The Bigger Picture
Published on August 15th 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
In my last column I said I was concerned that the Tea Party segment of American voters, who have no real ideas or solutions to offer, will nonetheless have a major influence on the outcomes of several crucial federal elections. I am concerned because the Tea Party movement is reminiscent of other short lived, fear based political movements in America’s history which have had a thankfully brief but nonetheless negative impact on American society.
America’s Founding Fathers, who the Tea Partiers so revere, struggled mightily over many months to develop an American Constitution that struck a balance between American citizens’ native distrust of governmental authority and the young nation’s urgent need for a governance system that unified its far flung citizens and provided order under a system of laws. The founding fathers hated the monarchial system of kings which then dominated the world, but they were equally afraid of the excesses of mob rule and the inherent desire of states and cities to do as they pleased regardless of how their actions might affect other states and cities in America.
Thomas Jefferson was a founding father who was an opponent of industrialization, an advocate of states’ rights and the leader of those who distrusted a strong central government. Alexander Hamilton was the leader of the political coalition that advocated for more trade and commerce as well as a strong national government. So America’s founding fathers drafted a compromise Constitution that attempted to restrict the authority of the new national government while simultaneously restricting different aspects of the independence of the new nation’s individual states because of the often divergent interests of those states and their citizens.
But from the outset it was apparent during the ensuing state debates about ratifying the American Constitution that despite his endorsement of the new Constitution, many of Jefferson’s supporters still viewed the proposed new federal government as a conspiracy of the bankers and urban elites living in the northeastern states to subvert the will of other free Americans. But Jefferson and his ally, James Madison, were able to use their vision of America as a growing continental nation to successfully persuade a majority of their supporters to support it anyway.
What I find ironic is the fact that most of the ‘true conservatives’ who support the Tea Party movement also support the unfettered economic growth and development of America’s military industrial complex and that most of them don’t like Thomas Jefferson because of Jefferson’s strong support for the separation of government and religion. So despite their avowed reverence for the ideals of America’s founding fathers, the members of the Tea Party movement I talked to apparently don’t have a clue about what America’s founding fathers actually believed.
Therein we find the first clue as to the actual roots of the current Tea Party movement; not the Boston Tea Party patriots, who lit the first flames of America’s Revolutionary War in 1773, but rather the Know-Nothing movement which began in New York in 1843, seventy years after the Boston Tea Party. The Know-Nothing movement was the first American political movement whose supporters were, much like today’s Tea Partiers, primarily motivated by fear.
The Know-Nothing movement was a political reaction to the successive waves of poor German, Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants who came to America to live in urban tenements beginning in the 1830’s, as well as the prejudicial religious fears of many Protestant Americans. Between 1830 and 1850, more than 2.5 million immigrants moved to America and close to a million of these were poor Irish Catholic immigrants escaping the mid-1840’s potato famine.
When economic times got tough in the latter part of the 1840’s and early 1850’s, the mostly Protestant middle class workers living in the Northeast and Midwest sections of America reacted in horror to this influx of poor and mainly Catholic immigrants. The Know Nothing movement eventually became a national political party called the American Party and by 1855 43 of its members had been elected to Congress. The Know-Nothings’ main political aim was to bring a halt to immigration from foreign lands and to restrict American citizenship to native born Americans and naturalization to Protestant men over 21 who were of British descent.
However many of the supporters of the Know Nothings were not content to only use peaceful means to bring about the changes in America’s immigration policy they wanted. Their use of intimidation tactics to prevent Catholics from voting culminated in anti-Catholic riots in Louisville Kentucky during an August 1855 election for Kentucky’s governor that killed 22 Catholic voters, injured scores of others and resulted in widespread property losses. But by 1860 the Know-Nothing movement had fallen apart due to a fractious split over the issue of slavery.
Then a hundred years later another fear based political movement arose to take up the Know-Nothing’s mantle. However, instead of immigrant Catholic religious fear, this successor political movement’s fear was based on race. When the Democratic Party voted to include a civil-rights plank in its 1948 Presidential election platform, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond formed the States' Rights Democratic Party (“Dixiecrats”) and won the 1948 Presidential electoral votes of the states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama.
Twenty years later George Wallace formed the American Independent Party to take advantage of American’s racial fears by using the same theme of ‘states rights’ when he ran for President in 1968. Wallace broadened his appeal to American racial fears by winning 13.5% of the vote and the electoral votes of Arkansas and the four states won by Thurmond in 1948.
Another forty years has passed since George Wallace made his appeal to America’s racial fears by using states rights as a politically correct disguise for it. While most Tea Partiers will adamantly deny they are racially biased, their anti-Obama and anti-immigrant rhetoric harkens back to the anti-federal populism and politics of fear used by the aforementioned political movements. I will discuss my remaining Tea Party concerns in my next column.