The 1920s has had a reputation as being a fallow period in the history of American urban politics, having the image of being a decade when business elites and urban political organizations held undisputed hegemony over urban politics. This vision, however, is one that falls apart under close examination: neither of these groups held power to the degree that this image implies, and it was based on a belief that the decade generally was a conservative interlude between interesting times. Rather, the 1920s was a period of serious contestation politically, with issues of class, religion, and ethnicity serving as fault lines dividing the population and giving a rancorous tone to local political practices.
Three case studies serve to demonstrate the contested nature of urban politics during the period. In 1923 Chicago, a combination of political scandal, hard times, and ethnic tensions led to a reform wave in Chicago, with three candidates offering different reform visions for Chicago, demonstrating the ways in which various ethnic and religious communities interpreted the concept of reform. In 1924 and 1925 Detroit, the Ku Klux Klan rose and fell as a political force, taking advantage of a combination of recent trends in Detroit politics towards an ideology of political Protestantism and the presence of large numbers of non-elite Protestants who felt neglected by the leading factions in Detroit politics. 1925 Boston witnessed the breakdown of ethno-religious solidarity, as the Boston Irish, heavily divided by matters of class and spatial location, splintered their vote between several major candidates, enabling the election of a Yankee Republican as mayor. Combined, these three case studies demonstrate the contested nature of city politics during the period, showing how ethnic and religious matters served to create a heated political environment. These events had lasting impact: machine dominance in Chicago, political ill-will in Detroit, and ethnic political realignment in Boston all held roots in these elections. They also offer a way to understand national politics, as the roots of the New Deal urban coalition, the limitations of class politics, and changing ethnic politics all have roots in these events.