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Monday, February 18, 2002

On Men and Their Machines

A Response to Betsey Culp's "Deus ex Machina"

By Marc Salomon

When we think about political machines, the tendency is to personalize the mechanics used to achieve control as an expression of the persona of the mechanic. While most political machines have titular heads, Brown/Burton here or Daley in Chicago, others are centered on an institution, such as the Catholic Church network precursor here or Tammany Hall in New York City.

But the commonality among these various machines can be reduced to a set of political tactics frequently employed with the universal end of perpetuating the grip on power at the expense, if necessary, of any of the political ideology or priorities that legitimated the machine initially.

Successful machines are an exclusively male phenomenon, powered as much by testosterone as by lust for money and/or power. U.S. Senator Feinstein’s political influence and ability to control patronage is miniscule when compared with Mayor Brown’s.

The machine method of politics equips and deploys political armored divisions to militarize the field of politics, establish political perimeters to be defended using any means against all comers, frequently by operatives funded by patronage, and to engage in psychological operations, facilitating the creation of a polemic mythology based on polar opposites of the designated beneficiaries of machine largesse and a demonized other which drives the machine by offering some measure of challenge to its program.

Some of these psychological operations are undertaken by affiliated publishing enterprises. Whether the Fang family publications or the Chronicle and old Examiner in transition for Brown and Burton or the Bay Guardian for Ammiano, the support of allied news outlets willing to trade their journalistic objectivity for political power works for all involved.

Like all war machines, the supply lines must be kept open, and the mechanics of government itself are put on the auction block for this purpose. The for-profit as well as the not-for-profit economies are engines secreting the mother’s milk that fuels the machines, with access and pork in return. Appointments and sweetheart deals ensconce political operatives in place, frequently functioning as vote generators while on the people’s dime.

I wouldn’t be the first commentator to point out the interconnections between politics and war. The militarization of politics in our context takes on many faces: the Tenderloin antics of Fredrick Hobson as Brown’s low-level shin kicker, the tactics of personal and threateningly violent intimidation used by Daly’s forces and closely related to that, the scorpions-in-a-jar mentality of many housing activists, both tenants-rights and nonprofit developers.

Ideological perimeters are secured by the creative manipulation of semantics, the worst cases of this being the perversity of the discourse surrounding “Affordable Housing” by the progressives and Brown’s cynical manipulation of ethnicity to bring out the worst conceivable examples of diversity in appointments. In both cases, the end game is to preserve the continued maintanance of power through the creative manipulation of a space of discourse rather than to actually build affordable housing or to bring forth the kind of diversity in appointments that accurately reflects all aspects of our population at large.

The ideological devices used by political machines to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of their faithful read more like an apocalyptic religious liturgical text than an objective political program. The True Believers reinforce a self-sustaining closed cycle of groupthink all the while demonizing The Other as the enemy. The demonization of landlords or homeowners, using the eviction of seniors as a tug on heartstrings for enhanced renters’ rights is as manipulative as the current tarring of all homeless people with the infractions of not only the homeless but also the alcoholic, substance-abusing and mentally ill communities. The discourse is dumbed down so that complex issues are framed in a way that benefits the machine.

Machine coalition building is wholesale politics, gathering leaders of groups together with minimal grassroots consultation. This strategy fits the machine model, providing points for easy lubrication without the messy hassles of popular grassroots legitimacy. And when politics is limited to a close, closed circle of paid professionals, the imperative switches from advancing a set of shared values to the perpetuation of each activist, organization, or institution. Thus, the existence of the community-based organizations that politically legitimate the machine players is symbiotically tied to the success of the machine.

Hostility toward democracy on the part of the right wing and corporations is well documented. But on the progressive side, there is an elitist wariness of trusting the people to decide issues for ourselves, a fear that the people won’t make the right, that is, the doctrinaire progressive decision. So machines are needed by those who don’t trust the people to agree with them to frame debates based on an idealized, gilded good versus an evil, damned bad.

And this is where there is differentiation among progressives and Betsey Culp’s claim that all politicians would create a machine if they could falls apart. Or, conversely, we now know the danger posed to progressive politics by those who would choose to use the machine model. It is this ongoing characteristic of perpetuation that differentiates ordinary campaigns from a machine.

We know why the conservative, pro-business, anti-democratic elements would use their unlimited funding to support such top-down tools such as machines to maintain their control over politics and the economy. But when it comes to the progressive political project, a different standard must apply if there is to be any measurable difference between progressivism as a vehicle for substantial structural reform and as a means of perpetuating power among a different set of friends.

A machine is an industrial-scale conspiracy by a not-so-broad-based group of interests with access to better funding than most to create the conditions where it can seize and maintain political power to do its bidding. This approach directly contradicts the progressive ideals of participatory democracy and self-determination on the part of neighborhoods, both before and after the election.

We know now the traps and pitfalls of machine politics, and if we don’t recognize its precursors now as new machines are on the rise, then we will only have ourselves to blame when the next generation of Browns and Burtons insinuates its mechanical tentacles into San Francisco’s body politic. If machines are required to play and win under these rules, then we need to be changing the rules.