05 September 2015

Michael Kazin's 1924 Nightmare

Michael Kazin provides a good illustration of one of my themes here about “history being politics by another means” in his discussion of Donald Trump’s deportation talk. He proposes that the 1924 Immigration Act (also known as the Johnson-Reed Act), created a backlash among the many southern and eastern Europeans (mainly Catholics), so they voted Democratic for years afterwards, starting with their support for Al Smith, the Democratic nominee in the 1928 presidential election.

Unfortunately, Kazin omits one key fact that completely undermines his idea, and omits a second fact that shows life is more complex than politicised history would permit. Let’s start with the latter.

Kazin proposes that

All this made white ethnic workers natural recruits for the new unions established, through sit-down strikes and other forms of pressure, in the steel, auto, longshore, aircraft, and electrical industries during the 1930s and 40s....Between 1933 and 1945, unions added nine million new members to their ranks. As it surged, organized labor had become a rainbow coalition—and a mainstay of the Democratic Party.
The omission in this paragraph is that Kazin refers to the unions that were part of the Congress of Industrial Organisations, a collection of unskilled workers who only were able to organise once New Deal policies backed them in their battles with their employers. The union organisation that existed in 1924, the American Federation of Labour (AFL), supported the exclusionary elements of the 1924 Immigration Act because immigrants were believed to suppress wages. This had been an AFL theme from its beginnings. (Al Smith, by the way, was an opponent of the New Deal.)

More recklessly, though, Kazin overlooks another provision of the 1924 act, which is that there were no quotas imposed on immigrants from Latin America whatsoever. In other words, the act restricted the flow of immigration from Europe (including countries favoured by the act, such as Britain), but allowed Mexicans, Central Americans and Colombians to journey north in search of new opportunities in just the same way as they had been able to do before the act.

Kazin is playing tricks here. I’ll leave it to you to decide whose interest is best served by this attack on Trump’s immigration rhetoric, by suggesting the Republican Party will lose elections for a generation. It might be that those losses had more to do with the mismanagement by the government and Federal Reserve of the economy from 1928 onwards, than any effect of imposing quotas and restricting immigration more generally.

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