Date of Award

Summer 2021

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Department

History

First Advisor

Don H. Doyle

Abstract

Italian Americans were a key constituency of the white-ethnic voting bloc that formed one of the main pillars of the New Deal coalition. However, few historians have looked at motives for the group’s allegiance beyond economic necessity and machine politics. This approach has falsely colored enthusiasm for the New Deal as a reflexive reaction to the Great Depression. “Building a New (Deal) Identity” argues that Italian Americans living in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, from Pittsburgh through Cleveland, voted heavily for the New Deal during the 1930s because of their unique political reshaping during the preceding two decades. In this explanation, politicians such as Franklin Roosevelt harnessed a group already susceptible to a modern liberal ideology rather than persuaded Italian Americans to support them out of sheer economic desperation. This dissertation helps explain why the Democratic Party’s New Deal liberalism changed the American political paradigm for a generation. By tracing ideological roots to the previous decades, it becomes clear why that liberalism became part of the Italian-American identity as opposed to an aberration that disappeared with the resolution of the economic crisis.

Italian Americans created the foundation for accepting modern liberalism because they synthesized three major influences circulating in their community. American civic nationalism contributed ideas about democracy and personal rights. Radical leftists, including socialists and anarcho-syndicalists, convinced people of the need for unionization and concessions to workers. Finally, Italian Fascism showed the benefits of an activist government willing to intervene in the economy to solve crises. Although these influences are well-documented in Italian-American historiography, historians have treated them as mutually exclusive trends. “Building a New (Deal) Identity” explains how each component impacted average people. Through each stage, Italian Americans purged the conflicting aspects of the influences to create a fusion that resembled modern American liberalism and was ripe for appropriation by the New Dealers.

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History Commons

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