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Practical Politics

The politics of know-nothings redux

David L. Horne, PH.D. | 9/8/2016, midnight

Last week, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow gave an incisive report on the Know Nothing Political Party in American political history, as a way of explaining the current popularity of anti-immigrationism in our political discourse. The most interesting part of her explanation was, of course, the section on whenever the American two-party system is flailing—that is, one political party not being able to hold its own and being perceived as weak and depleted—then transient third or fourth parties rush in to fill the void and usually bring with them a high level of populist craziness.

Certainly, the American political system does not dictate that there be only two viable political parties. There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that indicates that. However, the multi-party democracy that can be seen in England and other world areas has never taken root here, and a two-party system has naturally evolved.

In the late 1840’s, as America’s first legal political party—the Whigs floundered, and the slavery-advocating Democratic Party simply dominated the landscape, both nationally and in state governments, a new political party emerged. At first very clandestine, in saloons, barbershops and pubs, and based on a rising public sentiment against the continued immigration of Irish and German Catholics, what came to be called the Know-Nothing political party was born in 1849 as the secret Order of the Star Spangled Banner Club in New York. Lodges of this club were formed in virtually every major city of the country at that time. The mantra for members was when asked who they were or what they stood for, they were to answer that they knew nothing— thus, the sobriquet Know Nothings. Later the official name American Political Party was adopted.

The platform for this group was extreme anti-immigrationism in response to a fear that too many Catholics were coming into the country and the Protestants would lose their privileged place in society. The group was nativist to the core—that is, the country should isolate itself from the rest of the world and restrict the free inflow of dangerous immigrants who would sap the resources and energy of the country.

The Know Nothings reached a zenith of membership immediately before the birth of the Republican Party in 1854, but had petered out by 1856 without ever having won a presidential contest. Ever since, the political situation has been essentially a rivalry between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party for dominance in American politics and governance, even though the character and political ideologies of both parties have radically changed over the years.

Donald Trump’s recent capture of the Republican Party presidential nomination in 2015-2016 is a resurgence of the Know Nothing’s appeal—fear of the “outsider.” It is not new. It did not last the first time, and it will not last this time. What it did then was to strongly influence the recalibration of American political parties in the years leading up to the Civil War. Today, it is forcing a reassessment of American politics and political parties again.

Hopefully, the looming November disappointment at the polls for this new political iteration of the Know Nothings will not lead to another violent conflagration (as the Civil War represented) inside the American political system.

NEXT WEEK: What African Americans stand to lose in a Trump presidency.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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