Tea Parties, Know Nothings, and Klansmen: The Enduring Specter of American Nativism

An 1850s era Boston Know Nothing Party newspaper. They opposed taxes, immigrants, and feared American moral decline. Sound familiar?

An 1850s era Boston Know Nothing Party newspaper, the American Patriot. The Know Nothings opposed taxes, immigrants, and feared American moral decline. Sound familiar?

In light of the 2013 shutdown of the federal government, much proverbial ink has been spilled trying to understand the lumbering, lily-white, unreasonably enraged, largely geriatric albatross known as the Tea Party that has taken the Republican Party into its paranoid talons and simply refuses to let go. Understanding what drives these Medicare-scootering reactionaries is key to understanding the mind of contemporary American conservatism. But these neck-vein bulging, spelling-challenged, addlepated political equivalent of howler monkeys are, in fact, only the most recent manifestation of a seemingly intractable American tradition: nativism.

A recent Salon piece by Michael Lind characterizes the Tea Party as the “Newest Right;” the angry progeny of historically southern-based movements like the Jacksonian Democrats and the supporters of the one-time Confederate States of America, who are lashing out at impending changes that threaten the national and local power of various subgroups of white people. The Tea Party strategy, Lind writes, is “maximizing the political power and wealth of white local notables who find themselves living in states, and eventually a nation, with present or potential non white majorities.” The preferred tools for this strategy include the filibuster, privatization of federal programs, disenfranchisement of minorities, and maintaining the Solid South voting bloc.

In a piece that somewhat echoes Lind’s conclusions but (prematurely, I think) suggests the potential collapse of the modern Republican Party, John Judis of the New Republic identifies the Tea Party as the latest manifestation of what political scientist Donald Warren termed “Middle American Radicalism.” This movement, Judis writes, is “anti-establishment, anti-Washington, anti-big business and anti-labor; it’s pro-free market. It’s also prone to scapegoating immigrants and minorities. It’s a species of right-wing populism.” Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan embraced this form of middle-of-the-road radicalism in the early 1990s. It also fueled the Republican Revolution of 1994 and gave George W. Bush a second term in the White House. But the reactionary pot really boiled over against the backdrop of the Obama presidency and the Great Recession.

Both Lind and Judis make excellent points, but there are some other, darker strains of reactionary conservatism in U.S. history that help further explain the Tea Party’s rise in the age of Obama. The 19th century anti-Catholic Know Nothing movement and the early 20th century Second Ku Klux Klan both carried Tea Party DNA. Both were right-wing populist movements whose popularity grew out of fears that perceived outsiders threatened vast social change that would destroy the cherished culture and morals of largely middle-class white Americans.

The Know Nothings, also identified by the terms “nativists” and the “American Party,” emerged in the mid-1850s as a relatively organized political movement bent on stopping the influx and influence of mostly Irish and German Catholic immigrants. The Know Nothings were a semi-clandestine movement that often held secret meetings for members only. The term “Know Nothings” grew out of members’ common refrain of “I know nothing” when asked about the details and activities of their organization.

As historian Tyler Anbinder notes in his classic book, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s, the Know Nothing Party viewed Catholicism as antithetical to American Protestant republicanism. These anti-Catholic reactionaries feared that the hierarchical, supposedly totalistic, tentacle-like control the Papacy held over its Church would root into American institutions via German and Irish immigrants and slowly destroy cherished notions of American freedom and prosperity.

Beyond the specific Anti-Catholic stance of the American Party, however, lay the broader influence of “nativism;” what Anbinder qualifies as “a complex web of nationalism, xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and racism.”* Indeed, Anbinder notes that the Know Nothings saw themselves taking a last stand against perceived American decline spurred by demographic and cultural changes. “Know Nothings,” he writes, “attributed their origins to ‘Young Sam,’ whose uncle (the famous ‘Uncle Sam’) had become discouraged about America’s decline and had asked his nephew to start an organization that would revitalize the nation.”*

The American Party saw themselves as that organization. Like the Tea Party, they took on the task of halting the decline of white, middle-class America at the hands of immigrants and cultural shifts. Just consider these lines from the Know Nothing American Patriot newspaper shown at the top of this post:

“We are burdened with enormous taxes by foreigners. We are corrupted in the morals of our youth. We are interfered with in our government. We are forced into collisions with other nations. We are tampered with in our religion. We are injured in our labor. We are assailed in our freedom of speech.”

Without any alterations, the above passage could easily be printed on a contemporary Tea Party website. Moreover, just as the Tea Party achieved a stunning congressional sweep in the 2010 midterm elections, the Know Nothings similarly, if briefly, elected congressmen, governors, and hundreds of local officials throughout the U.S.

The KKK marches on Washington D.C. in 1925, proving that angry white people can do anything when they put their collective hoods together.

The KKK marches on Washington D.C. in 1925, proving that angry white people can do anything when they put their collective hoods together.

Yet, as reactionary as the Know Nothings could be, they were milquetoast when compared to another right-wing populist organization — the Second Ku Klux Klan — that rose to fleeting, but potent, power in the early 20th century. The KKK originated in 1865, following Confederate defeat in the Civil War. It functioned as the militant, vigilante arm of the southern Democratic Party. Dressed in elaborate costumes, the Klan engaged in night rides across the South, beating newly freed slaves and terrorizing white Republicans. After the “Redemption” of the South by the Democratic Party in 1877, the Klan largely rescinded until it was reborn at the turn-of-the-century.

The so-called Second Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1915 by physician William J. Simmons on top of Stone Mountain, outside of Atalanta, Georgia. But the organization really took off in the 1920s. As Nancy MacClean observes in her essential book Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan, the first two decades of the 20th century saw vast social and economic changes in the form of mechanization of industry, the growth of trade unions and the women’s rights movements, mass immigration from eastern Europe, and the diaspora of African-Americans moving from the South into the northern cities.

The KKK re-emerged as a reactionary force driven by class, gender, racial and religious resentments against various forms of “others” such as immigrants, blacks, Catholics, and Jews, whom Klan members believed threatened to take away the hard-earned middle-class success of White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPS). MacClean describes the Second Klan as a form of “reactionary populism,” in which “the anti-elitism characteristic of populism joined with the commitment to enforce the subordination of whole group of people.”* Far from being the dregs of society, most Klansmen were middle-class white men: they were doctors, lawyers, office workers, and others from white-collar professions fearful of a changing world in which minorities might challenge their social, political, and economic dominance.

The Second Klan donned their famous white hoods and robes, burned crosses, and held marches across the U.S. They performed these rituals to protest a host of demographic groups and social changes which they believed would destroy America. The KKK complained that Slavic European immigrants and uppity blacks would take white American jobs. They railed against the supposed loosening sexual morality of American youth — especially middle class young women. They painted apocalyptic portraits of the impending degeneration of America via racial miscegenation. And they warned of the alleged penetration of American society by Catholic Papists and Communist trade unions.

At its zenith in the early 1920s, the Second Ku Klux Klan boasted some 4 million members nationwide, and its most impressive show of strength came when it held a March 1925 rally in which 60,000 robed Klansmen paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. Further, like the Know Nothings before them, the Klan sent members to the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and filled hundreds of local and state-level positions.

MacClean suggest that the Klan’s success is evidence of just how closely fascist ideas lurk under the apple-pie covered surface of American life. Although the KKK was born in the South, The second Klan was national in scope because they espoused shared WASP national goals such as “curbing the power of the federal government, protecting ‘the purity of [white] womanhood,’ and, more generally, fortifying white supremacy.”*

Anti-immigration sign at a Tea Party Rally. The Nativists are dead. Long live the Nativists.

Anti-immigration sign at a Tea Party Rally. The Nativists are dead. Long live the Nativists.

The above goals echo the goals of the current Tea Party, with its obsession with the boogeyman of “Big Government,” its virulent anti-abortion and pro abstinence stances, its hard-line anti (Hispanic) immigrant views, and its thinly veiled racial resentment against African-Americans. Both the goals of the Second Klan and the goals of the Tea Party were drawn from the same fetid, seemingly bottomless, reactionary well of white, middle-class American paranoia filled to the brim by status anxiety and fear of the “other.”

The Tea Party is not the Know Nothings or the Klan reborn: the Know Nothings as they previously existed are long gone, and while the KKK is, alas, still around, it probably considers the Tea Party to be communist sell-outs. But the Tea Party is driven by the same concerns that drove the Know Nothings of the 19th century and the Second Klan of the early 20th century: that the U.S. is changing, that American culture is in decline, and that everyone except certain groups of white people are to blame for these changes.

However antiquated and counterproductive these types of emotionally stunted, reactionary ideas may seem, they’ve been a current in American society for a very long time. “Middle American Radicalism” emerges whenever vast social change or extraordinary events threaten to upend traditional, hierarchical power structures in American life. And you can bet that angry, middle-class whites will be ready to protest these changes. Indeed, from the Know Nothings, to the KKK, to the Tea Party, they never fail to disappoint — and that fact is exceedingly disappointing.

*See Tyler G. Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), xiv.

*See Nancy K. MacClean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), xiii, xv.


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