Are American Catholic Politics Local, National, or Both? Well, It Depends on Who You Ask…

Author's Note: Beginning with this blog post, I am going to reformulate how I format and compose the content for each blog. Starting now, I will be more clear about my personal feelings as well as my reasoning behind why I choose to bring light to certain historical relics and leave out others. Be mindful that everything I choose to say or not say has a reason. Thank you.


Photo Source: Mass Moments

“All Politics is Local” -Thomas Phillip O’Neil Jr, 47th Speaker of the House of Representatives

Going back as recent as the end of the 1980s, it seems as though the perception of politics in America being centralized locally has been present, as was made popular by “Tip” O’Neil and his famous quote shown above. According to the New York Times, Mr. O’Neil’s reasoning behind his famous quote mostly revolved around a politician’s viewpoint and that a “politician’s success is directly tied to [his or her] ability to understand and influence the issues of [his or her] constituents.” This was not necessarily a statement in regard to where the political power of the people is focused, but rather, the way in which a politician can best gain traction in their run for office. Fast forward to 2018 and the Washington Post claims in an article from last year that politics are no longer local in the Trump Era simply because of the increased media attention to national politics and a lack of care for local issues by particularly younger voters.

I have used a quote from the 47th Speaker of the House and an article from the Washington Post, both 30 years apart, to bring forth the question: are American politics local, national, or both? I also used this contrast to give you my short answer: it depends on who you ask. As it has been discussed in my history class, the one I am writing this blog for, the study of history is largely focused on how things change over time, as well as how they stay the same. Considering the fact that the U.S. has allegedly shifted from politics being centralized locally to nationally in only 37 years, it begs the question: has it always been this way, have things actually changed, or is it just a matter of perception depending on who you ask? This is compelling because 37 years is not a particularly long time when you consider that there are likely many people who have lived through and remember this, myself not included. Lastly, I would also like to explain why I worded my question in regard to the change in American politics rather than in Catholic politics. The “to-the-point” answer is because this perceived “change” is not only present within Catholic politics, but in American politics as a whole, which also includes Catholics. In this blog, I will be delving into the specifics of the Chicagoan-Catholic side of this issue, but in these blogs I tend to take a more holistic approach to tackling these issues because in the scheme of things, the Catholic experience in American politics has not been that different from the experience of Americans as a whole or in comparison to other groups of people (but we can get into that another time).

Chicago Prior to 1900

Prior to 1900, Chicago’s perception of its “Catholic-ness” was in full swing. As stated in the introduction to “Catholicism, Chicago Style,” by Ellen Skerrett, Edward R. Kantowicz, and Steven M. Avella, many Chicago Catholics would walk around Chicago with what the authors call a type of “swagger” and confidence that Chicago was a “Catholic town.” This seems to me to be similar to a sort of feeling one may have when they’re in their element, or a place in which they feel so deeply intertwined that they develop a sense of ownership. The article also states that this was a time in which Chicago was the largest Catholic Archdiocese in the United States. With all the Catholics in Chicago, many divided themselves ethnically into separate areas such as Catholic-Polish-Chicagoans whose neighborhood basically revolved around their parish (much like how many other Catholic communities revolved around their parishes): St. Stanislaus Kostka.

Photo Source: Spencer Bailey

Above are pictures from the St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church from when I visited during Open House Chicago. In case you don’t know what Open House Chicago is, it’s regarded by the organizers of the event as a “city-wide architecture festival” in which many buildings, public and private, are opened to the public for a weekend every year some time in October free of charge. The festival allows people to experience the historic architecture of Chicago for free and is a way to allow people to see the insides of structures that they may not have been able to see before.

St. Stanislaus Kostka is a Polish church that opened in 1881 and for much of its history, has been regarded as the “mother church of the Chicago Polish community.” The fact that St. Stanislaus is considered the “mother church” of Chicago’s Polish community demonstrates the extent to which ethnic groups of people in Chicago seemed to have stuck together and created their own communities. Chicago remains one of the nation’s most segregated cities, and this alone can draw attention to just how many different groups of people live in Chicago and also relates back to the need for politicians to pay attention to the needs of each of these communities to make it into office.

Photo Source: Spencer Bailey

Above are some more pictures taken on my Open House Chicago outing, of which these were taken at the Holy Name Cathedral in Downtown Chicago. The current Holy Name Cathedral in the pictures was not actually the original, the original was burned down during the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, but was rebuilt in 1875 to its current glory (plus new renovations along the years). While I was inside the church, a volunteer for Open House said that the ceiling of the church was built to look like the hull of a ship, although I cannot remember the reason why sadly. I have heard in the past though, that ceilings of churches are designed to be extravagant to turn people’s attention upwards towards heaven.

Chicago 1900-1930

“The party that eliminated the hyphen would eliminate itself from politics” -Fred Lundin

The above quote is from a former Republican Congressman whom is referring to the hyphenation of ethnic identities in the U.S. such as African-American, Asian-American, Chinese-American, and many more. As explained by John D. Buenker in “Dynamics of Chicago Ethnic Politics 1900-1930,” Mr. Lundin is emphasizing the crucial role that ethnic Americans play in the election of officials in one of the country’s most diverse cities in terms of ethnic makeup: Chicago, Illinois. The article also elaborates on how other GOP politicians successfully gained office in Chicago by capitalizing on their own ethnic backgrounds as well as on respect for other cultures and the needs of such.

When solely considering the content above, it seems as though a politician paying attention to the needs of the people around them, whether it be the needs of a certain ethnic group or literally any group of people, that this would allude to a local perception of political power. This relates to much of Thomas O’Neil’s point, that in order to achieve political success, attention must be paid to one’s local constituency. This is because ultimately, these are the people who will be deciding whether or not they will vote for said politician.

In the beginning of this blog, I said that the concentration of politics being local or national depends on who you ask. Now here comes the cloudy and confusing part, which side of the ticket am I talking about? Politics is a two-sided game that includes a politician doing certain things to win a vote, and a constituent/voter making a choice for who to vote for. Local politics on the politician’s side would be much of like what Mr. O’Neil or Mr. Lundin described in that one must pay attention to their locality for success. The other side, however, could possibly be considering whether or not voters concentrate their attention on local politics or national politics: which do they care more about? Or perhaps more simply, do American voters care more about the laws inhabiting their locality and home-state or that of the nation? All these facets make this question very complex, and for the purpose of covering all the facets, I will leave it at: it depends on who you ask and from which side you decide to investigate.

Photo Source: Spencer Bailey

Built in 1911, another pivotal location in the discussion of Chicago politics and the question of local vs national political centrality is Chicago’s City Hall. What better of a place to see when you’re studying the locality of politics than a place in which many of these things took place? It was somewhat surreal to witness the historic building in which many changes in Chicago’s government have happened. Many of the Chicago politicians listed in the works cited throughout this blog post have likely sat in the very seats that I got to see first hand (maybe not the exact ones, but you know what I mean).

Photo Source: Spencer Bailey

Above are pictures from the chapel within the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago located downtown on Lasalle St. built in 1927. During my visit, a volunteer for Open House at this location said that the Catholic Charities was a place in Chicago that used to house women who were fleeing domestic violence, single mothers, and other women in need of help. The volunteer said that rather than bringing these women to out of the building and across the city so many of them could worship, instead, they built a chapel within the Catholic Charities building on the third floor. They also said the reason it was one the third floor, but I also cannot remember exactly why. The existence of a chapel in an institution like this also relates to the point made in “Catholicism, Chicago Style” by Ellen Skerrett, Edward R. Kantowicz, and Steven M. Avella, that for many Chicagoans, identification with one’s parish was intertwined with one’s identification in their neighborhood. In this instance, the chapel in such an institution goes along with this sentiment, in that providing a place of worship for women at Catholic Charities could bring them closer to their living situation.

Chicago 1932-1944

The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 seemed to cause somewhat of a division of Irish Catholic-Americans around the U.S. from the midwest to the east coast. In “Chicago’s Irish Americans and the Candidacies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932-1944” by Patrick D. Kennedy, the author states that these divisions are due to the fact that Catholics in Chicago grew up with the city and did not have to face the preexisting social stigmas and system set against them as did many Irish Catholics in eastern cities. The key word in the last sentence to be weary of is “Irish.” While this article does mention other groups of people, its entirety is devoted to that of the Irish Catholic experience during this time. If you have read any of my blogs thus far, you will know that not all Catholics are Irish as well as that they are not all white either. Personally, I do not like this article because it does not paint as clear of a picture as I would like because it seems to only focus on Irish Catholics rather than Catholics as a whole. I am aware that not all Catholics are the same and, therefore, they all have unique experiences so this is likely the documentation of such, but I do not find it as helpful as I would like in regard to tackling the question that this blog is centered around.

Chicago during the 1950s

Photo Source: Spencer Bailey

Continuing with sentiments from my Open House outing, shown above is the St. Peter’s Catholic Church in the Loop in Downtown Chicago built in the 1950s, although the location today is actually a relocation. The church is most definitely a site to see and is unlike any of the other sites I visited, as well as any other church in Chicago for that matter (even possibly in the world, at least for Catholic churches). Rather than being a standalone church like St. Stanislaus or the Holy Name cathedral, St. Peter’s is located right in-between skyscrapers and is not in the classic shape of a church. Rather than having a steeple and a triangular shape, St. Peter’s is an art-deco style church with a flat top and a large cross with on the outside making it clear the type of church inhabits the building.

Chicago during the 1970s

Considering “Rethinking the Politics of White Ethnicity in 1970s America” by Joe Merton, it seems as though the 1970s could have been the turning point in American history in which the perceived shift in locality vs nationalism in regard to politics had taken place. As stated by the author, “Activists and community organizers responded to the transformed exogenous environment of the late 1960s and early 1970s and developed a network of national and grassroots organizations to push white ethnic group interests in local politics and on the nation.” Prior to the 1970s, as I have outlined throughout the rest of this post, it seems as though in Chicago, politics had remained mostly local, as it did in many places around the country (or so it seems). The quote above is the first instance in which it has been seen in regard to the nationalism of politics to reach the point mentioned by the Washington Post from the beginning of this blog post.

Although it seems as though there was an actual shift from locality in politics to one more concerned with national politics, I still think it depends on who you ask, from which side you are investigating, at which time period, and in what location. The evidence used for this blog post revolved around Chicago and based off my findings, it seems like it could be argued that either Chicago has always been local in politics, or that indeed there was a shift from local to national. Each of those conclusions could be made from this evidence. However, I am convinced that it still depends on who you ask and the other details you are willing to consider.


Buenker, John D. “Dynamics of Chicago Ethnic Politics 1900-1930.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984), vol. 67, no. 2, Apr. 1994, pp. 175–199. JSTOR,

Gelman, Andrew. “All Politics Is Local? The Debate and the Graphs.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 Jan. 2011,

Kane, Paul. “Analysis | All Politics Is Local? In the Era of Trump, Not Anymore.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 25 Feb. 2017,

Kennedy, Patrick D. “Chicago’s Irish Americans and the Candidacies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932-1944.” Illinois Historical Journal, vol. 88, no. 4, 1995, pp. 263–278. JSTOR,

Merton, Joe. “Rethinking the Politics of White Ethnicity in 1970s America.” The Historical Journal, vol. 55, no. 3, Sept. 2012, pp. 731–756. JSOR,

Pacyga, Dominic A. Chicago: a Biography. University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Skerrett, Ellen, et al. “Catholicism, Chicago Style.” 1993, pp. xvii-xxii.

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