Nelson Rockefeller entered electoral politics in 1958, hoping that the governorship of New York would provide him the platform he needed to reshape the national Republican Party in his image. He assumed office in 1959, believing that he could convince New York Republicans to embrace an active government that provided a social safety net and addressed racial inequality while promoting economic growth. Even as Rockefeller became a fixture in New York politics, he spent an increasing amount of time defending and justifying Rockefeller Republicanism rather than moving it to the mainstream of his party. Rockefeller Republicanism was always on the defense in New York; as time passed, however, that defensiveness and eventual retreat became the distinguishing feature of Rockefeller’s brand of moderation. Under prolonged pressure from mainstream Republicans, Rockefeller squandered one of the Republican Party’s most high-profile opportunities to create a multiracial, cross-class constituency and delegitimized the GOP tradition of providing an active government attuned to the changing needs of Americans. Rather than symbolizing a more diverse and liberal Republican Party, Rockefeller Republicanism best signifies an increasingly isolated and ostracized moderate minority that had little opportunity to prevent the rise of the right, even in a liberal state like New York.
If this aspect of Rockefeller’s career is buried or poorly understood in the twenty-first century, some of his contemporaries were keenly aware of it. Six months before his death, baseball legend and civil rights activist Jackie Robinson wrote Rockefeller in May 1972 to express his great disappointment, frustration, and even sadness in response to the governor’s policies and rhetoric that disproportionately harmed and maligned African Americans after 1968.
Dear Governor Rockefeller:
It is with the greatest difficulty that I write this letter. It’s difficult because the one man in public life in who I had complete faith and confidence, does not now measure up to his previous highly laudable stand. It has not been easy taking a stand over the years, but when one believes, as I do, you fight back. I cannot fight any longer, Governor, for I believe you have lost the sensitivity and understanding I felt was yours when I worked with you. Somehow, it seems to me, getting ahead politically is more important to you than what is right. Perhaps you honestly feel you are doing what is right, but it certainly is not the way Governor Rockefeller used to function.
Frankly, if I were asked to give reasons for my feelings I could not pin point them. I am just confused and discouraged and feel a good friend has let me down.
Jackie RobinsonFootnote 1
This was not Robinson’s first time expressing disillusionment with his friend whom he had supported publicly because of his support of civil rights and antidiscrimination initiatives in New York since his reelection campaign in 1962.Footnote 2 Shortly after Rockefeller had signed the 1969 state budget, which included significant cuts to welfare benefits to low-income families, Robinson had written another letter to Rockefeller to express his belief that there was a “conspiracy between Republican and conservative legislators to write legislation,” like that year’s welfare residency requirement—a proposal to deny benefits to anyone who had lived in the state for less than a year—which Robinson called a “punitive measure for being poor in an affluent society.”Footnote 3 Rockefeller’s reply to that April 10, 1969, letter from Robinson provides insight into the governor’s understanding of his rightward shift in politics. Rockefeller wrote,
I deeply appreciate your letter … especially your expression of friendship and your concern for the people of New York State.
I, too, have been much concerned by developments in recent weeks. Most of all, I regret the impression that somehow I have changed, or have been taken into camp by individuals with whom I have never heretofore been philosophically or politically identified.
The truth is that I have not changed, but political circumstances in New York State have changed—and the change lies basically in the adamant, party-line stand taken by the Democratic leadership in the State Legislature.Footnote 4
Rockefeller’s partisan reply in a year when Republicans controlled both bodies of the state legislature was unlikely to satisfy Robinson. Early in his career, the governor gained a reputation for challenging his own party, but he had shied away from such actions as conservatives gained greater control over the Republican Party in New York and nationwide.Footnote 5
Rockefeller denied that he had changed, but his critics had changed considerably. In his early years as governor, Rockefeller was far more likely to draw ire from mainstream New York Republicans who were typically to the right of him ideologically rather than figures like Robinson who, as an advocate for civil rights with an affinity for the Republican Party, believed Rockefeller could make the GOP the premiere defender of African Americans in the civil rights era.Footnote 6 The evolution of Rockefeller’s relationship with Robinson and the constant balancing act Rockefeller performed in New York to remain in the good graces of fellow conservative party leaders provides important insight into the realities of Rockefeller Republicanism at what was supposed to be the height of its influence, particularly before 1964. Despite Rockefeller’s seemingly ubiquitous presence in the Empire State, it was never easy to be a Rockefeller Republican in New York. To understand the precarity of Rockefeller’s position, it is necessary to examine the totality of Rockefeller’s career as he struggled to define his place within the GOP and maintain what became his frayed relationship with civil rights advocates.
Historians of modern conservatism and the Republican Party tend to present Rockefeller as the antithesis of the conservative activists of the 1960s largely because they typically only address his involvement in national politics between 1960 and 1964. Rockefeller is mentioned in passing, for example, as “the leader of the liberal Republicans,” “the liberal governor,” or the “liberal Republican … the embodiment of everything frustrated conservatives disliked about the GOP.”Footnote 7 Although Rockefeller did fall within the liberal or left wing of the Republican political spectrum, references to him as a liberal can obscure some of the nuances of his politics and his own public rejection of the term liberal throughout his political career. This early period is epitomized by Rockefeller’s iconic confrontation with supporters of U.S. Senator from Arizona Barry Goldwater who booed and jeered Rockefeller at the 1964 Republican National Convention when he advocated for a minority platform plank against extremism and organizations like the John Birch Society.Footnote 8 Rockefeller’s speech took place a year to the date after he publicly declared that conservative extremists in the Republican Party were attempting to make inroads in the South and West by advocating states’ rights as a pretext for defending segregation and racism.Footnote 9 Even though some historians of conservatism do explore Rockefeller in more detail and note nuances in his political views, their work does not explore the entirety of his career or the difficulties he had advancing his antidiscrimination agenda in New York.Footnote 10 By looking more closely at Rockefeller’s career in New York, it is possible to see that Rockefeller faced ideological battles locally as well as on the national scene. Furthermore, his efforts to keep a Republican-led legislature in line also reveals that despite his dramatic confrontations with fellow Republicans at national conventions he favored a subtler approach in New York. Without this local perspective, it is impossible to understand the weakness of Rockefeller Republicanism in the early 1960s.
Despite the wealth of scholarly attention to the ascendancy of conservativism within the Republican Party, the frameworks we have for understanding Rockefeller Republicanism remain fairly narrow. Historians have produced a wide range of studies on the diversity of modern conservativism in the past thirty years that examine its local, regional, and national development among a range of adherents.Footnote 11 As a result, Republicans who were not associated with the party’s rightward turn have been understudied in comparison to members of the conservative wing of the GOP that was on the rise between the 1960s and 1980s. Although the history of conservatism remains a critical area of inquiry, it is important to look at other elements of the Republican Party. The intense focus on modern conservatives’ critiques of the GOP and their efforts to transform it can result in an overemphasis on their perspective on the party and their view of figures like Rockefeller. As a result, the historiographical interest in modern conservatism and the transformation of the Republican Party can simultaneously obscure the ideological continuities within the party that conservatives amplified after 1960 and deflect attention from seemingly oppositional figures like Rockefeller. By reexamining the Republican Party of the mid-twentieth century and the influential elements of the party that were not the vanguard of the conservative turn, it is possible to gain a more complete picture of the GOP ideologically and regionally.Footnote 12
Another result of the sustained interest in modern conservatism’s influence on the Republican Party is a regional focus on the Sunbelt to the neglect of the Northeast.Footnote 13 An analysis of the New York State Republican Party in the late 1950s and 1960s creates opportunities to reconsider common notions about conservatism and political culture in the Northeast. Rockefeller and his ideological predecessor Governor Thomas Dewey, for example, became the figureheads of the New York State Republican Party, but they contended with a majority of conservative Republicans who dominated in various local communities. By 1961, frustration grew so intense among some conservative Republicans that they founded the New York Conservative Party to counter the authority of moderates who they believed unfairly dominated the state party. New York was home to Nelson Rockefeller, of course, but the state party also produced Goldwater’s fellow conservative and vice-presidential running mate William E. Miller.Footnote 14 An examination of Rockefeller’s career reveals that moderate or Eastern Establishment Republicanism was not as dominant as it seemed, even when it was influential in presidential party politics. Similar to the work of historians who have shown the weaknesses of the liberal consensus or liberal establishment, especially the liberal racial consensus, in the postwar era, this article suggests that Rockefeller Republicanism was not as dominant as Rockefeller believed or portrayed to the nation. The Republican Party and conservatism, more generally, in the Northeast need to be reexamined in the same way that historians have reassessed the nature of liberalism and the Democratic Party in the urban North in the postwar era.Footnote 15 By examining policy debates among New York Republicans, this essay reevaluates the political commitments and dominance of Rockefeller Republicanism.
Early in his career, Rockefeller’s consistent calls for Republicans to advocate for federal civil rights legislation and direct-action civil rights activism positioned him to the left of the majority of his party. His financial support for Black causes and advocacy for antidiscrimination laws in New York won him support among many African Americans like Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a personal friend of the governor, and further established him as a racial liberal.Footnote 16 This aspect of Rockefeller’s politics, particularly regarding national politics, has been noted by historians of conservatism and the Republican Party and explored in more depth by Rockefeller biographers.Footnote 17 More recently, historians of the carceral state and policy in the 1970s, have renewed interest in Rockefeller’s attitudes on race and policies that were associated with African Americans toward the end of his career. For this group of scholars, Rockefeller is significant because of his advocacy for the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the role he played in the deadly retaking of the Attica Correctional Facility, which are identified as a prototype of the punitive policies that facilitated mass incarceration.Footnote 18 While these works examine Rockefeller’s participation in the weakening of the social safety net, they do not examine the governor’s gradual adoption of these ideas within the context of his traditionally contentious relationship with conservative New York Republicans. Looking at the entirety of Rockefeller’s career—with an emphasis on policies that affected African Americans, in particular—allows for a fuller accounting of Rockefeller’s racial liberalism and how the positions he adopted over time affected his status with the New York Republican Party. It will also help to bridge the divide between scholars who emphasize his early career in national politics and those who focus on the twilight of his career in New York.
Locating Rockefeller Republicanism
Nelson Rockefeller entered electoral politics in 1958 as a Republican who advocated for an active government attuned to the needs of ordinary citizens and business in modern society. In an earlier generation, Rockefeller would have been associated with Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive Republican tradition that embraced an empowered government that could regulate big business. However, in the mid-twentieth century Republicans like Rockefeller were known for accepting the goals of the New and Fair Deals and the active government it represented. Rockefeller was a Republican who advocated for pro-growth government intervention in the economy, a powerful federal presence at home and abroad, and concerted efforts to promote access and equality in American society. In the 1930s, Rockefeller counseled managers of Standard Oil to embrace the regulations of the Franklin Roosevelt administration as a needed correction for corporations that had failed to meet their “social responsibility” to promote the best interests of the masses.Footnote 19 Sometimes referred to as moderate, liberal, progressive, or Eastern Establishment Republicans, these Republicans gained outsized national prominence when they became likely presidential nominees for a defensive Republican Party in search of credible challengers to Roosevelt’s governing style and popularity.Footnote 20 As a newcomer to electoral politics, Rockefeller was in the mold of the state’s former governor (1943–1954) and two-time Republican presidential nominee (1944, 1948), Thomas E. Dewey, who described himself as a “New Deal Republican.”Footnote 21 As the standard bearer for the Republican Party, President Dwight Eisenhower, who was to the right of Rockefeller, tried to popularize a version of this Republicanism as well, by rebranding it “modern Republicanism.” Although all of these terms are helpful for understanding the thinking of Republicans who were not small government conservatives in the mid-twentieth century, moderate Republicanism is a broad label that is well suited to Rockefeller, in particular because he eschewed the label of liberal Republican—in part to ward off accusations that he was too liberal to be a Republican—and saw himself as being committed to a range of ideas across the political spectrum.Footnote 22
When Rockefeller first accepted the gubernatorial nomination from the New York Republican Party, his expression of moderate Republicanism was familiar to the state party, but he was part of a distinct minority. The majority of the state party was far more conservative than Rockefeller was and rejected his desire to enhance the social safety net, but moderate Republicans had outsized prominence in the state because they helped it remain competitive in a state where Democrats outnumbered Republicans. As a result, New York and its neighboring states were home to prominent moderates, but this did not mean they had an easy relationship with conservatives. New York’s GOP—like the national party—was divided; conservatives dominated rural upstate communities and advocated for laissez-faire government, low taxes, and a pro-business antiregulation ethos, whereas moderates or liberals, who were concentrated in New York City and its suburbs, supported an active government, tended to be more socially liberal, and did not shun regulation while encouraging a pro-business environment, including public–private partnerships. Despite the ideological divide in the state party, which Rockefeller overcame at least in part because of his willingness to fund his own campaign in 1958, Rockefeller ran on a platform that made few concessions to his conservative peers. He pledged his support for President Eisenhower, enforcement of civil rights, expansion of higher education, pollution abatement, urban renewal, improvement of the state’s roadways, and the protection of labor’s right to collective bargaining.Footnote 23 As his career developed, Rockefeller’s political commitments would shift in certain areas, but he supported these original pledges throughout his governorship. Beyond state politics, Rockefeller was also a consummate Cold Warrior who supported large federal expenditures for armaments and foreign aid in addition to domestic spending as a means to defeat the Soviet Union—commonly held positions among the era’s liberals. He first earned this reputation as an adviser in the Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower administrations, which resulted in resistance from conservatives in the Eisenhower administration.Footnote 24 During his first term as governor, Rockefeller made a name for himself in national politics as a presidential hopeful who advocated for enhanced federal civil rights legislation and challenged John F. Kennedy from the left to support unequivocally direct-action civil rights activism in the Jim Crow South. By 1962, Rockefeller had begun to develop a relationship with people like Robinson and Republicans who shared his belief that state and federal governments should take an active role in protecting the rights of African Americans. Robinson’s support for Rockefeller only grew as he became convinced that Rockefeller’s continued success would demonstrate to Republicans that they could win national elections by appealing to a multiracial, cross-class constituency in urban and suburban communities such as those in New York.Footnote 25
References to Rockefeller Republicanism first appeared in the popular media as early as 1960, fueled, in part, by criticism from conservatives who resented Rockefeller’s efforts to challenge the nomination of Richard Nixon, another Republican who was not as conservative as they would have preferred but had served loyally as Eisenhower’s vice president. For example, a critical Chicago Tribune editorial referred to “eastern Republicanism,” “New York Republicanism,” and “Rockefeller Republicanism” as synonymous concepts that advocated “internationalist rather than nationalist” foreign policy and domestic policy that was indistinguishable from the New Deal. The conservative editorial board associated this form of Republicanism that it believed was too liberal to be Republican with Dewey, Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican presidential nominee, U.S. Senator from New York Jacob Javits, and Rockefeller. Furthermore, the editorial, by focusing solely on prominent moderates, also presented a common portrayal of the New York GOP as a monolith and at odds with the “great majority of conservative Republicans.”Footnote 26 Although Rockefeller was a political newcomer, his name recognition, wealth, and coverage in the press as a presidential hopeful meant that conservatives considered him the embodiment of the type of Republican they opposed and wanted to see sidelined in the party. Long-building tension between conservatives and moderates contributed to Rockefeller being labeled as too liberal for the Republican Party, which ultimately obscured elements of his conservatism and willingness to work with more traditional Republicans. Conservatives played an important role in defining Rockefeller Republicanism, but those who embraced moderate Republicanism also began to use the term as an identifier. In June 1960, the Minneapolis Tribune reported that James Malcolm Williams, a local Republican who sought to challenge U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey, identified himself as a “Rockefeller Republican.” Rockefeller Republicanism was not yet a common term, but it took on an increasingly adversarial connotation when Rockefeller challenged Nixon’s leadership at the 1960 Republican National Convention by claiming that the vice president had not distinguished himself as a leader.Footnote 27 Rockefeller’s early record as governor, which showed him to be a leader who embraced large-scale governmental programs, civil rights legislation, and tax increases, would have repelled most conservatives. However, his public criticism of party leadership at the start of his career meant that conservatives were even more likely to oppose him. Once Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964, Rockefeller Republicanism became known as the antithesis of Goldwater Republicanism for the governor’s supporters and detractors, but this was convenient shorthand as much as a coherent ideology.Footnote 28
Despite his reputation as a maverick, as soon as Rockefeller entered office he sought opportunities to downplay his reputation as being too far to the left of the Republican mainstream. As a result, Rockefeller Republicanism was always concerned with seeking opportunities to maintain a position of moderation by adopting conservative policies opposed by liberals. During his first inaugural address, which was tailored to a national audience, Rockefeller encouraged the public to not attach a label to his brand of politics. Instead, Rockefeller said he embraced conservative, liberal, and progressive measures.Footnote 29 Rockefeller’s effort to avoid being labeled a liberal was likely intended for a national GOP audience, but also for a state party that disagreed with his goals. During his first term in office, Rockefeller found himself curtailing some of his efforts such as his support for fair housing legislation because he knew that the legislation would pass, but with a majority of Democratic, rather than Republican, support, which would underscore the division within his own party. Rockefeller’s efforts to demonstrate his alignment with conservatives or conservatism, more generally, only increased over time. As he lagged behind Goldwater for the 1964 presidential nomination, Rockefeller prioritized a conservative anticrime and pro-law enforcement agenda in New York that put him in opposition to liberal Democrats and civil rights organizations. Rockefeller and his advisers believed such positions would help counterbalance his moderate—or liberal—reputation. A Rockefeller adviser in 1966 identified law and order issues as the area where Rockefeller could demonstrate that he was “a liberal who is not soft on crime,” and therefore unlike the liberal politicians with whom he was often associated. This was an obvious area where Rockefeller could distinguish himself as being conservative because he had embraced initiatives related to law enforcement that were opposed by liberals.Footnote 30 This type of maneuver was not uncommon for politicians in the 1960s, particularly liberal Democrats such as Lyndon Johnson, but it demonstrates Rockefeller’s efforts to reject the liberal label and adopt conservative positions that could help him maintain his moderate reputation.Footnote 31 As the Conservative Party of New York grew in influence and the state Republican Party became increasingly conservative during the late 1960s, Rockefeller would only increase his efforts to repair and maintain his ties to conservatives.
Although Rockefeller’s career trajectory is by no means representative of all moderate Republicans (which is, of course, a broad term), his experiences allow for an examination of the political pressures faced by all Republicans, but moderates in particular, who were not active members of the movement conservatism that would eventually dominate the Republican Party by 1980. For example, fellow prominent moderate Republicans in New York did not respond to the pressure in the same way as Rockefeller. New York City Mayor John Lindsay became a Democrat in 1971 rather than remain on the periphery of the Republican Party. Javits, who was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1956, remained in office until 1981 after he lost the Republican primary to Alfonse D’Amato, a more conservative challenger, who defeated Democrat Elizabeth Holtzman. Unlike Rockefeller, neither leader embraced conservative policies later in their political careers.Footnote 32 The rightward shift of Rockefeller in comparison to these Republican peers only further highlights the need to present a more nuanced account of Rockefeller’s career than what has happened commonly to this point.
Rockefeller Republicanism’s Embrace of Racial Liberalism
Rockefeller established racial liberalism as a central principle of his politics and worldview before he entered office. After leaving the Eisenhower administration in 1955, Rockefeller oversaw a study funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF), a philanthropic organization run by Nelson and his brothers, to make recommendations intended to help the nation meet the challenges of the Cold War. In the name of defeating Communism, the reports recommended major government investments in infrastructure, schools, and deteriorating cities in addition to reforming the tax system to reinforce growth, reducing tariffs, eliminating restrictive practices on labor and management, and addressing racial tensions.Footnote 33 The reports’ conclusions about race relations in the United States provide a blueprint for understanding Rockefeller’s commitment to combating racism. For example, antidiscrimination laws in housing were necessary, according to the reports, to ensure that racial minorities could be free to live as they chose. The authors believed this freedom should outweigh others’ desire to discriminate in the name of freedom of association. To help improve racial tensions and address inequality, the reports prescribed federal investment in housing and transportation in blighted urban centers where racial minorities were forced to concentrate due to discrimination. Without fighting discrimination, noted the reports, it would be pointless to encourage racial minorities to better their lives if there were no opportunities for them to enjoy. In a chapter entitled, “Economic Growth and Human Welfare,” the authors explained, “Racial prejudice runs counter to our basic moral beliefs and national purposes… . Failure to cope with this problem would represent a serious indictment of our entire society.”Footnote 34 In May 1958 as the reports were made public, Rockefeller shared his views on race relations at an event hosted by an African American masonic order at Riverside Church in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. Rockefeller told the audience of 1,000 that the nation must “accelerate our efforts” to make “full civil rights and equal opportunity for all men a reality in our country.” He also called for a “comprehensive program, at every level of our national life” to counteract not only the “economic waste” caused by racism and discrimination but also the “moral erosion,” which he called “far worse.”Footnote 35
During the previous decade, New York Republicans were on the record as sharing Rockefeller’s view that the government should intervene to reduce racial discrimination in the United States, but Rockefeller soon realized that party leadership was split on the issue. In 1945, New York became the first state to outlaw discrimination in employment based on race, creed, color, or national origin. The Ives-Quinn Anti-Discrimination bill was cosponsored by Republican Assemblyman Irving Ives and signed into law by Dewey. While Dewey was in office, the state continued to outpace federal antidiscrimination legislation when it passed additional laws prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, creed, or national origin for nonsectarian colleges, universities, and professional schools in 1948 and public accommodations in 1952. All three bills received bipartisan support, but without Dewey’s leadership after 1954 Republican state legislators began to oppose legislation intended to strengthen protections for minorities in the state.Footnote 36 By the time, Rockefeller was preparing to run for office in 1958, the Republican-majority legislature had blocked several antidiscrimination bills that would improve the enforcement apparatus of its groundbreaking, but often ineffective, antidiscrimination laws. After Democrat W. Averell Harriman entered the gubernatorial office in 1955, Republican legislators released statements in support for the rights of minorities, but they blocked attempts made by Democrats to strengthen the State Commission Against Discrimination (SCAD), which had been created by the 1945 law to investigate complaints of discrimination. In their objections to strengthening SCAD, Republicans argued that it would allow the entity to “harass selected groups.” A researcher employed by the RBF, who was working on Rockefeller’s behalf, concluded that Republicans opposed the measures for partisan reasons and that the commission had little power to enforce the state’s antidiscrimination laws. By 1957, less than one percent of grievances sent to SCAD ever received a formal hearing, and the process for submitting a complaint required considerable time and effort for the complainant.Footnote 37 Republicans in the state legislature also blocked fair housing legislation that would apply to privately owned homes that was cosponsored by a fellow Republican in 1956, 1957, and 1958. In opposition to Harriman’s effort to increase the budget of SCAD to coincide with it being assigned the new task of enforcing a law passed the previous year that banned discrimination in housing built with federal assistance, Republican leadership argued that there was no racial discrimination in New York. The Republican majority leaders of the Senate and Assembly rejected the increase as a partisan ploy from Democrats. The New York Herald Tribune, the leading moderate Republican newspaper of the day, reported that Assembly Majority Leader Joseph F. Carlino, “stated that the problem of discrimination does not exist in New York State,” and Republican legislators claimed continually during that year’s legislative session that there was no employment or housing discrimination in New York.Footnote 38 By the time Rockefeller considered running for governor, the Republican-controlled legislature had opposed a number of antidiscrimination bills that put them at odds with Harriman, civil rights organizations, and Rockefeller himself.
As a candidate, Rockefeller actively sought support from Black voters and pledged his support for antidiscrimination initiatives. In 1958, he attended rallies in Harlem and met with Black Republicans where he offered support for the enhancement of civil rights legislation and other issues that were important to Black New Yorkers. In characterizing Rockefeller’s political future and chances of attracting a broad constituency, political commentator Marquis Childs observed, “That old John D’s grandson, Nelson Rockefeller, should today be the Republican candidate for Governor of New York—and, what is more, a liberal candidate who has a chance to win the support of left of center and minority groups—is one of the political miracles of our time.”Footnote 39 Although Rockefeller sought to offer a “fresh and progressive program” to end bias in employment, housing, and education—including strengthening SCAD—he also avoided introducing specific proposals that contradicted the recent positions of Republican legislators. However, he did express a desire to make New York a leader in the effort to end discrimination in the United States.Footnote 40 The press noted that both Harriman and Rockefeller devoted more energy to courting voters in Harlem than any other gubernatorial candidates—the former appeared in the Black enclave seven times, the latter five.Footnote 41 Harriman carried the four predominately African American voting districts in New York City, but by a smaller margin than in 1954. The New York Amsterdam News, in its front-page coverage of the election returns, observed that despite not winning a majority of the Black vote, Rockefeller’s “man-in-street, glad handing campaign in Negro districts in New York paid off.”Footnote 42 Rockefeller’s gains were small the first year, but they indicated that there could be an opportunity to make inroads with Black voters in New York. In the 1962 and 1966 reelection campaigns, Rockefeller outperformed the typical results of Republicans in New York City but still failed to win majorities in Black-majority districts.Footnote 43
Once Rockefeller was in office and advocated for fair housing legislation, he faced persistent Republican opposition, which curtailed his plan to strengthen antidiscrimination legislation in New York. During the 1959 legislative session, the bipartisan Metcalf-Baker Bill intended to ban discrimination in housing failed to pass despite endorsements from over thirty-five civic organizations. Rockefeller had supported the law in principle, but he did not make it a major legislative initiative. As a result of the bill failing, New York lost its status as a leader in this area; Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Oregon became the first states in the nation to pass laws banning discrimination in private housing in 1959.Footnote 44 The summer after the bill failed, Rockefeller announced his intention to recommend a new bill to outlaw discrimination in private housing in New York during the upcoming legislative session while addressing the fiftieth annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in New York City’s Coliseum. That same summer, Rockefeller joined the NAACP as a life member, becoming the fourth governor to make such a commitment.Footnote 45 In an attempt to get fair housing legislation passed, Rockefeller endorsed bills that were less comprehensive. Civil rights activists criticized the new bills as ineffective symbolic gestures, but Republicans continued to oppose them.Footnote 46 Chair of the Finance Committee Austin W. Erwin, who hailed from Geneseo in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, after reviewing the antidiscrimination laws regarding employment, public accommodations, and publicly assisted housing in 1960, stated, “This bill would take away the last vestige of right from the private citizen to do what he wants with his own land. There are still a few people who feel that they have a right to do with their own property what they see fit.” Erwin, who had attempted to cut SCAD’s budget in the past, called into question all of its enforcement duties. The New York Times reported that Erwin “voiced the views that appear to dominate the thinking among upstate [Republican] legislators.”Footnote 47 In the final days of the session, the majority of the thirty-three Republican senators decided to leave the bill in committee to prevent its passage.Footnote 48 After a second fair housing bill failed while he was in office, Rockefeller found success the next year, but only after reducing the types of housing that would be applicable to oversight to the dismay of the Democratic minority and other supporters of antidiscrimination policies.Footnote 49 The bill passed both houses of the legislature with a 48 to 9 vote in the senate and a 140 to 7 vote in the assembly on March 20, 1961. All of the bill’s opponents were Republicans who represented upstate communities, with the exception of Democratic Senator Julian B. Erway of Albany.Footnote 50 Rockefeller may have gotten his bill passed, but upstate Republicans were also successful. The limited nature of the new law and the agency that would enforce it guaranteed that desegregating New York’s housing, particularly in upstate communities, would be a slow process.Footnote 51
In the midst of working to demonstrate that he could advance the cause of civil rights in New York, Rockefeller challenged the national Republican Party to do the same during the 1960 Republican National Convention. While questioning Nixon’s leadership in an effort to win the nomination, Rockefeller emerged as the most prominent Republican leader advocating for a strong civil rights plank. He offered his support for the sit-in movement of 1960 and said the Republican Party should write a civil rights plank that gave unequivocal support for such activism and the larger goal of enhanced federal civil rights legislation. Rockefeller’s position, along with his dramatic—and many would argue self-interested—advocacy for civil rights, although elevating his effort to become a national party leader, divided the Republican Party. Republicans who opposed a strong civil rights plank made their objections clear, but Nixon continued to encourage a plank in line with the demands of civil rights activists. With the assistance of Nixon, Rockefeller prodded the GOP to approve a civil rights plank that matched the Democratic Party’s affirmative civil rights plank.Footnote 52 Rockefeller’s activism on behalf of advancing civil rights legislation on the state and national levels, including giving numerous speeches where he distinguished himself as being to the left of John F. Kennedy on the issue, defined the racial liberalism that was central to Rockefeller Republicanism. His actions also revealed that the Republican Party was divided on the issue and at odds with Rockefeller’s stance, which was generally shared by moderate Republicans, who agreed that the Republican Party should support enhanced civil rights legislation. Rockefeller’s reputation regarding racial liberalism and the Republican Party’s divide would only become heightened as Rockefeller lost the presidential nomination to Barry Goldwater, the party’s most prominent opponent of enhanced federal civil rights legislation, which he opposed with arguments that resembled those of New York conservative Republicans who objected to fair housing legislation that would impede individuals’ rights of association. As time passed, Rockefeller adopted conservative positions on law enforcement, welfare, and illegal narcotics that would alienate civil rights groups, but his advocacy for racially liberal policies and outreach to Black voters and civil rights activists established racial liberalism as one of the defining characteristics of Rockefeller Republicanism.
Rockefeller Republicanism and the Social Safety Net
From his earliest days in politics, public assistance programs, like his position on civil rights and antidiscrimination legislation, were a focal point of the ideological rift between Rockefeller and his party. When Rockefeller entered politics, he defended the welfare state as providing a necessary safety net for Americans. His position included assisting low-income families who qualified for Aid to Dependent Children (ADC)—the federal program established by the Social Security Act of 1935, which became Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1962, to help states provide cash payments for children in need of financial support—but also providing public assistance to low-income New Yorkers more generally. Conservatives had criticized this type of government aid since its inception—some feared that ADC and programs that assisted people that they believed were employable encouraged dependency—but by the 1950s New York Republicans who opposed these programs deployed racialized arguments, claiming that African Americans and Puerto Ricans were unfairly burdening the state to advance their cause.Footnote 53 As a result, welfare threatened Rockefeller’s outreach to Black voters in a singular way that is reflected in Robinson’s later critiques of the governor. As Rockefeller closed in on the gubernatorial nomination in 1958, he encountered a conflict with Republican legislators who were in a two-year effort to cut the state’s public assistance. Since 1956, the most prominent Republican conservative, Senate Majority Leader Walter Mahoney, had been the chief sponsor of an unsuccessful legislative effort to impose a one-year residency requirement for anyone seeking to obtain public assistance ranging from medical care to benefits for low-income families. Mahoney and his supporters argued that New York’s welfare system attracted undesirables to New York.Footnote 54 As Republican State Senator John H. Cooke explained it, welfare made New York “a dumping ground for ne’er-do-wells.” Moderate Republicans such as Assembly Speaker Oswald D. Heck opposed a residency requirement, which would prevent new arrivals from receiving state assistance, but the idea remained popular among Republican legislators.Footnote 55 Rockefeller prevented an effort made by Mahoney’s supporters to add a statement in support of a one-year residency requirement to the party platform in 1958, but the issue remained a point of contention. In 1960, Mahoney led an initiative that resulted in both houses of the state legislature passing a residency bill, which the governor vetoed and called “un-American.” Rockefeller refuted the notion that migrants, who were perceived as being Black and Puerto Rican, were unlike the migrants of European ancestry from earlier eras. “The possibility of receiving public assistance and becoming a public charge,” explained Rockefeller, “is no more attractive to the new generations of migrants to our State than generations who came before.”Footnote 56 Rockefeller made a similar argument again in 1961 by noting that recent statistics showed that migration to the state was commensurate to economic and job opportunities in the state.Footnote 57 Attributing migration to economic opportunities was Rockefeller’s way of countering the idea that people were migrating to New York to receive government aid.
Conservative Republicans had opposed social welfare policies for decades, but Republican legislators’ arguments against welfare, which employed the racist assumption that African Americans, in particular, sought out welfare because of an innate aversion to work, encouraged other white New Yorkers to oppose welfare benefits on similar grounds. For example, in 1961 the Republican leadership of Newburgh, New York, a town of approximately 31,000 in the Hudson River Valley decided to cut welfare benefits and stated without hesitation that it was intended to penalize the small African American community in town. Newburgh had fallen into economic decline over the past decade as its factories left for the South and West and the waterfront lost productivity to the trucking industry.Footnote 58 Rather than look to larger economic trends, the Republican-led city council of the majority-white town attributed the city’s decline to its African American residents, which they claimed had migrated there in search of work in the early 1950s.Footnote 59 One city councilmember explained, “The colored people of this city are our biggest police problem, our biggest sanitation problem, and our biggest health problem. We cannot put up with their behavior any longer. We have been too lenient with them.”Footnote 60 In 1961, to offset a budget deficit caused by the cost of snow removal, the town’s manager, Joseph Mac D. Mitchell, began an effort to remove people from the welfare rolls. The new rules, known as the “Newburgh Plan,” included requiring that new residents of the town prove they moved there because of a “concrete offer of employment,” converting cash payments to earmarked vouchers, instituting work requirements, and warning mothers of “illegitimate” children that their benefits would be denied if they had more children.Footnote 61 The state department of welfare found half of the provisions to be illegal, but Mitchell’s plan drew praise throughout New York and across the nation.Footnote 62 Meanwhile, Mitchell justified his actions claiming that welfare brought “the dregs of humanity into th[e] city” in a “never-ending pilgrimage from North Carolina to New York.”Footnote 63 The Newburgh Plan demonstrated the popularity of arguments against the welfare state that exploited the view that the welfare system was overrun by undeserving African Americans. It was not a new phenomenon; however, historians have shown that the Newburgh welfare crisis was one of a number of episodes in U.S. cities dating back to the 1940s when welfare received intense negative attention and threats of cuts. Historian Lisa Levenstein argues that these moments of controversy “cemented the new association of public assistance with African Americans in the North and crystallized a discourse identifying welfare as the cause, not the consequence, of urban poverty, joblessness, and illegitimacy.”Footnote 64
The relentless intraparty battle over welfare and residency requirements threatened Rockefeller’s efforts to appeal to African American voters as early as 1961 and foreshadowed the rift between Rockefeller and Robinson. Two months before the Newburgh affair, Rockefeller signed into law a compromise bill on welfare that passed in the Senate 36 to 21 and the Assembly 94 to 53. The bill avoided the strict residency requirement Rockefeller opposed, but, in an effort to “eliminate chiseling,” dictated that welfare administrators must investigate a welfare recipient if they believed the person moved to the state to receive welfare benefits. Mahoney agreed to the bill because it stipulated that if a welfare applicant had lived in the state for less than six months, the state would presume they relocated to receive welfare benefits and would then deem them ineligible. As Rockefeller prepared to sign the bill, he defended his decision during a visit in Harlem, which the New York Amsterdam News reported was a first for a New York governor. Rockefeller, who was introduced by Robinson, denied that the bill initiated a residency requirement while praising the weakened antidiscrimination housing bill that Mahoney agreed to support in return despite rejecting a similar bill the year before.Footnote 65 A few months after his meeting in Harlem and a week after a committee from the New York State Board of Social Welfare concluded that some of the Newburgh Plan was illegal, Rockefeller released a statement in July 1961 opposing the plan and reiterating his commitment to the state constitution’s pledge to care for those in need. Although Rockefeller opposed the plan publicly, he did not criticize the Newburgh city council. However, he did say he opposed welfare “chiseling” and the use of public assistance to encourage idleness. The governor’s efforts to assure African Americans in Harlem in April 1961 that he was not supporting an initiative that Harlem residents perceived as a racist attack, while laboring not to offend welfare opponents and conservative Republicans in July, underscored the divisive nature of welfare for a moderate Republican who hoped to gain support from both constituencies.Footnote 66
Rockefeller maintained his support for the social safety net after the residency battle, but as the 1960s progressed he began to disassociate himself from the most maligned welfare programs like AFDC. Rockefeller supported welfare and welfare recipients during his 1964 presidential campaign, but in 1966 he was careful to avoid drawing attention to the issue; New York Republican leaders who supported Rockefeller’s reelection warned him privately to avoid discussing his support for cost of living increases to welfare benefits because it could hurt him politically.Footnote 67 During his short-lived three-month 1968 presidential campaign, Rockefeller did not reject welfare completely, but he did present the policy as one that harmed recipients, perhaps even more than poverty. As a result, Rockefeller laid out a program for welfare reform that emphasized social services intended to make the poor self-sufficient. Rockefeller’s plan suited the mood of the day, rather than research he had commissioned the year before that found that the major problems experienced by welfare recipients were due to the system being underfunded and inefficient.Footnote 68 Although Rockefeller did acknowledge tacitly that the economy had made the nation’s poor vulnerable, his emphasis was on rehabilitating the poor, particularly children who received aid, so that they could become “self-sufficient, economically-productive citizens.” However, Rockefeller’s staff had advised him not to “sound too conservative.”Footnote 69 The warning made sense during a campaign that Rockefeller launched by proposing a multibillion-dollar federal investment in urban centers and, after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, included an effort to appeal to liberal voters who had supported the slain senator. Rockefeller’s position was typical of the presidential candidates of both major parties who were cautious about not appearing too supportive of welfare. While his language was race-neutral, years of attacks against nonwhite welfare recipients in the public sphere meant that he did not need to mention race to contribute to the growing perception that welfare allowed African Americans to be a drain on society. In the process, he also helped delegitimize the concept of a social safety net at a time when attacks against the welfare state were becoming commonplace.
In his last term as governor, Rockefeller waged a battle against welfare that he may have hoped would result in New Yorkers blaming outsiders for the state’s fiscal crisis, but the outcome further vilified vulnerable New Yorkers and provided implicit support to those who made racist arguments against welfare. While announcing the state budget in 1971, Rockefeller blamed the state’s budget shortfall on its giving sixty-three cents of every tax dollar back to local governments and that it was unable to meet the need for increased revenue.Footnote 70 As the 1960s progressed, the cost of the state’s Local Assistance Fund, which financed locally delivered services, increased from $141 million in 1958 to $1.337 billion in 1973. Much of this growth was due to the state’s establishment of a broad-based Medicaid program, whose cost increased from $606.7 million in its first year in 1967 to $2 billion in 1973. Despite its increase, Medicaid was not the most controversial expenditure; public welfare such as AFDC earned that distinction.Footnote 71 Meanwhile, the rising cost of welfare in New York City was due in large part to an increase in the number of eligible applicants for public assistance from 500,000 in 1965 to 1,250,000 in 1972.Footnote 72 Rather than propose welfare cuts as a necessary, but unfortunate, product of the state’s strained finances, Rockefeller claimed that cost-saving reforms were needed to reverse misdeeds committed by welfare recipients and the flawed system that harbored them.Footnote 73 This new round of cuts followed Rockefeller’s successful proposal to make significant cuts to welfare benefits two years previously. The 1969 proposal was passed by the legislature, which was in Republican control for the first time since 1964.Footnote 74 Rockefeller’s latest reforms rejected data in favor of the old—and still unsubstantiated—conservative Republican argument that welfare recipients, in particular southern migrants, were unfairly burdening the state. His proposals included a controversial (and possibly unconstitutional) year-long residency requirement, a voluntary resettlement program to help recipients move to states where jobs and housing were available, and work incentives that included suspending local social services districts’ authority to declare an individual unfit for employment.Footnote 75 Rockefeller attributed the increased cost of welfare to migration and welfare recipients manipulating the system rather than legitimate economic need in New York.Footnote 76 Despite data to the contrary, Rockefeller continued to blame in-migration as a major factor in the state’s fiscal crisis, but only 11,000 of the state’s 1.6 million residents who received welfare at the end of 1970 had lived in the state less than a year.Footnote 77 While defending his claim that welfare costs were rising because of migrants, Rockefeller told a reporter off the record that his new approach was “the start of a move to get tough” in distinguishing “between those who really need [welfare], and those who enjoy it.” Although the governor admitted that he did not have all of the answers, he insisted that his proposals were warranted because welfare threatened to destroy the fabric of the state’s cities and would spread to the suburbs.Footnote 78 Like numerous elected officials and Americans across the political spectrum, Rockefeller adopted an increasingly negative view of low-income public assistance in the 1960s, but by relying on inflammatory rhetoric about welfare recipients, who were racialized as African American, and unsubstantiated claims of fraud, Rockefeller’s attacks on welfare played a pivotal role in damaging his previous efforts to build a multiracial constituency and an alternative path to victory for a national Republican Party in search of majority status in the 1960s and 1970s.Footnote 79 He also contributed to the increasingly widespread opposition to the welfare state in all forms, thus undermining another central tenet of Rockefeller Republicanism.
In the fall of 1971, Jackie Robinson told Rockefeller’s longtime adviser Hugh Morrow that although he still believed Rockefeller was a good man, he had little “visible” evidence to point to in light of “welfare reform, budget cuts, [and] Attica.”Footnote 80 Rockefeller denied that he had changed, but the governor’s justifications for cutting welfare—and actions during and after the prison uprising—which exacerbated negative stereotypes about poor Black New Yorkers, signified an unconscionable position in the eyes of his friend who had considered him an ally to African Americans. Robinson had great faith that Rockefeller could lead the Republican Party to an inclusive future where liberals, moderates, and conservatives valued an active government that defended the freedoms of Americans of all backgrounds and classes, but Rockefeller’s early conflicts with fellow New York Republicans suggested that this notion was an unlikely outcome.
Robinson was not alive to see it, but Rockefeller’s decades-long struggle to find a place for himself within the GOP culminated in a two-day tour of Alabama and South Carolina in the summer of 1975. Rockefeller, who had been appointed Gerald Ford’s vice president in 1974, was now attempting to prove his conservative credentials to southern Republicans who wanted Ford to keep the “liberal” Rockefeller off the 1976 presidential ticket. If Ford did not replace Rockefeller, some southern Republicans had threatened to switch their allegiance to Ronald Reagan, who had expressed interest in seeking the presidential nomination earlier that summer. During his appearance in Alabama on August 26, Rockefeller promised he would support the Republican ticket whether he was on it or not. The promise acknowledged that southern Republicans were still angry about Rockefeller’s challenge to Goldwater in 1964. The next day, Rockefeller, from the front steps of an antebellum mansion, told an audience in South Carolina the he shared a “very deep belief in states’ rights” with those in attendance. He also counseled against “the drift toward centralization of authority, red tape, and bureaucracy in Washington” and discussed the need to remove “cheats” from welfare rolls. Amidst lavishing praise on southerners and the South, he criticized “a period of 15 years of overpromising and underdelivering as a government.” Jon Margolis of the Chicago Tribune observed that Rockefeller was “playing to his audience,” but his statements amounted to an apology for what was the most consistent principle of Rockefeller Republicanism—an active government that helped people meet the challenges of modern society.Footnote 81 A couple of weeks after his visit to the South, where Rockefeller did “everything but talk with a drawl,” as his visit was described in the New York Times, Ernest Furgurson of the Baltimore Sun quipped, “Admirers of the former Nelson Rockefeller who were shocked at the way the Vice President behaved down South last month had better just avert their eyes from now till next summer.”Footnote 82 Those who had not paid close attention to Rockefeller’s incremental shifts rightward and unceasing endeavors to prove his loyalty to the party after Nixon’s election may have been surprised, but he had been compromising on his principles and dismantling Rockefeller Republicanism since Republican legislators opposed his fair housing proposals during his first term in office.
Political commentators marveled at and mocked Rockefeller’s appearances, but his efforts to court and placate conservatives were not new. During his earliest presidential campaigns, Rockefeller found himself before conservative Republican audiences in the Midwest touting his economic conservatism. The difference now was that the kingmakers of the Republican Party included people such as former Democrat and foremost enemy of federal civil rights legislation Strom Thurmond, who Rockefeller praised unrestrainedly, rather than Republican audiences in Chicago and Milwaukee, who he tried to appeal to with calls for tax cuts, praise for free enterprise, and local, rather than federal, government solutions. For example, Rockefeller presented his most conservative self in early 1963 by forwarding relatively conservative economic recommendations and calls for unity, which included praise for Barry Goldwater. However, what he did not do was tack right on his support for enhanced federal civil rights legislation. Rockefeller’s praise for states’ rights among people who had justified segregation as a states’ rights issue could be interpreted as political opportunism and empty platitudes, but it also signified an end to Rockefeller’s aspiration to make support for a strong federal government committed to protecting the rights of African Americans a pillar of the Republican Party.Footnote 83
Rockefeller Republicanism is commonly defined as a moderate or liberal form of Republicanism that stands for socially liberal domestic policies, robust government, and a penchant for challenging the Republican establishment. However, this definition of Rockefeller Republicanism does not account for the entirety of Rockefeller’s political career. Rockefeller had adopted as his own the conservative arguments against welfare programs, which he had long ago rejected at the time Robinson wrote Rockefeller in dismay. Rather than make an economic case for the state’s need to cut welfare benefits, he racialized and denigrated welfare recipients and then cast doubt on the objectives of the welfare state. Rockefeller’s evolution meant that moderate Republicans lost one of their most prominent representatives who pushed his party to embrace government solutions to problems ranging from degradation of the environment to systemic inequality. Meanwhile, Rockefeller’s career and struggle to find common ground with the New York GOP reveals that Rockefeller Republicanism was never as dominant as it appeared in the national press. Rockefeller Republicanism was founded on moderate Republican principles, with an emphasis on advocating for government intervention in the field of civil rights, but it became an unprincipled search for relevancy that castigated the urban poor and made a mockery of Rockefeller’s attempt to recommit the GOP to its legacy of opposing social inequality that dated back to the days of Abraham Lincoln.