Tag Archives: Nativism

Rush Limbaugh, the Marxist Pope, and American Anti-Catholicism

This 1870 cartoon by Thomas Nast depicts the Pope and his minions eyeing America from Rome.

This 1870 cartoon by Thomas Nast depicts the Pope and his minions eyeing America from Rome.

The United States is, in theory, a secular nation. Despite the occasional verbal hat tips to a supernatural watchmaker by some of the more deistic leaning founders, all of America’s founding documents are secular: they embrace no official state religion of any kind and maintain a strict separation between church and state. This political structure has, in turn, made the U.S. one of the most religiously pluralistic societies in the world. After all, having  freedom of religion ensures that all religions can be practiced openly.

In practical terms, however, for much of its history the U.S. has been a majority Christian Protestant nation. The first European settlers (with the exception of some pesky Spanish Catholics in Florida and out west) to America were Protestants, and a Protestant religious tradition has shaped much of American history. And, of course, the violent, sectarian brouhaha that is Christian history ensured that a predominantly Protestant United States would also have its fair share of Anti-Catholic sentiment.

Modern anti-Catholicism in the U.S. has nowhere near the strength and popularity that it enjoyed in its 19th and early 20th century heyday, as Catholics have long since been accepted as full-fledged members of American society. Nonetheless, there remains a certain ambiguity about Catholicism in America; particularly among the country’s WASPY political and economic elites, who have embraced and accepted some aspects of Catholicism while remaining leery of some of its more left-wing traditions.

A case in point: conservative radio pustule Rush Limbaugh — a guy known for spewing more toxic gas into the atmosphere than your average Anaerobic lagoon — recently accused Pope Francis of espousing “pure Marxism.” And what did the Pope do to incur El Rushbo’s wrath? Well, in an 84-page apostalic exhortation that defined the platform of his papacy, the current vicar of St. Peter had the gold-gilded gonads to critique the excesses of globalized, unfettered, laissez-faire capitalism as a “new tyranny” that has created vast inequality and human suffering throughout the world. “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded,” the Pope noted, critiquing a market culture that “deadens” humanity via the promise of shallow material acquisition and leads to a “globalization of indifference” towards the poor.

As he is want to do, Limbaugh blew a major gasket in the wake of the Pope’s remarks. Rushbo not only accused Pope Francis of being an unrelenting Marxist, but then went on a standard tirade about capitalism’s amoral “invisible hand.” Rush did make a salient point, however, by pointing out the Catholic Church’s immense wealth, and how that wealth has, for centuries, been accrued through market means.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh. He actively tries to be a tool.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh. He actively tries to be a tool.

But Rush also made a telling observation, suggesting that Catholicism, for all of its “mainstream” success in the U.S., still remains a potential threat to American society by virtue of its collectivist tradition. “There has been a long-standing tension between the Catholic Church and communism.  It’s been around for quite a while. That’s what makes this, to me, really remarkable,” Limbaugh said. Rushbo was echoing an age-old fear of Catholic collectivism that has emanated at various times from both the Right and the Left in U.S. history; a fear that the Catholic Church, as a hierarchical organization, was at best indifferent to, and at worst hostile to, America’s individualist, small “r” republican virtues.

The fear of the Catholic Church’s allegedly totalitarian collectivist designs has been a powerful strain in American culture, which has long been dominated by a Protestant, individualist ideal that can be traced all the way back to Martin Luther’s idea of “sola scriptura.” Luther espoused the idea of a “priesthood of all believers” who need not consult a professional clergy for spiritual advice. The Protestant notion of a personal, individual relationship with God proved eminently compatible with republican ideals of individual liberty free from a meddling, theocratic state — of which the Catholic Church has historically embodied in the eyes of its critics.

Age-old Protestant fears of a multi-tentacled papist hierarchy wriggling its way into American life manifested most prominently in the rise of the Know Nothing movement in the 19th century. The Know Nothings, whom I discussed in an earlier post, were a political party that coalesced around the Protestant American cultural backlash against a new wave of Irish and German Catholic immigrants who came to the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. The Know Nothings, or Nativists, originated as secretive, fraternal societies before organizing into a political party in 1854.

The Know Nothings believed that Catholic traditions were antithetical to American liberal democracy. They decried Catholic immigrants as nefarious moles sent by Rome to infiltrate American society and reshape it in the papist image. A theocratic organization with a central figurehead in Rome that was controlled by a vast clerical hierarchy could never acclimate to a republican society in which free individuals exercised their individual right to self-government — or so the Nativists thought. As historian Elizabeth Fenton observes, “in the emergent United States…the concept of individual freedom…hinged on an anti-Catholic discourse that presented Protestantism as the guarantor of religious liberty…in a plural nation.”* The importance Americans placed on “private individualism” rendered the seeming collectivist hierarchy of the Catholic Church an inherent threat to American culture. Indeed, unlike the president, the Pope’s only term limit was death.

A Know Nothing flag. The oddly spelled "foreign influence" referred to those wily Papists.

A Know Nothing flag. The oddly spelled “foreign influence” referred to those wily Papists.

Of course, contrary to popular depictions, the Catholic Church has never been an entirely monolithic institution. Both politically and theologically, it’s been historically wracked by internal factions that have embraced the hard right and the hard left of the political and economic spectrums. The multitude of official documents advocating the importance of social justice attest to the Church’s leftist strain, while the support given to right-wing dictatorships in Latin America and elsewhere by the church’s more conservative elements reminds us that Catholics are as divided over politics as the rest of society. It’s the Catholic Church’s more leftist elements, however, underpinned by its inherently collectivist structure, that have more often than not been a source of worry for American Protestants.

The case of Father Charles Coughlin is among the best examples of how anti-Catholic fears have manifested via the fear of socialist infiltration — a tradition Rush Limbaugh is keeping alive by accusing Pope Francis of Marxism. Charles Coughlin was a Roman Catholic priest who rose to prominence during the Great Depression by championing social justice in a thoroughly demagogic fashion. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in 1891, Coughlin became the pastor of the small Royal Oak parish in suburban Detroit in 1926. Inflamed by persistent anti-Catholicism in America (the Ku Klux Klan once burned a cross on his church lawn) and the economic turmoil of the Depression, Coughlin took to preaching his sermons via a nationally syndicated Sunday radio show. In his radio sermons Coughlin demanded silver-based inflation, railed against the gold standard and international bankers, and called for the nationalization of the American banking system.*

Coughlin was a charismatic Catholic left-wing agitator-turned-right-wing fascist who was not above using demagoguery to achieve his vision of social justice.  An early supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Coughlin soon turned on the president when FDR failed to nationalize the banks and pursued anti-inflationary monetary policies. Feeling burned by Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, in November 1934, Coughlin formed a new party, the National Union for Social Justice, which campaigned for the rights of labor and the nationalization of key industries. Coughlin’s proclivity towards embracing nutty conspiracy theories, however, proved his undoing. He seemingly railed against everything; denouncing ‘communists,’ ‘plutocrats,’ and FDR’s alleged collusion with international bankers. Coughlin also peppered his broadcasts with vile anti-semitic rhetoric, accusing an international Jewish cabal of controlling the world banking system.*

During the late 1930s, amidst the outbreak of World War II, Coughlin took an ideological turn to embrace the right-wing fascist dogma then en vogue in Europe. He embraced Mussolini-style authoritarianism as the only way to cure the world of the ills that capitalism and democracy had wrought. By 1940, his radio program was off the air, but he continued to publish his magazine, Social Justice. After Pearl Harbor, however, Coughlin outright blamed the Jews for starting the war, leading the FBI to raid his church and U.S. authorities to forbid the postal service from disseminating his magazine. When the archbishop of Detroit ordered Coughlin to cease and desist all non-pastoral activities in 1942, the agitator-priest relented and retired from public life.*

Father Charles Coughlin railing against stuff in Cleveland, Ohio, 1936.

Father Charles Coughlin railing against stuff in Cleveland, Ohio, 1936.

Whether he was spouting left-wing or right-wing demagoguery, Coughlin always framed his ideas through the prism of a collectivist hierarchy; whether in the form of a central government-instigated redistribution of wealth or via an authoritarian system that squelched individual rights in the name of a greater, fascist whole. In this respect, Coughlin was an extreme example of the type of papist proclivity towards hierarchy that had long worried American non-Catholics. The ignominious Canadian-born priest never spoke for most of St. Peter’s flock, of course, but his demagoguery fed into already established concerns about the threat Catholicism supposedly posed to American republicanism. Heck, Rush Limbaugh might as well have invoked Coughlin when he accused Pope Francis of Marxism.

While American Catholics have come a long way since the days of being publicly reviled by Know Nothings and having an insane Detroit priest act as their national spokesman, the Catholic Church’s hierarchical structure is still a source of unease when that structure is invoked to critique the worst excesses of free-market capitalism. Whether those critique’s come in the form of Coughlin-style demagogic rants or Pope Francis’ elegant exhortation, the reaction has historically been one of hesitation — if not outright disgust — by non-Catholics who invoke, however unconsciously, a history of Anti-Catholic prejudice rooted in fears of the Church’s theocratic hierarchy. In America, old habits die hard.

* See Elizabeth Fenton, Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 6.

* See David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 227-37.

* See Charles E. Coughlin Biography, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia.

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Why Third Parties Just Don’t Work in America

A 1904 Campaign Poster for candidate Tom Watson of "People's Party," also know as the "Populists." They didn't last long, though some of their policies did. Also, Watson turned into a xenophobic, racist nutball.

A 1904 Campaign Poster for candidate Tom Watson of the “People’s Party,” also know as the “Populists.” They didn’t last long, though some of their policies did. Also, Watson turned into a xenophobic, racist nutball.

Why can’t the United States muster the will to create a viable third-party to challenge the calcified, shame-immune, institutional bureaucrat incubation pits known respectively as the Democrats and the Republicans? Throughout American history many idealistic souls have longed for a third-party alternative to the ensconced two-party system, and, despite a few fleeting exceptions, they have been sorely disappointed. The American tradition of mass democratic politics has historically combined with structural limitations within the country’s governing institutions to make third-party movements akin to knocking on Mordor’s gates and hoping to be let in with a wink and a smile. Yes, one does not simply start a third-party in America.

These facts, however, have never stopped Americans of all backgrounds and political persuasions from advocating for a third-party. Over at Time’s Swampland blog, Joe Klein is merely the most recent Prospero calling into the political tempest for a third-party to wreck onto American shores and shake up the system for the better, and he seems to think such a party is possible in 2014. Citing the candidacy of New Age guru Marianne Williamson, who is running to unseat California’s long time incumbant Democratic congressman, Henry Waxman, Klein sees a third-party image on the horizon that may prove to be more than a mirage:

Could Williamson be the harbinger of a wave of Independent candidacies in 2014? Are people so sick of the two existing parties that they’re ready to go shopping for something new? “We’re seeing this all over our polling,” says Peter Hart, who does surveys for NBC and the Wall Street Journal. “People are sick of the status quo: 60% believe that the entire Congress should be replaced. They’re looking for alternatives.”

Klein is right to point out that Americans really seem to want a third-party. The Gallup poll he cites led the Washington Times to recently declare the rise of “third-party fever,” claiming that more than ever, Americans want more political options. I have no doubt that they do. Heck, I’m one of them who wants to move beyond the bifurcated nest of incumbant morlocks currently clogging up the political pipes. But ideals do not a reality make. Americans have always wanted more party representation, but, in general, they never get it. Klein himself recognizes this fact, admitting that “I’ve been skeptical about 3rd parties in the past. The best of them–the Populists, Ross Perot (at least when it came to budgetary matters)–tend to have their hot ideas co-opted by the Democrats or Republicans.” As he notes, the idea of “co-option” explains America’s historical dearth of third parties, and why that dearth will likely continue.

America’s small “r” republican tradition of mass politics — especially since the early nineteenth century — created an environment through which various political platforms, ideas, and concepts could be introduced freely into public discourse and, therefore, be easily co-opted and absorbed by different political players. When taken in tandem with the basic mechanics of how the American political system is structured, you get a recipe for two-party blandness. As Sociologist G. William Domhoff meticulously explains, America’s  political system is based on districts and pluralities, rather than on mere proportional representation. This limits the ability of multiple parties to compete for representation and discourages the type of party coalitions common in parliamentary democracies. The election of American presidents via a direct national vote, as opposed to the parliamentary system of a victorious party choosing its leader, further dilutes third-party options.

Americans wishing to change the system to reflect proportional representation, Domhoff writes, will run smack into Article V of the Constitution, which states emphatically that “no State, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.” Americans’ need to ensure that less populous states receive equal — often greater — representational clout means that a parliamentary system and, by extension, greater party variety, isn’t going to happen.

But, as I already noted, it isn’t just the American system’s design that has constantly thwarted third parties; it’s also its culture of mass democratic politics that has allowed third parties ideas to be absorbed, co-opted, and reclaimed in a system that already favors big-tent style political organizations, not fractured micro-movements. The fate of two famous American parties, the Whigs and the Populists, demonstrate why third-party movements just don’t gain much traction in a political culture as incestuous and consolidation-prone as that of the United States.

A Whig Party banner from 1848. Candidate Zachary Taylor whon the presidency.

A Whig Party banner from 1848. Candidate Zachary Taylor Whon the presidency.

The Whigs were not a proper third-party; in fact, they were, for a while, one of the two dominant American political parties, but their demise shows the power of American party consolidation. The Whigs’ political lineage dated back to Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists and reached its zenith under the stewardship of compromise-prone Kentucky politico Henry Clay. Under   Clay’s “American System,” the Whigs touted a nationalistic platform via federally subsidized infrastructure development, a national bank, and economic protectionism. For their troubles, they elected four presidents and popularized a political theory that remains a vital part of contemporary American discourse. But two primary developments: the debate over slavery and increased immigration, eventually killed off the Whigs by the mid-1850s and made way for the Republican Party’s rise to national prominence.

Originally a national party with strength in the North and the South, the Whigs began to fracture over the issue of slavery in the territories. Since the passing of the Missouri Compromise in 1820, the Whigs had gradually been splintering along pro and anti-slavery lines. This divide came to a head following the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise line and opened up the western territories for possible pro-slavery settlement under the banner of popular sovereignty. Northern anti-slavery Whigs opposed Kansas-Nebraska, while southern pro-slavery Whigs, incensed at their northern party brethren’s stance on slavery, migrated to the Democratic Party.

Immigration, especially that of Irish Catholics who, by the 1840s, were arriving in waves to the northeast’s major population centers, also contributed to the Whigs’ demise. Fears of a devious “Papist” invasion in the still largely Protestant U.S. gave rise to the Nativist, anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party. The Know Nothings threatened to attract disgruntled Whigs infected with the fever of nativism until another incipient party, the Republicans, used fears of the southern “Slave Power” to create a coalition of anti-slavery Whigs, Nativists, and Democrats that finally locked the door on the Whig mausoleum. As historian William Gienapp writes in his classic book The Origins of the Republican Party, “like the Slave Power, the Catholic Church seemed a threat to liberty, and Republican rhetoric often linked the two by warning of the dangers they posed to cherished American ideals.”* Thus, the Republican Party was able to co-opt multiple, fractured political movements into an effective big-tent party that exists to this day.

In contrast to the Whigs, the People’s Party, more commonly known as the Populists, were a true third-party. The Populist movement grew out of late nineteenth century discontent among southern and western farmers who complained of the high cost of agricultural equipment, the practices of corrupt railroad companies that overcharged small farmers while coddling big businesses, and monetary policies that encouraged endless debt. In order to lobby the state to address their grievances, an alliance of farmers formed the Populist Party in 1892. Their “Omaha Plan” called for inflationary currency, government backed subtreasuries, a graduated income tax, and state ownership of the railroads.

The Populists filled a vacuum that challenged the entrenched power of the Republicans and Democrats, but eventually fell prey to co-option by those very same parties. The white supremacist Democratic Party played on southern white farmers’ fears of racial integration to discourage any Populist alliance between blacks and whites. This racial demagoguery drew many farmers out of the Populist fold and into the Democrats’ bigoted arms. One of the most famous Populists, for example, Georgia’s Tom Watson, advocated racial cooperation before succumbing to a delusional fit of bile-soaked race-baiting, leaving a legacy so rotten that a statue of him currently residing outside the Georgia state capital is now being removed.

In addition, the Populists were internally divided over whether or not they should fuse with the two powerful major parties, who held the political clout to pass laws. The issue of “fusionism” eventually killed the Populist Party. In 1896, Democratic Party presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan co-opted much of their platform before losing to Republican William McKinley. While the Populist movement was dead by the turn-of-the-century, their legacy survived in the form of the federal income tax, a national bank, federal regulation of railroads and farm credit, and the direct election of senators — all former Populist positions that the two major parties eventually co-opted and made law. The Populists, like other American third-party movements, couldn’t survive being absorbed by the major party sponges.

Ross Perot, independent candidate for president in 1992.

Ross Perot: The independent candidate for president in 1992 who just couldn’t finish.

The co-option legacy that killed the Whigs and the Populists has resurfaced whenever third parties threaten to challenge the two-party system in America. Diminutive Texas billionaire Ross Perot, the independent presidential candidate who garnered 18.9 percent of the national popular vote in 1992 by offering up voters a country-fried mish-mash of liberal and conservative positions, eventually watched Democrats and Republicans co-opt his anti-debt, balanced budget platform. In 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader siphoned just enough votes away from human flag pole Al Gore to help put George W. Bush in the White House. This scared the hell out of Nader’s Liberal supporters, thereby pushing them back into the corporate Democratic Party fold.

U.S. history shows that while there’s always potential for third-party movements to gain varying levels of steam among an electorate fed up with only two political options, the mass marketplace of American political discourse has consistently drawn third-party ideas into the major parties’ gaping maws. As the Whigs, Populists, and Ross Perot discovered, when combined with a political system that is structurally hostile to multiple party growth, American mass democracy creates a perfect storm that assures the continued dominance of the very thing that most Americans say they just can’t stand. So dream all you want folks; in the end, if you’re a Tea Partyier, you’ll vote Republican, and if you’re a bleeding heart Hippie, you’ll vote Democratic. It’s the American way, unfortunately.

* William Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 372.

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.