Tuesday, October 27, 2020

"Identity Politics" in the 1860 Election

In a review of a biography of Abraham Lincoln in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik makes a couple of throwaway observations of the 1860 campaign for the Republican nomination for President, observations about parallels to today's world.
The Lincolnians also courted a now often overlooked interest group, the √©migr√© Germans, including many exiled by the failed liberal revolutions of 1848. As [Sidney] Blumenthal notes, Lincoln had bought a German-language newspaper, in order to appeal to those key players of the “identity politics” of the time. (It was the equivalent of surreptitiously funding Facebook pages in 2020.)

Identity politics. Facebook. Both in a paragraph about the election of 1860. The more things change, the more they stay the same.


What were the issues involved in the identity politics of 1860?

The Germans refused to support anyone who was known to have a pro-nativist taint, which ruled out a lot of dog-eared veteran politicians. At the same time, the nativists spurned [William] Seward, who, as governor of New York, had backed state subsidies for Catholic education.

In this analogy, the 19th Century Germans are the 21st Century Latinos. Donald Trump is the candidate with the "pro-nativist taint." But what about that bit about "the nativists spurned Seward, who, as governor of New York, had backed state subsidies for Catholic education." The analogy seems to break down. Why did the nativists of 1860 oppose state subsidies for religious schooling, but the nativists of 2020 support it?

My hypothesis is that in 1860, the nativist whites already had their state subsidies for religious education. It happened in public schools. They were mainly populated by children of the nativists. The Catholic schools never had state subsidies. They were mainly populated by immigrants. When "God was taken out of public school" in the 1960s (the popular conservative Christian complaint today), the nativist Christians fled public schools and discovered it's cold out there without those public subsidies, something the Catholics knew all along but got no sympathy from the nativist Protestants. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, and conservative Protestants see how their own private religious schools can themselves benefit from state subsidies, they suddenly want them. Prove my hypothesis wrong.


Full disclosure: My great-grandfather was born during the Civil War, but not in America. He was born in Bavaria, Germany. He and his wife emigrated to the US three decades later. Their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren were educated in Catholic schools, without state subsidies.

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