How the machine works
You hear a lot about political machines - for example, my friend Roatti on Albany Project writes about the subject - and at the risk of acid commentary from machine-owned bloggers, I have some thoughts on it as well.
Machines exist in what is essentially an apolitical space, which is surprising, given that they operate on the field of politics. But the deep relationships that seem to enmesh the machines of both parties, especially in the outer boroughs and in some regions upstate, suggest that they exist mainly for the maintenance of jobs and revenue to a selected group of insiders. It is, essentially, the professionalization and unionizing, if you will, of the exercise of political power. Machines are, literally, a closed shop.
It's worth pointing out that the results aren't all bad. For example, some machine politicians have a sterling record on affordable housing. That's not a small thing. In minority communities, machines have proven an effective mechanism for guaranteeing disadvantaged ethnicities a seat at the table.
The downside of machine politics is equally clear: in a system that consists of, essentially, a professional class supported by carefully chosen voters, the central systemic benefit of the democratic process, of a feedback loop between the people and their representatives, erodes.
Machines rely on one core principle: manipulating voter turnout to achieve desired electoral results. This is why, in true machine districts, again on a completely bi-partisan basis, you seldom if ever see voter registration drives. The process is simple: if only the right people vote - and the turnout ratios in machine districts indicate that they're quite successful in the enterprise - the results are fore-ordained. This provides a reliable income stream for those associated - staff jobs, legislative jobs, member items to favored non-profits, and so on. The jewel in the crown is the judicial system. Courts appoint witnesses, executors, and distribute other benefices to favored insiders. Since judges do the distributing, and are usually elected or subject to appointment by an elected commission, determining who sits on the bench provides multiple income streams.
It's worth pointing out that all of this is strictly legal, and that, again, the results are not all bad. The system works well enough to meet the basic needs of affected districts, which you can deduce simply from the longevity these arrangements have demonstrated. New York has been a machine state since the 19th century, so the system does seem to function adequately enough.
The problem lies elsewhere. It is that, simply, the distribution of public jobs to insiders doesn't universally guarantee a high level of competence, and that emerging or new interests, be they ethnic, ideological, issues-based, are not represented. From a process perspective, the idea that turnout at the polls must be low defies the central premise of a small-d democratic system.
The results are visible in the Albany legislature, itself set up in such a way as to impede the feedback loop between legislators and their constituents. For example, despite widespread public displeasure over the project, neither chamber has had hearings on the development project at Atlantic Yards, nor is any hearing likely.
None of this is really new information. This state of affairs is over a hundred years old. Nor is it, judging by that history, likely to change. What will be worth watching in this cycle is the interplay between the Obama campaign, premised as it is on attracting new voters and pushing turnout, and the Democratic machine counties with their historically poor voter turnout.