The Volokh Conspiracy
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The Declining Political Significance of Irish-American Identity
Conflict between Irish-Americans and WASPs was once a major feature of American politics. Its near-total disappearance is a hopeful development that we can learn from.
Today is St. Patrick's Day. And tonight, Irish-Americans across the country will be gathering to toast their control of the highest political office in the land. After all, Joe Biden is only the second Irish Catholic president of the United States. For their part, millions of WASPs are seething about the loss of their political hegemony to the Irish. St. Patrick's Day celebrations are a painful reminder of their humiliation. Police forces in major cities are on alert for possible ethnic riots.
OK, actually nothing like that is happening! In reality, very few Americans care that Biden is an Irish Catholic. Even fewer fear that he is somehow promoting Irish interests at the expense of WASPs, or that he is secretly doing the bidding of the Vatican. Political conflict between Irish-Americans and WASPs has almost completely disappeared. Most of the time, we barely even notice the difference between the two groups. St. Patrick's Day is perhaps the one exception to that indifference.
It wasn't always so. In the 19th and early twentieth centuries, political antagonism between Irish and WASPs was ubiquitous, sometimes rising to the level of anti-Irish rioting by nativists. There was also substantial discrimination and social prejudice against the Irish.
As late as the 1960 presidential campaign, when John F. Kennedy became the first Irish Catholic president, he felt the need to make a highly publicized speech assuring people that he would not take "instructions on public policy from the Pope," if elected:
The idea that Biden—or any other political leader—would have to give a speech like this is almost inconceivable today.
How did this change come about? The story is long and complicated, and I obviously cannot do it justice in a blog post. But one crucial factor was that most Americans came to realize that the differences between Irish-Americans and other groups were far less significant than previously thought, and also that these ethnic and religious divergences should be downgraded in the name of universal liberal principles.
Similar emphasis on universal principles over group identity were at the heart of the abolition of slavery, the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, and recent progress for gays and lesbians, most notably the establishment of the right to same-sex marriage.
A more cynical explanation for the changing status of Irish-Americans is that they were assimilated into a broader "white" identity premised on maintaining dominance over non-whites, particularly African-Americans. But such claims are undercut by the fact that the very same period during which conflict between Irish and WASPS largely disappeared (the mid to late-twentieth century) also saw a major decline (though not total elimination) of anti-black and anti-Asian racism, highlighted by the successes of the Civil Rights Movement. Growing acceptance of universal liberal values and their implications was the decisive factor explaining why these developments all occurred during roughly the same time-frame.
This history is a rebuke to right-wing ethno-nationalists who believe that cultural and ethnic conflicts are inevitable and can only be prevented by maintaining a homogenous society, or one where there is a single clearly dominant group. But they are also a rebuke to "woke" leftist advocates of identity politics who maintain that the path to justice lies through increasing group consciousness and ethnically-based politics.
More generally, the story of the Irish-Americans undercuts claims that ethnic and racial groups are necessarily locked in a zero-sum game where one can only gain at the expense of others. The success of Irish-Americans not only advantaged themselves, but also the rest of society, which has benefited from their economic, cultural, and other contributions.
In my view, emphasis on liberal universalism and deemphasis on ethnic identity, is the best strategy for pursuing greater freedom, equality, and prosperity in the future, as well, including in the case of eliminating unjust immigration restrictions. I am far from the first to come to that realization. Frederick Douglass made much the same argument back in the 19th century.
The Irish-American case is a dramatic example of how right Douglass was. Obviously, it doesn't follow that all ethnic and racial conflict can be made to swiftly disappear. As Douglass knew, the oppression and discrimination suffered by blacks was much greater and more long-lasting than that of Irish-Americans. Its legacy is thereby harder to overcome. But even if black-white differences, and some other current ethnic and cultural antagonisms, will not be fully eliminated anytime soon, liberal universalism is the right strategy for gradually reducing the harm they cause.