The Tea Party phenomenon aims to upend Massachusetts political structures with a combination of anti-establishment populism, a challenge to prevailing economic wisdom, and anti-immigrant vehemence. John Mulkern has written a superb book exploring these factors – but the book was published in 1990, and is titled The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts.
Most of us have a vague sense of the Know-Nothings as the virulently nativist, anti-Catholic party of the mid-1850s. Few are aware that the party dominated the 1854 and 1855 state elections and controlled the Legislature for the single-year terms of 1855 and 1856, and held the governorship for the single-year terms from 1855 through 1857.
There is little question that the Tea Party and the Know-Nothings share some common ground in their anti-immigrant zeal. Leaders argue that we must “guard against citizenship becoming cheap” and “Americanize America.” The populists applaud the deportation of “these leeches upon our taxpayers.” These remarks are not taken from a WTKK Jay Severin program on Mexican immigrants, however, but from prominent Know-Nothings (including Gov. Henry J. Gardner) and directed at Irish Catholic immigrants. (Severin did, however, refer to Mexicans as “millions of leeches from a primitive country [who] come here to leech off you.” In 155 years the rhetoric hasn’t changed; we’ve just switched out the Irish for Mexicans.)
Mulkern’s most fascinating point, though, is that the party in Massachusetts was a populist reaction to the failure of the existing party system to address the social and economic ills confronting urban worker populations. We might well expect Tea Partiers to disdain “Political hacks and trading politicians” – but that was a rallying cry of the Know-Nothings. The Know-Nothings were certainly unreservedly opposed to immigrants, but Mulkern’s point is that the Know-Nothing’s populism outweighed its nativism.
The Know-Nothings actually had a progressive legislative record. They advanced constitutional amendments that Mulkern calls “the most significant expansion of democratic government” in Massachusetts history. In legislative matters, the Know-Nothings passed a wide range of reforms that relied upon growth of government – including reforms that promoted economic security. They addressed public concerns and expanded government regulation in areas where businesses like railroads, insurance companies, and banks had abused the public trust. Spending increased to meet long-neglected needs.
The analogy between the parties holds in the sense that while critics have focused upon the parties’ nativism, the core of appeal in the 1850s and in 2010 may be to genuine problems facing people. The Know-Nothings did address economic and social concerns. And as my UMass Boston colleagues Tom Ferguson and Jie Chen have shown, the vote that elected Scott Brown was from people worried about unemployment and experiencing the collapse of their most important economic asset – their homes.
The analogy between the parties breaks down when we consider how they address the crises of their times. While the Know-Nothings used government actively to counterbalance a system of private reward that ignored collective troubles, Tea Partiers espouse a deluded faith in unreservedly free markets – the very ideology that has brought our economy, and, through us, the world’s economy, to its knees. And while it might be debated whether government used its most effective tools to combat the Great Recession, few rational observers would doubt that the market crisis required government intervention. Rational would not include the Tea Partiers, who continue to howl about fiscal responsibility. This is like attacking the surgeon for removing a cancerous organ to save the patient.
Ferguson and Chen, along with Mark Lilla in a piece in the New York Review of Books, suggest how a populist movement could arise that consecrates the very economic theories that have supplied the movement with its economic maladies. Ferguson and Chen focus upon the negligence of the establishment media in sanctifying orthodox economic theories while marginalizing alternative viewpoints. Lilla’s argument rests not on media negligence but intent – the intentional demagogic appeals of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and others in providing their audience with assurances of their own purity and targets to blame – Democrats, liberals, and immigrants. Whether the mainstream establishment media or the right-wing establishment media is more culpable, we are left with an impoverished discussion.
Compared to the Tea Partiers, the Know-Nothings were Know-Somethings. This is progress?
Maurice Cunningham is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.