Monday, December 5, 2016

Richard Hofstadter on Immigrants and the Progressive Movement

I had always assumed that immigrants fit reasonably well into the progressive coalition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Of course populist racism posed a major challenge to integrating newly-arrived immigrants into the working class. But I always imagined this challenge was rather easily overcome by the shared economic interests of immigrants and the native working class.

I recently came across a fascinating passage in Richard Hofstadter's 1955 The Age of Reform that made me realize this analysis was far too simplistic, and that there was much more antagonism between immigrant communities and the progressive movement than I previously thought.

I quote some of the most provocative passages at length, with the most striking bits in bold:

In politics, then, the immigrant was usually at odds with the reform aspirations of the American Progressive. Together with the native conservative and the politically indifferent, the immigrants formed a potent mass that limited the range and the achievements of Progressivism. The loyalty of immigrant voters to the bosses was one of the signal reasons why the local reform victories were so short-lived. It would be hard to imagine types of political culture more alien to each other than those of the Yankee reformer and the peasant immigrant. The Yankee’s idea of political action assumed a popular democracy with widespread participation and eager civic interest. To him politics was the business, the responsibility, the duty of all men. It was an arena for the realization of moral principles of broad application—and even, as the case of temperance and vice crusades—for the correction of private habits. The immigrant, by contrast, coming as a rule from a peasant environment and from aristocratic societies with strong feudal survivals, was totally unaccustomed to the active citizen’s role. He expected to be acted on by government, but not to be a political agent himself. To him government meant restrictions on personal movement, the arbitrary regulation of life, the inaccessibility of the law, and the conscription of the able-bodied. To him, government was the instrument of the ruling classes, characteristically acting in their interests, which were indifferent or opposed to his own. Nor was government in his eyes an affair of abstract principles and rules of law: it was the actions of particular men with particular powers. Political relations were not governed by abstract principles; they were profoundly personal.[3]
Not being reared on the idea of mass-participation, the immigrant was not especially eager to exercise his vote immediately upon naturalization. Nor was he interested in such reforms as the initiative, referendum, and recall, which were intelligible only from the standpoint of the Anglo-American ethos of popular political action. When he finally did assume his civic role, it was either in response to Old World loyalties (which became a problem only during and after the first World War) or to immediate needs arising out of his struggle for life in the American city—to his need for a job or charity or protection from the law or for a street vendor’s license. The necessities of American cities—their need for construction workers, street-cleaners, police and firemen, service workers of all kinds—often provided him with his livelihood, as it provided the boss with the necessary patronage. The immigrant, in short, looked to politics not for the realization of high principles but for concrete and personal gains, and he sought these gains through personal relationships. And here the boss, particularly the Irish boss, who could see things from the immigrant’s angle but could also manipulate the American environment, became a specialist in personal relations and personal loyalties. The boss himself encouraged the immigrant to think of politics as a field in which one could legitimately pursue one’s interests. … Where reformers identified patriotism with knowledgeable civic action and self-denial, the bosses were satisfied to confine it to party regularity, and they were not embarrassed by a body of literature purporting to show that to trade one’s vote for personal services was a form of civic iniquity.”

That passage includes the following fascinating footnote:

[3]“C.f. Henry Cabot Lodge’s complaint that the idea of patriotism—devotion to one’s country—was Roman, while the idea of devotion to the emperor as the head of state was Byzantine. It was the Byzantine inheritance, he said, that the Eastern immigrants were bringing in. Henry Cabot Lodge...  
The boss’s code of personal loyalty and the reformer’s code of loyalty to civic ideas could not easily be accommodated, with the consequence that when the two had dealings with each other there were irreparable misunderstandings.”

I don't know enough about the Progressive Era to assess Hofstadter's account. And I don't what (if any) lessons Hofstadter's analysis has for our political present. But as I see things, today's progressive coalition is split between identitarianism on one side and Scandinavian-style social democracy on the other. I go back and forth thinking whether these bedfellows are fundamentally compatible with one another. If Hofstadter's history is correct, and if the general principles apply in our own time, perhaps that gives us a reason to think the two aren't so compatible.

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