From Melting Pot to Centrifuge: Immigrants and American Politics

Article excerpt

On a typical day in the 1890s, thousands of immigrants arrived at Ellis Island in New York. For many, learning English and acculturating to America would be the work of years, even decades. But often it would be a matter of only a few weeks or even days before they received a visit from a Tammany Hall ward heeler or before friends or family brought them along to some event at the local precinct hall. Long before many of those newcomers fully understood what it was to be American, they knew quite well what it meant to be a Democrat or a Republican.

Today--just as it was a hundred years ago--the foreign-born share of the American population is at a peak. The recent wave of immigration differs both demographically and politically from that of a century ago, of course. Today's immigrants originate in Latin America and Asia, not in southern, central, and eastern Europe. But how quickly and how well immigrant newcomers are absorbed into American society may depend less on where they come from than on what they find when they get here. Once at the center of U.S. politics from the moment they arrived, immigrants are now much closer to the fringes. That is no accident. The centripetal forces drawing immigrants into electoral politics in 1900 have been succeeded by a set of strong and persistent centrifugal forces that discourage the full electoral participation and political assimilation that earlier generations of immigrants enjoyed.

Nineteenth-century immigrants arrived to find important political groups eager to satisfy their material needs. Political parties, especially the many urban political machines, needed immigrants' votes' and did their best to get them--accelerating the newcomers' political assimilation in the process. Today, the American political system, less in need of new immigrants' votes, does little to bring them into the world of campaigns and elections. Three big changes in American politics--the diminishing role of the parties, the rise of a new kind of campaigning, and (ironically) efforts to get more minorities into government--have left immigrants on the outside looking in.

A Golden Age of Party Politics

At the end of the 19th century, American politics was emphatically organized around party politics. In the late 1800s, parties dominated all aspects of electoral life, including candidate nominations, campaign strategies and tactics, voting, and the allegiances of voters. Voting in the 1880s meant casting a public, party-line ballot at the polls. Candidates were nominated in private party meetings--the proverbial "smoke-filled rooms"--and most voters happily cast a straight ticket for one party or the other.

Immigrants entered politics through the enthusiastic embrace of political parties. The two major parties, highly competitive in national politics, often desperately needed new voters, whom they mobilized through a series of inclusive tactics. The primary means of contact was person-to-person, and voter turnouts were astoundingly high by today's standards--more than 80 percent in presidential elections and 70 percent in off-year congressional elections.

All this made the arrival of immigrants a welcome event for urban party organizations. Parties moved immigrants into active citizenship by facilitating their naturalization, identifying and promoting leaders from immigrant communities, creating a cultural bridge to politics for the newcomers, and providing career ladders for advancement within party organizations.

The result was a remarkable record of political assimilation, described by Henry Jones Ford in 1911: "The nationalizing influence continues to produce results of the greatest social value, for in coordinating the various elements of the population for political purposes, party organization at the same time tends to fuse them into one mass of citizenship, pervaded by a common order of ideas and sentiments.... This is probably the secret of the powerful solvent influence which American civilization exerts upon the enormous deposits of alien population thrown upon this country by the torrent of emigration. …