active participation in the local politics and strategic tactics of the Tammany machinery was not absent, what really was missing, was a lack of understanding of the socio-political issues, by a mass majority of the electorate, and this disadvantaged them immensely to the benefit of the political lords. The call again is for our modern democratic institutions and civil society activist groups to intensify their public education campaigns, on all the socio- economic, political and legal issues that bind and concern the citizens, in order that they might be well- informed to contribute their quota meaningfully, and become watchdogs on the main principles of Checks and Balances inherent in the very concept of Separation of Powers.

This is what Aristotle describes in the real sense of the word, “Citizenship.”


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