Lessons From the Rise of America’s Irish

They arrived dirt poor and uneducated in the 1840s. After decades of struggle, they achieved prosperity.

The peasants fleeing Ireland had a shorter life expectancy than slaves in the U.S., many of whom enjoyed healthier diets and better living quarters. Most slaves slept on mattresses, while most poor Irish peasants slept on piles of straw. The black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that freed slaves were poor by American standards, “but not as poor as the Irish peasants.”

The Irish who left for America were packed into the unused cargo space of wind-driven ships returning to the U.S., and the voyage could take up to three months, depending on weather. These cargo holds weren’t intended to carry passengers, and the lack of proper ventilation and sanitation meant that outbreaks of typhus, cholera and other fatal diseases were common. Emigrants slept on 3-by-6-foot shelves, which one observer described as “still reeking from the ineradicable stench left by the emigrants of the last voyage.”

In 1847, 19% of the Irish emigrants died on their way to the U.S. or shortly after arriving. By comparison, the average mortality rate on British slave ships of the period was 9%. Slave-owners had an economic incentive to keep slaves alive. No one had such an interest in the Irish.

The 19th-century immigrants from Europe usually started at the bottom, both socially and economically, and the Irish epitomized this trend. Irish men worked as manual laborers, while Irish women were domestic servants. But not all ethnic groups rose to prosperity at the same rate, and the rise of the Irish was especially slow. They had arrived from a country that was mostly rural, yet they settled in cities like Boston and New York, working “wherever brawn and not skill was the chief requirement,” as one historian put it. In the antebellum South, the Irish took jobs—mining coal, building canals and railroads—considered too hazardous even for slaves.

In the 1840s, New York City’s population grew 65%. By midcentury, more than half of the city’s residents were immigrants, and more than a quarter of those newcomers had come from Ireland. At the time, half of New York’s Irish workforce and nearly two-thirds of Boston’s were either unskilled laborers or domestic servants. “No other contemporary immigrant group was so concentrated at the bottom of the economic ladder,” writes Thomas Sowell in his classic work, “Ethnic America.”

It wasn’t just a lack of education and urban job skills that slowed the progress of the Irish in America. So did social pathology and discrimination. The Irish were known for drinking and brawling. Irish gangs were common. When an Irish family moved into a neighborhood, property values fell and other residents fled. Political cartoonists gave Irishmen dark skin and simian features. Anti-Catholic employers requested “Protestant” applicants. Want ads read: “Any color or country except Irish.”

Trump was an election surprise. Expect more.

The Trump election likely signals a new era of extreme voter discontent and improbable national election results. Why? Because the so-called American Dream — that each generation would live better than its predecessor — has ended for most of our citizens. Half of the young adults in this country will earn less over their lifetimes than their parents did. Indeed, the whole idea of rising living standards, which defined this country for so long, is a thing of the past for most Americans. More and more voters realize this and are angry about it.

.. Are wages rising? Looking back over the past 40 years, the answer is no.

According to the Hamilton Project, overall U.S. wages, adjusted for inflation, are essentially flat over this period — registering about 0.2 percent growth. Which means that purchasing power, a good proxy for living standards, is flat, too.

 .. The 2016 Federal Reserve Board survey of household well-being found that 46 percent of U.S. adults could not meet a $400 emergency expense without borrowing or selling something they owned.
And a stunning one quarter of adults cannot pay their monthly bills in full.
.. A series of powerful, entrenched factors have brought the American Dream to an end. Economists generally cite
  • globalization,
  • accelerating technology,
  • increased income inequality and
  • the decline of unions.
What’s noteworthy is that these are long-term pressures that show no signs of abating.
.. there continues to be a debate among political scientists and sociologists as to whether these income pressures or cultural factors such as a rebellion against the establishment contributed more to the Trump upset. But, in reality, the two factors are interrelated. Household financial troubles increase cultural resentment and the sense that there are two Americas. Especially with the share of national income going to the lower 80 percent of earners at a 100-year low.

The Philosophical Assault on Trumpism

Establishment Republicans have tried five ways to defeat or control Donald Trump, and they have all failed. Jeb Bush tried to outlast Trump, and let him destroy himself. That failed. Marco Rubio and others tried to denounceTrump by attacking his character. That failed. Reince Priebus tried to co-opt Trump to make him a more normal Republican. That failed.

Paul Ryan tried to use Trump; Congress would pass Republican legislation and Trump would just sign it. That failed. Mitch McConnell tried to outmaneuver Trump and Trumpism by containing his power and reach. In the Senate race in Alabama last week and everywhere else, that has failed.

.. The Bob Corkers of the party are leaving while the Roy Moores are ascending.

.. The only way to beat Trump is to beat him philosophically. Right now the populists have a story to tell the country about what’s gone wrong. It’s a coherent story, which they tell with great conviction. The regular Republicans have no story, no conviction and no argument.

.. The Trump story is that good honest Americans are being screwed by aliens. Regular Americans are being oppressed by a snobbish elite that rigs the game in its favor. White Americans are being invaded by immigrants who take their wealth and divide their culture. Normal Americans are threatened by an Islamic radicalism that murders their children.

This is a tribal story. The tribe needs a strong warrior in a hostile world. We need to build walls to keep out illegals, erect barriers to hold off foreign threats, wage endless war on the globalist elites.

.. Somebody is going to have to arise to point out that this is a deeply wrong and un-American story. The whole point of America is that we are not a tribe. We are a universal nation, founded on universal principles

.. The core American idea is not the fortress, it’s the frontier. First, we thrived by exploring a physical frontier during the migration west, and now we explore technological, scientific, social and human frontiers.

.. From Jonathan Edwards to Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln to Frederick Douglass, Americans have always admired those who made themselves anew. They have generally welcomed immigrants who live this script and fortify this dynamism.

.. The original Republicans were not for or against government, they were for government that sparked mobility; they were against government that enervated ambition.

.. Today, the main enemy is not aliens; it’s division — between rich and poor, white and black, educated and less educated, right and left.

.. Trumpist populists want to widen the divisions and rearrange the fences. They want to turn us into an old, settled and fearful nation.

.. with entitlement reform that spends less on the affluent elderly and more on the enterprising young families

.. this striving American dream is still lurking in every heart. It’s waiting for somebody who has the guts to say

  • no to tribe, yes to universal nation,
  • no to fences, yes to the frontier,
  • no to closed, and yes to the open future,
  • no to the fear-driven homogeneity of the old continent and yes to the diverse hopefulness of the new one.

The Health Care Cul-de-Sac

What are the biggest threats to the American Dream right now, to our unity and prosperity, our happiness and civic health?

First, an economic stagnation that we are only just now, eight years into an economic recovery, beginning to escape — a stagnation that has left median incomes roughly flat for almost a generation, encouraged populism on the left and right, and made every kind of polarization that much worse.

First, an economic stagnation that we are only just now, eight years into an economic recovery, beginning to escape — a stagnation that has left median incomes roughly flat for almost a generation, encouraged populism on the left and right, and made every kind of polarization that much worse.

.. And if the Democrats, having blown up the insurance system once to implement Obamacare, really rallied around a Bernie Sanders-style proposal to do it all over again but on a bigger scale? Then not only would 2020 be a health care election, but if the Democrat won, the next two years would be consumed by outlandish single-payer expectations.

Where would that leave our two big problems, stagnation and the social crisis?

.. But when your main challenges involve men who aren’t working, wages that aren’t rising, families that aren’t forming and communities that are collapsing, constantly overhauling health insurance is at best an indirect response, at worst a non sequitur.

.. Democrats, meanwhile, could let single-payer dreams wait (or just die) and think instead about spending that supports work and family directly. They could look at proposals for a larger earned-income tax credit, a family allowance, and let the “job guarantee” and “guaranteed basic income”factions fight things out. If they want to go big in 2020, they could run on wage subsidies and public works, not another disruptive health care vision.

.. The country has bigger problems than its insurance system. It’s time for both parties to act like it.