Depending upon which family tree one ascends, I am fifth generation American. The line descends from Prussia near Poznan during the late 19th Century partition of Poland. American politics was not as high on the list of priorities in 1883 when great great grandfather bought land.
An account of the funeral of the first Polish immigrant in Lincoln County, Minnesota says who we are as well as anything.
The first death that occurred after the Wilno Poles arrived “out of the wind,” as Róza Górecki had put it, was an occasion not only to mourn the deceased, but also to reflect on being buried in an alien land, far from the graves of friends and relatives. The funeral of Anna Felcyn (who died leaving several small children) in 1886 featured a procession with 30 wagons. Beginning at her home at 8 a.m. and proceeding past nearly every farm in the community, the procession lasted for six hours before reaching the church. Everyone stopped work for the entire day to attend the funeral Mass. A final procession to the cemetery — nothing more than a plot of land set in the vastness of the wind-swept prairie — ended in a graveside sermon by the pastor that was so emotional that all present — men, women and children — were moved to tears.Poles in Minnesota by John Radzilowski
What stands out in this story is the sense of community. It takes a commitment to each other to make a six-hour funeral procession to the church. Over the years, these Minnesota Poles stuck together in numerous ways. After the turn of the century, the community advocated for Polish independence and for U.S. Government aid for their struggling homeland. They elevated George Washington and Abraham Lincoln into the pantheon of Polish heroes like Tadeusz Kościuszko and Kazimierz Pułaski in a process of assimilation that preserved their Polish ethnicity while entering the mainstream culture of Americans. Their politics came from this sense of community and causes that mattered to them based on their recent immigration and efforts to settle in Minnesota. I don’t know if they viewed it as “fun” yet absent these cultural ties, our politics has become less so.
Vestiges of community remained when I was growing up. Not so much a Polish community — although there was that — as much as a cross section of society created by my Virginia-born father and Illinois-born mother moving to and living in a community of mostly descendants of German and Irish immigrants.
Working out of the union hall where he was a member, Father organized the neighborhood to elect John F. Kennedy in 1960. When he finished organizing our neighborhood, he helped with another one nearby. The union hall provided the materials, although there were no computerized databases of voters like there are today. He worried about who lived here and how they might vote.
I was spoiled by the landslide victory of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 at age 12. Given recent Democratic presidents — FDR, Truman and Kennedy — I figured our party would dominate politics going forward. Living in Iowa, I knew the state was Republican yet Johnson’s decisive win created a false sense of security that political things would proceed in a commonsense, productive manner. Then came Nixon.
During the Nixon administration our politics lost grip of the rudder. He made some positive, logical steps in governance. He was perhaps the last president to do so in a way that benefited every American. At the same time, he appeared a drunken, vindictive, and lying politician. In the end, he was forced to resign. Since then, the party of our presidents rotated between Republican (Ford, Reagan, Bush I, Bush II, Trump) and Democratic (Carter, Clinton, Obama, Biden). The main common political direction has been supporting the military by spending too much money. For the rest, Republicans negated Democratic initiatives and vice versa as time went on.
After Nixon, the potential for a landslide election like in 1964 was diminished. Increasingly our electorate became divided into factions. It took a global pandemic to enable our politics to focus on resolving the contagion and the economic crisis it helped create. When Joe Biden won the election it was absent a feeling of jubilation. Responses were subdued, more a sigh of relief that we could grab the rudder and steer the ship more toward sanity and discipline, at least for the next four years.
There is no returning to the 19th Century sense of community. Remnants remain yet it is no more as it once was. In the fifth generation since immigration I see we must make our own way. In politics we seek other means to connect with fellow citizens, although the connections are not deep as they once seemed. Increasingly achieving political goals is not fun. Those of us with progressive ideals accept political solutions to our most pressing problems are beyond the ken. On the long journey home we accept its length.
From time to time images of the six-hour funeral procession come to mind. We don’t understand fully what we’ve lost.