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How Tammany Democrats (and Republicans) Pioneered "Honest Graft" in America

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In Electoral Capitalism: The Party System In New York's Gilded Age, political scientist Jeffrey D. Broxmeyer takes a fresh look at the city.

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In the 1930s, Matthew Josephson famously described the Senate of the late 19th and early 20th century as “The Millionaire’s Club,” for its dominant, wealthy members, closely allied to major industries. Congress now boasts a larger percentage of the “superrich” than ever before, and growing fast in the leadership of both parties. But it was George Washington Plunkett, “bard of Tammany Hall” (New York’s Democratic machine), who explained much earlier what had fueled this development at the state and municipal level: “honest graft.”

As early as the 1850s, government itself emerged as a major source of garnering wealth in America, producing some of the nation’s earliest millionaires. Yet we know shockingly little about how the generally middle- and even working-class men who joined the Club via Tammany-style “public service” acquired their millions. In Electoral Capitalism: The Party System In New York's Gilded Age, political scientist Jeffrey D. Broxmeyer takes a fresh look at the city and state in the late 1800s, arguing that Democrat and Republican officeholders pioneered the ways of using modern government to get rich—not only by making legal, if corrupt, deals with leaders of national trade, finance, and industry, but promising benefits that mobilized working-class voters, a dualism that effectively help stitch together, or “nationalize,” the American “party system.”

Thomas Ferguson, Director of Research at the Institute for New Economic Thinking and Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, best known for his “investment theory of party competition,” joins in conversation.

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