Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Know Nothings triumphant

At what might be the high-tide of the Tea Party movement in the US mid-term  elections yesterday I can't help recalling a previous US political force with a similarly stupid name - the Know Nothing Party of the 1850's.

It's said that America is a land without irony, and the name is supposed to come from the movement's underground origins - when supporters were encouraged to respond 'I know nothing' if quizzed about their activities - these activities often being the violent intimidation of immigrant communities. But they also came to revel in their name and take pride in the down-to-earth folksiness it implied. (Shades of Sarah Palin ?)

Primarily the Know Nothings were a 'nativist' movement - on what we today call a populist right-wing anti-immigrant platform. Their main target were the large number of Irish Catholic immigrants who flooded to the US in the wake of the famines of the 1840's. Their hostility was also extended to any other European newcomers who threatened to upset the Anglo-Saxon Protestant hegemony with their 'un-Americanism'. At the height of their success they even re-branded themselves as the 'American Party'.

They had their moment with election success in the 1854 election but they rapidly declined as they split along Northern and Southern lines over the slavery issue in the years running up to the civil war. It's therefore  tempting to dismiss their significance, but in fact they did have a lasting legacy in speeding the demise of the old rather patrician Whig Party and the rise of the populist new Republican party in its place. And ironically in the reconstruction period their ideas were revived to fuel the ideology of the Ku Klux Klan.

And I also can't help thinking  that the Tea Party probably see themselves as fitting  comfortably into this tradition...

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