Stop Treating Hispanic Americans as Outliers

Would it be useful to talk about how Americans of Italian heritage planned to vote this fall? I mean useful in the sense that it could tell us much about either the midterm elections or the condition of Italian Americans today.

The answer is pretty obviously “no.” Indeed, there are no polls that even consider the question because no one would bother asking it. It’s interesting to know how women or men view the election, or how richer or poorer voters see the state of politics. The same  goes for lots of other characteristics: educational attainment, religious participation, rural vs. urban, etc. But Italians? That wouldn’t tell us anything. Kevin McCarthy (his mother was born Roberta Palladino, daughter of an Italian immigrant) is an establishment Republican, Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi basically is the Democratic establishment unto herself, Joe Manchin is a moderate Democrat, and Rudy Guiliani is a MAGA Republican. So what? Their Italian heritage isn’t politically salient. 

But that wasn’t always the case, even relatively recently.  

Italian Americans, especially those of southern Italian and Sicilian heritage, came to the United States in huge numbers, tended to be set apart from other immigrants of the same era by their tight family bonds and distinct culture, and were one of those groups that Michael Novak in 1972 deemed “unmeltable ethnics.”  These were Americans of mostly Southern or Eastern European descent or origin of whom Novak said: “Concerning work, guilt, reason, sex, family, violence, the irrational, tragedy, the future, hope, piety, sacrifice, pain, ethnics do not all think or feel as WASPs think or feel.” It’s funny to read today, because if there’s anything that people care less about than the political proclivities of Italian Americans as a subgroup, it would have to be how “WASPs think or feel.” 

Indeed, the idea of America as a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant country already sounds hilarious in a land where one in five marriages are between people of different racial groups and the most important division on religion isn’t between Protestant and Roman Catholic but between “any” and “none.”

In his essential 1967 book, Making It, Norman Podhoretz described  “the brutal bargain,” cast between Ellis Island immigrants and their children on one side and the WASP ruling class that demanded cultural assimilation as the price for success on the other. As Gay Talese said of growing up as an Italian tailor’s son in South Jersey: “You get over it. But you don’t ever quite get over it. You carry it with you. That’s the great—and not so great—aspect of being or trying to be an assimilated American.” 

But by the time the 50th anniversary of Podhoretz’s book came around, the author told Forward magazine, “I think it’s not true anymore, in fact it might be the opposite.” Jews of Eastern European ancestry, like Roman Catholics from southern Italy and Sicily weren’t bargaining with anyone anymore. The unmeltables had melted and changed the flavor of the whole dish in the process. 

In Lee Iacocca’s autobiography, he recalls what it was like growing up the son of Italian immigrants in Allentown, Pennsylvani,a in the 1930s and getting picked on for enjoying pizza pie. “Those guys grew up on shoofly pie, but I never once laughed at them for eating molasses pie for breakfast,” Iacoccaa wrote. “You don’t see shoofly pie huts all over America today.” The father of the Mustang, the K Car, and the auto bailout knew that in America, success—-for good or for ill—is the standard. (And for the record, chess pie is better than shoofly pie, but pizza is better than both.)

Which, in undue course, brings us to the following headline in the New York Times: “Majority of Latino Voters Out of G.O.P.’s Reach, New Poll Shows,” and this one from the Wall Street Journal: “Latino Voters, Once Solidly Democratic, Split Along Economic Lines.” 

Let’s for a moment replace “Latino” with “Italian.” While the massive and interesting poll by the NYT and Sienna College reveals that there has been a considerable shift to the right among Latinos, it fails in one important way. The Census Bureau data say that average income for Hispanic households trails the national average considerably. How would a poll of Americans earning about $11,000 below the national average register? I don’t know for sure, but I bet if you just did the survey by economics instead of ethnicity, poorer households would probably be “more likely to see Republicans as the party of the elite and as holding extreme views.” How would Italian Americans answer that one?

And as for the WSJ’s “split along economic lines”: Who isn’t? I appreciate the point that the reporters skillfully made, but the point itself undercuts the value of the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” entirely. Every group is split along economic lines. Lee Iacca could have told you that in between bites of pizza pie. 

No one has done better or more thoughtful work on this question than my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, Ruy Teixeira. His clarion call to his fellow Democrats is to not just stop taking Latino and Latina voters for granted, but to understand that all people in different states and of different economic and social positions feel differently about things. Lumping people together not only numbs us to real political considerations, but makes us more inclined to withhold our patriotic filial love from one and other 

Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is Italian on her mother’s side and Mexican on her father’s side. If she loses to Adam Laxalt, whose grandfather was born of two Italian immigrants, would it be a victory for Hispanics over Anglos, or just another election? The sooner we in politics see each other as people, not ethnicities, the closer we will be to seeing America as it is, not as it is described by outmoded demography.

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