Blue-Collar Conservatism examines the blue-collar, white supporters of Frank Rizzo—Philadelphia's police commissioner turned mayor—and shows how the intersection of law enforcement and urban politics created one of the least understood but most consequential political developments in recent American history.
2018 | 328 pages | Cloth $37.50 | Paper $24.95
American History / Political Science
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Table of Contents
Introduction. Blue-Collar Conservatism and Frank Rizzo's Philadelphia
PART I. FROM LIBERALISM TO LAW AND ORDER
Chapter 1. City of "Neighborhoods" and "Jungles"
Chapter 2. Grassroots Law and Order
Chapter 3. "This Man Is the City's Salvation"
Chapter 4. Philadelphia Plans
PART II. THE RISE OF BLUE-COLLAR CONSERVATISM
Chapter 5. "He's One of Us"
Chapter 6. Neighborhood Politics
Chapter 7. The Limits of Color Blindness
Chapter 8. Post-Rizzo Philadelphia
Epilogue. Blue-Collar Conservatism and Modern America
List of Abbreviations
Blue-Collar Conservatism and Frank Rizzo's Philadelphia
Frank Rizzo strode into South Philadelphia's crowded Columbus Square Playground with little fanfare. He had arrived to hear members of Philadelphia's American Federation of Musicians Local 77 give a free concert of Italian arias in honor of Columbus Day. Although he hoped to keep a low profile and said he was only there to celebrate his Italian heritage, the six-foot-two-inch-tall former police commissioner easily stood out in a crowd. Rizzo was also in the final month of his first campaign to become mayor of Philadelphia. The event quickly turned into a pro-Rizzo rally. Chants of "We want Frank!" drowned out the music as concertgoers clamored around the candidate. Longtime political reporter Sandy Grady said men cheered and women swooned at the sight of him. "These things just happen whenever Rizzo goes into an Italian American neighborhood," another reporter commented. Uncharacteristically humbled, Rizzo took the stage to insist the concert continue. When the show ended, Rizzo made a final stop at a nearby tavern. Surrounded by patrons sipping cold pints of Piels draft beer, he raised a toast to the hardworking men and women of South Philadelphia before heading out into the night. When Rizzo was gone, Sandy Grady took an informal poll of the bar's patrons, asking how he would fare in the election. Reflecting on the problems facing the city and the nation, one replied that Philadelphia needed "an 11th grade dropout" to straighten things out. "He'll win because he isn't a Ph.D.," barfly John Marzano continued. "He's one of us. Rizzo came up the hard way."
Despite his warm welcome in South Philadelphia, Francis Lazaro Rizzo was one of the most controversial figures in the city's history. As a young man, long before his entrance into politics, the son of Italian immigrants dropped out of high school and followed his father's footsteps into the Philadelphia Police Department. He quickly earned a reputation as one of the toughest cops on the force. Rising through the ranks in rapid succession, he earned the department's highest post in 1967. As the city's top cop, Rizzo was fond of saying that the way to treat criminals was "scappo il capo," an Italian phrase he translated to "crack their heads." He earned a national reputation for his tough stance on crime, the heavy-handed tactics of his police force, and his openly hostile treatment of civil rights activists. Yet Rizzo claimed those methods were the reason that Philadelphia avoided the urban rioting that struck cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, or nearby Newark, New Jersey, in the late 1960s. While that won him little favor in African American communities or among liberals that decried his "Gestapo tactics," he became a hero to the white ethnic, blue-collar Philadelphians that demanded "law and order." Capitalizing on their enthusiasm, Rizzo used his police experience as a springboard for his first campaign for public office in 1971.
Rizzo had been a longtime Republican until he switched parties to accept the job as police commissioner from Democratic mayor James H. J. Tate. Running his own mayoral campaign as a Democrat and the self-proclaimed "toughest cop in America," Rizzo scored an impressive victory when he became the first former police commissioner elected mayor of a major American city. He then polarized Philadelphia during his two terms in office. Rizzo split Democratic voters when he broke with his party to campaign for Richard Nixon in 1972. He maintained his base of support by opposing public housing, school desegregation, affirmative action, and other liberal programs that he and his supporters deemed unearned advantages for nonwhites. Although he alienated many Philadelphians with a series of scandals and controversial statements—most famously that he would "make Attila the Hun look like a faggot" when dealing with his political opponents—Rizzo remained incredibly popular among white ethnic, blue-collar Philadelphians. Their support helped him survive a strong challenge in the Democratic primary of 1975 and a recall drive in 1976, and almost succeeded in changing the city charter so that he could run for a third mayoral term in 1979. That effort only fell apart when an anti-Rizzo coalition mobilized after he told an all-white audience to "Vote White" for charter change. Still, Rizzo remained a hero to the blue-collar white ethnics that viewed him as "one of us" because they saw a bit of themselves in the immigrants' son who dropped out of high school and worked his way up to the highest position in Philadelphia.
Frank Rizzo was perhaps the archetypal example of late twentieth-century urban, white ethnic, populist conservatism and the quintessential "backlash" politician of the 1960s and 1970s. To his critics, Rizzo was little more than a villain. They saw him as an enemy to civil rights, a bully, a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, and a mean-spirited patriarchal figurehead of a regressive political order. He was all those things. But Frank Rizzo's politics and legacy were far more complicated than the caricature that emerges from his long record of outlandish behavior and offensive statements. More importantly, Rizzo's supporters never saw him as a villain. While Rizzo's critics have largely succeeded in writing his legacy, their grave depictions do not allow for a thorough understanding of the people who called him "one of us" or the politics they created and championed. Frank Rizzo was loved as much as he was hated. The admiration he inspired among blue-collar white ethnics cannot be reduced to a simplistic backlash narrative.
This is not a biography of Frank Rizzo. Although his rise and fall is central to the story this book tells, other writers have more clearly detailed Rizzo's life and career. Instead, this book uses Rizzo, his allies, and his city to examine broader changes in modern America. In addition to Rizzo, it is a book about the evolving politics of his blue-collar white ethnic supporters. Their abandonment of urban and New Deal liberalism is at the core of this book, but it is also about the long-standing blue-collar populism and political sensibilities that they created, developed, and maintained in the long postwar era. It argues that the resultant "blue-collar conservatism" arose from their mutually reinforcing promotion of law-and-order conservatism and selective rejection of welfare liberalism. While the racial upheavals of midcentury urban America were central to the rise of blue-collar conservatism, this book also shows how working- and middle-class white ethnics in Frank Rizzo's Philadelphia imbued their politics with blue-collar class discourses and identities.
The stories recounted herein are part of a larger whole that explain the United States' turn to the right in the late twentieth century. Yet the subtleties of the specific blue-collar politics presented call into question the traditional bifurcations of political history and political identity. Real people rarely fall into neat categories established by scholars and critics. The white, blue-collar supporters of Frank Rizzo steadily moved to the right over the course of the postwar decades. While they surely would have rejected the label "liberal" at the end of their political transformation, not all of them would have readily accepted the label "conservative." With few exceptions, the subjects of this book did not become conservative activists. Many blue-collar Philadelphians who began the postwar era in the Democratic Party shifted to the Republican Party by the 1980s, but not all of them. Shifting political affiliation is a part of this story, but many blue-collar whites remained in the Democratic Party and contributed to its subtle move to the right between the late 1960s and 1990s. This book's use of the term "blue-collar conservatism," therefore, is not meant to indicate a hard-set political ideology. Instead, the development of a specifically urban, blue-collar political sensibility examined in this book demands a reconsideration of the dichotomy between the right and left. Its ambiguities require a more nuanced conception of political categorization. They also demand the acknowledgement of categories that belie the strict polarization of traditionally understood liberal and conservative political identity.
The story of Frank Rizzo and his blue-collar supporters' shifting politics offers a window into these ambiguities and complexities in modern American working- and middle-class politics. While some of that story is tied to specific urban spaces, it is not a history limited to Philadelphia. It is true that some of the things Rizzo said and did would only make sense in his city. But he also shares an affinity with other big-city mayors like Sam Yorty and Richard Daley, as well as national figures like George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. It is equally true that some of the events that led to Rizzo's rise and fall were indebted to the specificity of Philadelphia's structural, institutional, and political environment. Yet Philadelphia still offers an opportunity to draw broader conclusions about postwar urban America. It was the fourth-largest city in the country in the 1960s and 1970s. Philadelphia's size linked it to major metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Yet, due to its decentralized neighborhoods, its economic dependence on light industry and small-scale manufacturing, and, in many ways, its parochialism, Philadelphia also shared meaningful commonalities with smaller and midsized cities throughout the Northeast and Midwest. Its size may have made Philadelphia one of the nation's biggest cities, but its culture was often more analogous to cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Perhaps more than many other cities, Philadelphia was representative of a large swath of the urban North. Furthermore, while Rizzo was one of the most transformative figures in this one city's history, he and his supporters were also representative of a much broader political realignment in postwar American history.
Historians have long argued that local politicians like Rizzo, Yorty, and Daley—or national figures like Wallace, Nixon, and Reagan—enjoyed the support of the "white ethnics" and the "white working class." Their work shows that many working-class whites felt alienated by liberalism, Black Power, feminism, and gay rights. They argue that urban working and middle classes found common ground in Rizzo's forceful rhetoric, Wallace's racist populism, Nixon's jingoistic enthusiasm, and Reagan's patriotic optimism. But the details of their ultimate conversion from New Deal liberalism to blue-collar conservatism remains clouded by broad brushstrokes. With few exceptions, most accounts dismiss blue-collar whites as one-dimensional reactionaries. They are the foil in the standard narrative of the rise of civil rights and Great Society liberalism. On a national level, they are almost ubiquitously represented by the infamous 1970 "Hard Hat Riots" in New York City, when construction workers coordinated an attack on students protesting the Vietnam War just days after the massacre at Kent State University. But white, blue-collar politics and the urban spaces were more complex. The eventual blue-collar embrace of conservative figures like Frank Rizzo was the result not only of resentment and fear, but also of careful engagement with the politics of the urban crisis in the 1960s and 1970s.
Marked by high rates of unemployment, shrinking city tax bases, fiscal shortfalls, rising crime, and, most dramatically, waves of urban uprisings, the American urban crisis was a turning point in modern United States history. It was both caused by and exacerbated a shift toward suburbanization, urban disinvestment, and deindustrialization that wreaked havoc on city school systems, job markets, and housing stock. It exposed the rampant inequalities in urban society that led to the expansion of movements for racial justice. At the same time, the urban crisis produced the spatial and political realignments that shaped modern American political culture. Blue-collar white ethnics in Philadelphia and throughout the country were caught up in the many transformations wrought by the urban crisis. Their political transformation sprang from the economic instabilities and vulnerabilities, as well as challenges to the racial order. While blue-collar whites reacted to the crises around them, they were not simple reactionaries. Instead, they approached the interwoven politics of law enforcement, school desegregation, equal employment opportunity, and open housing in multifaceted and varied ways. Complex negotiations with the politics of the urban crisis remade white, blue-collar politics in the long postwar era and created Frank Rizzo's enduring blue-collar popularity.
The rise of blue-collar conservatism in Frank Rizzo's Philadelphia represents a shift in modern American political culture and urban history. As such, it prompts a reevaluation of several major themes in recent American urban and political development: the complexity and diversity of modern conservatisms, the function of class identity in modern American politics, the broader politics and influence of the urban crisis, and the centrality of urban spatial politics to American political development. These interjections show that Rizzo and his blue-collar supporters were more than transitional figures in the shift from liberalism to conservatism. They also prefigured some of the most significant developments in recent American political history.
Conservatisms in Modern America
Accepted wisdom holds that the election of Ronald Reagan signaled a turn to the political right and the emergence of a new conservative era in the United States. Yet the earlier development of blue-collar conservatism has received scant historical attention beyond the once-dominant backlash narrative that suggested the white working and middle class abandoned the Democratic Party because of integration, Great Society programs, and the "excesses" of the late 1960s. The roots of the backlash thesis lay in the 1968 Kerner Commission Report that blamed white racism for the urban uprisings that struck American cities in the mid-to-late 1960s. The backlash narrative put forward first by the Kerner Commission and promoted by a sympathetic media shaped the subsequent understanding of blue-collar whites in the urban crisis. But the familiar backlash narrative is misleading and overly reductive. It essentializes the reaction to urban disorder and fails to account for the subtle negotiations and realignments in urban space that equally contributed to changes in white, blue-collar politics. Parts of the backlash theory certainly ring true, but they still must be understood in the context of the myriad changes wrought by the urban crisis. In offering that contextualization, this book shows that the blue-collar conservatism that rose among Frank Rizzo's supporters was an understudied and qualified variant of modern populist conservatism.
Though an important shift in working- and middle-class politics, blue-collar conservatism was not a complete break from the New Deal liberalism that guided American, and especially urban, politics since the Great Depression. Forged by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, New Deal liberalism's rise and fall represents the central narrative in twentieth-century American political history. The fall of the New Deal welfare state had deep roots and the so-called New Deal coalition—the electoral alliance of urban white ethnics, African Americans, and Southern whites that maintained American liberalism in the post-Depression era—was inherently unstable. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that existing tensions were solely responsible for its downfall. Blue-collar defections from the New Deal coalition were not a foregone conclusion. Nor were they immediate. To the contrary, blue-collar whites' ultimate enlistment in the "Reagan Revolution" developed in the 1960s and 1970s. Their blue-collar conservatism combined an economic platform that appealed to a vulnerable working class with a "one of us" populism that rejected stuffy orthodoxy and elitism of all stripes, especially liberal elitism. The selective rejection of welfare liberalism chronicled in this book reveals both blue-collar white ethnics' deep antipathy toward American liberals and their desire to maintain key parts of the welfare state they created.
Relatedly, the backlash thesis's insistence that working-class antiliberalism and blue-collar conservatism stemmed primarily from the rise of culturally liberal forces—the civil rights movement, women's movement, and gay rights movement—obscures the perception of economic hardship that played a related and equally significant role in blue-collar Americans' reevaluation of their political allegiances. The politics of gender, sexuality, and especially race were intimately tied to economic motivators, but broadly conceived economic well-being—especially the feeling that blue-collar whites were on the losing end of a zero-sum game for limited urban and welfare state resources—formed a foundational prong of their political transformation. Blue-collar whites forcefully responded to perceived threats to their material welfare. While they were never as economically vulnerable as poor people of color, blue-collar whites still felt threatened by the economic and social disruptions of the urban crisis. Their political transformation was the result of a renegotiation of economic security, cultural identity, and political position in relation to a series of challenges to an established urban order.
The rise of blue-collar conservatism also represents an alternative to the concurrent development of conservative politics in middle-class suburban communities in the South and West. While blue-collar conservatism shared a number of similarities with other conservatisms, several features make it distinct. Blue-collar conservatism had a religious foundation, for example. The majority of people discussed in this book were Roman Catholic. Although Jews and Protestants made up sizable minorities, Catholicity played a foundational role in the development of blue-collar conservatism by virtue of the ethnic and religious composition of urban spatial politics. Unlike the religious right that emerged concurrently, however, blue-collar conservatives held faith as one aspect of their politics, not a decisive feature. As well, while blue-collar whites focused on broadly conceived economic issues, few shared foundational ground with libertarians and small-government activists that forged the New Right by putting their economic independence first among their political priorities. Few adherents of blue-collar conservatism denied the federal or local government's right to tax or intervene in the modern economy. To the contrary, they accepted and welcomed it with important limitations and reservations. Nevertheless, blue-collar whites in urban centers like Frank Rizzo's Philadelphia still contributed to America's rightward turn. Their blue-collar conservatism offers evidence that modern conservatism was not strictly a Southern, Western, or even suburban phenomenon. Indeed, it shows that many conservatisms contributed to a nationwide rightward shift.
The white, blue-collar Americans in this book came to believe that liberal politics and state-guided economic development no longer benefited the white working and middle classes. As a result, they began selectively rejecting liberalism based upon culturally defined ideas of privilege and disadvantage. Their blue-collar conservatism emerged as a qualified conservatism. Its basis lay in a centrist acceptance of the welfare state and government intervention in the economy like urban renewal and state funding for education, provided the beneficiaries of these programs "earned" the right to government entitlements. Respect for "hard work" was central to blue-collar conceptions of earned rights, so blue-collar whites adopted a discourse that distinguished between deserving and undeserving, between those that earned what little they had and those that expected a "handout" from liberals. Their language of economic vulnerability, while real, masked the racial privileges that undergirded their selective rejection of liberalism. Nevertheless, a class identity and sense of blue-collar authenticity reinforced by "one of us" populism guided their engagement with liberal politics and policy-making. The culmination of this racially rooted but class-forward blue-collar conservatism not only reshaped urban and working-class politics, it became one of the most consequential, malleable, and appropriable political sensibilities in recent American history.
Class Identity and Color Blindness
A focus on the racial backlash elements of white, working-class antiliberalism has obscured the importance of class ideologies and identities. Social class as both a category of analysis and cultural identity mattered deeply in cities like Philadelphia. Working- and middle-class Philadelphians drew comfort and commonality from others that shared their class experiences. Those commonalities resulted in a distinctly "blue-collar" cultural identity. Discussions of identity politics in the 1960s and 1970s typically refer to the movements that sought the recognition of multiculturalism in the United States. Social movements as varied as the black freedom struggle, Chicano movement, women's movement, and gay rights movement all used identity politics to challenge their exclusion from "normative America." Working- and middle-class whites are either absent or appear as opponents of multiculturalism in these narratives. Yet working- and middle-class urban whites did engage a form of identity politics more focused on class and white ethnic roots than race, gender, or sexuality. In cities like Philadelphia, blue-collar class identity was identity politics for working- and middle-class whites.
The blue-collar identity was more inclusive than typical notions of class. It was not limited by economic or occupational distinction. Instead, it was a cultural class identity indebted to a sense of blue-collar authenticity, an ethos based on the shared values of hard work, sacrifice, toughness, pride, and tradition. It became an identity claimed and defended by people from a wide economic strata, including those usually defined along a broad middle-class spectrum. The very fluidity of the blue-collar identity allowed whites who were economically working class to claim privileges of the white middle class while simultaneously allowing middle- or even upper-class whites to invoke the values associated with blue-collar authenticity. These categories transcended economic standing because upwardly mobile working-class whites could work their way up the social ladder to a higher class position, but remain culturally blue-collar. Frank Rizzo provides a case in point. Born into an immigrant family in a South Philadelphia row home, he maintained his blue-collar identity even after his wealth and political standing grew. In cities like Philadelphia—where blue-collar identity mixed with civic identity—a cultural populism that celebrated the working-class white ethnic reinforced the city's expansive class identity.
Additionally, by the 1970s, blue-collar identity politics became a means of obfuscating racial and gender discourses in debates over liberal programs like affirmative action, public housing, and school desegregation. While these class discourses were rooted in genuine economic anxieties and cultural identities, they were never separate from race and white privilege. Furthermore, the rhetorical privileging of blue-collar discourses did not mean that class supplanted race or gender. To the contrary, the celebration and promotion of blue-collar authenticity usually privileged a white and male cultural identity. That is not to say that women were absent from blue-collar culture and politics. Wives and mothers were at the forefront of blue-collar battles over law enforcement, neighborhoods, and schools. Blue-collar culture celebrated feminine toughness and women assumed roles as protectors of blue-collar traditions and institutions. For both men and women, blue-collar authenticity and identity became tools of the working- and middle-class selective rejection of welfare liberalism. The politics of race, gender, and class were inseparable components of the emerging blue-collar conservatism, but blue-collar culture often foregrounded a white, male, working-class identity.
While complicating the backlash narrative common to accounts of working-class antiliberalism, this book also acknowledges that elements of racial backlash are true. Many blue-collar white ethnics in postwar Philadelphia were racist. They responded to the conflicts of the era through a defense of white privilege and white neighborhoods. While those reactions cannot account for the full spectrum of white blue-collar politics in the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond, those voices were nevertheless a key component in the development of blue-collar conservatism. Without excusing white racism, this book seeks a deeper understanding of it by tracing changing expressions of blue-collar racism over time. Racism among blue-collar whites was neither static nor monolithic. Their class conceptions and identities informed their conceptions of race, gender, elitism, and poverty, further complicating evolving ideologies. That blue-collar whites often based these beliefs in stereotypes and untruths indebted to a spatially segregated urban environment made them no less powerful. This book shows how blue-collar whites learned to change the way they discussed race, even in pursuit of the same racially restrictive policies.
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s altered racial discourses in the United States. After George Wallace's failed attempt to use a racially divisive campaign to win the presidency in 1968, race-baiting became politically taboo. Racist politics continued, but public appeals to white supremacy waned. In their place, coded language joined appeals to authenticity and meritocracy as replacements for race-baiting. This was true as much for urban, blue-collar whites as it was for candidates for national office. In Philadelphia, as in other urban enclaves, working- and middle-class whites turned away from the racial discourses that had previously shaped opposition to desegregation and liberal public policy. As in the Sunbelt South, where the language of middle-class meritocracy replaced explicit race-baiting among the suburban silent majority, blue-collar whites adopted color-blind discourses. Yet urban, blue-collar whites' use of color-blind arguments differed in important ways. Whereas middle-class Southerners and neoconservative intellectuals extolled the virtues of meritocracy to dispute racially inclusive housing, education, and employment policies, working- and middle-class whites in cities like Philadelphia pointed to their blue-collar identities.
Blue-collar identity championed pride, tradition, and hard work. Over the course of the long postwar era, Philadelphia's blue-collar whites invoked these values above all in their defense of neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools. First and often foremost, blue-collar pride suggested defensiveness, toughness, rootedness, and distinctiveness. "Proud" also became the principal means of describing blue-collar whites among outside observers. In such cases the term could be a positive descriptor of blue-collar culture—extolling hardscrabble, working-class values and a sense of civic identity, for instance—or it could be used as a Janus-faced compliment. When used as a substitute for stubborn, the implication was that blue-collar pride was foolish or misplaced. In its worst sense, pride could also be a stand-in for chauvinism or clannishness. Nevertheless, both blue-collar whites and their chroniclers adopted this idiom as a means of describing and defending white ethnic, blue-collar Philadelphians. Intrinsically tied to this blue-collar pride was an equally passionate reverence for "tradition." Invoking working-class and white ethnic tradition became an important means of defending neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, folk customs, and culture. If pride described blue-collar character, tradition attempted to explain its origins. Finally, a loosely defined reverence for "hard work" was central to blue-collar culture. In blue-collar politics, hard work complemented pride and tradition by offering a discursive means of differentiation and exclusion. Furthermore, and most importantly, as blue-collar whites learned to avoid direct racial dialogues, they pointed to their pride in urban spaces and workplaces, their long-standing traditions, and veneration of hard work as a means of obfuscating race. Race became no less important to their politics, but blue-collar identity became a means of denying racist motivations.
Despite evidence to the contrary, Frank Rizzo and many of his supporters denied that they held any racial bias. They often rejected the most extreme strands of racial prejudice. They often minimized the extent of racial discrimination and the effects of structural inequalities. Many of them simply said race was unimportant to them. Some of them undoubtedly lied in order to avoid scrutiny. Others were genuinely color-blind, at least to the extent that race was not the sole or even primary motivating factor in their political actions. In any case, however, their color blindness was a function of their white privilege. White Philadelphians in segregated urban spaces normalized segregation. Their ability to claim race was unimportant to them was a result of their privilege to ignore it. It was a luxury nonwhites could never assume in the mid-twentieth century. Even though blue-collar whites denied their white privilege, ignoring it in this book would be irresponsible. Yet it would be just as irresponsible to ignore how powerfully that denial functioned in their political discourse and ideological change. Denialism played a critical role in the formation of working- and middle-class whites' class identity and their resultant blue-collar conservatism. What blue-collar whites said publicly and aloud mattered. Even when it hid deeper racial antipathies, the process of adopting class-based discourses led working- and middle-class whites to internalize the language they used. By relying on the self-affirming differentiation between earned privilege and unearned advantage, blue-collar whites made their class identity and ideologies a central part of their emerging blue-collar conservatism.
Blue-Collar Conservatism and the Urban Crisis
The rise of blue-collar conservatism, complete with discursive intricacies and cultural identities, was not born fully formed at any point in the long postwar era. It was not guided by a single movement or compulsion. Instead it was the cumulative result of two decades of wrestling with a worsening urban crisis characterized by a rise in crime and urban rioting, underfunded and inadequate educational infrastructure, widespread un- and underemployment, and a deteriorating urban core. The blue-collar shift to the right grew out of their engagement with the intricately interwoven politics of law enforcement, education, affirmative action, and housing. Each played an incremental and mutually constituting role in the reformation of blue-collar politics. The promotion of law enforcement conservatism and the selective rejection of welfare liberalism at the heart of blue-collar conservatism resulted from the complex interplay of urban crisis politics.
Calls for law and order became a potent political device in the 1960s. The popular campaigns against crime, disorder, and protest were instrumental in creating the "crisis of liberalism" and foreshadowing the conservative counterrevolution. Instead of a top-down backlash led by national figures like Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Richard Nixon—or local ones like Rizzo—this book concentrates on the grassroots organizations and blue-collar cultural mobilization that supported the police and stricter law enforcement policies. Despite urban police forces' growing reputation for brutality, blue-collar whites maintained a defensive culture of reverence for the police based on class commonality and the mutually reinforcing boundaries of race and urban space. The grassroots of law-and-order politics lay in the politicization of blue-collar whites' culture of reverence for the police.
It also lay with police officers. Police work was a blue-collar tradition and a central feature of blue-collar labor and politics. Any examination of blue-collar support for stricter law enforcement policy must also include police as political actors. As such, this is also a story about police officers, their allies, and law enforcement politics. Police and their collective bargaining agent, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), were at the center of the politics of the urban crisis. The actions of Philadelphia police officers, along with their blue-collar supporters, led to the rise of Frank Rizzo and his brand of law enforcement conservatism. The politicization of police work in the 1960s led to the widespread advocacy of law-and-order politics, unfettered police action in the face of disorder, and harsher penalties for criminal behavior. The stricter law enforcement policies that Rizzo, the police, and blue-collar whites advocated became a constitutive branch of blue-collar conservatism. Just as importantly, it represents the deep roots of mass incarceration in modern America. The policies that led to the development of the largest prison system in the world were rooted in local and federal crime control efforts in the 1960s. The case of Philadelphia shows that those policies rested on the explicit demand and tacit approval of the police and their blue-collar allies.
Law enforcement politics were inseparable from the racial politics of the urban crisis. Although most blue-collar supporters of the police denied that race played a role in their demand for stricter law enforcement, their efforts came in direct conflict with civil rights activists working for better police-community relations or protesting police misconduct. As a result, blue-collar conservatism developed reciprocally against the civil rights movement. In addition to his police work, Rizzo's appeal grew out of the overlapping politics of neighborhood, workplace, and school integration. Rather than imagine the politics of law and order, education, affirmative action, and housing separately, this book offers a more holistic methodology because single issues cannot fully explain large-scale political transformation. In Philadelphia and in urban contexts nationwide, the politics of crime, work, education, and neighborhood were interconnected and inseparable. Broader changes in urban politics emerged from the interrelated struggles over policing, housing, work, and education.
Frank Rizzo notwithstanding, Philadelphia may still seem like an uneasy fit for a local history of postwar conservatism. American liberalism was an essentially urban development. Cities provided the impetus for the social and political reforms that laid the basis for a national liberal politics. They served as incubators for social reforms, economic philosophies, and the expansion of rights and privileges that were the hallmarks of American liberalism. Philadelphia was no exception. The city had a rich progressive and reform tradition, especially in the immediate postwar era. Philadelphia was a city with a history of strong and progressive labor unions, civil rights activists, and other liberal institutions and organizations. It remains a city that has not elected a Republican mayor since 1948. But it was precisely the liberal Democratic regime established in Philadelphia's early postwar period that aroused blue-collar whites in the 1960s and 1970s. The structure and limitations of urban liberalism in postwar Philadelphia helped create the conditions that led to the later development of blue-collar conservatism.
Urban Space and Blue-Collar Philadelphia
The following chapters trace the development of blue-collar conservatism through a social and political history of white, working- and middle-class neighborhoods, workplaces, and institutions in post-World War II Philadelphia. Frank Rizzo left a powerful legacy in both Philadelphia and postwar America, but the roots of his influence and the broader politics they represented lay in the grassroots struggles over the city's labor markets, educational facilities, traditions, and especially, its urban spaces.
Philadelphia's borders have remained the same since 1854, when the city consolidated surrounding boroughs, districts, and townships into Philadelphia County. Twentieth-century city planners then divided the city into several large sections based upon their geographic proximity to Center City—South, Southwest, West, Northwest, North, and Northeast Philadelphia. But geographic boundaries alone cannot account for the distinctiveness of Philadelphia's urban spaces. Since the nineteenth century, waves of European immigration and African American migration, followed by increases in immigrants from Puerto Rico, Latin America, and Asia, helped populate the city. Patterns of settlement and restrictive housing arrangements created many unique inner-city neighborhoods characterized by race, ethnicity, religion, and class. In the early twentieth century, Irish ethnics populated most of West Philadelphia. There were Jewish and Irish enclaves in North Philadelphia. South Philadelphia was home to large numbers of Irish and Eastern European residents, as well as most of the city's Italian residents. African American newcomers settled in the crowded industrial districts immediately surrounding Center City. These diverse spaces earned Philadelphia a reputation as a "city of neighborhoods."
By the mid-twentieth century, Philadelphia's neighborhoods were in a state of transition. Decades of immigration restriction and the two World Wars ended mass European migration and disrupted long-established ethnic residential patterns. At the same time, the lack of immigrant labor led to an influx of Southern blacks—part of the decades-long Great Migration—seeking employment opportunities and escape from Jim Crow. As African Americans moved into the city, white ethnics left their former enclaves for newer housing developments on the outskirts of the inner city. The result was a deeply segregated city. The case studies that make up the heart of this book focus most intently on two of the most racially segregated areas in the postwar era, South Philadelphia and Northeast Philadelphia. Not coincidentally, those two large sections of Philadelphia provided Frank Rizzo with his largest base of support in the 1960s and 1970s.
One of the older sections of the city, South Philadelphia was primarily a working-class residential area after World War II. Row-home communities and old industrial structures continued to mark the landscape years after the onset of deindustrialization. With the residual effects of industrialization still visible, however, South Philadelphia retained a reputation as a section populated by skilled, ethnic, blue-collar workers, even after most of the industry had all but disappeared. These residents often chose to stay in their old neighborhoods—near their families, churches, and ethnic institutions—even after residents of other older sections of the city began to move out. Northeast Philadelphia, by contrast, was one of the newer sections of the city. Although the Northeast also became a part the city in 1854, the vast space north of Frankford Creek and expanding eastward along the Delaware River was sparsely populated until after the Second World War. Northeast Philadelphia followed a trajectory much closer to the development of suburban communities than urban areas. Most new residents of the Northeast were upwardly mobile blue-collar whites that could afford to move out of their older ethnic enclaves. These were the spaces that produced and harbored blue-collar identity politics. Blue-collar pride and traditions first grew out of the tightly knit, ethnically and class cohesive inner-city neighborhoods found in areas like South Philadelphia and Kensington. Yet blue-collar pride and tradition were not limited to these urban spaces. As blue-collar identity expanded beyond the city's row-house neighborhoods into areas like Northeast Philadelphia, reverence for blue-collar pride and tradition moved with it into new urban and, eventually, suburban spaces.
Philadelphia's long postwar politics grew out of the restructuring of these urban spaces. The chapters that follow show how blue-collar Philadelphians defended their neighborhoods, workplaces, and space-based traditions through class-based definitions of privilege and disadvantage. The first part of the book traces the rise of law-and-order politics from the immediate postwar era to Frank Rizzo's promotion to police commissioner. While Rizzo was arguably the purest example of law and order translated into electoral politics, the spatial disruptions and social fissures of the two preceding decades created the structures that enabled his political career. Rizzo, above all, was a symbol. The politics he championed originated from the neighborhood residents that called for law and order. Law-and-order politics were not just the result of law enforcement policies, however. They were interlaced with the equally consequential urban politics of education, employment, housing, and equal opportunity. Because the slow rise of blue-collar conservatism must be contextualized in the postwar development of urban liberalism and civil rights, the narrative begins with the establishment of a municipal liberal consensus in the immediate postwar era before showing the multifaceted ways—from violence to accommodation to negotiation—that blue-collar whites rebelled against liberalism and sought to defend their traditions and institutions.
The second part of the book shows how Rizzo used his law-and-order credentials and "one of us" populism to position himself as the protector of the blue-collar neighborhoods, traditions, and institutions from perceived attacks by liberals and civil rights activists. With Rizzo in the mayor's office, his blue-collar supporters enjoyed a rapid but fleeting ascendency in local politics and won a series of their battles over urban space. Their nominally color-blind, blue-collar populist politics guided their struggles over schools, housing, and affirmative action in the 1970s. As blue-collar clout began to fade, however, so too did their race-neutral discourses. At the same time, the politics of law enforcement came roaring back as the police department faced renewed charges of brutality, new challenges over equal opportunity hiring, and a series of violent confrontations with an obscure, mostly African American back-to-nature collective known as MOVE. The combination of law enforcement and neighborhood politics caused the blue-collar political transformation to reach its culmination in the 1980s. By then, the long development of a populist politics based in the mutually reinforcing promotion of law enforcement conservatism and the selective rejection of welfare liberalism signaled broader influences and consequences for modern American political development.
Ultimately, this is the story of how white, blue-collar Americans came to see their interests more aligned with conservatives than with liberals. It is a history of accommodation, reaction, and resistance to local, state, and federal policies. It also explains one of the most consequential political transformations in modern American history. The turn toward the politics of relatability evident in Frank Rizzo's "one of us" populism became a central feature of national politics in the late twentieth century, especially on the social and cultural right. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was Rizzo's attacks on those that supposedly threatened blue-collar traditions that tapped into the deep wells of dissatisfaction with postwar liberalism among blue-collar whites. Although his supporters voted for Rizzo as a Democrat, his party affiliation hardly mattered. In 1970, when rumors circulated that he might make his first run for mayor, longtime Rizzo supporter and president of the Philadelphia FOP, John Harrington, said that "it wouldn't matter what ticket he ran on. He would have the backing of the silent majority that is fed up with the permissiveness. A vote for Rizzo would be a vote for security." Rizzo appealed to the "silent majority." He and his supporters helped hasten the end of the New Deal coalition. By the 1980s, pundits coined the term "Reagan Democrat" to describe the white, blue-collar supporters of populists like Rizzo. In Philadelphia, however, the press had already dubbed them Rizzocrats."