“The demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore,” a glum Bill O’Reilly said during Fox News’ Election Day coverage. “And the voters, many of them, feel that this economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff… People feel that they are entitled to things. And which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?”
What O’Reilly — and other members of what the Fox host called the “white establishment” who are blaming Obama’s re-election on minority-group moochers — aren’t mentioning is that white Americans have their own long tradition of using voting power to get an economic leg up. O’Reilly’s own Irish-Catholic cohort is now seen as just another group that makes up the “traditional” establishment. But when the Irish were chased to America by famine and British repression during the 19th century, they faced violent attacks from nativist groups, political cartoons caricaturing them as apes, “Help Wanted — No Irish Need Apply” signs, and a butcher knife–wielding, one-eyed Daniel Day Lewis. Desperately poor, uneducated, and barred from even menial jobs, the one tool the Irish had at their disposal was their sheer numbers — according to Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer’s book Beyond the Melting Pot, by 1855, 28% of New Yorkers were Irish-born, with cities like Boston experiencing a similar surge. The Irish turned out in droves to support urban Democratic political machines, and in return collected the Christmas turkeys and government jobs that came with their newfound power.
“When you were elected mayor of a big city,” says historian David Nasaw, author of an epic Joseph Kennedy biography called The Patriarch due out next week, “you had fire department jobs, police jobs, you had teaching jobs, all kinds of jobs at all kinds of levels you could hire [Irish voters] for. The only way the Irish were going to climb their way into the middle class was through what we now call these civil service jobs. No one else was going to look after them.”
And it wasn’t always just the ballot box, but also the bullet, that the Irish sometimes used to balance the scales of power. In 1863, New York City underwent three days of bloody draft riots that forced Abraham Lincoln to send troops from Gettysburg to Gotham. Poor Irish-Americans were enraged that they were being drafted and sent to die when wealthier citizens were able to pay their way out of service. The riots were put down and some of the organizers hung, but under the leadership of William “Boss” Tweed, New York’s Tammany Hall political machine funneled jobs and money for schools, housing, and health care to the Irish in return for their peace and electoral support.
They weren’t the only underclass group to benefit from government. “The Irish,” says Nasaw, “were competed with and replaced by Italians in Boston and East Boston and New York. Jews in Brooklyn. Greeks in other cities.”
There was a pause in the pattern when Congress heavily curtailed immigration in the 1920s. That left the Irish, Italian, and Jewish political machines in charge for longer than their natural life cycle, turning groups once considered dangerous usurpers of traditional Protestant power into traditional, respectable groups in their own right. Ethnic voting patterns shifted again after World War II, when large numbers of Southern blacks and Puerto Ricans migrated to Northern cities and America’s only Irish-Catholic president, JFK, liberalized immigration laws.
The modern “handout” system, though, is more roundabout than it used to be. Political patronage in the late 19th century was so brazen that a man who’d campaigned for James Garfield in 1880 shot and killed the new president simply because an expected job never materialized. In the 20th century, good government reformers created hiring guidelines that thinned the number of jobs a politician could hand out to supporters. Politicians adjusted by steering more social services like public housing, health care, and anti-poverty programs to voters rather than giving them jobs outright, and their campaigns became less centered around mobilizing the proletariat and more centered on campaign contributions from companies and wealthy individuals (who, of course, were looking for their own forms of patronage via tax breaks, government contracts, and tariffs).
The old budgetary dictum says that “my program is a hand-up, yours is a hand-out.” And just as the old-line WASPs of Boston and New York and Philadelphia claimed the Democrats were buying Irish and Italian and Jewish votes with jobs, an upper-class Irishman like O’Reilly can now say that Democrats are buying votes with all of the “stuff” that Obama voters supposedly expect from the president.
Just because that “stuff” comes in a different form now, though, doesn’t mean patronage jobs are gone entirely. “In New York, I went to vote,” says historian Nasaw, “and it seemed like they just never got things figured out at the polling stations. Even Mayor Bloomberg said that it was a disaster. I was speaking to a friend who’s in city politics and asked him, ‘Where do they get these people working at the polls? Half of them are snarling and nasty, even the nice ones aren’t very professional.’ And he told me, ‘It’s the last piece of patronage left for the machine.’”