Julian E. Zelizer: The New Party Bosses

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Julian E. Zelizer is a history professor at Princeton University. He is the editor of an essay collection, “The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment," due out this fall, and author of the coming “Jimmy Carter.”]

With this year’s crop of most unusual candidates — like Sharron Angle in Nevada or World Wrestling Entertainment executive Linda McMahon in Connecticut or Alvin Greene in South Carolina — some news reports give the impression that we are living in the age of Wild West politics.

But these reports exaggerate how much freedom there is. Though we no longer have the organized political machines of yesteryear, which vetted candidates and determined who could run for office, there are new bosses who play an equally big role in shaping today’s politics. The media, movement power brokers and Washington-based party leaders now rule the roost. Reports of a free-for-all in electoral politics are vastly exaggerated.

It is true that we no longer have the urban party machines that dominated late 19th- and early 20th-century America. Those machines were deeply entrenched and multilayered organizations that connected members of parties at the federal, state and local level through patronage and appointments. The machines maintained tight control over choosing candidates. They vetted nominees and did not allow people to move up in the system unless they proved themselves to be effective and loyal.

This party system had many negative consequences. The tight control wielded by bosses bred corruption and abuse of power. The party bosses also created enormous barriers to entry, preventing average Americans from participating in the process. In 1952, for example, the Democratic leaders picked Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson to run for president instead of Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, who had won most of the primaries and was far more popular with voters. Americans felt they knew Kefauver after watching him take on organized crime in dramatic TV hearings. But Kefauver was too outspoken and too independent to get a nod from the party bosses, who nixed his candidacy in their smoke-filled rooms.

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