The Irish-American vote used to be a sure thing. If you were Irish-American, you voted Democrat. It was as simple as that. When I was growing up in 1950s Chicago, Republicans were like another species. An analogy from Baseball. As a Chicagoan, you supported either the White Sox or the Cubs. It was a tribal thing. My family were White Sox fans. So I was a White Sox fan. Cubs fans, on the other hand, were weird. Why would anyone support the Cubs? In much the same way, Republicans were weird too. Why would anyone support the Republicans? If you were Irish-American, even to pose the question bordered on the ridiculous.
According to the 2008 US American Census, an estimated 11.9 per cent of the total population can trace its ancestry to Ireland. Of course not all their descendents are Roman Catholic, but a great many of them are, especially those who fled famine-ravaged Ireland in the middle of the 19th century.
The “huddled masses” that passed through Ellis Island were, for the most part, socially and economically at the bottom of the barrel. Hard-scrabblers all, who brought with them a burning desire to better themselves and their families, willing to take on any job, no matter how back-breaking and poorly paid. And the natural home of these Irish immigrants was the Democratic Party. The figures speak for themselves: From the mid-19th century up until the 1960s, Irish Catholics voted 80-95 per cent Democratic.
In light of this, it is ironic that, out of the more than 20 American presidents with some Irish ancestry, out of a total of 44 elected to date, John F Kennedy is so far the only chief executive of Irish descent who was raised as a Roman Catholic. By far the greater number of presidents of Irish descent have been drawn from an Ulster Protestant background. Before Kennedy, the only other Irish Catholic who had a run at the presidency on the Democratic ticket naturally was the three-times governor of New York, Alfred E Smith, who ran against the Republican Herbert Hoover in 1928 and was buried beneath an electoral landslide.
Irish-Americans voted for the Democratic Party because it was seen as the party that had as one of its core principles - the protection of those who were most vulnerable economically and socially. Despite the fact that it was a Republican, Abraham Lincoln, who is most identified with end of slavery, it was the Democratic Party in the late 19th and 20th centuries that attracted the majority of Black voters, and it was a Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, who shepherded through Congress the most important civil rights legislation since the Civil War.
But since the late sixties, the monolithic Irish-American loyalty to the Democratic Party has gradually eroded. There are many reasons for this – the growth of social and fiscal conservatism and a backlash against a liberalism portrayed by its opponents, both Republican and Democrat, as threatening the nation’s moral foundations. It is also a fact that the growing affluence, at least until the Global meltdown, of the general population, tended to loosen the social and economic solidarity that linked the 19th century immigrants with their 20th century descendants.
Exit polls from recent presidential elections have shown the Irish Catholics vote splitting about 50–50 for Democratic and Republican candidates. Ronald Reagan, for example, won significant Irish American support. Obama won much of this back, and the Nuns on a Bus movement in the run-up to this election shows that even though Paul Ryan prides himself on his Irish Catholic credentials, his economic policies have been sharply criticised as against the interests of the disadvantaged as seen through Catholic social teachings.
Irish-America, in the second decade of the 21st century, increasingly locates its sense of itself more in cultural terms than traditional political allegiances.