US President Joe Biden in Ballina, Co. Mayo, Ireland, April 14, 2023 (Sky)
Originally written for The Irish Times:
After US President Joe Biden’s visit to Ireland, with many echoes of the Kennedy visit 60 years ago, it is timely to consider if he is the last of a tribe of liberal Irish-American politicians.
The Kennedy and Biden visits bookend a period that chronicles the relative decline of this political type and of Irish America as a collective ethnic identity in the US.
Will there be a new generation of Irish leaders in the US?
The Fracturing of Irish America
From the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, Irish-Americans were powerful political actors in the US, especially in the large cities of the north and east and more particularly as leaders and foot soldiers of the Democratic Party.
Since the 1960s, however, there have been serial declarations that Irish America is dead or dying, usually based on a presumption that it has been assimilated to a point of irrelevance as a salient ethnic identity or coherent community.
There are sociological and demographic pointers to that demise, including degeneration of once strong ethnic networks, organisations and communities, while Irish leadership in urban and national politics appears spent and unlikely to return.
The once potent relationship between Irish America and the Democratic Party was fractured in the 1960s and never recovered. That period saw the beginning of a rightward shift in what remained of Irish America, first in reaction to civil rights and abortion issues, later inflamed by cultural wars and more recently the appeal of a populist ethnonationalism championed by Donald Trump.
Today, there is no Irish-American block of voters and it can be difficult to determine the political preferences or significance of voters of Irish descent. Best estimates would suggest that the majority of Irish-Americans still lean liberal but a large conservative minority is more visible and more vocal.
In recent years a prominent gallery of Irish (often Catholic) voices are stoking divisive cultural politics and enunciating a racial politics of white grievance, led by what has been called the “alt-Irish” media and political personalities. The journalist Andrew O’Hehir observes that “When you think of the face of white rage in America, it belongs to a red-faced Irish dude on Fox News.”
Why Biden Mattered
Joe Biden is a throwback politically, a type of Irish politician once common but now rare. He grew up politically in the shadow of the Kennedys and has knowingly taken on the Kennedy mantle as a politician.
Clearly proud of his Irish roots, Biden has long referenced his family history and links to Ireland in comments on his political career and worldview. His Irishness is expressive of a “common man” mentality and touch, and he uses Irish references to talk about the “dignity” of working-class life and of immigrants.
Over the years Biden has come to personify a liberal politics of empathy in which his Irish ancestry and Catholicism function as moral touchstones. In his run for the presidency he promised to be a redemptive figure, healing the wounds of a disunited and fractious nation.
Biden’s Irishness is the essence of his political sensibility and may appeal to many Americans as a balm against the divisiveness of recent years. But it is also a belated form of benign liberalism that is past its sell-by date politically and culturally in the US.
Where Is The Next Generation?
For all his prominence, Biden appears as a revenant of a disappearing Irish America and the last of a once powerful tribe of liberal Irish-American politicians.
The relative decline of Irish America raises the question of where the next generation of leadership will come from. To be sure, there are some signs of life in Irish-American politics and some initiatives attempting to inject new life into it.
In Washington there are a few younger members of Congress picking up the reins. Perhaps most prominent in Congress is Brendan Boyle, representing Pennsylvania’s 2nd District, who has been a strong supporter of the Belfast Agreement and Irish lobbying in relation to Brexit.
If we look regionally across the US rather than focus on national politics, we see many political representatives and civic leaders of Irish heritage. There are initiatives to bring them into more active identification and communication with Ireland.
A productive example is the American Irish State Legislators Caucus, which was created by Irish Senator Mark Daly. It is a bipartisan network of Irish-American legislators and public officials at the local and sate level of government, engaging local and national counterparts in Ireland. About 1,300 legislators across all 50 states are involved.
This form of networking beyond Washington and the usual centres of Irish America is an imaginative way to actively assemble a new generation of diaspora representation in the US. Any such formation will need to be grown and nurtured, not assumed nor simply found.
If there is to be a new generation of Irish-American leadership engaged with Ireland, it will not look like nor produce another Joe Biden. He is the product of a different and now departing Irish America, out of time and yet of the moment.