A review: Blue Collar Conservativism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics, by Timothy Lombardo (University of Pennsylvania Press)
Recent controversies over public statuary have mostly concerned memorials to figures from the distant past. One exception is the push, in Philadelphia, to remove the bronze statue of Frank Rizzo from its location near city hall. Rizzo served as the city’s police commissioner from 1967 to 1971, and then as mayor for two terms, between 1972 and 1980. The “Big Man” (Rizzo stood 6’2’’ and weighed 250 pounds) was one of the leading law-and-order politicians of his time. Funded by his admirers, Rizzo’s statue went up in 1999, eight years after his death. Less than two decades later, in response to Black Lives Matter protests, Mayor James Kenney pledged to move the statue.
Timothy Lombardo’s new book Blue Collar Conservativism explains why Rizzo was both detested and admired. No other white-ethnic mayor from the latter half of the twentieth century—not Richard Daley, not Rudy Giuliani—was as beloved by his constituents. Lombardo’s book is less about Rizzo himself than his white working-class constituency, and why it left the liberal New Deal coalition to join the modern conservative movement. Seeing the evolution of “blue-collar conservativism” as one of the most consequential political developments of recent decades, Lombardo draws a straight line from Rizzo to Trump.
The book covers a series of public debates that shaped Philadelphia’s political history throughout the postwar era, including the siting of new public housing developments, school integration, affirmative-action programs targeting unions, the shootings of civilians by police (and police by civilians), and a prohibition on blackface in the New Year’s Day Mummers parade. From the 1950s on, Philadelphia’s white working class grew more and more to distrust the city’s increasingly liberal white establishment. Rizzo owed his rise to changes in Philadelphia’s civic culture that were decades in the making.
A tough-on-crime populist, Rizzo stood second to none in the authenticity of his working-class roots. He was a high school dropout who followed in his immigrant father’s footsteps by becoming a cop. Though often at war with the press, he also courted it and had a way with words that contributed greatly to his popularity. Rizzo is credited with saying, “a conservative is a liberal who got mugged the night before” (another version is often attributed to Irving Kristol). His governance record was mixed. Crime was high during his time in the mayor’s office and Philadelphia was hit by riots; though on both these fronts, the city was better off than some of its peers, such as Detroit and Newark, there was no Giuliani-esque turnaround.
Rizzo never had much of a handle on the city’s budget. After he abandoned a campaign pledge not to raise taxes, voters tried (unsuccessfully) to recall him in 1976. The city botched its planned celebration for America’s bicentennial, resulting in embarrassingly low attendance. An enthusiastic proponent of patronage, Rizzo did apply the brakes to some progressive initiatives on housing and schools. Beyond this, it is not obvious how, in material terms, his administration delivered for its constituents. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the most important benefits were intangible. The “Rizzocrats” wanted the satisfaction of knowing that their voices were heard by someone with their interests at heart.
Lombardo cites several instances of clear and even violent prejudice displayed by Rizzo’s supporters, such as assaults on upwardly mobile black families whose only offense was their desire to live in a white neighborhood. But, measured against the race-obsessed norms of modern academia (Lombardo is a professor at the University of South Alabama), Blue-Collar Conservativism is a moderate work. As it happens, Rizzo’s people are Lombardo’s people, too: the author hails from white-ethnic Philadelphia, and he treats their values with nuance. He does not attribute everything to racism. The Rizzocrats were one generation removed from immigrant squalor, and had been themselves victims of prejudice (or at least their parents had). They saw themselves as underdogs, not oppressors. Rizzo voters saw their economic livelihood threatened by deindustrialization, the collapse of once-stable neighborhoods, and—in terms of the government response to what was then termed the “urban crisis”—a policy debate focused exclusively on how to help minorities. In contrast with other members of the modern conservative movement, Rizzo voters had no interest in a root-and-branch dismantling of the New Deal. They welcomed a relatively expansive public sector so long as they benefited from it, or at least were not harmed by it.
Lombardo locates blue-collar Philadelphians’ conservativism, and his criticism of them, chiefly in their “selective rejection of welfare state liberalism.” The Rizzo voter was substantially a creation of urban renewal, he explains. Shortly after World War II, city planners developed new neighborhoods in northeast Philadelphia to persuade middle- class families to remain within city limits. Future Rizzo supporters flocked to these areas. Lombardo believes that the Rizzocrats gave short shrift to their dependence on urban renewal and other social programs as, over time, their opposition to the welfare state became stronger. They talked a big game about hard work and “earned privilege,” but they benefited handsomely from government programs—just different ones than those pushed via the War on Poverty.
Lombardo is not fully persuasive here. The War on Poverty saw a truly dramatic expansion in social programs that coincided with a collapse of the social order. It wasn’t just Rizzo’s supporters but also some of the most intelligent and informed students of public policy who saw their belief in government shaken. Moreover, it can’t be true that benefiting from certain government programs disqualifies one from criticizing programs from which others benefit.
Does Rizzo help us understand Donald Trump? Plainly, the origins of working-class discontent trace back decades and are an authentic product of democratic politics. Rizzo’s appeal had much more to do with ethnic and class pride than with substantive policy outcomes. Much of the debate over Trump’s constituency, as was the case with Rizzo’s, concerns the value of equal time for a class of white Americans that feels forgotten. Maybe we can agree that all ethnic groups have a right to demand, “Where’s mine?” But how far does that take us, and is it a place we want to be?