Thursday, June 09, 2005

And pink's not the new black, either...

Chiming in late to comment on this article from Newsweek about why Mexican-Americans are the new Irish. The author suggests that the Irish were outsiders who built political coalitions with other ethnics, and that allowed them to become insiders. The problem is that while that may be a sound strategy for Mexican-Americans, that's not really what the Irish did. The author really needs to read Steven Erie's masterful study of Irish-American machine politics Rainbow's End. Erie makes clear that Irish-American politicians generally did not build pan-ethnic coalitions. Irish-American political success was not good for members of other ethnic groups. What's more, it wasn't all that good for Irish-Americans.

Irish-American political machines like Tammany Hall were built on a system of patronage. There was an explicit bargain between the machine and the voter: the voter supported all of the machine's candidates, and the machine rewarded him (or later her) with tangible, individual rewards such as a public-sector job. The problem, according to Erie, was that machines did not have unlimited resources with which to reward voters: there were limits to how much they could raise taxes and how much they could borrow. In order to buy the maximum number of votes, they concentrated on creating blue-collar, rather than white-collar jobs. And in order to keep down the number of voters who were not beholden to them, they handed out those jobs to other Irish people and, as much as possible, discouraged members of other ethnic groups from voting.

It's obvious why this was bad for non-Irish urban dwellers. They were shut out of many public-sector jobs, which were reserved for the machine's constituency, and they were discouraged from participating in politics and from having their voices heard. What's more surprising, according to Erie, is how the machines hurt the Irish. Although individual Irish politicians and their cronies got rich off of patronage, most Irish-Americans ended up in blue-collar jobs, many of which were supplied by machines. Erie suggests that Irish-Americans might have moved into the middle-class more quickly if they hadn't relied so much on patronage jobs. And he also suggests that machines, which tended to be conservative, destroyed any possibility for a radical Irish political movement, something that seemed like a real possibility in the late 19th century. So all in all, Irish-American political success was not a really great thing.

So here's the thing. I don't think the author really cares that much about Irish-American history, unlike me. And I seriously doubt that he'd suggest that Mexican-Americans use patronage, corruption, and voter suppression to gain political power. He's using the Irish as a jumping-off point to suggest a policy for the group he really does care about. So does it really matter that his historical analogy is problematic? Should I care that the Irish didn't actually behave the way he thinks they did?

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