Immigrant Croups in Politics
The Future Of American Politics.
by Samuel Lubell.
Harper. 285 pp. $3.50.
Samuel Lubell’s The Future of American Politics is, in this reviewer’s opinion, the best book yet written on American politics of the last twenty years; and if a better one should appear, it is hard to see how it could be anything but a further development of the basic pattern laid down by Lubell.
Most of what Lubell has to say is by way of explaining the series of Democratic victories that began in 1932. What makes the book so valuable is that in doing so he entirely ignores accepted political platitudes, liberal, conservative, or reactionary, and proceeds directly to examine American society; and not in the large, but in its most specific and concrete detail. The explanations we are all bored with (and unconvinced by) — that the American people have lost faith in the old-time virtues of enterprise, hard work, economy, or frugality; or that they rose against concentrated economic power in the depression and, despite the unparalleled prosperity of 1944 and 1948, have kept on rising as a matter of reflex action; or that they have shown their resolute attachment to the principles of the New Deal (despite the irresolution that has regularly characterized off-year voting since 1938)—all this plays no role at all in his book.
Lubell is a historian of precincts, not platitudes. He argues, with a display of statistical and historical facts unique in political journalism and rare in political science and sociology, that the basis of Democratic strength is the children of the immigrants who came to this country between 1900 and the First World War. These 13,000,000 immigrants did not, like the millions who preceded them, find their way to Midwest farms: they settled in the cities. In 1910, more than two out of every three children in the schools of such cities as Chelsea, Fall River, New Bedford, Duluth, New York, and Chicago were the children of immigrants. The chief concerns of the politics of the beginning of this century—the great battles between the Midwestern and Southern farmers and the Eastern corporations—meant little to these city dwellers. If they were in politics, they could generally be enrolled by the dominant machine. But despite the Republican allegiance of one or another immigrant group, the masses of immigrants and their children were fated to become Democrats. Depression or no depression, Lubell argues, the 30’s had to be a Democratic era. Wilson had already enlisted the loyalty of many of the immigrants for the Democratic party. Their children, bearing strange names and struggling to escape the unskilled labor that was their fathers’ fate, felt a resentment at their circumstances which the Democrats, long based in the North on an earlier immigrant group, the Irish, knew how to assuage with patronage and sympathy, but which the Republicans knew or cared nothing about. And then of course the immigrants’ children in the cities came of age in the greatest numbers during the depression, which gave them, in addition to their resentment at being the children of the less favored “newer” immigration, a further resentment caused by economic hardship.
Even in the heyday of Republican prosperity, the immigrants’ children produced a subtle but crucial revolution in the structure of American politics. In 1920 and 1924, the Republicans piled up huge majorities in the twelve largest American cities. In 1928, when the Democratic candidate, for the first time since Wilson, was a friend of the under-privileged—the intervening Democratic candidates had been conservatives—these twelve largest cities showed a small majority for Al Smith.
In a convincing analysis of the city vote for Smith, Lubell shows that while he swept those cities dominated by the East European immigrants and their children, he lost those inhabited by a different breed of migrant—those who had moved from farm to city, and particularly from South to North. For during the 20’s, no less than 6,500,000 farm dwellers had moved to the cities, and a Catholic candidate could make no headway in places like Detroit and Akron, which are in large measure Southern cities. Not until Roosevelt was the Democratic victory complete: he appealed to the native element of the great new city masses as well as to the immigrant groups, gaining the same majorities in Detroit and Akron that Al Smith had piled up in Boston and New York. From 1932 to 1936 the government, for the first time in American history, acted on a major scale in favor of the city dwellers who had elected it, and in 1936 Roosevelt carried every city in the country with a population over 100,000. The Democratic city majorities have been responsible for every victory since.
But this is only the beginning of Lubell’s story. For while the Democratic big-city majority has been large enough to elect Democratic presidents, it is no monolithic majority. We have spoken of the “immigrants and their children” as if they formed a solid block moved by self-interest alone; they were actually composed of Italians, Jews, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, South Slavs, as well as the earlier Irish, Germans, and Scandinavians, and if they acted out of self-interest, they also showed a remarkably persistent attachment to the prejudices and loyalties they had brought from abroad. In addition to the immigrants, the Democratic coalition included the Negroes, the rural migrants, and the South. It was consequently torn by antagonism among its various elements, and thus there was always a different line-up carrying the Democratic ball.
The story is best told in Lubell’s fascinating analysis of the leading Democratic precincts in Boston from election to election. In 1936 the Irish, the senior urban immigrant group in the coalition, had already weakened in their attachment to the Democrats: uncomfortable at the rapid rise of Jews and Italians, they were attracted by Coughlin’s party. In that year, the Boston evidence shows the Italians as strongest in their Democratic attachment. Four years later, the war changed the line-up drastically: the heaviest Democratic losses were in the rural isolationist areas, which, as Lubell shows, were nothing but the regions settled by German fanners. In the cities, the defection of the Irish continued, and there were further heavy losses among the Italians. But these losses were made up by a stronger Roosevelt vote among Jews (and, elsewhere, among Poles, Czechs, and others from countries overrun by Hitler). In 1944, these lines still held firm, with Jews at the top of the list voting for Roosevelt. In 1948, however, the Jews dropped entirely out of the first-string Democratic line-up in Boston. As Lubell writes, “When Roosevelt died no group in the nation felt more homeless politically than the Jews.” But now the Irish and Italian votes (and elsewhere the German vote) came back: Truman ran ahead of Roosevelt in Catholic (German and Irish) St. Paul, behind him in non-Catholic Minneapolis. Of course there were shifts in the non-city vote too throughout this period. But whether the fanners were for or against the Democrats, the big-city majorities were large enough to win the decisive states.
But was it sheer accident that each time the Democrats were able to put together a winning team? (Of course, it should not be forgotten that a majority in almost all these immigrant groups stayed Democratic all the way—the issue was generally whether 90 or 75 or 60 per cent of some group would vote Democratic.) Lubell argues that it was not accident. The dominant party in every epoch of American politics, he asserts (the minority party, too, one might add), is always a coalition composed of antagonistic elements—there were city artisans and frontier fanners in Jackson’s Democrats, Eastern businessmen and Midwest farmers in the triumphant Republicanism of the 20’s. The party always seems to be on the verge of flying apart, but it manages to maintain itself in apparently mysterious fashion as a center of constant energy, producing its regular majorities. What actually happens is that the loss of one of a pair of mutually antagonistic groups will increase the party’s attractiveness for the other group, which will make up for the loss. Thus, it was easy to add up the potential Dixiecrat and Wallace votes in 1948 and prove decisively that Truman had to lose. But the loss of Dixiecrats meant that Truman could hold more of the Negro vote than a Missouri-born candidate might expect; while the loss of Wallace meant Truman could regain Catholic and other strongly anti-Communist votes that Roosevelt had lost.
But what makes the party dominant to begin with? Here Lubell argues that every majority party combines “timely” elements—in this case, the immigrants’ children, the Negroes, the city workers. He does not explain too clearly in just what sense these elements are “timely” (outside of simply being larger, which is obviously involved), and the Republican combination of businessmen and fanners “untimely.” The crucial distinction would seem to be that the Republican elements want nothing that requires change in America: their political aim is to hold on to what they have, while the aim of the Democratic elements is to acquire something to protect. It is certainly odd that it is the groups demanding changes that should dominate politically in America. The matter is not simply one of there being more “have-nots” than “haves”; for when the railroads wanted land and subsidies they found the voters to rule states and dominate the nation; when, having acquired wealth, they were concerned only to protect it, they lost their power. The immigrant groups and city workers have become for a time the “dynamic” elements in American life, as the corporations were for a while before them.
But if this is so, then the Democratic coalition is in serious danger, for its adherents have now won political and material success, and have also become a conservative element, defending their gains. The unions are no longer successful—if they ever were—in bringing out the vote of workers, who now react to withholding taxes and inflation and even rent control with the same anti-administration feeling so long felt by businessmen. The Italians have elected a governor and a Senator in Rhode Island, mayors in New York and San Francisco; the Poles have elected a mayor in Buffalo; everywhere we find judges and high political appointees with the names of the “newer” immigration. The children of the immigrants now own their own homes, with federal support, and earn good money, with the help of federally supported unions. They now have something to protect, and the old slogans that five times put together a Democratic majority now divide as much as they once united them.
This division is most significant on the question of the Negroes. While the Negroes remained in the depressed status they had occupied since the Civil War, and the children of the immigrants and the workers who had come from the farm lived in slums, it was relatively easy for the Democrats to appeal to both of them at the same time and with the same slogans. What helped the urban workers helped the Negroes—relief, strong unions, easy loans—and what helped the Negroes did not hurt the workers. But when the Italians and Poles and Czechs and Southern-born native workers moved into “nice” neighborhoods and bought their homes and began to worry about property values and schools for their children, the matter became more complicated. For the Negroes were rising too—they were rising faster than any other element—which meant that many were moving into the Northern cities and crowding these “nice” neighborhoods, and many were looking for homes and good schools too. And while white and black may live together in relative tolerance in a slum, American middle-class ideology finds it impossible, in most communities, to accept the idea that middle-class—let alone lower-class—Negroes will make suitable additions to a “nice” neighborhood. A growing antagonism between two major elements in the heart of the Democratic country now threatens the coalition, Lubell believes. The Czechs of Cicero and the Negroes of Chicago are both staunchly Democratic; together they helped elect the administration which has now put on trial the town officials of Cicero for violating the civil rights of Negroes. How can they be held together in the same party? What can the Democratic party do about FEPC and discrimination in housing to satisfy both?
Lubell poses this problem with a finer appreciation of the processes of ethnic rise, adjustment, and conflict in America than any writer I know of. Who will champion the Negroes, who oppose them? The Jews have taken their stand with the Negroes; in Jewish regions in New York and Los Angeles that are being invaded by Negro urban settlements, the Jews, in contrast to other elements, have made considerable efforts to promote tolerance: it was in these Negro-Jewish borderland regions, Lubell points out, that Wallace drew a major part of his votes. In California, Jews voted in favor of a state FEPC: the Irish and Midwest and Southern immigrants voted against it.
The most crucial problem of the Democratic coalition has thus become whether the Negroes and their Jewish and other liberal supporters are to be isolated and forced out; or whether the coalition will maintain its twenty-year championship of the Negro and give up sections of the South and perhaps the Irish and other traditionally Democratic elements.
There is a great deal to ponder in Lubell’s discussion of this problem. We in this country find it hard to accept the idea that ethnic identity and allegiance can be so important. And indeed, as Lubell points out, the ethnic label may just be a short-cut manner of identification of a socio-economic element: “What makes [the ethnic groups] so important politically is that having come to this country in roughly the same period, the so-called ‘new’ immigrants and their offspring shared common experiences in this country.” What happens to them in this country may have more effect in creating an ethnic voting bloc than the common elements they bring from another country. The farmers who turned so decisively against Roosevelt during the war must have acted because they were Midwest farmers, as well as because they were of German descent. And without question, the East and South European immigrants and their children stuck with Roosevelt (and Truman) because they were workers, with workers’ interests, as well as because of their ethnic loyalties. But beyond all “rational” explanations, there is something, for each of these groups, that is not easily explained. A strange combination of self-interest and ideology moves each of them; and we may find a group shifting as fiercely in its voting because of something that has happened five thousand miles away as because of something decisively and immediately affecting its livelihood.
Lubell does not speculate on the significance of these ethnic attachments for the problem of the development of a common American loyalty and nationality. Perhaps, like our politicians who will inevitably—but privately—size up the ethnic variety of the fields in which they plan to campaign, he takes it for granted that while the ethnic tie is good for a vote, the patriotism of each of these groups is simply not to be questioned. Indeed, it is worth considering to what extent the ethnic vote may be the very creation of the American party system. For, as Lubell writes, the existence of any prejudice, bias, or bent in any sizeable group of voters irresistibly suggests to the politician the possibility of a special appeal. It is the existence of a group of German American voters that leads a politician to take up an isolationist position: and whether he reflects a sentiment, or arouses it to exploit, is hard to determine. But in any case, it is important to observe that even the most demagogic disguise their appeals: no isolationist ever called on German Americans to support him out of a feeling for the fatherland; the appeal has always been couched in terms of the general interest. A less disguised appeal, indeed, might arouse in the voters of a special background a desire to demonstrate their Americanism, and thus defeat itself. And as long as everyone seems to agree that any appeal to a specific ethnic group not put in terms of the general interest is illicit, American loyalty would not seem to be significantly threatened by these subsidiary loyalties.
All this is only one part of Lubell’s book, though the most important and the most interesting part. Lubell is a nationalist (in the proper sense of the term, not a disguised isolationist). He is most concerned with the question of establishing a strong and stable government, capable of meeting the nation’s problems and of curbing those factions that would weaken national strength for personal gains. And he is deeply concerned with the deadlock between president and Congress that has prevailed since Roosevelt lost in the Congressional elections of 1938, and which, in Truman’s second administration, all but paralyzed action on domestic problems. The president is elected by the cities, for they will decide which way the big states go; Congress is dominated by the rural regions. This fourteen-year struggle is raging more furiously than ever at a time when the most intelligent and subtle policy seems hardly enough to stop the Communist threat to Western Europe and Southeastern Asia, and ultimately this country. A weak government cannot properly manage the cost and impact of rearmament so as to exact equivalent sacrifices and prevent serious damage to the economy. It gives in to the demands of labor, the farmers, business, far more than a rearming economy can afford, and we see the result in a steady and increasingly serious inflation.
Neither party, Lubell believes, has any appropriate idea of what is demanded. The Republicans irrelevantly propose to weaken government controls when the most careful management of the national economy by government is essential. The Democrats, equally irrelevantly, continue to propose additional schemes of social reform which have no relation to the present need and can only divide their supporters.
Certainly Lubell is correct in thus outlining the main problem of American politics. It seems to me, however, that he does not distinguish sharply enough between the line of the Democratic party—and of Truman in particular, who still plans to win elections for it by flaying economic royalists—and the actions of the Democratic administration, which with considerable intelligence has organized a program of resistance to world Communism, using the economic royalists themselves in important positions. I think the main problem is that the truly national policy the Truman administration has developed is crippled by the violence of partisan struggle and has to be conducted with considerable dissimulation and evasion in the face of Congressional attack. Domestically, it is true, it is the administration’s desire to hold together its coalition, rather than the ruthless attacks of its opponents, that harms our economic mobilization policy.
But how are we to get a government capable of resisting the crippling demands of the different sectors of the economy and able to carry on its policy with some confidence that it represents a more or less united nation? Lubell is most attracted by the idea of a reshuffling of the elements of the two parties, producing a new majority of great strength and authority—but he sees no ground for expecting anything like that. No new elements are rising in American society, such as those which made the Democrats our majority party—though here Lubell seems to me not to take sufficiently seriously the weakening of the Democratic allegiance of the South and of various Northern elements on the civil rights issue, which he himself so well analyzes. Next best perhaps would be someone who could by his personal authority alone moderate the violence between the parties and conduct an effective national policy; Lubell is too sober, however, to think there is much hope for that, either. Even if Eisenhower should win, he foresees no decisive change in the deadlock that has ruled American politics so long.
A Summary of this book is in continual danger of running not much shorter than the book itself: I have hardly referred to interesting chapters on the South; on labor; on the farmers; to a fascinating discussion of Truman’s role as president, and of the “border politician” who helps resolve the conflicts between president and Congress and between the antagonistic wings of the ruling party. Indeed, the only serious defect of this book is that it is too short for all it has to say. There is such a density of facts and ideas that Lubell has often not given himself enough space to work out the full implication of all he is saying; as a result, there are a number of apparent and real contradictions. Certainly if the book had been twice as long, the apparent contradictions would have been eliminated, and the real ones would have come out sharply enough for Lubell to make a more concentrated effort to handle them. But where the sheer increase of enlightenment produced by a book is so great, some contradiction is a forgivable sin.