The parties were willing to comply. The life of the Gilded Age seemed to want only their hard work from the hard Americans. But the Democratic and Republican parties wanted their vote at rallies, boots on cobblestones, grilled stomachs, fists at riots, and votes on election day. Richard Croker, the boss of Tammany Hall, who was once jailed for stabbing on election day, described his machine as “America’s great digestive system” capable of turning lone immigrants into active citizens.
People also needed parties. Some had specific goals, such as Philadelphia black politician and barber Isaiah C. Wears, who explained that he didn’t like the Republican Party – it was just the most useful tool in his community, “the knife that has the sharpest edge and my cutting. “Others needed something more emotional. Many were looking for a community created by marching together or sharing a drunk or whining at the same political cartoons. And because participation was so sociable and so saturated, even women, young people and minorities could, who were deprived of the right to vote, still felt palpably engaged without voting at all.
But their efforts saved little. Turnout rose higher than in any other period in American history, and the results were closer than ever, but no party won permanent seats or tackled systemic problems. Every few years, some daring new movement has drawn attention to issues that Americans have not dealt with – inequality, immigration, white domination, monopoly – only to be laughed at like crazy by the swollen masses who preferred parties that, like said one of Tammany’s operatives, they are not “tormented by political arguments.”
Even those on the front lines of the violent politics of that period wondered why all this was. An African-American reverend asked black Republicans fighting for the right to vote, “What do you get with all your talking, organizing, parading in the streets, drawing lots, voting, and sometimes fighting?”
The more demands Americans made on their democracy, the less they got. By focusing politics on what The Atlantic Monthly called “theater, opera, baseball game, intellectual high school, almost the people’s church,” by becoming the scene of a cultural war, racial and class war, progress became impossible when demanded public entertainment, conversations, and family ties. Little has changed because so much has been involved, not nonetheless.
“The party government is not a means to regulate things,” as the bandit Henry Demarest Lloyd said. “It’s the best device that keeps them restless.”
Over the years, politics has alienated all wider circles. On the right, old American aristocrats – such as the esteemed Boston historian Francis Parkman – hissed that the very idea of majority rule was a plan to steal power from “superior to lower types of men”. On the left, populists and socialists have condemned political machines that have misled working-class voters. These populations would never agree on what would follow, but they had a consensus on what should end.