Commentary Magazine

The Cultural Pattern in American Politics, by Robert Kelley


The Cultural Pattern in American Politics.
by Robert Kelley.
Knopf. 368 pp. $15.00.

Although one frequently hears it said that this is a time of greater social and political conservatism, with Americans fretting about high taxes, inflation, and rising welfare costs, another way of looking at the current scene is that we have entered an age of pluralism, in which cultural politics has emerged as a force equal to or greater than other factors. In this period, racial, religious, ethnic, and geographical or regional groupings, operating with the perspectives provided by their special historical experiences, interests, values, and styles, are coming to shape our political life in new and surprising ways.

That there has always been a cultural or ethnocultural politics is a truism to many politicians, who have successfully appealed to this factor in building their constituencies, and it has been evident to political scientists as well. Historians, on the other hand, have by and large relegated it to a side issue, concentrating instead on economics and class as the “real” governing forces in American society. It was not until the 1960’s that a number of analysts began to look more closely at the role played by religion and ethnicity. “The point about the melting pot . . . is that it did not happen,” Nathan Glazer reported in the preface to the 1963 edition of Beyond the Melting Pot, written with Daniel P. Moynihan. “The interplay between rational economic interests and other interests or attitudes that stem out of group history make for an incredibly complex political and social situation.” By way of documenting this assertion, Glazer and Moynihan used the still fragmentary materials which social historians were beginning to develop, but their focus at this point was on questions of public policy, and little effort was expended on creating a conceptual framework of American life or social organization built on the role of tribal factors.

More recently, Andrew M. Greeley in Ethnicity in the United States: Preliminary Reconnaissance (1974) and Glazer and Moynihan in Ethnicity, Theory and Experience (1975) have moved explicitly in this latter direction. As Glazer and Moynihan put it, “to see only what is familiar in the ethnicity of our time is to miss the emergence of a new social category as significant for the understanding of the present-day world as that of social class itself.” In this new focus on ethnicity they have been joined by a number of American historians who have begun to explore state and local politics as processes heavily influenced by cultural collisions. Following in the footsteps of Lee Benson, whose Concept of Jacksonian Democracy: New York as a Test Case was published as early as 1961, a number of scholarly volumes drawn along ethnocultural lines had begun to appear by the late 60’s. They included Forging a Majority: The Formation of the Republican Party in Pittsburgh, 1848-1860 (1969) by Michael F. Holt; Immigrants and Politics; The Germans of Nebraska, 1880-1900 (1969) by Frederick C. Luebke; The Birth of Mass Political Parties: Michigan 1827-1861 (1971) by Ronald P. Formisiano; and A House for All Peoples: Ethnic Politics in Chicago, 1890-1936 (1971) by John M. Allswang. According to these and other monographs, American history has been dominated by a series of battles among Yankees and Southerners, new and old immigrants, Baptists, Catholics, and Episcopalians, etc. The most bitter struggles have taken place over such issues as whether or not the foreign languages spoken by newcomers should be permitted in the public schools, over Sunday Blue Laws, aid to parochial schools, and government bans on drinking.



The narrow time frame and limited geographic areas explored by most ethnocultural historians have limited their audiences, mainly, to fellow professionals. Now, however, in The Cultural Pattern of American Politics, Robert Kelley, a historian at the University of California, has provided a broader historical synthesis filtered through his own considerable insights and imagination. With this book, ethnocultural history has come of age.

Kelley’s reading of our history suggests that there is a tribal basis to American life. From the outset of our experience as a people on this continent until today, every aspect of our life has been profoundly shaped by the interaction among the various racial, religious, and ethnic groups living in the various regions and neighborhoods where they have taken root. To these areas, they have brought their special experience, including their historic loyalties and fears, and have developed new styles of experience out of their interaction with the American environment.

“Cultural politics is not a side show that occasionally attracts our attention. . . .,” Kelley writes, “it is as pervasive and powerful in shaping public life as is the impact of economic politics.” Thus, according to Kelley, to understand American history it is crucial to bear in mind that the country was settled by Protestants of essentially British background, who developed three distinct cultural styles. The New England Puritan-Yankee sought to build a “City on a Hill,” a moral order whose code and values would be undergirded by an activist government; out of this grew a “missionary Protestantism” that gave us Sunday Blue Laws, public education, the assault on slavery, modernizing tendencies including industrialization with its excesses, and the self-conscious effort to bring our version of peace and democracy to the whole world. In the Southern colonies, a different, more individualistic culture arose out of the highly dispersed plantation society that was built on a system of slavery and modeled along the lines of the English aristocracy. Finally, in the middle colonies like New York and Pennsylvania, society was ethnically and religiously more diverse; moral ideas were wedded to the frank pursuit of the economic main chance, as with the Quakers of whom it was said that they came to do good and stayed to do well.

Our political parties, writes Kelley, have always reflected the regional, religious, and ethnic divisions laid out in the period of nation-building. Americans of British stock have traditionally been attracted to parties like the Federalists, the Whigs, and finally the Republicans, who have been willing to use government power to advance their values, social styles, and economic interests. By contrast, the Jeffersonian Republicans, the Jacksonian Democrats, and later the Democratic party have been home to dissenting groups and minorities including, initially, the Scotch-Irish, Baptists, and Methodists; mid-19th-century immigrants like the Germans and the Irish; turn-of-the-century Italians, Poles, Jews, and Slovaks; and, by 1936, blacks. Into this category, too, fell most Southerners. The live-and-let-live style of the Democrats made room for such maverick components as “the ethnic Southerner” (to use George Tindall’s phrase), beer-drinking Germans, and whiskey-drinking Irish—at least until the arrival of large numbers of Catholics, when the aroused tribal animosities of the Baptists, Methodists, and other dissenting denominations within Protestantism forced many into the Republican party.



Regrettably, Kelley brings his story only up to the post-Civil War period. Yet, with the theoretical guide he has offered, it should be possible to trace in broad form the cultural politics of our own day. This may be said to be built on a process of ethnic succession—new and newly emerging groups coming forward as older ones entered a period of decay.

The “decline of the Wasp,” for example, coincided with the modern civil-rights and race revolution which began in 1946, when President Truman appointed a committee of blacks and whites to inquire into the condition of civil rights. Its report, “To Secure These Rights,” calling for the “elimination of segregation based on race, color, creed, or national origin,” was adopted by the Democratic national convention in 1948 and, together with other actions taken by Truman, resulted in the formation of the Dixiecrat party and the exodus of the South from the Democratic party. The political impact of the race revolution is just beginning to be felt. Some of the signs are the incumbency of black mayors in Detroit, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Newark, New Orleans, and 158 other cities; the election of 16 black Congressmen; the defeat of Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia and Michael Bilandic in Chicago recently by huge outpourings of black voters; broadened affirmative-action programs that rely on quotas; and school-busing programs.



While it did not capture the public spotlight as dramatically as the race revolution, the 1960’s were marked, also, by a social and economic breakthrough by this country’s 48 million Roman Catholics. According to the National Opinion Research Council in Chicago, Irish and Italian-Americans, next to Jews, have become the most economically successful ethnic groups in the United States; by 1970, one out of every three students in college was Catholic. No longer could it be said, as John Kane did in 1955, that Catholics “creep forward rather than stride forward in American society.” The values, styles, and class interests of today’s “communal Catholic” (as Andrew M. Greeley calls him), have been affecting every facet of American life. This past year, the Pro-Life movement, fueled primarily by Roman Catholics, helped to defeat three U.S. Senators and a number of Congressmen, and has emerged as the fourth political party in New York. Catholics occupy important state houses and are mayors in many of those large cities not governed by blacks; their background and the values they continue to hold account in part for such aspects of the national mood as the new emphases on the family, on individual effort, and on economy in government. Catholics have also been in the forefront of the effort to obtain tax credits for parents of children in private and parochial schools.

Catholics appear, too, to have entered into an ecumenical alliance on many fronts with evangelical Protestants, with whom they were once in sharp conflict. These evangelicals, who number somewhere between 50 and 75 million, were locked for many years in social and political isolation-; today their values are impinging more directly on American life. Symptomatic of the tacit alliance between evangelicals and Catholics is the fact that a constitutional amendment to reverse the 1973 Supreme Court decision on abortion was initially brought forward by former Senator James Buckley of New York, a Roman Catholic, and Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a deacon and Sunday-school teacher in a Baptist church; the latter has introduced, most recently, an amendment to a bill to prevent the Supreme Court from ruling on voluntary prayer in the public schools.

While evangelical Protestantism embraces, at one end of the spectrum, the anti-homosexual crusades of Anita Bryant (a candidate last year for a vice-presidency in the Southern Baptist Convention) and efforts to restore the Bible and prayer to the public schools, it also includes someone like Billy Graham, who integrated his crusades in 1953, testified on behalf of poverty programs in the 1960’s, and has spoken out publicly against anti-Semitism, as well as such groups as Evangelicals for Social Justice and liberal journals like Sojourners and Eternity. The election of a “born-again” Christian as President was of course the most dramatic illustration of the growing significance of this group.



The movement of cultural politics to the forefront at home (and abroad) in recent years has caught the “cosmopolitan” society by surprise. Nourished, and to some degree imprisoned, by Marxist and Freudian categories of thought, many analysts once felt that ethnic loyalties would disappear under the impact of modernity. What Kelley and the ethnocultural historians help us to see is that despite the homogenizing forces that surround us, we have always been, and to some degree will no doubt continue to remain, a stubbornly tribal system.

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