Monday, October 11, 2010


We have had two "know nothing" political parties in our history. The first, properly called the "American Party" was in existence during the 1840s-1850s and had its roots in fear and religious prejudice. The second, our current " Tea Party," came into being in 2009 and has yet to disappear, although my prediction is that it, too, will have a short-term existence. Like its predecessor, it is also rooted in fear and religious prejudice, much of it irrational and unfounded.

The American Party was composed of mainly white, Protestant, poor and working class males who became alarmed at the vast influx of German and Irish immigrants, most of them Catholic, who poured into this country during the 1840s. A number of secret and truly grassroots movements sprang up across the country in reaction to the perceived threat that these immigrants posed to jobs. When asked about their nativist beliefs and organization, the members of these groups claimed to "know nothing" about their common goals. As such, they began to become called the "Know Nothing" party before adopting their official name. As these various nativist groups began coalescing into one national group, they began to get candidates elected to public office. They pressed for strict limits on immigration, forbidding foreign-born people from holding office, and advocated a 20 year residency requirement before immigrants could vote here. They also pushed heavily for temperance, becoming early Prohibition advocates. Along with this socially conservative stance on alcohol, they also pushed for daily bible readings in public schools as well as permitting only Protestants to teach in them. Their more radical elements feared that Catholics would attempt to turn the country over to Vatican rule. At their peak in 1855, this American Party had gained control of the Massachusetts Legislature and had elected 8 Governors, 5 U.S. Senators, and 43 U.S. House members. They were also instrumental in electing future Treasury Secretary and Supreme Court Justice Salmon P. Chase Governor of Ohio.

The party held its first national convention in Philadelphia in 1856, and nominated former Whig President Millard Fillmore for President. He finished third in the election, behind Democratic winner James Buchanan and runner-up Republican John Fremont. The party's division over the issue of slavery and its failure to take a unified stand over it led some of its members to join anti-slavery Whigs and liberal Democrats together into a force which boosted the rise to electoral success for the new anti-slavery Republican Party, which captured the White House with Abraham Lincoln four years later.
I refer to our current Tea Party movement as a "know nothing" party because so many of its leading proponents, officeholders, and candidates are woefully ignorant as to the nature and history of our government and our country as a whole. Several of its leading candidates, like Joe Miller in Alaska and Sharron Angle in Nevada, are attempting to rewrite history through their serious misinterpretations and misrepresentations of our Constitution. Miller, for one, errantly claims that the federal minimum wage is unconstitutional, even though its constitutionality was established in a UNANIMOUS 1941 Supreme Court decision in support of the 1937 Fair Labor Standards Act. One of the provisions of that law was the establishment of a federal minimum wage for all businesses engaged in interstate commerce. Both Miller and Angle have questioned the need for, and constitutionality of, federal unemployment compensation. This benefit came into being as a result of the Social Security Act of 1935, and its constitutionality was established in 1937 Supreme Court decisions. One of that law's components included for unemployment compensation.

As I mentioned, part of the Tea Party's agenda is rooted in fear and religious prejudice. These people fear the influx of Hispanics from across our sothern border, and Muslims from Africa and the Middle East. Such fears are irresponsibly stoked by politicians like Republican Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who has made wild and unsubstantiated claims about illegal Mexican immigrants beheading people in the Arizona desert. Others in the Tea Party and conservative wing of the Republican Party have insinuated that President Obama was born outside of our country, making him an illegal, illegitimate President, and that he is a Muslim. Both ridiculous claims serve to stir up opposition to his presidency and the latter one promotes unwise and unhealthy ignorance and suspicion about the religion of Islam.

It is not only politicians who are stoking this irrational fear of immigrants, but also numerous media spokespersons. Former CNN commentator and now radio show host Lou Dobbs has railed excessively and repeatedly on the subject over the years and joins hundreds of far-right talk radio hosts and discredited commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck in that regard.

Unlike the 1840s Know Nothing Party, today's Tea Party did not originate from the grassroots of the poor and working class. Instead, it was artificially CREATED by plutocrats Dick Armey, co-chairman of the far-right free market advocacy group Freedom Works, and oil billionaire David Koch. who is a heavy behind-the-scenes contributor to far-right political candidates and advocacy groups like Americans for Prosperity. Both of these men used their respective organizations to fund summer, 2009 opposition to the recently passed national health care reform bill. Busloads of people were gathered up, given signs and talking points and were driven to town hall meetings of pro-health care reform Democratic congresspersons. Once there, they shouted down these congresspersons and their supporters in a most undemocratic and un-American manner. They scared elderly and poorly-informed people to take part by telling them massive lies and by running numerous deceitful TV ads about health care reform. Such cynically fraudulent and manipulative means being used to influence political debate and outcome are a disgraceful new approach to duping the electorate and heap only scorn and discredit all over this phony Tea Party.

Apart from Sharron Angle and Joe Miller, the Tea Party and Republican Party also have poorly-informed and poorly-qualified candidates like Christine O'Donnell and Sarah Palin as darlings of their movement. This lends further credence to my assertion that the Tea Party is actually a party of "know nothings." O'Donnell has demonstrated unforgivable ignorance in the area of science ("scientists have created rats with fully functioning human brains"), and Palin has amply demonstrated lack of any knowledge in history, geography, government, law, or world events. Yet O'Donnell has been nominated on the Tea Party/Republican ticket for Senate in Delaware, while Palin enjoys wide adulation among millions of poorly-informed fools who avidly follow her every pronouncement and actually believe she would be a qualified and desirable candidate for President in 2012.

It boggles the imagination.




Beach Bum said...

...although my prediction is that it, too, will have a short-term existence.

Offhand I have no idea what the national economic outlook was during those years of the "Know Nothings" but in our time with the manufacturing base of the economy crashing and with neither major party willing to address the issue I have concerns that the current fears could be exploited for a good while longer.

Jack Jodell said...

That is an excellent and insightful hunch, Beach. But according to what I've seen, the rise of the Know Nothings occurred between two recessions, a six-year one which began in 1836 and a two year one which began in 1857.However, between 1840-1854 we experienced a record amount of immigration. The vast influx of cheap, largely non-English spreaking Germans and thickly-accented Irish, overwhelmingly Catholic, undoubtedly caused much consternation among the white and mainly Protestant men who made up the largest share of the work force at that time.

As for the Tea Party's longevity, the reason I believe they will fade rather soon is because they have an unsustainable agenda of looking backward, at a time when this country is in dire need of new, forward-looking solutions. Returning to the days of weak government with little regulation is clearly not the answer. It failed us miserably in the late 1920s and offers little hope for the overwhelming majority of the population today. Also, the Tea Party agenda is extreme and represents a radical departure from the cushion of economic safety nets. There were extremists during the Great Depression who wanted to tear everything down and start all over, but they did not prevail. Instead, the country embarked on reforms which amended and updated this imperfect capitalist system we have. As that has been our history, I believe we will see the same happen again, meaning the Tea Party will fade away. I HOPE! :-)

Max's Dad said...

Hey Jack, wew vote, we win. It's that simple. If we sit at home watching Jeopardy (we watch quality crap after all) and don't vote, we're screwed. I love history because I learn from it. Thanks for the lesson, Jack. Very interesting indeed.

Jack Jodell said...

Thanks, Max's Dad, and you're absolutely right: we vote; we win; we stay home, we lose. Plain and simple.

TomCat said...

Well said, Jack. One critical difference between the Know Nothings and the Tea Baggers is that the former was not an astro-turfed subset of another party, where as the latter are the InsaniTEA wing of the Republican party, even though many of the rank and file are too ignorant to realize it.

Tim McGaha said...

The "Tea Party" was originally going to call themselves the "White Guys Hopping Mad That A Black Guy Was Elected President Party", but that wouldn't fit on their business cards.