Tag Archives: Conservatism

The Metropole Bookshelf: Timothy Lombardo’s Blue Collar Conservatism

The Metropole Bookshelf is an opportunity for authors of forthcoming or recently published books to let the UHA community know about their new work in the field.

By Timothy J. Lombardo

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Timothy J. Lombardo. 2018. Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 328 pp. 10 photos. ISBN: 978-0-8122-5054-1. $37.50. Hardcover.

Frank Rizzo embarked on his first campaign for mayor of Philadelphia in 1971. Promising “law and order” and running as the self-proclaimed “toughest cop in America,” his campaign focused on turning out voters from Philadelphia’s white ethnic, blue-collar neighborhoods. With a month before the election Rizzo campaigned heavily in South Philadelphia, where he had been born and raised. During a stop at a neighborhood tavern, a campaign reporter asked the bar’s patrons what they liked about Rizzo. One replied that the city needed “an 11th grade dropout” to straighten things out. “He’ll win because he isn’t a Ph.D.,” he continued. “He’s one of us. Rizzo came up the hard way.”

Frank Rizzo went on to win the election and serve two terms as the mayor of Philadelphia, becoming the first former police commissioner elected mayor of a major American city. As police commissioner, Rizzo 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. Although Rizzo was a Democrat, 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.

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. He is rightly remembered as one the most controversial figures in the city’s history. Yet his white ethnic, blue-collar supporters never wavered in their support of the tough-talking former cop they called “one of us.”

Blue-Collar Conservatism tells the story of Frank Rizzo’s white ethnic, blue-collar supporters and their evolving politics in the long postwar era. It focuses on the working- and middle-class white Philadelphians that fought the integration of their children’s schools, their neighborhoods, and their workplaces while clamoring for “law and order.” It locates their “blue-collar conservatism” in a mutually reinforcing promotion of law-and-order conservatism and selective rejection of welfare liberalism. In Frank Rizzo they found a champion and defender of their blue-collar traditions and institutions. They responded not only to his forceful rhetoric, but also his up-from-the-streets “one of us” populism.

The standard explanation for the rise of working-class anti-liberalism in the 1960s and 1970s has relied on a familiar narrative of racial backlash. This focus, while not inaccurate, has obscured the importance of class ideologies and identities in this political history. Blue-Collar Conservatism shows how Frank Rizzo’s supporters attempted to use class identity and blue-collar discourses to obfuscate the racial politics of modern liberal policymaking. The result was the establishment of a populist variant of modern conservatism shaped by the racial upheavals of midcentury urban America, but imbued with blue-collar identity politics.

The context for this political development is the urban crisis of the 1960s and 1970s. The upheaval that led to high rates of unemployment, shrinking city tax bases, fiscal shortfalls, rising crime and, most dramatically, waves of urban uprisings, produced the spatial and political realignments that shaped modern American political culture. Blue-collar whites in Philadelphia and throughout the country were caught up in the many transformations wrought by the urban crisis. Blue-Collar Conservatism shows how their political transformation sprang from both the economic instabilities of a changing era and their responses to a shifting racial order.

In the end, Blue-Collar Conservatism offers a nuanced social and political history of a pivotal period in modern America, set in one of its most dynamic cities. It uses Frank Rizzo, his supporters, and his city to explore how white working-class engagement with the politics of the urban crisis led to one of the least understood but most significant developments in modern American political history. The book ultimately shows how urban blue-collar whites joined the conservative movement that reached fruition in the 1980s and reshaped it into a coalition that backed populist politicians from Frank Rizzo to Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump.

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Timothy J. Lombardo is a Philadelphia native and an Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Alabama. His work has appeared in The Journal of Social History, The Journal of Urban History, The Journal of American History, and The Washington Post. Blue-Collar Conservatism is his first book. Follow him on Twitter @TimLombard0

Member of the Week: Kim Phillips-Fein

Gallatin HeadshotKim Phillips-Fein

Associate Professor

Gallatin School of Individualized Study and History Department, College of Arts and Sciences

New York University

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

I’m actually between major research projects now, which is a nice though sometimes anxiety-provoking place to be!  I have been thinking about a lot of different topics–about the far right in the 1930s; about how to tell the history of the Great Depression in a way that is not triumphalist about the New Deal; about the transformation of the lived experience of political economy between the 1970s to the 1980s, especially the major strikes of that era (most of which ended in defeat for the unions involved) and the ways they reflected a fundamental conflict about the future of the country; about the political ideas of business executives going back into the 19th century, and the ways that their thinking has helped to shape a distinctive political tradition in the United States, one that is far more ambivalent about democracy than our mainstream political culture would suggest–but my energies are still dispersed.  I recently finished writing an essay for an edited volume about the contested history of the idea of neoliberalism, and this was fun because it allowed me to pull together some of the thoughts I had while working on Fear City. In general, I think that the current political situation informs my research interests. I am always trying to understand how and why the right is so powerful in this country, what kinds of voices get heard in political life, who is able to exercise power and how.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

This year I taught one class on the history of ideas about American capitalism in the 20th century, one course which I called “The American Business Tradition: Entrepreneurs, Robber Barons, Salesmen and Frauds,” and one on the history of social movements of both the left and the right in the 20th century (this was co-taught with Linda Gordon). All these classes are in direct dialogue with my own thinking about my research, even though in my classes I always try to take as broad a view as possible, rather than teaching my own arguments (I never really like assigning my own work).  In my writing I try to think about how to put complex ideas into clear language and how to foreground my arguments without making them too simple; teaching is great practice for both of these, as well as a chance to listen to what college students think about history, politics and American society.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

There’s always so much I am looking forward to reading at the end of the semester!  One book I’m especially looking forward to is Stacie Taranto’s Kitchen Table Politics, about conservative women in New York State. I’m also excited about Keisha Blain’s Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom, as well as Michael Honey’s recent To the Promised Land, which is about Martin Luther King, Jr., and his longstanding commitment to economic justice. I’ve also been looking forward to LaDale Winling’s Building the Ivory Tower: Universities and Metropolitan Development in the Twentieth Century, as I think about the efforts of cities to adapt to the loss of industry in the 1970s and after.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Always let yourself become deeply engaged by the city you’re writing about. Spend lots of time walking around it, observing it, traveling it. Don’t just work in the archives, but try to let your work there go along with an immersion in the present life of the place whose history you’re exploring.  If it is your home town, think of ways to make it appear strange and new to you, and if it is a new city, try to talk to the people who have lived there all their lives.

Your book, Fear City, is one of the most frequently referenced publications on The Metropole! It has clearly been an influential and useful resource for urban historians. Looking back on your career so far, what book or article most influenced you and the questions you have asked about the past?

While it’s hard to pick a single book, Josh Freeman’s Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II was the most important work for me as I was thinking about Fear City, in that it emphasized the distinctive nature of postwar New York and the unusual style of liberalism that existed in the city.  More generally, for thinking about urban history, both Jefferson Cowie’s Capital Moves and Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis were very important for me–they both suggested the importance of exploring the internal dynamics within cities while also seeing them as part of larger systems of power. Both books show that what we think of as the problems of cities are in many ways simply the problems of inequality, as they play out in a specific geographical space.

Member of the Week: Timothy Lombardo

Profile PicTimothy J. Lombardo, PhD

Assistant Professor

Department of History, University of South Alabama

Twitter: @TimLombard0

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

I am currently finishing my first book. It is a study of post-World War II Philadelphia and the blue-collar supporters of 1960s police commissioner turned 1970s mayor, Frank Rizzo. The book examines white, blue-collar Philadelphians’ engagement with the politics of law enforcement, education, employment, and housing and traces the establishment of an urban, class-conscious variant of populist conservatism. I came to the project for a number of reasons. The first is because I was born and raised in Philadelphia. I had long known of Rizzo’s reputation, but never really thought about it in a broader context until graduate school. I didn’t initially set out to write a dissertation on my home town, but I took a seminar on Conservatism in the Modern United States that piqued my interest. I also thought I recognized a gap in the literature. The majority of the urban history books we read in that seminar covered the Sunbelt or Suburban communities in the South and West (think Lisa McGirr, Becky Nicolaides, Matthew Lassiter, Kevin Kruse, Robert Self, etc.). These were all great books, but they didn’t seem to account for the kinds of urban conservative politics I was familiar with at home. I quickly decided to change my dissertation topic and spent the next few years chasing resources from the white, working- and middle-class neighborhoods that provided Frank Rizzo with his most enthusiastic support. Years later, the book is now under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press under the title Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and the Politics of the Urban Crisis.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I just finished my second year at the University of South Alabama. In addition to my modern US survey courses, this past year I also taught a writing seminar on post-World War II US history and a research seminar on 20th century US History. In the next academic year I will offer an honors class on American urban history called “The Urban Crucible: Cities and Suburbs in Modern America” and another course on America in the Sixties. All of these classes relate to my scholarship in a number of ways. My post-1945 US, urban history, and Sixties classes all take up the intersecting themes of race, class, and American political development that I write about in my book. I also try to integrate bits of my research into every class I teach, from surveys to research seminars.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

Since you’ve already given me the space to make a shameless plug about my own book, I will say that I’m most looking forward to (finally) reading Ansley Erickson’s Making the Unequal Metropolis. It’s been on my to-read list for a while, but the recent controversy over the book’s treatment by the American Historical Review has reinvigorated my interest. I had actually chosen the book as one of my course readings in my upcoming urban history class well before the AHR review came out, so now I’m really looking forward to figuring out how I’m going to incorporate it into the class.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

Be flexible. Be flexible with your research, with your reading, with your writing, and with your career path. Urban history/studies is a growing field with a lot of possibilities, but young scholars shouldn’t let it also be a limitation. I think the flexibility to read across specialties and disciplines, to publish in different forums, and to research beyond what we usually consider urban history are important parts of scholarly development and maturation. I didn’t start out doing urban history; my research took me in that direction. It also helps to be flexible in where young scholars think they can do urban history. I’m pretty sure there was never a point when I was growing up in Philly, or at any point thereafter, that I told myself that I wanted to end up in Mobile, Alabama. But I remained open to different possibilities and followed them when they opened up. Now I’m lucky to be forging a career at a good university, with great students, and excellent colleagues.

What museum or historical site would you recommend to urban historians visiting Mobile, Alabama?

First of all, more urban historians need to visit Mobile, Alabama, where I’d be happy to show them around when they get here! We have a really good museum in the History Museum of Mobile. For those interested in the city’s architecture, I would direct them to some of Mobile’s historic neighborhoods like the Oakleigh Garden District, De Tonti Square, and Church Street East Historic District. I would suggest they visit Africatown, which is the community built by the last group of African slaves captured and brought to the United States, illegally smuggled in through Mobile Bay in 1860. And, finally, I wouldn’t want an urban scholar to leave without touring Mobile’s lively and growing downtown entertainment district. Like a lot of cities, Mobile’s downtown suffered from disinvestment and decline in the late 20th century, but a concentrated effort in the last decade or so began rejuvenating the area. Current planning documents call for future redevelopment that should allow for more walkability, bikeability, and green spaces. All in all, downtown Mobile offers urban scholars and students an excellent opportunity to see urban renewal in action.