restricted access From Political Insult to Political Theory: The Boss, the Machine, and the Pluralist City
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From Political Insult to Political Theory:
The Boss, the Machine, and the Pluralist City

Among fictional characters largely lost to history is Michael Mulhooly, protagonist of Rufus Shapley's 1880 political satire, Solid for Mulhooly. The book began as a campaign tract, a thinly veiled attack upon Philadelphia Republican leader James McManes launched by a party rival. But reformers latched onto its caricature of a brutish, disreputable boss. Their enthusiasm led to republication as an antimachine novel in 1889. The plot traced the rise of an unlettered, corrupt Irish tough to the head of a party machine. Shapley's tale was a warning: unless responsible citizens took action, such men would rule American cities. The reprint included sketches by Thomas Nast, who depicted Mulhooly as a short-haired, heavy-browed thug with a gaudy diamond on his shirt front. In case readers missed the reference, one image included a portrait of archetypal boss William Tweed with the infamous challenge, "What are you going to do about it," hanging in the background.1 By tying Mulhooly to Tweed, the reprint turned Mulhooly from a stand-in for [End Page 139] McManes into a villainous stock character in the melodrama of late nineteenth-century urban politics. The label boss was an insult and its corollary, machine, carried equally negative connotations. Reformers employed these terms to alarm middle-class voters. Bosses like Mulhooly were lower-class brutes, usually of foreign birth, unruly, largely immigrant factory hands, people ill-equipped to manage public affairs.

During the early twentieth century, however, bosses and machines acquired less threatening uses and connotations. The words never completely lost their original association with networks of demoralizing corruption operated by vulgarians against whom the public should rally. Still, journalists, reformers, and academics began to use boss and machine less often as politically charged metaphors and more as conceptual terms. Scholars differed over the causes and characteristics of urban machine politics. But nearly all analysts came to accept boss and machine as viable, if imprecise, words that captured the way that big-city public life really functioned. These formerly slang terms thus gained legitimacy as devices for analyzing patterns of distributive politics, network-building, patronage, and influence-peddling indeed widespread in American cities by the late 1800s. And then after World War II, the functionalist, behaviorist, and pluralist approaches to political science and urban history completed the elevation of these once-derogatory metaphors into typologies that could be employed neutrally. At times, scholars writing from a New Deal liberal perspective even infused boss and machine with favorable associations to a degree unthinkable two or three decades earlier. Bossism became a stand-in for and forerunner of the nonmoralizing, pragmatic assistance that postwar liberal intellectuals believed characterized the New Deal.

The evolution of boss and machine from perjorative political slang to analytical terminology intertwined with debates over political and governmental reform during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The effort to give these terms more precision and to use them systematically also illustrates political science's transformation of itself from a formalist, moralistic discipline into an empirical, policy-oriented one. Bound up with this story are intellectual and political debates over pluralist theory and over the civic atmosphere and political practices suitable for a heterogeneous, urban society. The interplay between critiques of machine politics offered by reformers and justifications provided by party bosses shaped popular and scholarly understandings of city politics. Political scientists latched onto these debates as building blocks for realistic models of urban politics that they sought to [End Page 140] construct. Over decades, the typologies and analyses that resulted acquired intellectual and political trajectories of their own, detached from the historical and political context in which they arose.

The transformation of the terms boss and machine from morally loaded terms of derision to social scientific categories obscured more than it revealed. Initially Mugwumps employed the words as signifiers within a larger argument about how cities should be ruled and who should do the ruling. Party politicians and their apologists contested these representations. This spurred half a century of conversation about bossism and machine politics that was, in a larger sense, a...