Stefano Luconi (Professor of North American History - Universities in Padua, Naples and Florence)

Election Day: il comportamento politico degli italoamericani

Nov 07, 2016 3213 ITA ENG

The 2016 Presidential elections give us the opportunity to talk about the political behavior of the Italian Americans through their experience, from the first days to these years. It is a very interesting topic, which we address by meeting with one of the most prominent experts about this topic, Prof. Stefano Luconi. Watch out, this is going to be very, very educational and riveting: a fascinating journey through time. Waiting for the day when we'll get to celebrate an Italian American President, we thank Professor Luconi for this and we root for every single Italian American candidate of any party and ideals who is running for any political position all over the country!

Professor Luconi, let's start from the beginning. How and when did the Italian immigrants to the US start to understand the importance of voting?

Most Italian newcomers who arrived in the United States in the era of mass immigration between the late 1870s and the early 1920s shunned the vote because they had no political experience in their mother country. Italy introduced universal manhood suffrage in 1912 and enforced it the following year. Women were not allowed to participate in elections in Italy until 1946. Conversely, the United States had repealed property requirement for male suffrage by the third decade of the 19th century and enfranchised women nationwide in 1920, after a few States had already granted female suffrage in the previous years.

Moreover, many Italian immigrants had a sojourner mentality. They wanted to make money in the United States, but they also hoped to go back to Italy and to enjoy there their savings. As a result, they did not apply for U.S. citizenship and, therefore, did not qualify for the suffrage.

Finally, Italian immigrants hardly spoke English and, consequently, were unable to follow electoral campaigns and to get interested in them.

Things began to change as soon they realized that they could barter their votes for pieces of the political patronage (jobs with the municipal and county administrations, licenses for business activities, help when they got into trouble with the police, even buckets of coal at wintertime and turkeys at Thanksgiving) controlled by the local organizations of both major parties, the so-called machines. In these cases, electoral participation was almost exclusively a quid pro quo.

Most Italian immigrants cast their first politically motivated ballots in 1920 when they supported the Republican candidate for the White House in retaliation for Democratic President Woodrow Wilson's disregard for Italy's claims over Fiume at 1919 the peace conference marking the end of World War I. However, very few female newcomers went to the polls on that occasion because they thought that politics was a male activity unbecoming women.

It was only as late as 1928 that Italian immigrants and their children underwent significant political mobilization. That year the Irish-American governor of New York State, Alfred E. Smith, received the Democratic nomination for the White House. A Catholic of Celtic extraction (at that time the fact that his paternal grandfather, Emanuele, had been an Italian from Genoa was still unknown), Smith was the first presidential candidate of either major party who did not belong to the Anglo-Saxon establishment that had theretofore monopolized U.S. politics. Consequently, eligible voters of the ethnic minorities from other-than-Anglo-Saxon backgrounds easily identified themselves with Smith and crowded the polling stations in the eventually fruitless effort to elect him to the White House. During his campaign for president, Smith also came out for the repeal of Prohibition and for more lenient immigration laws. Smith's religious faith and platform, therefore, added to his ethnic ancestry in bringing out Italian Americans on election day.

Furthermore, the sojourner mentality of most Italian newcomers had disappeared by the mid 1920s. The 1921 and 1924 Quota Acts put an end to the era of mass immigration to the United States. Those Italians who decided to remain in their adoptive land after the enforcement of this restrictive legislation knew that they settlement in America was for good and began to apply for U.S. citizenship, therefore qualifying for the suffrage.

Italian Americans' voter turnout gained further momentum in 1936 when they went to the polls to ensure the reelection of Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt and to protect the labor and social legislation of the New Deal. Such an outcome was a priority for an ethnic minority that was made up mainly by working-class individuals who had been heavily hit by the economic depression. In addition, the 1930s witnessed the coming of age of a second generation of Italian Americans who were born in the United States and, as such, overcame the drawbacks that had interfered with their parents' political participation: on the one hand, they were U.S. citizens by birthrights; on the other, English was their mother tongue.

The Italians had an important role in the history of the anarchist movement in the US. And one of the fundamental issues in describing the relationship between the Italian immigrants and the American political system is the Sacco and Vanzetti story...

Luigi Galleani, an immigrant from Vercelli, stood out in the U.S. anarchist movement between 1901, when he arrived in the United States, and 1919, when federal authorities deported him to Italy. Galleani was a leader of the anti-organizational faction of anarchism, advocating the resort to violence and terrorism to overturn capitalism. In his eyes, voter participation in such a bourgeois society as the United States was a fraud to the detriment of the proletariat and, therefore, elections were not a viable means to seize power. The editor of influential Italian-language newspapers, for instance "La Questione Sociale", and an enticing speaker, Galleani inspired a few dynamite attempts in 1919.

Other prominent Italian anarchists who were active in the United States included Carlo Tresca and Arturo Giovannitti, both organizers for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) , an anarcho-syndicalist union that was established in 1905. Italian immigrant women, such as Virgilia D'Andrea and Maria Roda, also participated in the anarchist movement, although they sometimes suffered from gender discrimination.

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were among Galleani's followers. Their conviction on double-murder charges after a most controversial trial and 1927 electrocution triggered off waves of protest in the Little Italies throughout the United States. Yet, support for Sacco and Vanzetti among Italian Americans resulted less from ideological allegiance to anarchism than from ethnic solidarity. Many immigrants and their progeny thought that Sacco and Vanzetti had been unjustly sentenced to death because of the anti-Italian prejudice of the court (the trial judge, Webster Thayer, referred to the defendants as "Italian bastards"), not because of a conservative police and judiciary campaign that had been targeting radicalism since late 1917 to prevent a Bolshevik-style revolution in the United States.

Indeed, contrary to conventional wisdom, only a small minority – albeit most vocal and active – of Italian newcomers were militants of the anarchist movement. Many workers of Italian origin and descent, especially among textile and clothing laborers, did join the IWW. However, the main reason for their adherence to this anarcho-syndicalist organization was that the leading U.S. union in the early 20th century, the American Federation of Labor, usually discriminated against Italian immigrants on the grounds that the newcomers offered unfair competition to U.S.-born workers of Anglo-Saxon ancestry, allegedly by breaking strikes and accepting substandard wages. Consequently, the IWW was the only union that open its membership to Italian Americans, was willing to represent them, and actually voiced their claims.

What happened in the political behavior of our fellow Italians after 1936?

The Democratic Party began to lose Italian Americans' support in 1940 after Franklin D. Roosevelt had stigmatized Italy's eleventh-hour declaration of war on France as a "stab in the back" of her neighbor. Many Italian Americans feared that the president's words would start a wave of anti-Italian intolerance and pave the way for the U.S. entry into the war against their ancestral or native land.

In 1944 the Republican Party further capitalized on many Italian Americans' dissatisfaction with Roosevelt's policy towards Italy after the fall of the fascist regime and the beginning of the Allies' military occupation of the country. Conversely, the inclusion of Italy among the beneficiaries of the Marshall Plan, a program of economic aid to European nations for postwar reconstruction, and Washington's alleged role in "saving" Italy from communism helped Democratic President Harry S. Truman gain a majority of the Italian American vote in 1948. In the following years, the Republican Party became again the choice of most Italian Americans in presidential elections. As second- and third-generation Italian Americans moved to middle-class status, they became more conservative than their primarily working-class parents.

Their Republican allegiance gained further momentum between the late 1960s and the late 1980s. In these decades, Italian Americans distanced themselves from the Democratic Party on the grounds that the latter had neglected their claims and had become the advocate of African Americans' demands. There were, however, a few exceptions. For instance, in 1960 Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy received a majority of the Italian American votes. So did Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 by cashing in on the emotional reaction to Kennedy's 1963 assassination.

Did the religious factor play an important role in the political decisions of the Italian Americans?

Yes, it did, although its influence on the vote was discontinuous. In the case of Italian Americans "the religious factor" obviously means Catholicism. As I have mentioned earlier, Catholicism was key to the Italian American vote for Alfred E. Smith in 1928. It also contributed to bringing out Italian Americans for John F. Kennedy in 1960.

The Catholic faith accounted for Ronald Reagan's large following among Italian Americans because of his pro-life stand on abortion. The latter issue also explained why many Italian Americans turned their backs on Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. She was the first vice presidential candidate of Italian ancestry and expected the endorsement of her fellow ethnics. But, as a Democratic candidate, she was pro-choice, too, and displeased a significant number of Italian American Catholics.

Similarly, Italian Americans failed to rally behind Rudolph Giuliani's bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. Even leaving aside his tumultuous marital life, his support for abortion, same-sex civil unions, and embryonic stem cell research was in open conflict with many Italian American Republicans' Catholic faith.

In your opinion, why has there never been an Italian American President? Will it ever happen in the future? And if so, on what conditions?

Several reasons help explain the lack of an Italian American president. The so-called Mafia-stereotype (namely the prejudicial perception that Italian Americans were prone to criminal activities) long curbed the political rise of politicians from Italian background as nobody wanted to vote for a crook. For instance, a 1969 libelous article in Look magazine linking San Francisco's Mayor Joseph L. Alioto to racketeer Jimmy Fratianno crashed the former's hopes for higher national offices, including a bid for vice president that might have paved the way for his election to the White House.

The desire to shield his family from this kind of innuendos contributed to preventing New York State's Governor Mario Cuomo from running in the Democratic primaries for the White House in 1992. Rudolph Giuliani, who was an effective U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York in prosecuting organized crime and white-collar felonies in the 1980s before being elected mayor of New York City in 1993, apparently swept away such a bias. Yet, rumors that his own father was connected to the mob surfaced as soon as Giuliani contemplated running for the U.S. Senate against Hillary Clinton in 2000.

Factionalism within their ethnic minority, namely the fact that Italian Americans were hardly ever able to provide a solid block of votes, also prejudiced the chances of their bid for the White House. For example, when the Democratic Party slated Geraldine Ferraro for vice president in 1984, she failed to win a majority of the Italian American vote nationwide.

Last but not least, Italian Americans are not major donors to political campaigns. As Greg Palast suggested in a 2002 book, the United States is "the best democracy money can buy." The unwillingness to finance electoral campaigns has prevented Italian Americans from influencing the selection of candidates for the White House. Just to make an example, Republican Richard M. Nixon chose Greek-American Spiro Agnew over Italian American John Volpe as his running mate in 1968 because the Greek-American community made larger donations to his own campaign than the Italian American community. Both Agnew in 1973 and Nixon in 1974 were forced to resign. If the Italian American community had been less stingy as for campaign funds, Nixon might have selected Volpe and there might have been a President John Volpe on August 9, 1974.

I would not rule out the election of a president of Italian ancestry in the future. However, his or her candidacy will be hardly perceived in ethnic terms. Indeed, Italian Americans have merged into the broader group of white Europeans and nowadays retain only a symbolic identity based on their national extraction.

I would argue that the very "whitening" of Italian Americans, including of course Italian American politicians, is a factor that will make it possible the election of one of them to the White House. Catholicism might help an Italian American presidential candidate, too. Hispanics have become a key cohort of the electorate because of the increasing number of Latino voters in the last few years. They are almost exclusively Catholics and, thereby, likely to support Catholic politicians.

According to you, who have been the most important Italian American leaders involved in the American politics?

I would name five Italian Americans: Fiorello H. La Guardia, John O. Pastore, Carmine De Sapio, Mario Cuomo, and Nancy Pelosi.

In the last few years, scholarship has reassessed La Guardia's role and has concluded that he was the product of his era rather than the mastermind behind the development of New York City in the 1930s. Yet, his 1933 election to mayor of New York City – then the largest metropolis in the United States – definitely marked Italian Americans' coming of age in politics. Moreover, in addition to three consecutive terms as mayor, La Guardia was in Congress from 1917 to 1919 and from 1923 through 1932, a maverick and progressive Republican who protected workers' rights and – most notably – was the co-sponsor of the 1932 Norris-La Guardia Act that outlawed yellow-dog contracts (clauses that authorized the dismissal of laborers who joined unions) and limited the resort to injunctions against strikers.

Pastore, a Democrat from Rhode Island, was the first Italian American elected to the U.S. Senate. He won his seat in 1950 and served until 1976, proving to be an effective legislator, especially in the fields of civil rights, energy, and communications.

De Sapio was the last leader of Tammany Hall's Democratic machine in New York City, a position he held from 1949 to 1961.

Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York State between 1983 and 1994, was one of the few remaining advocates of progressivism in the years of triumphant conservative Reaganism.

Finally, Nancy Pelosi, the current Democratic minority leader in the House, was the only female Speaker (2007-11) and, as such, the highest-ranking and most powerful woman in U.S. politics (let me remind you that, besides presiding the U.S. House of Representatives, the Speaker is second in the presidential line of succession after the vice president).

Is there an Italian American politician, maybe not that famous as the previous names, which was important for some reason at a local or national level in the US?

Yes, Anna M. Brancato. In 1932 Brancato became the first female candidate to win election to Pennsylvania's General Assembly (the state legislature) on the Democratic ticket. She served for five non-consecutive terms (from 1933 to 1940 and from 1945 to 1946) and was a champion of women's rights and welfare state measures. In particular, she supported legislation that reproduced the measures of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal at the state level in Pennsylvania. The fact that she was a female candidate also encouraged a growing number of Italian American women to register for the vote and cast their ballots on election day.

Also Ella T. Grasso, the Democratic governor of Connecticut from 1975 to 1980. She was the first woman to be elected as a state chief executive in her own right, namely without being the widow or the wife of a former or incumbent governor.

I would also point to Peter W. Rodino, a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representative from New Jersey for forty years (1949-89). President Richard M. Nixon once joked that one could not find an Italian American who was honest. Rodino proved such a defamatory ethnic stereotype wrong. He was the chairperson of the House Judiciary Committee that started the impeachment of no less a person than Nixon himself.

Among Left-wing radicals, Vito Marcantonio, who discontinuously represented East Harlem in the House between 1935 and 1951, was the only Communist-oriented Congressman in U.S. history.

Outside institutional politics, Mario Savio deserves being mentioned, too. The son of a Sicilian immigrant, he was one of the informal leaders of the free speech movement at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964-65, a student protest, calling for the repeal of a ban of on-campus political activities, which later ignited the civil liberties and anti-Vietnam War movements.

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