The Politics of Ethnic Values: Will the Republicans Lose Their Social Constituency — and Thus the Country?

During the 1988 presidential election, candidate Bush made only one New York City campaign stop — it was in my neighborhood, Ridgewood, Queens. He appeared at our Catholic High School before blue-collar locals and hundreds of “New York’s Finest,” who conferred on him the endorsement of their union, the Policeman’s Benevolent Association.

George Bush’s advisors understood the significance of this appearance; they knew that throughout this century, blue-collar ethnic neighborhoods have been America’s political battlegrounds and that the cultural values of their voters decide national elections.

Claiming to be the rightful heir to Ronald Reagan, George Bush had to prove that in spirit he was a member of the neighborhood; hence in his acceptance speech he declared:

An election that is about ideas and values is also about philosophy. And I have one.

At the bright center is the individual. And radiating out from him or her is the family, the essential unit of closeness and of love. For it is the family that communicates to our children — to the twenty-first century — our culture, our religious faith, our traditions and history.

From the individual to the family to the community, and on out to the town, to the church and school, and, still echoing out, to the country, the state, the nation — each doing only what it does well, and no more. And I believe that power must always be kept close to the individual — close to the hands that raise the family and run the home.

I am guided by certain traditions. One is that there is a God and He is good, and His love, while free, has a self- imposed cost: We must be good to one another….

And there is another tradition. And that is the idea of community — a beautiful word with a big meaning, though liberal Democrats have an odd view of it. They see community as a limited cluster of interest groups, locked in odd conformity. In this view the country waits passive while Washington sets the rules.

But that’s not what community means — not to me.

For we are a nation of communities, of thousands and tens of thousands of ethnic, religious, social, business, labor union, neighborhood, regional and other organizations, all of them varied, voluntary, and unique.

The Bush strategy may have been triumphant at the polls, but after watching his performance so far in the Oval Office, I’m beginning to believe that he doesn’t understand the traditional culture of the constituency that has given his party its long lease on the White House. This man, who stated during the campaign, “I’m getting this vision thing down pretty good,” may turn out to be an empty suit who is comfortable with the agenda of the elitist social engineers who have dominated the Democratic Party since the death of FDR and also, lest we forget, controlled the Republican Party during the turn-of-the-century Progressive era.

The President would benefit from reading Michael Barone’s extraordinary work Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan (The Free Press, 805 pp., $29.95). In his book, Barone rejects the views of pro-New Dealers that America’s political history is the “story of progress on the road from nineteenth-century laissez-faire and isolationism to twentieth-century welfare statism and internationalism.” He argues that the person qua person makes a difference in the course of history, that actions based on cultural standards have had substantially greater impact on the political landscape than economic ones. “The voting bases of the traditional Democratic and Republican Parties,” according to Barone, “were primarily cultural; both drew allegiance from Americans who saw them not as promoters of their economic status, but as a protector of their way of life.” The party label of the protectors of blue-collar values has varied, but historically, one of the political parties embraced the elitist notion that the best structure is an efficiently engineered society where the individual is rendered meaningless. The other party has been the defender of the neighborhood and adopted the concept of subsidiarity (long championed in Catholic social thought) which, to quote Michael Novak, “maintains that human life proceeds most intelligently and creatively when decisions are made at the local level closest to concrete reality.”

In his opening chapters, Barone sets this tone by com-paring the last of the Progressive Republicans, Chief Justice William Howard Taft, with New York City Democratic boss Charles Murphy — the man who gave us Alfred E. Smith. Barone writes:

For Taft, government was the end always kept in sight, while politics — the traditional two party politics, with its patronage and graft, its back-scratching and boodle, its appeals to Civil War and ethnic loyalties — was the necessary but distasteful means . . .  As for Murphy . . .  government came second; politics was always first. Politics tied together diverse communities, the urban villages that existed in the interstices of the relentless New York street grid; it helped the helpless, regularized the restless, cemented immigrants and proletarians to existing institutions. [It promoted] a government resistant to proclaiming the dominant Protestant Yankee culture as the only true Americanism and ready to honor other cultures and religions as well.

During this era, it was the Democratic Party that endorsed the concept of subsidiarity. Barone asserts that “the Democrats, drawing on their past, called themselves Jeffersonian and took care to respect local mores and idiosyncrasies, from segregation in the South to the saloon in the North . . . The Democracy was a party of White southerners and northern Catholics, of Southern Baptist prohibitionists and immigrant imbibers, of nativists and those who spoke no English, of teeming eastern cities and the wastelands of the Great Basin.”

Boss Murphy, who ran the show in New York from 1902 to 1924, was instinctively conservative and understood the needs and culture of the neighborhoods. His machine was built on meeting the needs of the diverse immigrants throughout the city. After the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company Tenement fire killed 146 young women, Murphy’s support for Al Smith’s safety code legislation was, in Barone’s view, “based more on political demands than socialist theory.”

When the Depression hit, there were certainly economic motives behind the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt; nevertheless, the mores of the blue-collar unemployed restrained the backlash. Barone’s analysis of the Roosevelt victory is excellent:

The importance of the yearning for order and control is illustrated by the thunderous lack of response in November 1932 to the left-wing parties. The Socialists, whose candidate had won 6 percent of the vote in 1912 and who had endorsed Robert LaFollette when he had won 17 percent in 1924, ended up with only 2 percent in 1932; the Communists, less than three-tenths of 1 percent. Americans wanted no revolution, no upheaval of the social order. Voters in 1932 were seeking not income redistribution or nationalization of resources. Nor were they thinking about a cradle-to-grave welfare state. They were seeking a national leader who could exert some control over a dizzying downward economic spiral. They wanted action to restore confidence in the American economy — to somehow get it working as it had for all of their adult lives — and they wanted some relief in the meantime. Roosevelt’s readiness to drop appeals to the left when they came under attack, in both the primary and the general election campaigns, is evidence that they scared voters.

FDR’s coalition of traditional Democratic Southern voters, eastern city Catholic machine votes and Midwestern LaFollette Progressives, was a fragile one. It began to disintegrate in 1937 with the court packing plan and Roosevelt’s acceptance of the redistributive policies of his Brain Trust. “He split the congressional Democratic party, which despite its huge majorities, passed little New Deal legislation in 1937 and 1938.”

In 1944, twelve years of New Deal politics began to affect the political behavior of America’s Catholic voters. Historian Herbert Parmet relates that “the Smith and Farley rebellions, the condemnation of Franco by liberals, opposition of reformers to machine politicians, the party’s association with left-wing labor unions … inevitably colored the election returns. Roosevelt’s greatest losses were among the Irish.” The post-war era brought additional Catholic defections. Polish and other Eastern Europeans blamed the Democrats for the sell-out at Yalta, and the Church’s opposition to the Godless materialists in Moscow did not help Democrats who posed for snapshots with Uncle Joe Stalin.

According to Barone, by 1948 “cultural splits within the Democratic Party — between north and south, states rights and civil rights advocates, Catholics and Protestants, defenders of local power bases and enthusiasts for centralized government — prevented any of the liberal economic platform from becoming law or, for the moment, from affecting American life . . .  The cultural divisions which had been the main dividing lines of American politics before 1930 were beginning by 1949 to split apart the New Deal Democratic Party which had supposedly been united on economic issues, just as foreign policy would split those Democrats after 1950.” The Republican Party, controlled by northeastern liberals and mid-western isolationists, did not grasp these changes in blue-collar America, even though Dwight Eisenhower did benefit from them in the elections of 1952 and 1956.

The Democratic Party emerged in the 1950s as the new home for elitist social engineers. Searching for a new intellectual liberal hero, they stumbled across Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. This man was an odd choice — he earned gentlemen’s C’s at Princeton and Northwestern Law School, was more a socialite than an egghead, and except for the Social Register wasn’t known to read books. Furthermore, he wasn’t all that liberal: he opposed national health insurance, opposed revision of Taft-Hartley, opposed increases in the minimum wage and Social Security, and avoided civil rights issues. Stevenson was, however, embraced by the new generation of social engineers because he was, in Barone’s judgment, “the first leading Democratic politician to become a critic rather than a celebrator of middle-class culture — the prototype of the liberal democrat who would judge ordinary Americans by an abstract standard and find them wanting.” Liberal journalist Jack Newfield admitted in 1989: “Stevenson was a curious kind of hero. He was not a champion of the workers or the little guy . . .  Stevenson’s appeal resided more in his intellect and wit, his patrician gentility, his melancholy dignity.” His elitism and contempt for the blue-collar worker engendered a new generation of “political progeny” who grew up not with the “fragmented local politics which Franklin Roosevelt had grown up with,” but instead with “the centralized national politics which had grown up with the large central government produced by Roosevelt’s New Deal and wartime policies.”

FDR’S coalition had one more gasp when Catholics flocked back in 1960 to vote for one of their own. What Barone misses, when analyzing Kennedy’s victory, how-ever, is that his plurality of a mere one-tenth of one percent demonstrated the appeal and durability of opponent Richard Nixon, as well as Nixon’s understanding of blue- collar America.

Richard Nixon, writes Michael Barone, “was a man with little charm, who did nothing to nurture friendship, who had neither money nor much in the way of connections, [who] seemed ill-suited to a political career.” Yet this was to be the man who filled the void after the collapse of the Great Society; the man who was to provide the voice for the silent majority. He forged the Republican realignment of northern blue-collar Catholic ethnics and southern whites. Barone would agree with Herbert Parmet’s analysis in Nixon and His America:

Nixon personified the children of the New Deal generation who regained confidence in American capitalism. They rediscovered the values that seemed to have gone askew. Nixon keenly reflected the priorities that were especially important to those we may identify as the working middle class. They saw in Nixon not a figure of glamour at all, but someone closer to the real gut: a guardian of their intent to secure a piece of the American turf, or their idea of the American dream, and to do so without losing out to those who insisted on changing the rules in the middle of the game by grabbing advantages not available to earlier generations. This was not only the coming of age of the great middle-class majority; we must also understand it as a process of acculturation and assimilation by generations of immigrants. They achieved their security, had faith in the American dream, and contributed a conservative, stabilizing force in the context of American traditionalism.

Nixon protected the interests of these third generation ethnic groups while the elitist heirs of Adlai Stevenson took control of the mechanics of the Democratic Party and in Barone’s view “further polarized society by appearing to become the captive of dissidents and outsiders who were looking to the federal government for special privileges.”

That portion of Roosevelt’s coalition that remained in the Democratic Party — the elitist radical element — ran the 1972 Convention that gave us George McGovern. Mario Cuomo conceded that McGovern drove away the blue-collar worker, “who felt alienated by a new Democratic Party which he thought neither understood nor related to him.”

Even with the overwhelming 1972 defeat of the counterculture, the elitists continued to maintain control of their party. These social engineers pursued a program that Theodore H. White described as “not equality of opportunity, but equality of result stipulated in goals, quotas, and entitlements, based not on excellence or merit, but on bloodlines.” To promote their agenda, they adopted the caucus system and gave their blessing to the Lesbian-Gay Caucus, Asian-Pacific Caucus, Black Caucus, Women’s Caucus, and the Liberal-Progressive Caucus. Rejected was, I kid you not, the “All-American Caucus,” which consisted of WASP males.

The Watergate aberration gave us Jimmy Carter. His attempt to blame his shortcomings on “America’s Malaise” was, according to Barone, rejected in 1980 because “the cultural segment of America which was emotionally most inclined to see Jimmy Carter as its kind of American had decided he was not; its members felt at the least disappointed, and in some cases betrayed.”

By running on a platform that pledged to restore America’s traditional morals at home and its strength and respect abroad, and that pledged to reject redistributive politics at home, Ronald Reagan cemented to the Republican Party Richard Nixon’s coalition.

Richard Darman best describes the voters that found Reagan appealing; they were, he writes,

. . . people who were not poor but who were often lower- middle class or working class. They were people with just enough money to stick their heads up, look around, and feel certain feelings. They were people who always thought someone or something was keeping them from getting ahead, from achieving in some way. They were resentful. It is partly a resentful movement. But they were also hopeful. They believed in America and the American dream; they came from people who packed up in Europe or wherever and took a dangerous journey across the ocean, often alone, in search of a better life. That is not the action of someone who is demoralized or driven into helplessness by circumstances. It is a profoundly hopeful act.

This group’s perception that Ronald Reagan was one of their own guaranteed his 1984 re-election against the long-time star of the Democratic establishment, Walter Mondale. The bankruptcy of the Democratic Party was summed up by Richard Nixon:

The Democrats face a traumatic dilemma. In 1972, they could excuse McGovern’s loss by the fact that he was not a mainstream Democrat. This year, they had an establishment Democrat, Mondale, campaigning on traditional Democratic issues and appealing to the old Democratic coalition of minorities, labor, the disadvantaged, etc., which proved unbeatable for Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson. What this election demonstrates is that there just aren’t enough voters in those groups to make a majority.

The Democratic Party, desperate for victory in 1988, made a concerted effort to camouflage their numerous radical ideological positions. The comments of Congressman Peter Kostmayer (D., Pa.), to a group of Democratic Convention delegates, revealed their concern:

We’re not going to blow it this time. Just shut up gays, women, environmentalists. Just shut up. You’ll get everything you want after the election.

Dukakis’s attempt to shift the ground of the election from cultural to economic issues didn’t work. Bush refused to give up, Barone relates, and “hammered relentlessly on the furlough issue, especially in a television ad which showed prisoners going through a revolving door and argued that the Republican policy of peace through strength had been proved superior to Dukakis’s opposition to many weapons systems.”

Although I consider Barone’s spirited history to be one of the most important books published in 1990, nevertheless there is a serious omission: Barone frequently employs the term “traditional cultural values,” but fails to describe their origins or the means by which they were promulgated. For instance, he does not mention the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the Northeast and Midwest. It was the Church’s educational system that taught the values that have held many communities together to this day. For immigrants, the parish served as their spiritual, social, and educational center. It was the nuns in the parish schools who instilled in their students love of God, family, neighborhood, country, and the dignity of work. They turned out millions of decent American’s who represented Al Smith’s “Common Man”; Franklin Roosevelt’s “Forgotten Man”; Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority”; and Ronald Reagan’s “Moral Majority.”

Our Country concludes with the admonition that “no election settles everything in American politics even in the short-term, and the election of 1988 will not necessarily settle the question of whether the policies followed by the Reagan Administration set a new norm for America or whether they were an accident or aberration.” Many cultural conservatives are wondering if President Bush is an aberration; for George Bush, who presented himself to blue-collar Ethnic America as “one of their own,” is now suspected of con-artistry.

Recently I read an interview that took place in the Park Avenue apartment of Pauline Harrison, co-founder of the New York State Republican Family Committee. Known as the “white glove brigade,” Harrison and her colleagues Barbara Gimbel and Barbara Mosbacher declared that their pro-choice committee was “an elite organization, not a grass-roots group. We have about 300 prominent lawyers, doctors, business people on board.” They continued: “We found the Republican platform so bizarre.” Says Mosbacher, “We feel this issue [abortion] shouldn’t be in politics.” Harrison concurred “it’s not a political issue, it’s a health issue. It’s extraordinary, we are in 1990, and we still seem to be fighting Margaret Sanger’s battle back in the 1920s.”

Margaret Sanger? Yes, the woman who proclaimed in 1919: “More children from the fit, less from the unfit, that is the chief issue of birth control.” It appears that a coterie of Republicans want the party to revert back to the elitist policies advocated during the Progressive period.

At the turn of the century, the progressive Republicans found the waves of Irish, Italian and Eastern Europeans that invaded their cities to be distasteful, if not repulsive. In New York, the Reverend Frank Marling of the Second Avenue Presbyterian Church declared, “The vast hordes flocking to this land strike at our national life, which we count most precious, while the ballot gives them power which they know too well how to use.” Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, the two men who epitomized the progressive movement, mourned the “passing of the great race” and embraced the notions of Social Darwinism to rationalize their Anglo-centrism.

Influenced by eugenicist Brooke Adams (brother of Henry), Teddy Roosevelt called for the sterilization of the criminal class and scolded the upper classes for committing “race suicide.” (He was upset that Harvard graduates were producing only one-half to two-thirds of their original number.) “Someday,” wrote Roosevelt to Charles Davenport, Director of the Eugenics Record Office, “we must realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world” (emphasis added).

To implement these views, former Mugwump Henry Cabot Lodge, introduced legislation sponsored by the Immigration Restriction League. This Republican senator lectured his congressional colleagues that they did not under-stand the threat of the “immigration of people of those races far removed in thought and speech and blood from the men who have made this country what it is.”

It was under the guise of reform and good government movements that the “responsible classes” (goo-goos as they were known) made their stab at seeking control of local municipalities. Believing that only men of the “broadest culture and highest character” were fit to govern, they held their noses and went out to the streets to solicit support.

What is most frightening is that George Bush, at least on domestic issues, seems to be falling in line with the heirs to these elitists. One must remember that these Northeastern Wall Street Republicans who are embarrassed by the Party’s blue-collar constituency, are Bush’s life-long friends, allies, and supporters. Even his management style has a whiff of elitism. The New York Times last October referred to his approach as “the Patrician’s Way.” Journalist Maureen Dowd reported: “Playing beneath the surface of President Bush’s words about the budget crisis was a flicker of impatience. It was a characteristic reaction for a patrician who was bred to believe in the Establishment way of operating . . . He offers the image of himself as a leader bred to rule.” Trying to play down the elitist charge, Bush in all seriousness once protested to aides, “I haven’t worn a button-down shirt in 20 years.”

There is further evidence of their influence: In 1990 the Republican National Committee urged a softer abortion line; homosexuals participated in the signing of the Hate Crime Statistics Act; Bush hesitated before vetoing the Kennedy-Hawkins Civil Rights Bill; he fudged on his no- tax pledge; and quietly signed at Kennebunkport the Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act.

Of course, it is unclear what effect the Gulf war will have on Bush’s political persona. Certainly it has allowed him to appeal successfully to ethnic constituencies who cherish courage and patriotism. (In Ridgewood, Queens, yellow ribbons are tied to every tree.) And perhaps his handling of the conflict has even made more appealing the diplomatic skills his own class is famous for.

As the next election approaches, however, one thing is clear. The Republican Party for the past quarter-century has been the champion of a traditional ethic that united the South, the farm vote, Catholic ethnic and blue-collar votes of the big cities. This combination provided victories in five of the past six presidential elections. Today, that party is at the political crossroads, and its leader, George Bush, must either stand up for that constituency or, if he succumbs to the social engineers, lose that constituency and Republican ascendancy.

  • George J. Marlin

    George J. Marlin is the author/editor of ten books including Squandered Opportunities: New York’s Pataki Years (2006), The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact (2004) and Fighting the Good Fight: A History of the New York Conservative Party (2002). His articles have appeared in numerous periodicals including The New York Times, New York Post, National Review, Newsday, The Washington Times and the New York Daily News. Mr. Marlin is also general editor of The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton.

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