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Book Review Political passions move right

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Peter McDermot

THE INHERITANCE: How Three Families and the American Political Majority Moved from Left to Right, by Samuel G. Freedman. Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, $15.

The throng was three-deep at the dais on the night in November 1994 when Republican George Pataki defeated Democratic incumbent Mario Cuomo. Tim Carey, off to one side, was urged by his colleagues to take his place nearer the front of the entourage, which he did briefly. Carey, a Republican consultant and campaign strategist, and a friend and associate of Pataki’s, had come a long way since he was introduced to politics by his grandmother Lizzie Sanford Garrett.

Sanford Garrett, whom Freedman says was "the vocal leader of a shanty-Irish enclave in a factory town (Ossining, N.Y.) along the Hudson," was born into a Liverpool Irish family at the end of the last century. When she was 8, her widowed mother brought the family to America.

In this multi-generational history, now available in paperback, Freedman also traces the roots of Frank Trotta, Jr., whose Italian-American grandfather was a union activist in New Rochelle, and Leslie M’by, granddaughter of Joseph Obrycki, a Polish-American ward heeler in Baltimore. Silvio Burgio, Obrycki and Sanford Garrett were all drawn to the Democrats, as the party of immigrants and working people. Their activism began in the years before the advent of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, a time when, Freedman says, "child-welfare officials pleaded against the assumption that poverty was some failure of character, the same assumption that had driven Lizzie’s mother from Liverpool." The three never met, but in an odd twist to his story, Freedman tells us that, in April 1945, Roosevelt’s funeral train passed through Baltimore, New Rochelle and Ossining.

The third generation, Carey, Trotta and M’by, did meet — in the attic headquarters of a group of College Republicans in Albany, N.Y. Unimpressed with the student upheavals of the time, they identified strongly with Richard Nixon’s "silent majority." All three later worked on Lewis Lehrman’s gubernatorial campaign against Mario Cuomo in 1982. Lehrman, a self-made millionaire, the founder of the Rite Aid chain, an intellectual committed to free-market ideas, and ultimately a convert from Judaism to Catholicism, espoused a brand of Republican politics radically different from the old-money, East Coast-liberal variety associated with Nelson Rockefeller, the late New York governor and U.S. vice president.

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Carey, Trotta and M’by are emblematic, then, of a shift over time. Freedman quotes an AOH study of the 1994 election which showed that Catholics, who are less than a quarter of the U.S. population, made up a third of the voters. And for the first time since the 1920s a majority of Catholics voted for Republicans in congressional elections. To all of which we can only say, "So what?"

The most significant change in electoral politics in all industrial democracies in recent decades has been the demise of a large working class as a political force. The shift to an electorate dominated by white-collar voters has loosened traditional allegiances. Inevitably, perhaps, as a majority did better they identified less with the disadvantaged and their entitlements. Countervailing influences, though, have helped the center-left, particularly the growth of cities, and in most countries, including Ireland, there hasn’t been any great shift toward conservatism. It’s hardly a coincidence, though, that in the two major democracies that use a winner-take-all system, the United States and Britain, politics has been pulled sharply to the right. What the Democrats and the British Labor Party needed, as their traditional bases were shrinking, was a more open and competitive electoral system. An interesting comparison can be made with Mitterand’s Socialist Party in France. Founded in 1971, it’s been essentially a white-collar party that has positioned itself, when necessary, near the center while competing with parties on the right and smaller groups on the left. In America, the Democratic Party has to win the support of diverse constituencies, from the poorest to the well-off, on the first and only ballot.

Arguably, the Democrats needed an independent, populist left as a counterbalance to the New Right. As it is, pressure groups make an issue of government aid to big business — calling it "corporate welfare" — which in 1994, for example, was nearly five times the cost of social welfare programs. But this, perhaps, is not the sort of approach a mainstream party could adopt. Instead in America’s rigidly bipolar system, it’s been easier for the right to make the populist pitch by targeting the welfare state.

The author describes how Tim Carey became disenchanted with liberalism, particularly over the issue of dependency, and how under Lehrman’s personal tutelage he embraced conservatism. But ideas become less important in the story than the process itself. Carey, his Uncle Richie, "the Garrett family’s most ardent liberal," and his grandmother share a passion for politics. Indeed, Freedman’s main narrative book becomes a distraction. However, overall the idea of retelling 20th century American political history in this way was a good one, and the result is a highly enjoyable book.

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