By Abraham H. Miller/JNS.org
I was born a Democrat. In fact, there was most likely a prayer for Franklin D. Roosevelt at my circumcision, although I failed to utter even an amen, being more concerned with my own down-ballot news tip at the moment.
I grew up in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood as Richard J. Daley (the father) was still building his political machine. Contrary to its name, Lawndale never had any lawns, and was designed as a neighborhood of single-family homes to keep out people like me, Jews.
Despite the best efforts of gentiles, Lawndale ended up with the greatest concentration of Jews per square mile anywhere in the world. Some 70 percent of the residents were foreign born. Everyone spoke English, but Yiddish often became the language of commerce in mom-and-pop stores.
I met my first Republican when I was 8-years-old. He was the rent collector for our huge apartment building. My grandmother was negotiating with him the price for the sale of her vote. She entered the same negotiations with the Democratic precinct captain and at the polling place threw a fit in a mixture of peasant-Russian and Yiddish and allowed no one except my mother with her in the polling booth, where she voted straight Democratic.
In my world, there were Jews and Catholics. I was a teenager before I met my first Protestant. It was when we moved from Lawndale to a Swedish enclave called North Park. There was a codicil in the deed of the bungalow we bought that said we could not transform the property into a tavern. My father tried to explain to me that our Swedish neighbors didn’t drink. Lawndale, in the gentile areas, had a bar on nearly every block. I could not fathom the idea of gentiles who did not drink and were Lutheran Protestants, not Catholics. What a strange world we had moved into.
We were barely unpacked before we were visited by the Democratic precinct captain, our liaison to the machine. Some things did not change. My parents and our maternal grandmother who lived with us constituted three votes. Our precinct captain, himself a Lutheran, explained that not all our neighbors were Democrats. Some were Republicans.
The machine in a year or two put Seymour Simon on the ballot as our alderman. Simon was a rising star in the Democratic Party, a Jew who not only had made it through Northwestern University’s Jewish quota system but graduated number one at Northwestern’s law school.
The machine was Irish, but the Poles were the most dominant ethnic group. The Irish spoke English when they got off the boat (or in Chicago more likely the train) and had an advantage in breaking into the political system.
But the Irish knew how to allocate the ethnic spoils system, favors for people along ethnic divisions, and something we called functional corruption. When the street got asphalted, so too did your driveway. You gave the foreman a few dollars and he put a thin coat of asphalt on your drive while he did the street. It was part of the normative expectations of how the system worked.
Aldermen often had their own resources to help the poor. When someone in a poor neighborhood needed food, the alderman bypassed the welfare system and its humiliations and handed out groceries or money. The legendary Alderman Vito Marzullo made sure that no one in his ward went hungry. He often ran without opposition, and was defeated only when a federal judge redistricted his ward. He was the pure essence of a political machine that was not just about power, but about helping people.
Father Andrew Greeley, who understood Chicago politics probably better than anyone, once quipped that everyone needed a precinct captain. The rich have their contacts, but in Chicago everyone had a precinct captain.
When I lived in Lawndale, the streetcar stopped on Fourteenth Street and Pulaski Avenue, and picked up men dressed in work clothes carrying blue lunch pails and going to work in the Chicago Stock Yards, the factories and mills on the south end of the city. I had an uncle who worked in the yards, a neighbor who was a cutter in a clothing factory, and a neighbor who worked on the line in a manufacturing plant.
These people in their blue-collar uniforms were the base of the machine and the Democratic Party. To us, the machine represented the struggle of the poor, of the unions, against the rich. Marzullo was an Italian immigrant who worked his way up in the political world and voted in 1972 for Richard Nixon because the supporters of Sen. George McGovern were seen as disloyal to the Democratic Party as he knew it.
My mother, a Democratic poll watcher, broke from the party eight years later and became a Reagan Democrat, as did the working class end of the family. The middle class members of our family stayed with the Democrats, but we saw President Jimmy Carter not only as unconcerned about the working class—we saw him as an anti-Semite. Watching the Democratic convention of 1980, my mother declared, “I survived three pogroms, World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Russo-Polish Border War. I know an anti-Semite when I see one. No one votes for Carter.”
My mother could have been an entire chapter in Samuel G. Freedman’s “The Inheritance: How Three Families and America Moved from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond.”
The jobs that the men and women went to as they boarded the streetcar at Fourteenth and Pulaski no longer exist. The Democrats have abandoned the white working class. Show me a college or university with a program and administrative offices for poor, working class whites, and I’ll show you a college or university that does not exist.
At a banquet in a large city some years ago, a group of wealthy business people listened to the tales of “dreamers” for whom they were creating scholarships. Their stories elicited more tears and sobbing than the table linen supply could accommodate. Just miles away were working class American citizens for whom no one was raising money. There is no status in helping white people. After all, being white is now not only a privilege, it is a crime.
So to those of you who are shocked by the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency, he’s your creation. You ignored the very working class base that was the Democratic Party. You sent their jobs overseas to help the poor in other countries and make the wealthy class even wealthier. Bonuses come from keeping costs low and profits high.
Even if Trump cannot deliver on each and every promise he made, what is refreshing is that he spoke to the problems of people in decaying rural and industrial towns, in cities whose workers powered the machinery that drove back the armies of Germany and Japan and kept the world safe from tyranny.
He spoke to the people who boarded the streetcar on Fourteenth and Pulaski for the jobs that are no longer there. So, you pubescent tyrants running through the streets this morning, get over it. Trump won, and you own it because he is your creation. Marzullo would understand, even if you do not.
Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a distinguished fellow with the news and public-policy group Haym Salomon Center.