Blue-Collar Philly of the 1960s and ’70s: Trump Voters before Trump

Statue of former mayor Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia, Pa. (Tim Shaffer/Reuters)
Historian Timothy Lombardo looks at the rise of populist conservatives in a city run by the Democratic machine.

The cycle between elite government and populist revolt is much discussed today, but it is nothing new in American politics. The battle between in-groups and out-groups, court parties and country parties, goes back centuries. Each episode is different, reflecting the issues of the times, but all populist explosions share some characteristics. Among them is the general sense that a change is needed, even one with uncertain results; another is the rise of pent-up rage in people who feel powerless and ignored.

Who, exactly, is considered powerless in these scenarios is a more complicated question than one might think. Just as economic migrants are rarely the poorest people in a country, political uprisings do not tend to be started by the most downtrodden folk. Populists draw their strength from people who, though far from elite, have some privileges. They are not rich, but neither are they destitute. They are people who have little political power but still have something to lose.

That describes the Trump populism of our time, but to readers of a certain age from Philadelphia, it also sums up the political movement that produced Mayor Frank Rizzo. In Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics, historian Timothy J. Lombardo looks back at Rizzo and the passions he inspired among his friends and foes. The former police commissioner who served two terms as mayor was the defining political personality in Philadelphia for a generation, and Lombardo’s analysis gives the modern reader a good understanding of why that was the case.

The Philadelphia of the 1970s had recently experienced a political renaissance under elite leadership. After decades of corrupt rule by one of the nation’s last big-city Republican machines, Philadelphia’s patrician class joined forces with independent voters and a Democratic machine enlightened enough to understand that good government could, in some circumstances, make good politics. This coalition was elected to office in 1951, led by Joseph Sill Clark Jr., later a U.S. senator. After Clark, District Attorney Richardson Dilworth won two terms as mayor before resigning to run for governor. He was succeeded by City Council President James Tate. Tate had come up through the Democratic machine and was from a working-class background, but he mostly maintained the high-minded liberalism of his elite predecessors.

As with any party newly in power, the first few years of the Clark-Dilworth Democrats saw much-needed reform. Once that was done, power became an end in itself, especially as the patricians left government and the ward heelers took their places. The Democratic machine of the late 1960s began to resemble the Republican machine of the 1940s. The liberal policies also began to wear thin as the accumulated changes of the 1960s political revolution alienated many blue-collar residents who gave the Democratic party its majorities in Philadelphia elections.

Enter Frank Rizzo. A beat cop who rose through the ranks to become commissioner, Rizzo embodied blue-collar Philadelphia’s vision of how things should work. The police, drawn almost entirely from the ranks of white, blue-collar Philadelphia, were seen not only as protectors of the social order but also as blue-collar success stories. As with the Blue Lives Matter movement of today, many working-class Philadelphians saw the police as the thin blue line between civilization and chaos.

Desire to maintain the status quo partly explains why blue-collar Philadelphia moved from liberal to conservative. Much of Lombardo’s book is focused on the task of defining “blue-collar conservatism,” and it is not simple. The conservatism of Edmund Burke or William F. Buckley Jr. is not the same as that of Rizzo and other conservative populists. Figuring out what the blue-collar populists wanted and how this fit into the larger conservative worldview is as troublesome an intellectual exercise as today’s discussion of Trump Republicans.

As Lombardo defines blue-collar conservatism, there is considerable overlap between yesterday’s partisans of Rizzo and today’s Trump supporters. He suggests a definition that includes “promotion of law-and-order conservatism and selective rejection of welfare liberalism.” Often in the book, Lombardo cites this negative attitude toward welfare. Leftists in Rizzo’s time and our own have struggled to wrap their heads around it: How can those who have benefited from government aid reject new government programs that aim to help even more people?

There are several answers. It seems to me that cynicism may play a role: After blue-collar families became financially secure, they cared less for other people looking to ascend the social ladder behind them. Lombardo cites racism as a factor as well: It’s the elephant in the room in any discussion of Rizzo and the civil unrest of the 1960s and ’70s. Lombardo aptly chronicles racism in the fights and protests that occurred when the first black families moved into once all-white blue-collar neighborhoods in those years.

But it is also possible to differentiate the pro-worker initiatives of the New Deal, which remained beloved by blue-collar conservatives, from the growth of the welfare state under Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. The difference lies in the blue-collar ethos of hard work and tradition, which increasingly fit into the conservative mindset. Lombardo writes:

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 who earned what little they had and those that expected a “handout” from liberals.

He notes that at times this distinction served to disguise an underlying racial animus, but it cannot be said to be wholly a ruse. The distinction between people who deserve charity and those who do not has been around for all of human history. We see it, for instance, in the Elizabethan poor laws that predate this country’s founding. Many people see the difference between the disabled or downtrodden who work as hard as they can and need a little help, and the lazy or criminal who should have to fend for themselves. Socialists ignore the difference, in that they essentially want welfare for all; libertarians also ignore the difference insofar as they want everyone to fend for themselves. But many people, including many blue-collar workers, recoil from such absolute philosophies, which makes them swing voters.

This is especially the case in a city such as Philadelphia where, even by Rizzo’s time, the real campaign was fought in the Democratic primary. Blue-collar voters were alienated not only by changes in society but also by a Democratic party led by elites who no longer took their concerns seriously. Rizzo stepped into that gap, much as Trump has done in this century. Like Trump, Rizzo was a non-ideological tough guy who straddled the two parties’ differences on the welfare state and promised to help those whom everyone else had written off.

Perhaps both men, like politicians of most stripes, also appealed to less savory parts of their supporters’ psyches. It’s impossible to quantify how much racism played into Rizzo’s appeal. Many of his supporters in the almost entirely white neighborhoods of South and Northeast Philadelphia would probably have denied that racial hatred played any part in their vote. But there is no disputing that the politics of race played some role in Rizzo’s appeal and also contributed to his extremely negative image among black Philadelphians.

Rizzo’s legacy in Philadelphia today is mixed, varying wildly by the age and neighborhood of the people you might ask. In 2017, Philadelphia councilwoman Helen Gym elbowed the city into the controversy over Confederate monuments by insisting that the statue of Rizzo across from City Hall must come down. “In Philly, the wounds of racism still exist,” Gym told Philadelphia magazine. “We have to be serious about healing. Frank Rizzo is living large in the center of our city.”

Gym did not move to Philadelphia until after Rizzo’s death, though she went to college there while Rizzo was still alive and politically active; perhaps she views him through the unforgiving lens progressives often use in critiquing the past. Lombardo — also quoted in the Philadelphia magazine article — takes a similarly jaundiced view of Rizzo and his legacy. But in examining the people who supported Rizzo, he writes with more nuance. Lombardo is a son of Northeast Philadelphia (as am I). In the book’s acknowledgements, he notes that this history is “the story of my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, and my broader extended family.”

Familiarity with people with whom he disagrees has made Lombardo a better teller of Philadelphia’s story, which is a lesson for all writers. While communicating his disagreement with people, he manages to avoid painting them as hateful caricatures. He shows them as fully formed individuals with complex motivations, prone to errors in judgment, as we all are, but not deplorable or easily written off.

The story of Philadelphia in the 1970s is a complicated one, and Lombardo tells it well in an academic book that is not overcrowded with academic jargon. His well-researched analysis of blue-collar-conservatives, a confounding topic in recent years, is enlightening and bears on our own time as much as Rizzo’s.


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