The tea party response to President Obama’s executive order changing immigration policy reenforces the movement’s resemblance to mid-nineteenth century Know-Nothing nativism.
The American Party — better known as the Know-Nothings — burst into prominence in the 1854 elections, taking control of the Massachusetts legislature, polling 40 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania, and scoring stunning electoral successes in other states. The proximate cause of the rise of the Know-Nothings was the influx of German and Irish-Catholic immigrants — with their supposed loyalty to Rome and their devotion to alcoholic beverages — into predominantly Protestant America. Fear of Catholic immigration led to the formation of secret societies whose members, when asked about their activities, would reply, “I know nothing.” Nativists sometimes engaged in violence against Catholics and Catholic institutions; at other times, Know-Nothings entered politics, running candidates pledged to curb immigration.
The anti-Catholicism of the American Party easily morphed into the anti-Islamic fervor of early tea partiers. The movement now finds expression in opposition to Obama’s action allowing undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows and enter mainstream American life. “Amnesty for Millions, Tyranny for ALL” shrieks the headline of the online Tea Party Tribune, which accuses “the despot,” its euphemism for the president, of allowing “5 million criminals… to stay in our nation.”
Tea party activists threaten to run anti-immigrant challengers against prominent Republicans who support easing the plight of undocumented newcomers — a strategy reminiscent of the successful primary race against former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia earlier this year. The number one target may be Senator John McCain of Arizona, one of the sponsors of the bipartisan Gang of Eight bill to overhaul the nation’s broken immigration system. That bill passed the Senate, with Republican support, but has languished in the House because Speaker John Boehner refuses to allow a vote on it.
Some ultraconservatives fantasize about Sarah Palin challenging McCain. Palin has a home in Scottsdale, Arizona, but she has not yet indicated a desire to oppose the incumbent. It would be one of the more delicious ironies of modern American politics if the former governor of Alaska were to run against McCain and defeat him since the Arizona senator bears responsibility for foisting the acid-tongued Palin on the American public.
“This is going to become the Obamacare for the 2016 cycle,” says David Bossie, president of the conservative advocacy group Citizens United. “You’re going to see a constant drumbeat, a constant march.” The debates over the Affordable Care Act in the early years of the Obama administration fueled the initial growth of the tea party. Now, conservatives see immigration as an even more powerful political weapon than Obamacare.
Immigration issues play to the concerns of many Americans who dread the day — not far off — when the United States will no longer have a majority white population. Obama’s executive order only intensifies fear of the increasing diversity of American society. Wariness over the nation’s racial mixture explains much of the intense antipathy on the right to Barack Obama, whose election as the country’s first African American president symbolizes the changes many tea partiers do not understand nor welcome.
The increasing disparity in wealth and the sense among many that the economy has improved for others exacerbates this modern nativism. Many Americans blame immigrants for their economic unease. Instead of focusing on the true culprits — rapacious Wall Street tycoons and CEO’s of major corporations who have siphoned off huge profits for themselves at the expense of workers and the middle class — many turn their anger and resentment on the foreign-born, who they see as job stealers and welfare cheaters.
These current fears echo the 1850s, when vast societal changes convinced some Americans that they were losing control of their country. Westward expansion, immigration, increasing urbanization and industrialization, technological change (the railroad and the telegraph, to name only two), and, most importantly, sectional discord over slavery led many to hark back to a perceived simpler age dominated by independent white, Anglo-Saxon yeoman farmers living in harmony with one another. Whether such a time ever existed in American history is immaterial; what is significant is the perception among many that it had.
All that led in the 1850s to the meteoric rise of Know-Nothingism; today, similar fears fuel the anti-immigration animosity of the tea party. Political nativism — as expressed in the American Party — quickly disappeared under the stress of political fighting over the extension of slavery into the Western territories. The tea party’s attempt to turn the Republican Party into a vehicle for anti-immigrant furor will likely fail, too, given the demographic changes in American society.
The problem for Republicans is that the more nativists within the GOP rail against immigrants, the more the Latino vote will go to Democrats and the more difficult it will be for Republicans to win the White House.