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Do You KNow Nothing about the Teabaggers?

Tom Hall: Like today’s Teabaggers, the Know Nothings wanted their Constitutional rights, but got angry when anyone asked them to actually discuss constitutional issues and governance. And like today’s Teabaggers, the Know Nothings shouted that if their candidates just got elected, everything would be better.
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Some say the Teabaggers are nostalgic for the 1950s and resentful about how Senator Joe McCarthy was disrespected. Others say that periods of desperation and change can enable the rise of fascism. And we’ve all seen articles focusing on the racist signs and actions at Teabagger events. But these approaches ignore the deeper historical roots of the Teabag movement, and let those who benefit from it escape examination.


Perhaps the clearest antecedent to the Teabag movement is the American Party, formed in 1845. In 1845 the party called itself the Native American Party, but dropped the word “Native” from its name in 1855. The core belief of the party was that the United States was being ruined by the influx of “racially inferior” immigrants.

Think back through your memories of childhood slang to find the words left over from days of 19th century anti-immigrant politics. Bohunk, Mick, Paddy, Wop.

Bohunks or Hunkies were Hungarian and Bohemian laborers who were prized for their energy in steel mills and the coal mines that kept the mills working. But they were despised for being “brute,” marginally human laborers who could not be taught any complex thinking skills and who were barely civilized. They were considered less human, even, than the Polacks.

Micks and Paddys were Irish immigrants. Potato eaters. In the years before the Civil War they were derided as Wiggers, a contraction of White-n***er, also dismissed as uncivilized, marginally trainable, and only suited for brute laborer. Anyone growing up in the “better” neighborhoods of Boston, New York, and other Eastern cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries could see “No Irish Need Apply” signs at the servants’ entrances of fashionable homes.

Wops were the Italians. Decades before the Mafia became a sexy stereotype for Italians to be feared and admired, Wops were the “greasy spaghetti eaters” whose presence polluted city ghettos and burdened civic services.

The Micks, Hunkies, and Wops (and other immigrant groups) were called untrainable and racially inferior. They bred like rabbits, overloading the school systems, crowding urban housing, causing and then spreading exotic diseases. These groups were all, also, Caucasian. But that didn’t stop anyone from deriding them as racially inferior.

Was the concept of race was different in those days? Different how? After the Civil Rights movement of the ’50s-‘70s, most of the nation agreed that it was wrong to denigrate black people. But our need to feel better than someone else remained. So what?! Ta Da! The Beaner, Wetback, Latino “race” emerged.

Seriously. There was anti-hispanic sentiment in California at least from the days of the Gold Rush. Chile was the source of a rush of Spanish-speaking immigrants to work the mines in the gold fields. Their presence, with the existing farm/ranch hands who moved freely back and forth across the Mexican border, was a threat. On the East Coast, farmers routinely used Puerto Rican migrant labor (“Spics”) to tend and harvest crops. But these groups were generally recognized and referred to as Caucasian.

But with the success of the Civil Rights movement, and the consequent inability to be open about anti-black racism, Hispanics, particularly Mexican immigrant Hispanics, began to earn their own “racial” categorization. People who benefit from discrimination needed a new target group.

What remains a defining feature of all of these groups is that they represent an “invasion” of people from somewhere else, who confront us with different, strange cultures and languages. They threaten us with a willingness to do jobs that we don’t want to do for ourselves or to take jobs that we already do, and do them for less pay – threatening our economic stability.

In the 1850s, the American Party focused on the perceived “threat” to our culture, our nation, our stability, just as the Teabaggers do today. For the American Party, the threat wasn’t socialism, but rather “Catholicism.” The inferior immigrant races were coming from countries which were mostly Catholic, and the American Party saw the Catholic Church as threatening to force its values and religion on the United States. Just as today’s Teabaggers don’t know much about socialism, the American Party members didn’t know much about Catholicism, except that they were scared of it and they hated it.

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We don’t learn about the American Party in history classes. Even in the 1850s people didn’t use the official party name. One theme of the party was its contempt for facts that might undermine their positions. People called them, and they proudly called themselves, the Know Nothings. When asked for details about party positions, their standard, even official, response was “I know nothing!”

Like today’s Teabaggers, the Know Nothings wanted their Constitutional rights, but got angry when anyone asked them to actually discuss constitutional issues and governance. And like today’s Teabaggers, the Know Nothings shouted that if their candidates just got elected, everything would be better.

Do You Know Nothing about the Teabaggers?
Tom Hall

During their growth in Eastern cities, the Know Nothings engaged in violence, arson, and destroying property of people who disagreed with them, or who were just “foreign” or racially inferior. Like today’s Teabaggers, they didn’t want debates. They shouted down other viewpoints and threatened people with violence or death. They looked up to leaders who told them who to despise, who to hate, and leaders who reassured them (like Faux News) that inconvenient facts could just be denied.

In the elections of 1854 and 1856, the Know Nothings swept offices in many states, including the 1856 California governorship (J. Neely Johnson), attorney general, treasurer and controller. But the Know Nothings wanted to be angry. They didn’t want to do the hard work of governing. Fighting among themselves for the spoils of victory replaced fighting against other people. But actually governing was too hard, and not active and exciting enough. After major electoral victories in 1856, the party virtually ceased to exist in the 1858 elections.

As the anti-slavery movement grew and the nation moved closer to civil war, lots of Know Nothings joined the South. They clung to their anti-Catholicism and their racial bigotry. When the bosses opened fire on Fort Sumpter, they joined the fight to preserve slavery and the power of the large plantation owners. They fought and died trying to prove that science wasn’t real, that facts don’t matter and that angry, fearful emotions should triumph over rational thought.

The Know Nothings’ history provides cautions for both Progressives and conservatives today. They wanted to sweep away the existing government and replace it with more “patriotic,” caring candidates. And in the 1856 election cycle they won. Civilization didn’t fall. The Micks and the Hunkies and the Wops merged into society, gained financial success and the political entrée that success breeds. Science, Letters and the arts flourished. But the Know Nothings faded away, defeated not by any forces of immigration or socialism, but by their own refusal to undertake the very governing work they demanded that they be given.

One of the driving forces behind the Teabag movement is the desire to remove the illegal Latin invaders. But remove them from where? Teabaggers encounter them in factories in South Carolina, Iowa, Montana, all far from the Mexican border. Like the people who found and despised the ‘greasy spaghetti eaters” in eastern city sweat shops, the Teabaggers despise the “beaners” who mow lawns, make dresses, and work the slaughter houses in states far from any foreign border. Like the Know Nothings, the Teabaggers don’t turn on the factory owners who bring the “beaners” in to work for slave wages. Like the Know Nothings, the Teabaggers want the easy game of marching, showing off their guns and their hand made signs. They love the camaraderie of hanging out with people who agree with them and don’t ask any hard questions.

And like the Know Nothings, they want nothing to do with actual democracy, with honest debate and working out solutions to complex problems.

The Know Nothing / Teabag movement could be a godsend for progressives. If progressives understand that 2010 could be a replay of 1856, with emotion and anger ruling the ballot box, they should also understand that Teabag candidates, closely allied with the Republican Party, are likely to create both gridlock and horrifying examples of attempts to restore some of the worst excesses corporate governance.

Tom Hall

As the Teabagger candidates take office, they will reveal themselves for what they really are. They will reveal the policies they want to legislate. They will fight among themselves for the political spoils (think of the naked greed of Mark Sanford and Sarah Palin). They will invite a resurgence of intellectually active politics in 2012, just as surely as Goldman Sachs has kindled a resurgence of interest in reregulating the financial industry.

Tom Hall