Liberal Irish-America is not dead and gone
For every Mike Pence there is a Tim Kaine or Joe Biden who support abortion rights
In a recent column, Fintan O’Toole noted the emergence of a white Irish Catholic elite at the centre of American reactionary politics. He highlighted the way in which this group is hijacking victimhood to grab power to itself, joining president Donald Trump who is grotesquely claiming, “it’s a very scary time for young men in America”.
Thankfully, this particular strain of Irish-America does not represent anything like the majority of Irish-Americans. For every Mike Pence there is a Tim Kaine or Joe Biden who support abortion rights, for every media celebrity such as Seán Hannity, there is a liberal Bill Maher or Stephen Colbert, for every General John Kelly ripping toddlers from parents, there is former CIA director John Brennan who attacks the president for being drunk on power. For every Seán Spicer a Jay Carney. For every Brett Kavanaugh there is a senator Patrick Leahy who tore into the Georgetown preppie at the judiciary committee hearings and accused him of lying under oath.
Importantly, a new generation of Irish-American politicians is carrying the torch of liberalism as evidenced, for example, by Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Brendan Boyle and Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, Joe Kennedy in Massachusetts, Chris Murphy in Connecticut and at the national level, Samantha Power.
Last year, in a US nationwide survey conducted on the Irish Central website, 47 per cent of the 3,180 respondents said they voted for Hillary Clinton, while 25 per cent said they voted for Trump. The fact is Irish-Americans have been a swing vote in presidential elections since the 1950s with a majority supporting Republican Dwight Eisenhower because of his war record. They switched back to John Kennedy in 1960, then supported Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, but supported Bill Clinton twice in the 1990s.
What this shows is one cannot generalise about Irish-America any more than about gender, class or other ethnic groups in America. The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in The Lies that Bind that “much of our contemporary thinking about identity is shaped by pictures that are in various ways unhelpful or just plain wrong.”
Irish-Americans are as different from each other and from the previous generation, as are people in Ireland. These are the people who support hundreds of community, political, cultural and charitable organisations, including those like the Ireland Funds which have done so much for reconciliation, charity and the arts in Ireland.
The question remains as to what extent are the 35 million Irish-Americans influenced by their ethnic background to make particular political choices? The 2017 Irish Central survey registered 23 per cent as Republican and 42 per cent as Democrat. Asked if being Irish-American influenced their political perspective, 43 per cent said it was very or somewhat influential, 28 per cent said it little or no influence and 29 per cent were undecided. Interestingly, 68 per cent voted for immigration reform for the undocumented Irish, and 46 per cent opposed tougher restrictions on current immigration into the US.
And what of the argument that the Irish have embraced whiteness to join the American power elite, the oppressed joining the oppressors? The historian Eric Goldstein has researched this narrative in relation to Jewish Americans and other ethnicities and concluded that “whiteness was not stable and monolithic but was constantly informed and reshaped by other competing identities”.
White American identity has been encouraged by its use in the US census, originally designed ironically to measure if president Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty programmes were working. The census definition of white includes those having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa. It is clearly time, as the American Anthropological Association argues, to retire this scientifically meaningless but dangerously corrosive term and replace it with ethnic origins.
The fact is that Irish-American political views seem increasingly to resemble European American ethnic group voting patterns, with those who are college-educated being more liberal than non-college educated.
Yes, some college-educated Irish-Americans vote for lower taxes and oppose living wages, but many are also motivated to build a future America based on justice, diversity, openness and truthful discourse. Many Catholic Irish would identify with the Jesuit magazine America which reversed its endorsement of Kavanaugh following the Senate hearings and has called for his nomination to be withdrawn.
Among non-college educated Irish Americans, the Democratic party was slow to address the collapse of the earning power of the lower skilled workforce occasioned by globalisation, technology and the decline of labour unions since the 1970s. Republicans successfully use immigrants as scapegoats for this loss of income and whip up fears about racial crime. Some elements of the Catholic Church stress the fight over abortion rather than the Christian message of Pope Francis to minister to the poor.
Bread and butter issues
Democrats can win back working class Irish-American votes by campaigning on bread and butter issues such as union rights, healthcare and jobs, refusing to be baited on wedge issues such as gun control and abortion.
In terms of gender identity, Irish-American women are active in the #MeToo movement and the “resistance” to Trump’s destruction of women’s rights. In the 1992 elections following Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, a record number of women were elected to congress. One hundred and eighty-seven Democratic women are running in this November’s mid-terms and many of them are proud Irish-Americans, including Mary Jo Daley, Marge Doyle, Carolyn Maloney, Sue Sullivan and Linsey Fagan, not to mention Ireland’s good friend, Nancy Soderberg.
A recent Quinnipiac poll shows that registered voters prefer the Democratic candidate in their district by 52 per cent to 38 per cent in US House of Representative races. One hesitates to make predictions in the age of Trump, but a Democrat-controlled House would provide a much-needed platform to subpoena those who are corrupting US democracy and hopefully enlighten any working Americans who think Trump is going to solve rather than exploit their impoverishment.
And in that resurgent movement, many Irish-Americans, in all their increasing diversity of colour, creed and sexuality, will form the core of liberal politics along with other Americans, including Jewish Americans, African-Americans and Latino Americans.
Ted Smyth is a former Irish diplomat, business executive and a public affairs consultant based in New York City.