If I told you I was born into the O’Brien family in Chicago in 1941, that my father was an ardent union member, that both my parents were staunch Catholics, that we lived in a two-flat owned by my uncle on the same street on which my father grew up, I’d wager you’d have no trouble guessing how my family voted, or even how I’ve voted most of my life. It may be sacrilegious to say so, but when you were baptized a Catholic in Chicago you were also baptized a member of the Democratic Party. True, you couldn’t vote until you were twenty-one (when you would vote for the incumbent), but there were lots of other tasks for the niece of a Democratic precinct captain. And I happily carried them out, including telling my age-mates that Thomas Dewey, if elected president, would make us go to school on Saturday.
There were Republicans, and some of them were Catholic too; in fact, the Republican precinct captain belonged to the same parish as we did. There was no accounting for some people—that’s what the O’Briens thought about Bob O’Rourke. Could it have been that he had a bit more money than the rest, or that being a lawyer meant he had different interests? There was no talk of class warfare here, but clearly his interests weren’t ours. Enough said.
Machine politics worked in Chicago. Civic engagement—the holy grail of the nineties—was the bread and butter of people like my aunt, whose city job and political activism were a seamless cloth that included neighborliness; ethnic, if not racial, tolerance; taking people to the polls and to the doctor; getting the potholes filled and the garbage collected.
I wax nostalgic and, yes, maybe I am wearing rose-colored glasses. But let’s face it, our politics doesn’t work that way any more.
Today’s party system is a long way from that thick culture of family, church, neighborhood, and lifelong affiliation. It’s some distance, too, from the extensive overlap that once connected the way you voted and the way your elected representatives voted; so too from expectations that he (and not she back then) would be with you not only legislatively, but also when it came to the parking tickets and real life problems. Phone calls were answered. Kids went to city summer camps. Men got jobs. No longer. The state of political homelessness that many Americans feel—certainly as represented by low voter turnout, declarations of party independence, and the erosion of bloc voting—is a result of a disconnect between vote and representation, between party platforms and personal values. The personal may have become political, but politics, it seems, is no longer personal.
At various times and for a variety of reasons, from Nixon through Reagan, a good number of Catholics slipped into the Republican Party. A great deal was made of Reagan Democrats—traditional New Deal Democrats who shifted to the Republican Party in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was first elected preside...
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