For those who seek to understand how and why so many Irish Catholics moved from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the judge’s statement is an important, primary document.
Before you can say, “hold on, now, Samuel Alito may be many things, but surely he’s not Irish,” let me explain. No, he is not Irish, that’s certainly true. But he is Catholic, and his upbringing in the 1960s would be recognizable to many Irish-Americans who came of age in that decade.
Alito was reared in Hamilton Township, N.J., and for those of you whose knowledge of the Garden State is limited to what you’ve learned on “The Sopranos,” you should know that Hamilton Township was and is a suburb of the state capital, Trenton.
Hamilton Township has its equivalents on the outskirts of many aging cities, large and small, in the Northeast and Midwest. It’s a place where middle-class white ethnics (by which sociologists generally mean Irish, Italian and Polish Catholics) moved during the 1950s, when the GI Bill and the Interstate Highway Act made home owning affordable and convenient.
Alito described Hamilton Township as a “warm, but definitely unpretentious, down-to-earth community,” a place like so many in the postwar years where families were achieving remarkable dreams — owning homes, removed by not even a generation from the poverty and hopelessness of the Great Depression. Inside those homes, children were being prepared for the next big step: College. They often would be the first in their families to continue their education beyond high school. And, after that, a career — not merely a job.
Alito told the distinguished Senators that most of the adults in his neighborhood were not, in fact, college graduates, but rather hardworking adults with dignity and dreams. He played baseball as a kid, went to public schools, and enjoyed the company of other kids. All in all, he said, “I have happy memories … and good memories of the good sense and the decency of my friends and neighbors.”
He grew up schooled in certain attitudes and values: A respect for authority, for example, and a belief in the essential decency of Americans who were not necessarily his friends and neighbors. He was taught manners and common courtesy.
It all sounds so familiar — a fair description of the lives of so many baby-boomer Irish Americans in Hamilton Township (a fairly Irish community, incidentally) and elsewhere in the region.
Alito’s story reminded me of one of the finest books I’ve ever read on contemporary Irish-America. Written by journalist Samuel Freedman, “The Inheritance” documented the stories of three Catholic families who made the journey from New Deal Democrat in the 1930s to conservative Republicans in the 1990s. These families shared with Alito a common experience, born of alienation from the counter-cultural elites who populated the nation’s campuses in the 1960s.
Alito went to Princeton, not far from his home. Nothing in Hamilton Township had prepared him for what he found in that elite institution. Sure, he was up to the intellectual challenge. But he was appalled by the behavior of his contemporaries, so many of whom had been reared in circumstances far more privileged than his own. He said he saw “some very smart people and very privileged people behaving irresponsibly.”
The difference between Princeton and Hamilton, he said, was striking.
“I couldn’t help making a contrast between some of the worst of what I saw on the campus and the good sense and the decency of the people” in his hometown, he said.
One of the protagonists in Freedman’s book, Tim Carey, undergoes a similar epiphany, not on the campus of an elite school, but at the Pentagon. A member of a military police unit, a kid who was not considered college material by his culturally biased teachers in Westchester County, Carey found himself dressed for battle when student demonstrators threatened to assail the Pentagon in 1967. He, too, could not help but reflect on the display unfolding before he eyes, and the attitudes of the people who had raised and supported him.
The student demonstrators regarded Tim Carey as the enemy. In another sort of way, young Sam Alito felt the sting of his peers, because of his politics. Both men, and so many others, concluded that they simply were not welcome in so-called polite society.
Tim Carey currently is the head of the Battery Park City Authority in New York, and Alito seems well on his way to becoming a Supreme Court justice. Both of them did very well, thank you very much, despite the cultural prejudices they confronted as young men.
And that, in some ways, is the story of how some of the Irish became Republican. They felt unwelcome in a Democratic Party filled with cultural and class prejudice against middle-class and working-class white ethnics who helped make the party what it was in mid-century.
Little had changed since the days of Alito’s youth. While some white ethnic Catholic politicians — Edward Kennedy, Joseph Biden, Mario Cuomo — remain in good stead with the party, it is no coincidence that they all are pro-choice, for it is the one position a Democrat must take in order to remain in good standing.
In other words, it’s OK to be Catholic, as long as one is not too Catholic.