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. 

8 thoughts on “The 20th-Century Ethnic White Working Class and Immigration Restriction

  1. Forget the wall. Neither is whether illegal immigration is a real problem or not relevant. That's beyond the purview of the discussion of Kazin's argument, which is about electoral sentiments. The wall is a barometer of those sentiments.

    Democrats split 44/43 in favor, the closest any group comes to outright opposition. Every demographic tested, be it sex, age, race, party ID, household income, or region, tilts towards supporting a wall, with no group besides Dems less than 10 points net in favor. Black voters have an outright majority of 55 percent behind the idea.

    I can't find the tabs, but I believe I saw 30% of Hispanics favor a wall. And contrary to current conventional wisdom, although the Hispanic vote may swing the popular vote, it's nearly inconsequential in the electoral vote.

    Contrary to many media reports, the Hispanic vote won’t necessarily give Democrats the election next year. In fact, a closer study of past elections and current trends shows that the the GOP has a slight advantage going into 2016.

    A tool recently developed by Real Clear Politics showcases the limited effect of the Hispanic vote in presidential elections. The tool calculates a Republican or Democrat victory in the popular vote and the Electoral College based on the turnout and party-leaning of four key demographic groups — whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians/Other. As it turns out, even accounting for their increase in the population, Hispanics as a group don’t sway the election, one way or the other.

    Hispanics make a large difference when it comes to the popular vote, but their impact on the Electoral college is minimal.

    In 2012, 27 percent of Hispanics voted for Mitt Romney. In order for Hispanics to make one more state flip from Republican to Democrat, that percentage would have to fall to 8 percent. On the other hand, the GOP would have to pick up 49 percent in order to win the popular vote, and 63 percent to win the Electoral College.

    It is far easier for Republicans to win by increasing their support among white voters, and getting more whites to actually vote in 2016. Sixty percent of whites voted for Romney and the white turnout was only 64 percent in 2012. If the GOP picks up 64 percent of the white vote in 2016, and 66 percent of whites turn out to vote (as they did in 2008), the Republican candidate wins in a landslide.

    The Black Vote After Obama

    The black vote will likely have a more powerful impact next year than the Hispanic vote, mainly due to the absence of one particular individual.

    As Real Clear Politics writers Sean Trende and David Byler point out, Republicans have historically won between nine and 11 percent of the black vote, while in 2008 and 2012, they only took four percent and six percent, respectively. This makes sense, since McCain and Romney were running against the First Black President. Without Obama, however, will the black vote return to older levels?


  2. No, the wall is relevant to this. If people were aware that a wall will not stop illegal immigration they would be more inclined to look at the Push/Pull factors. Instead, they hear this blather about how a wall will solve the problem. It will not do so.
    Illegal immigration is just not the big problem it has been portrayed as.


  3. Walls are nice things that are a waste of money and resources. They do not solve problems and eventually the people figure out a way around the walls. I am not at all surprised that so many people want a wall. It may get built and it may not. I am not too worried about that because it really does not matter. The problem will still exist and will continue to create additional problems until it is resolved.

    Walls are reactions to the Push/Pull factors that propel migration of peoples. A study of human history shows walls are failures. Mankind has overcome every geographical barrier he has encountered as well as every man made one. All a wall does is serve as a temporary impediment to population movement.


  4. I don't buy the poll results either, but they do put the brakes on whatever Kazin's on about, esp per its elision of the difference between legal immigration and illegal. A different poll also shows a plurality of Dems and minorities in favor of a wall.

    Allahpundit of Hot Air has more:

    Democrats split 44/43 in favor, the closest any group comes to outright opposition. Every demographic tested, be it sex, age, race, party ID, household income, or region, tilts towards supporting a wall, with no group besides Dems less than 10 points net in favor. Black voters have an outright majority of 55 percent behind the idea. Two words, my friends: President Trump.

    [FTR, I don't support Donald Trump. This objection is for information purposes only.]


  5. Let's wait and see how other polls indicate what is going on before buying this poll's results. The numbers are complete contradictions to previous poll results by a huge margin in multiple areas. It borders on incredulous.


  6. Not mainstream newsworthy:

    Donald Trump has a clear path to the White House, according to a shocking new poll from SurveyUSA.

    Trump beats Hillary Clinton 45 percent to 40 percent, with 16 percent of voters undecided.

    He wins a huge share of the Democrats’ non-white base — 25 percent of African Americans, 31 percent of Hispanics and 41 percent of the relatively small Asian vote.

    The SurveyUSA poll quizzed 1,000 Americans, including 900 registered voters, on September 2 and September 3.


  7. 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.

    And they should. Acknowledging a valid demurral is not the same as refuting it.

    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.

    If true, that makes Kazin's essay specious.


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