In his recently published autobiography, A Promised Land, former president Barack Obama disparages two very different world leaders by comparing them to the ward bosses who ran Tammany Hall, the legendary political machine that dominated New York City and the state’s politics for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. In using Tammany Hall as a shorthand for corruption, Obama inadvertently reveals some of the limitations of his own high-minded liberalism. He also offers a lesson about a path Joe Biden would do well to avoid.
The Brazilian left-wing leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (popularly known as Lula) is described by Obama as “a grizzled, engaging former labor leader who’d been jailed for protesting the previous military government and then elected in 2002[;] he had initiated a series of pragmatic reforms that sent Brazil’s growth rate soaring, expanded its middle class, and provided housing and education to millions of its poorest citizens. He also reportedly had the scruples of a Tammany Hall boss, and rumors swirled about government cronyism, sweetheart deals, and kickbacks that ran into the billions.” The suggestion that Lula was corrupt is false and unworthy of Obama. Lula was jailed on corruption charges from 2018 to 2019, but an investigation by The Intercept proved that the case against him was riddled with political bias.
Obama recounts that after he first met Vladimir Putin, he described the Russian leader as “like a ward boss, except with nukes and a U.N. Security Council veto.” Obama goes on to explain this was no idle quip because
Putin did, in fact, remind me of the sorts of men who had once run the Chicago machine or Tammany Hall—tough, street-smart, unsentimental characters who knew what they knew, who never moved outside their narrow experiences, and who viewed patronage, bribery, shakedowns, fraud, and occasional violence as legitimate tools of the trade. For them, as for Putin, life was a zero-sum game; you might do business with those outside your tribe, but in the end, you couldn’t trust them. You looked out for yourself and then for your own. In such a world, a lack of scruples, a contempt for any high-minded aspirations beyond accumulating power, were not flaws. They were an advantage.
Obama then claims that Tammany Hall stood in contrast to “the reform tradition” that formed him.
One could certainly dispute Obama’s far too negative view of Lula and even his one-dimensional portrait of Putin. But these passages are even more revealing for what they say about Obama’s limited understanding of American political history. He clearly sees Tammany Hall in purely negative terms, as the epitome of a cynical “quid pro quo” politics that is antithetical to liberalism.
But few historians would agree with so hostile a view of Tammany Hall. It’s undeniable that Tammany Hall operated from a transactional view of politics. But democracy is itself a transactional affair: Voters might be touched by high-minded speeches, but they become engaged citizens if they know political leaders are fighting for their interests.
Tammany Hall bosses had many positive achievements: Their transactional politics meant they helped their voters economically. They brought in marginal people to politics (especially the poor and immigrants). In doing so, the ward bosses built durable winning coalitions that became the bedrock of the New Deal coalition, bringing genuine progressive change.
In his engaging and well-argued 2014 book Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics, historian Terry Golway notes that Tammany Hall bosses gained power “by devoting themselves to the unglamorous work of forging relationships, listening to constituents, and providing services. They managed their districts, talked to their neighbors, took care of those who needed help, and made sure that voters—their voters, to be sure—went to the polls.”
Golway goes on to observe:
Tammany, in its own fashion, prepared the way for modern liberalism as its network of block captains and district leaders encouraged the poor to look to accessible political figures to mediate the capriciousness of laissez-faire capitalism and the contempt of moral reformers. Of course, Tammany did so with the understanding that a favor granted was a favor earned. Tammany’s unapologetic embrace of interest, the eagerness with which it traded jobs for votes, and the tactics it employed to enforce discipline flew in the face of elite perceptions of how democracy ought to be run.
The great liberal leaders of the early 20th century were nurtured by Tammany Hall and other political machines: figures like Al Smith and Robert Wagner. Franklin Roosevelt initially started his political career as an opponent of Tammany Hall but quickly came to understand that the political machine was indispensable in creating a progressive political coalition that went beyond well-heeled reformers and included the working-class majority. In a 1937 speech, Wagner, who as much as anyone was responsible for creating Social Security, said, “Tammany Hall may justly claim the title of the cradle of modern liberalism in America.”
Leaders like Wagner and FDR’s labor secretary, Frances Perkins (a progressive who, like Roosevelt, came to appreciate Tammany’s effectiveness), were beyond reproach. Were other denizens of Tammany Hall often corrupt? Yes—but only up to a point. Its graft and kickbacks were small-scale larceny compared to the epic theft of the robber barons, Wall Street, and the WASP establishment. In an era when America built itself by the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans and the entrenchment of Jim Crow, the sins of Tammany were venal rather than mortal.
If the Democratic Party of the 21st century has often been politically anemic, especially below the presidential level, it is in large part because it has abandoned the spirit of Tammany Hall. The old ward bosses practiced a brazenly materialist politics that offered voters concrete rewards (food and jobs) for voting. Too often, Obama-inflected liberalism acts as if voters don’t need bread but can live on uplifting speeches alone.
In a post-election autopsy in The New York Times, Jamelle Bouie cogently argued that Trump outperformed expectations (even as he lost) because he practiced a blunt form of materialist transactional politics. Trump pressured the Federal Reserve to use easy money to push down the unemployment rate, and he signed a generous stimulus package.
As Bouie notes:
At the end of March, President Trump signed the Cares Act, which distributed more than half a trillion dollars in direct aid to more than 150 million Americans, from stimulus checks ($1,200 per adult and $500 per child for households below a certain income threshold) to $600 per week in additional unemployment benefits. These programs were not perfect—the supplement unemployment insurance, in particular, depended on ramshackle state systems, forcing many applicants to wait weeks or even months before they received assistance—but they made an impact regardless. Personal income went up and poverty went down, even as the United States reported its steepest ever quarterly drop in economic output.
The lesson the Biden administration should draw from this, Bouie concludes, “is straightforward: Do not listen to the debt worriers and the deficit hawks. Ignore the calls for means-testing and complicated workarounds. Embrace, instead, the simplicity of cash. Take a page from the left and give as much direct help to as many people as possible.”
This is a message the bosses of Tammany Hall would have immediately understood: Give people money and jobs, and they’ll be happy to reward you with votes. Perhaps the best thing about Biden is that it occasionally seems like the spark of Tammany Hall still lives inside him. He’s certainly not an orator, and has never had the prissy disdain for transactional politics common to modern liberals. If we’re lucky, Biden might yet revive that old Tammany Hall spirit.