Tag Archives: Confederate States of America

The Confederate Flag: America’s Most Loaded Generic Symbol of Rebellion

Privleged, white, rebels without a clue in Colorado.

Rebels without a clue in Colorado.

The Confederate flag is an American symbol like no other. The reasons for this aren’t complicated: the Rebel flag is both distinctly American and functionally anti-American at the same time. It’s American in the sense that it once stood for a rebellion started by Americans, but anti-American in the sense that those American rebels waged a treasonous war against, you know, the United States. Yes-sir-ee-Bob, the stars and bars represents the most chaotic moment in U.S. history, when the land of the free went to war over the fact that millions of its residents were decidedly unfree, and plenty of (white) Americans wanted to maintain that status quo.

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With Charity for All: What Abraham Lincoln Can Teach us About Religious Freedom

There's a reason everybody quotes Lincoln: he was just so damn thought-provoking.

There’s a reason everybody quotes Lincoln: he was just so damn thought-provoking.

Abraham Lincoln is by far the most famous of American presidents, and not just because he cut an impressive, bearded and stovepipe-hatted figure that forever gave historical reenactors and drunk Halloween party-goers a reason to get out of bed every morning.

Lincoln was the president who saved the Union from the southern slaveholders’ insurrection (with a little help from the United States military), and he died as a martyr for that most American of notions: that all men (and women) really are created equal. Plus, according to at least one scholar, he single-handedly fought off hoards of vampires. April 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination by actor, Confederate sympathizer, and monumental buzzkill, John Wilkes Booth. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton truly said it best (if he said it all) when he remarked upon Honest Abe’s violent death that, “Now he belongs to the ages.” The current age could learn a lot from Lincoln’s wisdom and honesty.

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Rise of the paranoid South: How defending against “outsiders” brought the region together

Ted Cruz (R-TX) certainly knows that he's  an exceptional southerner.

Ted Cruz (R-TX) certainly knows that he’s an exceptional southerner.

My latest post is an article for Salon that explains why the American South continues to be exceptional in its own unique way.

The Civil War ended in 1865. Before the war, it was common parlance in America to speak of two regions: the “North” and the “South,” which were divided, above all else, over the issue of slavery. After the war, however, the idea of the “North” gradually disappeared from American culture, but “The South” as a regional, cultural and ideological construction has lived on.

Read the whole thing over at Salon.

Why Rush Limbaugh’s Very Exceptional America is Very Bad History

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh, alongside his fictional horse, Liberty (yes, Liberty) fancies himself a historian, for some reason.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh, alongside his fictional horse, Liberty (yes, Liberty). He fancies himself a historian, for some reason.

Sigh. Rush Limbaugh. You’re familiar with him, right? He’s a formidable natural force that once spewed forth an estimated 1.5 million metric-tons of gas into the atmosphere. Wait, that was Mt. St. Helens in 1980. But Rush isn’t far behind. Since the 1990s, Rush has been contributing heavily to global warming by emitting dangerous levels of toxic, right-wing effluvium into America’s radio waves on a daily basis — and this gas has poisoned the minds of many an impressionable, angry white guy. After all, Rush is the radio blow-hard who once compared Obamacare to slavery, and slavery is bad!! But now, El Rush-bo is focusing his plume of billowing exhaust on America’s children.

That’s right, Rush has recently authored two “history” books for kids: 2013’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans, and 2014’s Rush Revere and the First Patriots. Now, you’d think that no self-respecting teacher would have the stones to use these books for instructional purposes in an actual history class, but you’d be wrong. Because a teacher named Ivy from South Carolina (how shocking) recently called up Rush’s radio show to let the world know that she uses Rush’s books to teach third-graders. “[W]hat I decided to do was to use your author’s note that explains the principles of the founders in our country as a way to introduce the Civil War,” Ivy told Rush. Ho boy.

It’s the “author’s note” section of Rush’s book on the Pilgrims, which purports to explain why the “principles of the founders” led to the end of slavery, that demonstrates why Ivy the teacher is making a big mistake here — in addition to the fact that she’s using a book by Rush Limbaugh to TEACH THIRD-GRADERS!

Thankfully, the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf spares me from having to read too much of Rush’s book on my own and highlights the goodies from Rush’s “author’s note,” which the king of talk-radio gas actually read on the air. The offending section reads as follows:

We live in the greatest country on earth, the United States of America. But what makes it so great? Why do some call the United States a miracle? How did we become such a tremendous country in such a short period of time? After all, the United States is less than 250 years old! I want to try to help you understand what “American Exceptionalism” and greatness is all about. It does not mean that we Americans are better than anyone else. It does not mean that there is something uniquely different about us as human beings compared to other people in the world. It does not mean that we as a country have never faced problems of our own.

American Exceptionalism and greatness means that America is special because it is different from all other countries in history. It is a land built on true freedom and individual liberty and it defends both around the world. The role of the United States is to encourage individuals to be the best that they can be, to try to improve their lives, reach their goals, and make their dreams come true. In most parts of the world, dreams never become more than dreams.

Well now, that sounds innocuous enough, don’t it?! Rush isn’t saying that America is perfect, he’s just saying it’s more perfect than everywhere else! But, as Friedersdorf notes, Rush’s embracing of American Exceptionalism allowed Ivy to explain slavery’s demise as something that was just bound to happen, gol’ darn it! “I used that as a way to introduce the Civil War because we were about to enter a discussion on the time when slavery existed in our country,” Ivy said, “but because of what you said in the book and the way that you explained the Founders’ passion for our country, it was because of that that slavery inevitably was abolished. So I felt like that would be a good way to get some conversation going.” Ho boy.

This idea really has got to go.

This idea really has got to go.

You get all that? According to Rush and teacher Ivy, slavery was abolished in the U.S. because it was destined to be abolished, because America is so great — so EXCEPTIONAL — that it was inevitable that it would eventually repent for its greatest original sin. The big problem with American Exceptionalism, however, is that takes a providential view of U.S. history by postulating that some divine or otherworldly force — usually the Christian God — has guided America’s progress from its founding to the present day. Thus, American Exceptionalism isn’t just bad history; rather, it places the United States outside of history.

Scholar Deborah Madsen has written a great book on American Exceptionalism, which I highlighted in a previous post, but her book is worth going back to in order to highlight the depth of Limbaugh’s historical delusions. Madsen defines “American Exceptionalism” as the belief that, “America and Americans are special, exceptional, because they are charged with saving the world from itself and, at the same time, America and Americans must sustain a high level of spiritual, political and moral commitment to this exceptional destiny — America must be ‘a city upon a hill’ exposed to the eyes of the world.”* The phrase “city upon a hill” is a quote from Puritan leader John Winthrop, who long ago envisioned that America was to be an exceptional Christian society that would offer a starting point for a new history in the form of a society that was free from the sins of Old Europe, and would thereby provide an example of spiritually informed enlightenment for all the world to emulate.

Thus, American Exceptionalism presents a redemptionist view of history that absolves America of its many sins by claiming that repentance for those sins was planned from the beginning, and that the pre-destined progress of history would attest to this inevitable redemption.

American Exceptionalism removes America from the historical path in which human decisions, mistakes, and prejudices combined with coincidences, external influences, and developments in the natural world to create very real conflict over the future. And this is why Rush Limbaugh likes American Exceptionalism, because it replaces human agency with a historical trajectory that was predestined and/or guided by providence — a trajectory that sits in stark contrast with the reality of how real, flawed human behavior shaped the course of American history. Above all else, American Exceptionalism is SIMPLE.

But, of course, history is never simple, and there was nothing at all inevitable about slavery’s demise. After all, slavery was enshrined in the U.S Constitution. Contrary to Limbaugh’s claim that “the Founders of this phenomenal country believed all people were born to be free as individuals,” the Constitution only counted black people as a decidedly unequal three-fifths of a person. This was because the humans who designed the Constitution — particularly the southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention — designed it to protect slavery.

The eventual end of slavery in America was, therefore, the result of decades of fervent agitation by people of faith, courageous politicians (yes, they have existed), and the slaves themselves who fought bitterly to correct the Founders’ great sin. Anti-slavery forces in America endured decades of virulent and bloody opposition to their stance, and when the kettle finally boiled over in 1861 and the U.S. descended into Civil War over the slavery issue, there was still nothing inevitable about the institution’s demise. Had the Confederacy won the war, slavery would have existed and thrived for an inestimable amount of time.

Dead soldiers after the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863. There was nothing exceptional about full-scale war.

Dead soldiers after the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863. There was nothing exceptional about full-scale war.

Nothing about the Civil War — when it happened, why it happened, why it happened the way that it did — was inevitable or guided by providence. The Civil War, like all events in American history, was the product of specific human actions and decision-making. The fact that a nation ostensibly dedicated to the ideal that “all men are created equal” had to fight a four-year-long war and sacrifice the lives of 600,000 soldiers over the right to perpetuate the enslavement of other human beings demonstrates the very real limits of America’s ability to be exceptional. To quote the late historian/novelist Shelby Foote, “we think that we are a wholly superior people — if we’d been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war.”

American Exceptionalism is bad history because it blinds people to the very real — and very human — triumphs and tragedies that the U.S. has faced in its relatively short national lifespan. Rush Limbaugh and his ilk do us no favors by trying to simplify and overly moralize the events of the American past, because doing so robs us of the chance to actually LEARN from that past. Viewing the U.S. as uniquely exceptional makes it hard to examine with a critical eye what America has done wrong as well as what it has done right. If we make simplistic assumptions about the inevitable, inherent goodness of America, then we run the risk of underestimating the real evils that have existed — and continue to exist — in American society, and we run the risk of failing to address those evils before they grow.

Today, it’s common for Americans to look back on the century-long debate over slavery and ask why it took so long for the U.S. to eradicate such a conspicuous evil. But many Americans thought that slavery was an American institution and thus, an inherently good institution that was worth holding on to. After all, America was exceptional.

* See Deborah L. Madsen, American Exceptionalism (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 2-4.

Nelson Mandela and the Legacy of American Apartheid

Former South African President Nelson Mandela meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 2002  International Aids Conference.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 2002 International Aids Conference.

This week one of the towering figures of twentieth century politics passed from his mortal coil. Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, died at the age of 95, leaving a legacy that stretches beyond the limits of South Africa and even his own lifetime. Heck, Mandela’s legacy is one that challenges what had been among the core ideologies of the modern world dating back at least to the 18th century: white supremacy as practiced via the supposed inherent right of European powers to subjugate non-white, non-European peoples.

Mandela was, of course, the first black president of South Africa, a nation whose modern history is framed largely through the prism of its brutal system of racial segregation known as Apartheid. Mandela spent 27 years in prison as punishment for his lifelong fight against institutional racism, and his greatness as a symbol of human resistance in the face of adversity is now forever sealed. I mean, Morgan Freeman even played Mandela in a movie, and if that doesn’t attest to the South African president’s greatness, nothing else will.

I kid, of course. Mandela stands with Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Ghandi, as one of the most influential world players in the battle against racism and segregation in the modern era. So what exactly was Apartheid, and why was it so awful? Legal historian Steven Ratner offers a good, comprehensive definition:

Apartheid was the system of racial discrimination and separation that governed South Africa from 1948 until its abolition in the early 1990s. Building on years of discrimination against blacks, the National Party adopted apartheid as a model for separate development of races, though it served only to preserve white superiority. It classified persons as either white, Bantu (black), colored (mixed race), or Asian. Its manifestations included ineligibility from voting, separate living areas and schools, internal travel passes for blacks, and white control of the legal system.

Take some time to absorb that for a second: “a model for the separate development of the races.” If you’ve ever studied American history, for example, you might be aware that such institutionalized racism was not unique to South Africa. And how did South Africa’s racist regime go about instituting Apartheid? Policymic has a good roundup of the policies that built Apartheid:

Blacks were denied citizenship and the right to vote. They were forcibly relocated into impoverished reservations. People of color were barred from operating businesses or owning land inside white areas, which comprised most of the country. Sexual relations or marriage between people of color and whites was strictly forbidden. Racial segregation was enforced in public areas, including schools, hospitals, trains, beaches, bridges, churches and theaters. To enforce apartheid, the government often resorted to police brutality, the imprisonment and assassination of political dissidents, and the murder of black protesters.

The type of racial segregationist program known as “Apartheid” in South Africa, however, was far from limited to that country alone. Racial segregation in the name of white supremacy was a guiding principle that came to characterize the age of discovery, when European powers explored, settled, and colonized other parts of the world from the 15th century all the way up the 20th century. What Mandela fought against in South Africa reverberated throughout the world, as long-subjugated groups in former and current colonized nations fought for the equality that had been denied them in large part based on the color of their skins. It wasn’t an easy fight: as Mandela’s life demonstrates, those who have the power to dominate others won’t give it up that power easily, and they aren’t shy about enforcing their power through violence and intimidation.

The nation that emerged at the top of the world power heap by the mid-20th century was the United States, and nearly all of America’s history as a modern nation involved a reckoning with its own form of American Apartheid that manifested in the system of racial slavery that was enshrined in its Constitution and, over time, created one of the most racially divided societies in modern history. This development was all the more ironic since it took place in a country that supposedly cherished the notion that “All men are created equal.”

This American Apartheid echoed through the centuries via a Civil War fought over the right to enslave black bodies. After slavery’s demise, American Apartheid took the shape of the racial terrorism of Reconstruction. By the late 19th and early 20th century, it became institutionalized in the barbaric Jim Crow system that witnessed the smoldering stench of immolated flesh as lynching swept the American South and African-Americans were relegated to nation-wide second-class citizenship. American Apartheid only finally began to collapse in the mid-20th century, the same era during which Mandela waged his fight, following a sustained attack by Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. But as recent attacks on minority voting rights indicate, Apartheid casts a long shadow in America and throughout the world.

An August, 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. This was American Apartheid at its worst.

An August, 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. This was American Apartheid at its worst.

America’s reckoning with its own apartheid explains why many elements in the U.S., up until very recently, viewed Nelson Mandela as a racial terrorist rather than a freedom fighter. As Sagar Jethani of Policymic notes, American conservatives long-defended South Africa’s anti-communist, white minority government in the name of anti-communist zeal. Mandela’s support for liberal policies, including worker’s rights and social justice, when combined with his early support for violence against the Apartheid government before he embraced peaceful resolutions, did not endear him to the American Right.

Over at Student Activism, for example, Angus Johnston reminds us how in 1986, William F. Buckley, the silver-spooned National Review founder and “intellectual” godfather of modern American conservatism, vehemently opposed universal suffrage in South Africa. “The government will not … grant political equality to everyone in South Africa. Nor should it,” Buckley wrote. “It is preposterous at one and the same time to remark the widespread illiteracy in South Africa and to demand the universal franchise.” Buckley had already made it abundantly clear that he opposed racial equality in the American South, both on prejudicial grounds and because he associated equality with a threat to established political and economic hierarchies, hence his distaste for South African universal suffrage.

In the 1980s, American conservative luminaries like Jesse Helm (R-NC), Strom Thurmond (R-SC), Phil Gramm (R-TX), and Dick Cheney (R-Hell) followed Buckley by opposing the Congressional Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which imposed sanctions on South Africa.

For many Americans, not just conservatives, the specter of racial equality also suggested economic equality and the threat to capitalism that would supposedly undermine social hierarchies across the land. Race and class have always been inextricably linked in American history, which helps explain why American conservatives in particular viewed Mandela as a threat: he tapped into old domestic fears that conflated anti-racism with economic and social revolution.

Proponents of American Apartheid have defended racial segregation since the beginning, but they’ve been at their most defensive when white supremacy, with all of its economic benefits, has been explicitly challenged. Such was the case during the run-up to southern secession and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860-61. As historian Charles Dew notes, southern secession commissioners (whom I discussed in an earlier post) charged with promoting secession throughout the South endorsed slavery and the Apartheid that bolstered slavery as a justification for the South’s forming the Confederate States of America to fend off northern anti-slavery aggression.

Commissioner William L. Harris of Mississippi, for example, complained that the North demanded “equality between the white and negro races, under our Constitution; equality in representation, equality in the right of suffrage…equality in the social order.” Harris warned that Mississippi would rather “see the last of her [white] race, men, women and children, immolated in one common funeral pile,” rather than be “subjected to…social equality with the negro race.”* Indeed, the Confederate South fought America’s greatest and bloodiest revolution, the Civil War, in order to preserve American Apartheid, and they didn’t stop defending racial segregation after the Confederacy’s demise.

During the Jim Crow era, as lynching and black disenfranchisement swept across the South and other parts of the country, defenders of American Apartheid continued to echo the sentiments of their Confederate forebears. In March of 1900, for example, the mind-blowingly racist South Carolina Senator Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman claimed on the Senate floor that the lynching of blacks was necessary to uphold racial segregation. “We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will,” Tillman stated. “We have never believed him to be equal to the white man,” he continued, “and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.” Rarely had Apartheid produced so blunt a spokesman. For Tillman and his ilk, racial equality meant social equality, which they believed would upend the entire American white supremacist socio-economic order.

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was among America's most noted pro-Apartheid jerks.

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was among America’s most noted pro-Apartheid jerks.

Even after the success of the Civil Rights movement, certain segments of American society nonetheless held on to their defence of American Apartheid, particularly in the 1980s when violence erupted in South Africa. Jesse Helms, for example, the Republican senator and general scumbag from North Carolina, defended South African Apartheid in large part because it reminded him of the American Apartheid system in which he had been born and raised.

As Eric Bates of Mother Jones reported in June 1995, Helms “grew up in a segregated world not unlike the one of apartheid,” and this upbringing gave him “a view of a fundamentalist Christian society in which everyone is not welcome” and which resembled “South Africa of 20 years ago.” With a lifetime of pro-segregationist ideology informing his thought, Helms filibustered U.S. sanctions against South Africa in 1986, claiming that “the Soviet Union is orchestrating upheaval in all of Africa.” By supporting South African Apartheid on grounds that it would supposedly bring about communist revolution, Helms followed a long tradition in which American segregationists, from Confederate ideologues to lynching proponents, linked racial equality with social revolution. American conservatives’ mixed ideas about Nelson Mandela’s legacy reflect a reluctance to reckon with America’s own historical Apartheid past.

With Mandela’s passing, here’s hoping that Apartheid in any part of the world will continue to be a shameful part of the human past. But as U.S. history shows, despite Americans’ long-held claims of American Exceptionalism,” Apartheid has never been limited to South Africa. In fact, its has been a reality of the modern world and has manifested in nearly every continent over the last few centuries. This is not the kind of legacy that goes away quickly, and this fact makes Mandela’s legacy all the more remarkable and worth continuing.

* See Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 85, 89.

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.” This form of middle-of-the-road radicalism embraced Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan in the early 1990s, 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.