Gilded Age Ethnic Politics

statsvotinggildedageI’m thinking about these statistics on voting in the US during the Gilded Age. (No, I don’t know the source.) The nineteenth century is important for any realist understanding of the twentieth century because, with dissident views on how the United States of America operates persecuted and forced into hiding, different dissidents experiment with relaxing different assumptions of the official story.  We can believe that each particular dissident’s theory is eccentric and ex ante unlikely (i.e., each of the official assumptions is probably true) while still believing that one of these theories (at least) is almost certainly true;

What does this have to do with the nineteenth century?  The version of American history (and social reality in general) we are commanded to accept is the product of an ideology which was fabricated in the last century, at the behest of factions who gained power in the last century, to conceal misdeeds, justify programs, and rule out alternatives from that same century.  Dissident theories dissent precisely with regard to these events, these movements, these social trends that were emblematic of the twentieth century.  Therefore dueling dissident theories which aim to explain the same events during the twentieth century, but which make different heretical claims about the twentieth-century causes of those events, generally also entail quite different claims about the kinds of causal dynamics that operated continuously from 1800 to 2000.  To give an example of what I mean: if you claim increased access to contraception since 1914 has been an important driver of obesity in America, you are limiting the amount of change that remains to be explained by incomes, food prices, agriculture policy, heredity, employment patterns, and so on.  So the contraception/obesity theory must predict substantially weaker effects from all those causes, and as a result it has very different implications for how we explain the national obesity rate pre-1914, a period when changes in access to contraception account for approximately none of that change.

fluddmirrorofnatureSo for we dissidents who prefer to risk eccentricity rather than mouth nonsense, the nineteenth century is the mirror of nature.  That age is recent enough that substantial data exists (and it exists in a simple, innocent form, tabulated by contemporaries rather than conjured into being by zealous sociologists).  It is remote enough that most of the “self-evident truths” of our own time were not even on the horizon.  As a methodological principle, the value of testing our “conspiracy theories” by extending them back to an uncontroversial era has a broad significance, but today I’m making a tiny point.

All right — the voting statistics.  The standard story I hear (and that I tell others) about American politics after the Civil War is that the victorious Republican Party was, of course, identified with patriotism, military victory, and war heroes in the North, and the Union states swiftly became single-party states.  The Democratic Party played the analogous role in the South… although there, disenfranchisement and military occupation kept the Republicans political relevant for decades.  In a single-party state all successful guys join The Party and all politicians find ways to help their friends succeed, so voilà, the birth of the Grand Old Party, complete with a robustly traditionalist and capitalist agenda.  It would be unsurprising if a newly-arrived immigrant (indifferent to American culture and its traditions, exploited by plutocrats, lacking any family connection to the war) rejected his Republican neighbors and joined the Southerners in their Democratic Party.  But this lopsided alliance between the “huddled masses” and the heirs to the Confederacy created a tension between Northern Democrats who saw blacks as just one more disaffected minority to integrate into the urban ethnic machine and Southern Democrats who actually had to live with them, and set the stage for the next realignment of the party system.

This is the story.

The story is more complicated than that, of course.  There are lots of footnotes and second-order effects.  But look at that table of political affiliation. 95% of Irish Catholic immigrants voted Democrat.  95% of Irish Protestant immigrants voted Republican.  According to the standard story (well, standard for 2016) those Irish Catholics were voting D because they were oppressed, alienated immigrants who needed a political boss who would look out for their interests.  But Irish Protestants were arriving in equally distressed circumstances, they were equally cut off from the pageantry of the Civil War, but somehow they still end up voting 95% for the GOP. —  There is a similar, but less pronounced, pattern for other immigrant groups.  55% of Protestant Germans were Democrats, which is a respectable majority, but far less than the 85% rate for German Catholics.  For the Dutch, 85% of Catholic immigrants and only 30-45% of Protestants were Dem.  No group of Protestant immigrants was as Democratic-leaning as any Catholic group; the most Democratic-leaning Protestant group was, again, Germans at 55%, while the least Democratic-leaning Catholic group was French at 70%. — Meanwhile, among natives you can spot one similar pattern.  Southern Baptists and Southern Presbyterians were the most Democratic-leaning group of native Americans, presumably because their congregations were Southerners.  But (non-Southern) Presbyterians and Baptists supported the Dems more heavily than any of the other native, non-Southern religious groups.

So what is going on here?  I’m not implying that the Democratic Party’s marching orders came directly from Rome and were delivered in Latin at mass.  But any story about the formation of the Democratic machines in the Northern cities which is primarily a story about immigration, or even a story about the traits of particular immigrant groups, is going to fall apart unless it explains the unique role of papistry in building the modern Democratic Party.

4 thoughts on “Gilded Age Ethnic Politics

  1. Well, I think the “standard story” actually hits the nail on the head in some ways. When you look at the 19th century, you have a milieu of ideas forming around each coalitions.

    For the Republicans, it wasn’t just free trade, political reform, capitalism, anti-immigration, etc. Anti-Catholicism was also in the mix. (Arguably tied in with anti-immigration) This was the age (and into the early 20th century) were there were mass efforts to create public schools to purge these new immigrants of “Papist” thoughts and counteractuons by the bishops to create the parochial school system. Being a Republican meant believing (to some extent) in an American country with a Protestant, non-Catholic heritage. All those old forms of British anti-Catholicism didn’t die away with the Declaration of Independence.

    It makes perfect sense then that the Irish would be found at opposite ends of the spectrum. Considering that the divisions in Ireland were so extreme and long centered around one big issue, religion. Irish Catholics wouldn’t feel protected and provided for by the Republicans. And Irish Protestants would naturally align with the GOP. Plus they wouldn’t be on the same team as their age-old archrivals, the Catholics.

    Protestants wouldn’t feel the same pressure with the nation being majority Protestant and all and the Democratic Party not being anti-Protestant, at least. But the religious division would explain a more GOP-leaning Protestant electorate since the perils of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” were a hidden (and sometimes open) subtext of GOP politics in that era.

    Additionally, the top two Catholics groups for Dems were the Irish and the Poles, who were also the leaders and strongest proponents (by my understanding) of the parochial school system as well as devotion to the Faith. With the Italians and Germans and others falling behind.

    It also lines up with my theory of the difference between Catholic and Evangelical patterns of modern voting being based around a diffusion of identity.

    I.e. when religious identity is strongly felt, it has a large impact on voting. This impact is made greater when the stakes are high and the choice is clear (e.g. abortion or anti-Catholicism). Conversely, the impact on voting is diffused as religious identity is diffused and other identities take center stage.

    People are rational beings. Politics in a pluralistic society isn’t racial or ethnic or class or even, necessarily, religion based. It’s identity based. Whatever identity is most deeply felt will largely determine the voting patterns.


    1. Interesting comments, but I’m not sure how you intend to position these relative to the “standard story” or the “immigrants versus establishment” frame. You start by saying “The standard story hits the nail on the head…”; do you mean to say your comment is the heart of the standard story?


      1. I was mainly thinking of this:
        “According to the standard story (well, standard for 2016) those Irish Catholics were voting D because they were oppressed, alienated immigrants who needed a political boss who would look out for their interests. ”
        Albeit with Catholicism rather than economic poverty playing the dominant role. Although, the relative prosperity of Irish Catholics vs Irish Protestants or even Irish Catholics vs German Catholics probably plays some explanatory role.


      2. Gotcha. Clearly, there were Democratic machines in the Northern cities. The question is how and why they formed, and how that formation inflected the “mature” Democratic coalition that brought Wilson, Roosevelt, and Truman into office. I see “immigrants” and “Catholics” as two different explanations for what was characteristic about these machines. Both explanations could be true in part, but I don’t think Irish Protestants were wealthy enough to explain the figures I posted. (However, I am open to the possibility that these are inadequate stats.)


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