Philadelphia Divided: Race & Politics in the City of Brotherly Love

Philadelphia Divided: Race & Politics in the City of Brotherly Love

Philadelphia Divided: Race & Politics in the City of Brotherly Love

Philadelphia Divided: Race & Politics in the City of Brotherly Love

Synopsis

Wolfinger demonstrates how racial tensions in working-class neighborhoods and job sites shaped the contours of mid-twentieth-century liberal and conservative politics. As racial divisions fractured the working class, he argues, Republican leaders exploited these racial fissures to reposition their party as the champion of ordinary white citizens besieged by black demands and overwhelmed by liberal government orders.

Excerpt

This is a story about politics in Philadelphia during the first half of the twentieth century. At its root, it is a history of who got elected and how they built support in a major northern city. But this book offers no old-school political history focused on campaigns and platforms, conventions and smoky rooms. Instead, this story approaches politics from the bottom up, paying careful attention to the everyday lives of the ordinary people of Philadelphia, analyzing how they interacted with each other in their neighborhoods and at their workplaces and how those interactions informed their politics. For this book contends that the conflicts and compromises that people made at home and on the job fundamentally shaped their views of the crucial political issues of the day: the New Deal and its relationship to the people, World War II’s meaning in a country with an imperfect democracy, and the growth of the suburbs in the 1950s, to name three. Theirs was a politics intimately tied to national issues but also grounded in people’s everyday, lived experiences.

Two tenets underpin this story. The first is that racial divisions fundamentally fractured the city’s working class, thereby undermining attempts to construct a liberal New Deal coalition. The second is that Republican leaders understood these race-based fissures and exploited them to reconstruct their party as the champion of ordinary white citizens supposedly besieged by black demands and overwhelmed by liberal government orders. And the Republican Party did this in the 1930s and 1940s, not the 1960s.

In many ways, then, this is a story about the fate of liberalism in twentiethcentury America. The term “liberalism,” as a number of historians have pointed out, has had multiple meanings over the years that have allowed people to employ the word to serve many ends. While I acknowledge the slipperiness of political language, this book draws on the work of Lizabeth Cohen and others to define “liberalism” as a political orientation that deploys the power of the state to improve the lives of working people through legislation and programs that protect their homes and jobs. A liberal or Democratic coalition, then, is an alliance of ordinary people who seek to implement that vision.

In Philadelphia, implementing that liberal vision was no simple matter. The early to mid-twentieth century was a time when many peoples of European descent were integrating themselves into America’s social order, devel-

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