The Magazine

The Buckley Party

The success--and failure--of New York's conservatives.

May 27, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 36 • By VINCENT J. CANNATO
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Fighting the Good Fight
A History of the New York Conservative Party 1962-2002
by George J. Marlin
St. Augustine's, 434 pp., $28

THE BATTLEFIELD of American politics is littered with the corpses of defeated third parties. Occasionally, such parties might sway the outcome of a presidential race, but mostly they live their all-too-short political lives in vain. It's true that our electoral system makes it difficult for these minor parties, but they are often their own worst enemies. The roster of third parties is filled with kooks, demagogues, extremists, egomaniacs, and naive dreamers. And their shelf life is depressingly short.

All this makes the history of the New York Conservative party seem all the more exceptional. Arguably one of the most influential third parties of the twentieth century, it has never fielded a candidate on the national level. But by concentrating on one state, it found itself on the cutting edge of American politics, a precursor to great changes that would sweep the entire country.

Now, for the fortieth anniversary of the party's founding, George J. Marlin has written a sympathetic history, "Fighting the Good Fight." Marlin grew up with the Conservative party. As a Brooklyn teenager, he campaigned for Bill Buckley during his 1965 mayoral campaign. Almost thirty years later, Marlin himself was the Conservative candidate for mayor of New York and he still remains active in the party.

To Marlin, the rise of the Conservative party is as much a story of ethnicity and class as it is of political ideology. The New Yorkers Marlin writes about are mostly working-class and middle-class Irish, Italian, and German Catholics; their opponents largely upper-class and upper-middle-class Protestants--the dreaded "goo-goos" and "blue bloods." Variously called Reagan Democrats, blue-collar Catholics, or white ethnics, these conservative New Yorkers had grown angry and disillusioned with liberalism by the 1960s.

But the revolt of the white ethnics goes back to the mid-nineteenth century, when Irish immigrants clashed with native-born Protestants on the streets of New York and Thomas Nast's infamous cartoons portrayed the Irish as apes. By the turn of the century, Southern and Eastern European immigrants coming through Ellis Island took their place beside the Irish on the list of undesirables. Many Americans from the "responsible classes" feared that these immigrant hordes--"beaten men from beaten races," according to the then-president of MIT--would overrun Anglo-Saxon society. Eugenics became fashionable. Protestant elites supported Margaret Sanger's birth control movement, fearing "race suicide" if large immigrant families continued to grow unchecked.

The battle continued as Al Smith, the great Democratic hero-martyr of 1928, grew disillusioned with Franklin Roosevelt and his liberal New Dealers. Long dismissed as the rantings of a bitter old politician, Smith's criticisms were actually a precursor of the complaints of the Reagan Democrats years later. By the 1950s, many Catholic Democrats no longer felt comfortable in a Democratic party increasingly run by liberal, college-educated, upper-middle-class reformers who worshipped Adlai Stevenson and ridiculed machine politicians. They also found liberal elites insufficiently tough on communism.

The trouble was that the Republican party in the northeastern states, run by people like the Rockefellers and the Lodges, was little better. So a pair of Irish Catholic lawyers in their thirties, Dan Mahoney and Kieran O'Doherty, decided to shake up New York politics and create the Conservative party in 1962. The party served as a voice for staunch anti-communism and for opposition to the big-government welfare state, which were being ignored by both major parties.

The party's appeal was largely to those "street-corner conservatives" of the old ethnic neighborhoods. The founding of the New York Conservative party was thus the culmination of more than a century of battles between progressive elites and working-class, traditionally minded Catholics. In Marlin's words, "the heirs of Al Smith's common man and F.D.R.'s forgotten man became members of Richard Nixon's silent majority and Ronald Reagan's moral majority."