Ethnocultural politics in the United States
Ethnocultural politics in the United States (or ethnoreligious politics) refers to the pattern of certain cultural or religious groups to vote heavily for one party. Groups can be based on ethnicity (such as Hispanics, Irish, Germans), race (whites, blacks, Asian Americans) or religion (Protestant or Catholic) or on overlapping categories (Irish Catholics). In the South, race was the determining factor. Each of the two major parties was a coalition of ethnoreligious groups in the Second Party System] (1830s to 1850s] as well as the Third Party System. (1850s to 1890s).
Second great awakening: 1800–1850Edit
The Protestant religious revivals of the early 19th century had a profound impact on shaping the moral values of the affected voters, pushing them into moralistic political programs, such as opposition to slavery and to calling for prohibition of alcoholic beverages. Revivals and perfectionist hopes of improving individuals and society continued to increase from 1840 to 1865 across all major denominations, especially in urban areas. Evangelists often directly addressed issues such as slavery, greed, and poverty, laying the groundwork for later reform movements. Although the women could not vote or hold office, they could influence the political viewpoints of their menfolk. In the midst of shifts in theology and church polity, American Christians began progressive movements to reform society during this period. Known commonly as antebellum reform, this phenomenon included reforms in temperance, women's rights, abolitionism, and a multitude of other questions faced by society.
The religious enthusiasm of the Second Great Awakening was echoed by the new political enthusiasm of the Second Party System. More active participation in politics by more segments of the population brought religious and moral issues into the political sphere. The spirit of evangelical humanitarian reforms was carried on in the antebellum Whig party.
Historians stress the understanding common among participants of reform as being a part of God's plan. As a result, local churches saw their roles in society in purifying the world through the individuals to whom they could bring salvation, and through changes in the law and the creation of institutions. Interest in transforming the world was applied to mainstream political action, as temperance activists, antislavery advocates, and proponents of other variations of reform sought to implement their beliefs into national politics. While Protestant religion had previously played an important role on the American political scene, the Second Great Awakening strengthened the role it would play.
Politics in the Midwest was deeply rooted in ethnocultural divisions from the 1830s into the 20th century. Yankee settlers from New England started arriving in Ohio before 1800, and spread throughout the northern half of the Midwest. Most of them started as farmers, but later the larger proportion moved to towns and cities as entrepreneurs, businessmen, and urban professionals. Since its beginnings in the 1830s, Chicago business was under Yankee control from the 1830s and the railroad and financial metropolis quickly came to dominate the Midwestern economy. However, politics inside the city was under the control of complex ethnic coalitions in both parties. Finally in the 1930s the Irish took control of the Democratic Party and city government.
Historian John Buenker has examined the worldview of the Yankee settlers in the Midwest:
- Because they arrived first and had a strong sense of community and mission, Yankees were able to transplant New England institutions, values, and mores, altered only by the conditions of frontier life. They established a public culture that emphasized the work ethic, the sanctity of private property, individual responsibility, faith in residential and social mobility, practicality, piety, public order and decorum, reverence for public education, activists, honest, and frugal government, town meeting democracy, and he believed that there was a public interest that transcends particular and stick ambitions. Regarding themselves as the elect and just in a world rife with sin, air, and corruption, they felt a strong moral obligation to define and enforce standards of community and personal behavior....This pietistic worldview was substantially shared by British, Scandinavian, Swiss, English-Canadian and Dutch Reformed immigrants, as well as by German Protestants and many of the Forty-Eighters.
Midwestern politics pitted Yankees against the German Catholics and Lutherans, who were often led by the Irish Catholics. These large groups, Buenker argues:
- Generally subscribed to the work ethic, a strong sense of community, and activist government but were less committed to economic individualism and privatism and ferociously opposed to government supervision of the personal habits. Southern and eastern European immigrants generally leaned more toward the Germanic view of things, while modernization, industrialization, and urbanization modified nearly everyone's sense of individual economic responsibility and put a premium on organization, political involvement, and education.
Third Party System: 1850s–1890sEdit
Religious lines were sharply drawn. Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Scandinavian Lutherans and other pietists in the North were tightly linked to the GOP. In sharp contrast, liturgical groups, especially the Catholics, Episcopalians, and German Lutherans, looked to the Democratic Party for protection from pietistic moralism, especially prohibition. While both parties cut across economic class structures, the Democrats were supported more heavily by its lower tiers.
Cultural issues, especially prohibition and foreign language schools, became important because of the sharp religious divisions in the electorate. In the North, about 50% of the voters were pietistic Protestants who believed the government should be used to reduce social sins, such as drinking. Liturgical churches comprised over a quarter of the vote and wanted the government to stay out of personal morality issues. Prohibition debates and referendums heated up politics in most states over a period of decades, as national prohibition was finally passed in 1918 (and repealed in 1932), serving as a major issue between the wet Democrats and the dry GOP.
German Americans comprised the largest ethnic group in the North, but they were sharply divided along religious lines. Catholics, several groups of Lutherans, Methodists and other Protestants each formed tight-knit communities. The Catholics and Lutherans operated separate parochial schools. In addition there were secular groups, ranging from the '48ers (liberal refugees from the failed 1848 revolution) to socialists. Relatively few German Americans held office, but the men voted once they became citizens. In general during the Third Party System (1850s–1890s), the Protestants and Jews leaned toward the Republican Party and the Catholics were strongly Democratic. When prohibition was on the ballot, the Germans voted solidly against it. They strongly distrusted moralistic crusaders, whom they called "Puritans", including the temperance reformers and many Populists. The German community strongly opposed Free Silver, and voted heavily against crusader William Jennings Bryan in 1896. In 1900, however, many German Democrats returned to their party and voted for Bryan, perhaps because of President William McKinley's foreign policy. Many Germans in late-19th-century America were socialists; usually they were affiliated with labor unions. Germans played a significant role in the American labor movement, especially in brewing and construction trades.
Voting patterns by religionEdit
|Voting behavior by religion, northern USA, late 19th century|
|Religion||% Dem||% GOP|
|Confessional German Lutherans||65||35|
|French Canadian Catholics||50||50|
|Less Confessional German Lutherans||45||55|
|Free Will Baptists||20||80|
- Source: Kleppner, Paul (1979). The Third Electoral System 1853–1892. p. 182.
Progressive era: 1890–1932Edit
In most of the country prohibition was of central importance in progressive politics before World War I, with a strong religious and ethnic dimension. Most pietistic Protestants were "dries" who advocated prohibition as a solution to social problems; they included Methodists, Congregationalists, Disciples, Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Scandinavian Lutherans. On the "wet" side, Episcopalians, Irish Catholics, German Lutherans and German Catholics attacked prohibition as a menace to their social customs and personal liberty. Prohibitionists supported direct democracy to enable voters to bypass the state legislature in lawmaking. In the North, the Republican Party championed the interests of the prohibitionists, while the Democratic Party represented ethnic group interests. In the South, the Baptist and Methodist churches played a major role in forcing the Democratic Party to support prohibition. After 1914 the issue shifted to the Germans' opposition to Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy. In the 1920s, however, the sudden, unexpected outburst of big city crime associated with bootlegging undermined support for prohibition, and the Democrats took up the cause for repeal, finally succeeding in 1932.
World War IEdit
Many different Protestant denominations, such as the Methodists and Baptists, loudly denounced the war at first: it was God's punishment for sin. Their moralism was aggressively focused on banishing evils (like saloons) from the face of the earth through Prohibition, and if they could be shown that German militarism was a similar evil, they would throw enormous weight. Wilson, the intensely religious son of a prominent theologian, knew exactly how to harness that moralism in his attacks on the "Huns" who threatened civilization, and his calls for an almost religious crusade on behalf of peace. The Episcopalians, with a strong base in the British-American community, generally supported entry into the war. President Woodrow Wilson appeal to the antiwar Protestants by arguing that American entry would make the war to end all wars, and eliminate militarism as a factor in world affairs.
German Americans by 1910 typically had only weak ties to Germany; however, they were fearful of negative treatment they might receive if the United States entered the war (such mistreatment was already happening to German-descent citizens in Canada and Australia). Almost none called for intervening on Germany's side, instead calling for neutrality and speaking of the superiority of German culture. As more nations were drawn into the conflict, however, the English-languages press increasingly supporting Britain, while the German-American media called for neutrality while also defending Germany's position. Chicago's Germans worked to secure a complete embargo on all arms shipments to Europe. In 1916 large crowds in Chicago's Germania celebrated the Kaiser's birthday, something they had not done before the war. German Americans in early 1917 still called for neutrality but proclaimed that if a war came they would be loyal to the United States. By this point they had been excluded almost entirely from national discourse on the subject. Once war started they were harassed in so many ways that historian Carl Wittke noted in 1936, it was "one of the most difficult and humiliating experiences suffered by an ethnic group in American history." German-American Socialists actively campaigned against entry into the war.
The most important ethnocultural issues in politics included the congressional debates over restriction of immigration, the sudden rise (and sudden fall) of the Ku Klux Klan, and the role of Catholicism in the election of 1928.
The United States became more anti-immigration in outlook during this period. The American Immigration Act of 1924 limited immigration from countries where 2% of the total U.S. population, per the 1890 census, were immigrants from that country. Thus, the massive influx of Europeans that had come to America during the first two decades of the century slowed to a trickle. Asians were prohibited from immigrating altogether; that provision angered Japan. Although some businesses opposed restrictions because they wanted a continued flow of unskilled workers, support was widespread with the exception of the Jewish community.
Ku Klux KlanEdit
The KKK was a nationwide organization that grew rapidly from 1921 to 1925, then collapsed just as fast. It had millions of members, but the organizational structure was in oriented entirely toward recruiting new members, collecting their initiation fees and selling costumes, so that the actual organizations seldom achieved very much. The Klan signed up millions of white Protestant men on the basis that American society needed a moral purification against the immoral power of the Catholic Church, Jews, organized crime, speakeasies, and local adulterers. Liberal and Catholic elements fought against the Klan primarily inside the Democratic Party, where a motion to repudiated it by name was defeated by one vote at the national convention of 1924. Though members of the KKK swore to uphold American values and Christian morality, and at the local level some Protestant ministers became involved, no Protestant denomination officially endorsed the KKK. Across the country, the Klan had strength in cities, towns and rural areas. Its high visibility made its intended targets of Catholics, Jews and blacks highly uncomfortable, and many local and state elections were bitterly fought around the role of the Klan. Historians in recent decades have totally revised the traditional interpretation of the second KKK as a terrorist group, or based on frustrated marginal elements. Using newly discovered minutes of local chapters they now portray the Klansmen as ordinary Americans, primarily middle class. They were local activists and joiners who thought the nation was seriously threatened by an evil conspiracy. Scholars found the Klan of the 1920s was "composed of average citizens drawn from the broader middle-class." It "had been not a form of racial and religious terror but rather a means of mainstream political activism." The current KKK is a white supremacist organization.
1928 election was characterized by widespread attention to religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants, as well as the prohibition issue. The nation was peaceful and prosperous, giving enormous strength to Republican nominee Herbert Hoover. The Democratic candidate was New York Governor Al Smith, who was closely identified with Catholicism, New York City, and opposition to prohibition. Smith mobilized Catholic voters, who proved decisive in his success in carrying the large cities. A wide spectrum of Protestants were troubled by the notion that the Catholic Church—especially the pope and bishops—would have a major voice in American politics. Southern Baptists and Lutherans, among other denominations, often focused on religion. Smith lost many traditionally Protestant Democratic areas, especially in the border South. The final factor was New York City, a locale deeply distrusted by many rural Americans for its unsavory reputation regarding organized crime.
Anti-Catholicism was a significant problem for Smith's campaign. Protestant ministers warned that he would take orders from the pope who, many Americans sincerely believed, would move to the United States to rule the country from a fortress in Washington, if Smith won. Beyond the conspiracy theories, a survey of 8,500 Southern Methodist Church ministers found only four who supported Smith, and the northern Methodists, Southern Baptists, and Disciples of Christ were similar in their opposition. Many average voters who sincerely rejected bigotry and the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan—which had declined during the 1920s until the 1928 campaign revived it—justified their opposition to Smith on their belief that the Catholic Church played too large a role in Smith's political world.
New Deal era: 1932–1966Edit
Franklin D. Roosevelt led the Democratic Party to a landslide victory in 1932 and set up his New Deal in 1933 and forged a coalition of labor unions, liberals, religious, ethnic and racial minorities (Catholics, Jews and Blacks), Southern whites, poor people and those on relief. The organizational heft was provided by Big City machines, which gained access to millions of relief jobs and billions of dollars in spending projects. These voting blocs together formed a majority of voters and handed the Democratic Party seven victories out of nine presidential elections (1932–1948, 1960, 1964), as well as control of both houses of Congress during all but 4 years between the years 1932–1980 (Republicans won small majorities in 1946 and 1952). The cities were the center of the ethnic voting blocs, and Roosevelt built this coalition around them, as well as the big-city machines, and the labor unions that were associated with the ethnics. In 1936 the nation's 106 cities over 100,000 population voted 70% for FDR, compared to 59% outside the cities. Roosevelt won reelection in 1940 thanks to the cities. In the North, the cities over 100,000 gave Roosevelt 60% of their votes, while the rest of the North favored Wendell Willkie by 52%. It was just enough to provide the critical electoral college margin.
The European ethnic groups came of age after the 1960s. Ronald Reagan pulled many of the working class social conservatives into the Republican party as Reagan Democrats. Many middle class ethnics saw the Democratic Party as a working class party and preferred the GOP as the upper-middle class party. However, the Jewish community still voted en masse for the Democratic party, and in the 2004 presidential election 74% voted for Democratic candidate John Kerry, in the 2008 election 78% voted for President Barack Obama, and in the 2012 election 69% voted for President Obama. In the 2018 midterms, over 75% of Jews voted for Democrats.
African Americans grew stronger in their Democratic loyalties and in their numbers. By the 1960s, they were a much more important part of the coalition than in the 1930s. Their Democratic loyalties cut across all income and geographic lines to form the single most unified bloc of voters in the country.
In the present-day, progressive Christians (often found in denominations such as the United Church of Christ or the Protestant Espiscopal Church) vote for the Democratic Party (cf. Christian left), while those aligned with the Christian right tend to vote for the Republican Party.
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