Articles by: Fred Gardaphe *

  • Library: Articles & Reviews

    The Changing Ethnic Factor of American Politics

    If Bill de Blasio becomes mayor of New York, he will become the fourth U.S. American of Italian descent to take on the leadership of the country’s largest city. But there’s a big difference between de Blasio and his predecessors. 

    For Fiorello LaGuardia, Vincent Impellitieri, and less so for Rudy Giuliani, the Italian  American vote mattered and was courted. This is to not say that Italian Americans didn’t cast important votes in the primary election, for they still represent a significant portion of the New York City electorate. What it does say is that the once important Italian American block is no longer a major factor in determining most city races.

    That a member of an ethnic group new to New York ran for election has always been news—perhaps not for the larger community, but certainly for the particular group. When one gets elected, it’s history. When two run against each other in an election, what usually gets eliminated is the once important “ethnic factor”. This situation has become the subject of the most recent study of Professor Ottorino Cappelli, a political scientist who teaches at the University of Naples, L’Orientale.

    Cappelli has spent the past few years studying New York politics and its Italian Amerian ethnic factor. The study resulted in Italian Signs, American Politics: Current Affairs, Historical Perspectives, Empirical Analyses, published by the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute.  

    Cappelli found that the ethnic factor changes when Italian Americans run against each other, after all, if a politician argues that one should vote for him/her because he/she is Italian American, then what happens when he/she runs against another Italian American? 

    Cappelli studied this factor in the 2010 gubernatorial race between Andrew M. Cuomo and Carl P. Paladino, neither of whom could use ethnic identity to take votes from the other. He followed this with analyses of earlier congressional and mayoral elections in New York, and an investigation into the interaction between social demographics and the success of Italian American politicians in districts where intra-Italian American election have occurred. By looking at what he determines to be Italian signs that appear in campaigns, Cappelli concludes that Italian American candidates most move beyond strategies of ethnic identity and succeed only when they are able to appeal to broader segments of the areas they wish to represent. 

    The book was presented at Queens College on September 25 in a forum that included New York State Senators, Tony Avella and Joseph Addabbo, two living examples of what Cappelli has studied. Both senators have had experiences of running against other Italian Americans in city and state elections, and brought those experiences into a discussion that followed Cappelli’s introduction to his book. Addabbo and Avella enlightened the audience with stories of their personal and professional stories of elections and service to their constituencies. The result was a dynamic presentation and a great example of how the academy can contribute to helping us all better understand the communities we make as traditional notions of ethnic identity shift and shape new ways of perceiving the past, present and futures of New York citizens.

    * Fred Gardaphe is Distinguished Professor of English and Italian American Studies at Queens College and the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute (CUNY).

    The book's table of contents:


    By Ottorino Cappelli


    Italian-American Politics in New York City. Bird’s and Worm’s Eye Views.

    By Jerome Krase

    The Inner Circlers. Andrew Cuomo, Carl Paladino, and Their Top Italian-American Aides.

    By Ottorino Cappelli


    The 1950 Election. A Classic Intra-Ethnic Struggle.

    By Salvatore J. LaGumina

    When East Harlem’s Politics Was an Italian–American Matter. The Lanzetta–Marcantonio Congressional Races, 1934–1940.

    By Stefano Luconi


    How Do Italian Americans Vote—and Does it Matter? Testing the ‘Symbolic Rewards Hypothesis’ in the U.S. House of Representatives.

    By Rodrigo Praino

    Tales of an Italian-American Political Class. Monopolistic Elections and Hegemonic Districts in New York.

    By Ottorino Cappelli

  • Op-Eds

    Tomorrow's Work

     A good way to alienate people around you is to tell them whom you are voting for. With the polls tighter than ever, the odds are you are close to people who are not voting the same way you are. That means if you open your mouth, you could get into some pretty intense arguments with people you care about. Many people chose to not disclose their choices, and, that that is certainly their prerogative, it says a lot about how difficult it has become to stand up and for one’s beliefs.

    Like most of what has happened in 21st century U.S.A., we tend to leave this kind of public talk to the professionals—those who get paid to form opinions and express them in the media. This follows much of what we have let happened to our democracy. We have professional politicians, professional soldiers, professional everything, or so it seems. And when you professionalize democracy, you end up with what I have termed democrazy—a governing system that tells you to stay out and leave it to the professionals. And many do that, so many in fact that the turn out is not much over 50 percent of eligible voters.
    Why do so many not participate in making such an important decision? Could it be because they don’t see that much of a difference in those who will spend their money, send their children off to fight wars, determine how much of their hard earned money they will be required to send to the government? I think it has much to do with how we have been lulled into apathy by the idea that the professionals will take care of everything.
    So if I tell the world that I’m voting for Barak Obama because I want to give him four more years to fix the fine mess he found himself in when he took command, then I’ve got to be ready for a lot of flack, and risk offending people with whom, on many other issues I share similar feelings.
    If I tell the world that I’m voting for Barak Obama because he represents more closely the ideal of democracy than his opponent, you might call me a dreamer, but for me, ideals light the way for our everyday attempts to improve life; they leave us with better vision for setting goals even as they cast shadows of our inability to reach perfection.
    If I tell the world that I’m voting for Obama because the lessons I learned about work from my grandparents make sense under his administration, you might call me nostalgic, but there’s something that my Italian immigrant ancestors struggled for that I am enjoying and I won’t forget that. While neither candidate said much, if anything, about working people, Obama’s vision of work is much closer to that of my grandparents’ than is his opponent’s. I’m voting for Obama, because I believe the private sector, represented by his opponent, has no capacity for caring about the common worker, the common citizen, those his opponent referred to as the 47 percent. The working class majority, many of whom were led to believe that they are actually part of this shrinking mythical middle class that everyone’s so worried about, haven’t had their needs directly addressed by a U.S. president since F.D.R. Even Obama doesn’t do well in this area, but at least he’s listening and health care for every American would go a long way to change that.

    I’m voting for Obama, because, for the first time in a long time, his leadership made it possible for me to travel through Europe with my head held high as an American. I don’t think Obama is the perfect person to be leading us, but to me he’s the right person right now. I believe he is the one who will lead us to in a working democracy and not into a democrazy in which we turn over all our responsibilities to the private sector.

    * Distinguished Professor of English and Italian American Studies at Queens College/CUNY and the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute