Comps Insider: American Political Machines: Transformed by Inequality

Caroline Hull ’19 is a political science/international relations major (with minors in Spanish and European studies) from Studio City, Calif.

Jan. 8, 2019

Caroline Hull

What is your Comps topic?

In my Comps, I focus on the role of inequality in transforming American political machines. In the past, increasing urbanization, poverty and immigration made American political machines foundational to many of America’s largest cities. Today, many researchers argue that they are nearly extinct. However, many of the practices associated with political machines still persist. I argue that inequality has made traditional political machines unnecessary, as local government no longer needs the support of the working class in order to retain power. Today, local government functions as an institution for the elite – those in political office and those with societal/economic influence. In my paper, I compare New York City’s past political machine (Tammany Hall) with the current state of local government in New York City.

Why did you choose your Comps topic?

Last spring, I took Al Montero’s Corruption Seminar in the Political Science Department. The class covered clientelism and corruption both internationally and domestically. We studied the role of political machines in influencing elections and the conditions that give rise to their development. In the seminar, I then wrote a paper about the role of ethnicity and immigration in facilitating the rise and fall of American political machines. I was really interested in how political machines and immigration flows played a significant role in shaping many of America’s largest cities. Since then, I have changed the argument of my topic but have continued to research American political machines, generally.

What was the most interesting article/or piece of information that you found while researching your Comps?

One of my case studies is the Queens Democratic Party in New York City. I have studied the various electoral rules and practices that the party employs and have discovered that it systematically excludes most of its residents from the political process.

I then considered the role of ethnicity in shaping New York City’s politics. It is clear that the city’s inequalities are both economic and racial. For example, the average income for Black ($69,100) and Latino ($63,500) families in New York State was 77 percent and 93 percent lower, respectively, than the average income for White families ($122,200).

What was/is your Comps process like?

Technically, I began the process last spring during my Political Science seminar. I have used the paper that I wrote for that class to then write my Comps. However, the actual Comps process began this fall. I have worked with a group of three other students and an advisor, Al Montero. We engage in peer reviews at different stages in the process and meet occasionally to discuss both ours and our peers’ papers. The final paper is due in a few weeks.

Why do you think it was/is valuable for you to write a Comps Paper? 

I have really enjoyed Comps because it has required me to deeply delve into a subject for many months at a time. I found the research process particularly valuable. There is so much literature out there and so much to learn, so figuring out how to put it all together was really challenging yet rewarding. Then, having to articulate such complex and nuanced arguments has further affirmed my grasp of the material.

Will you expand on your Comps in any way?

I don’t intend to expand on it, but I am very interested in many of the themes that I researched. I hope to pursue work that deals with solving inequality and working to strengthen democratically oriented political institutions.