Saturday, September 5, 2015

The 20th-Century Ethnic White Working Class and Immigration Restriction

It is hard to imagine that Donald Trump will win the GOP nomination and be elected President of the United States, but Michael Kazin, the Georgetown University historian, wants to give it a shot.

Kazin reminds us of what happened to the Republican Party in the wake of its last attempt to restrict immigration--the Johnson Reed Act, also known as the 1924 Immigration Act.  From 1930 to 1960 the number of people migrating to the United States was reduced by more than 75%.  Sadly, the decision to reduce the number of immigrants was based almost entirely on race--an attempt to preserve Anglo-Saxon culture in America.

So what happened to the GOP after the Johnson-Reed Act?  Here is a taste of Kazin's piece at Politico:


But the political backlash from that dramatic shift in demographics was fierce. Immigrants from places like Poland, Italy, and Russia who already lived in the U.S. and their American-born children deeply resented quotas that barred them from bringing over their relatives and friends. Most also despised the prohibition of alcohol, which they viewed as an attack by evangelical Protestants on their cultures and their right to imbibe any beverage they chose....

At the time, big-city Democrats warned that nativists would regret their decision to bar non-“Anglo-Saxons” from the land...

Instead of leaving, white ethnics took out their bitterness at the polling booth. In 1928, many voted for the first time, swelling the total for Al Smith, the Catholic Democrat from New York. Amid the prosperity of that decade, Smith lost to Herbert Hoover. But in 1932, during the depths of the Great Depression, their votes swung nearly every big state to Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR didn’t have enough support in Congress to get rid of the quotas (most Southern Democrats favored them). But his party did repeal prohibition and enact programs like the Works Progress Administration and the National Labor Relations Act that helped millions of ethnics find jobs and form unions.

In the decade since the restrictive quotas had been passed, young workers from the kind of ethnic groups that Republicans derided had become increasingly “Americanized.” English was their first language; they had been educated in the U.S., flocked to the same Hollywood movies and danced to the same swing tunes as did other Americans—and they were registered to vote. Despite the Great Depression, they also felt secure enough to question the authority of their employers – most of whom were loyal Republicans, the party in charge when Wall Street crashed and the jobless rate soared to twenty-five percent.

All this made white ethnic workers natural recruits for the new unions established, through sit-down strikes and other forms of pressure, in the steel, auto, longshore, aircraft, and electrical industries during the 1930s and 40s. “Go to hell! You’ve had me long enough. I’m going to be a man on my own now!” an official of the United Electrical Workers told his members. First and second-generation immigrants welcomed the ethnic pluralism of the new labor movement, as did blacks and Mexican-Americans, and claimed American traditions for themselves. In one New England textile town, union organizers compared their bosses to King George III and urged workers to emulate the Pilgrims and the “wise, hardy, and staunch” pioneers in covered wagons who risked everything to attain prosperity for their families. Between 1933 and 1945, unions added nine million new members to their ranks. As it surged, organized labor had become a rainbow coalition—and a mainstay of the Democratic Party.

In four straight elections, FDR crushed his Republican opponents in big cities and factory towns filled with white ethnics and African-Americans. Their votes also turned states like Pennsylvania and Illinois, which had traditionally voted Republican, into Democratic strongholds. The party nominated scores of Jews, Polish Catholics, and Italians to local and state offices. During the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower and other moderate Republicans won back some of these voters. But in 1960, John Kennedy – running as a Catholic, pro-labor liberal – reassembled much of FDR’s old coalition. He was the first president to owe his victory to a alliance of religious, ethnic, and racial minorities.

Thus, by closing the borders to all but a trickle of newcomers they disliked, Republicans ensured that they would provoke the lasting hostility of millions of immigrants and, just as importantly, their children, all of whom had already crossed those borders. During the 1930s and 40s, Democrats won every single presidential election, even as the foreign-born population decreased from 11.6 percent to just over half that number.

Read the rest here.

Kazin's argument makes sense and should serve as a warning to those GOP contenders like Trump who want to restrict immigration.  I imagine that critics of the piece will say that Kazin's early 20th century immigrants were legal immigrants while many Mexicans come into the country illegally. Nevertheless, his piece is worth considering.

I realize that this is an op-ed, but Kazin puts a lot of interpretive weight on the idea that white ethnics joined unions and supported the Democratic Party because they were angry about immigration restriction.  

I am the grandson of these ethnic immigrants.  I am half Italian and half Slovakian.  My grandparents and great-grandparents all came over between 1880 and 1920.  My paternal grandfather (Italian)
died last year at the age of 103.  He loved to talk politics.  He was a lifelong Democrat who spent his working life driving trucks for several Newark, NJ breweries.  He would also say that he was a Democrat because it was the party of the "working man."  

In thirty or more years of political conversations, and several hours of oral history interviews, my grandfather never mentioned that he or his family were Democrats because of the memory 
of immigration restriction in the 1920s (and we got into a lot stuff about Italian-American identity, the Democratic Party, and his life as Teamster). He often mentioned the racial and ethnic slurs he endured as an Italian working in German-run breweries, but most of these slurs came from Anglo-Saxon co-workers who were also Democrats.  My grandfather's identity as a member of the Democratic Party was probably rooted more in working-class solidarity and the Catholic Church.  

I am not a scholar of this area, but personal experience tells me that the ethnic white-working class probably became Democrats for reasons other than Johnson-Reed.  On the other hand, Kazin's piece has made me think about what may have been some of my grandfather's unspoken assumptions.