Many labels have been put on the tea party since the 2010 election when its members first dressed in 18th century garb and promoted themselves as modern-day patriots. A look at American history, however, suggests that the best label for the tea party is “Nativist.” Far from constituting some new movement in American politics, the tea party is a throw-back to a black hole in 19th century social movements.
Nativists first crawled into American history in the 1840s when second and third generation Anglo-American descendants from the protagonists of the War for Independence found that their social status and political influence were being diminished during the dawn of industrialization. Low-skill jobs in mines and on railroads were gobbled up by the incoming cheap labor working for starvation wages and their presence in cities created ethnic enclaves of poverty. But the immigrants could vote, creating new clusters of political power. A more serious threat came in economics. Artisans and shop-keepers were threatened by nascent corporations that feasted on exploitation of these immigrants. Unlike the established Anglo-American tradespersons, the immigrant labor sustained a new crop of factories that mass-produced commodities as different as cloth, candles and cables. Factory production undercut the traditional model of a trade that made its product in the back-room and sold it over the counter in the shop. Rather than cast blame upon the capitalist elites who were benefitting from this modernizing industrialization, Nativists denounced immigrants instead. “If they were not here, change would not be here!” ran the argument.
This is the genesis of the American Republican Party (1843), later (1845) re-named the “Native American Party.” Its core belief was that there were two types of persons in the United States: those who were “real Americans” and then those who came only to take away what the Americans had created. This lethal bigotry was often mixed with a vulgar form of Calvinist Pre-determinism – God created some as “elect” and everyone else was damned, and nothing could reverse the sentence pronounced at creation. The Nativists cast themselves as the authentic Americans because they descended from the white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant “founding fathers.” European immigrants, Catholics, Jews, African Americans, etc. might live in the United States but because they had not “built it,” they had no right to rule it.
The biological descendants from the original Revolutionary War patriots, of course, had already been overwhelmed numerically by immigrants in 1845 and if biological descent had been a prerequisite, the movement would have died out shortly after it had been born. Instead, the Nativists extended the label of “real American” to those sharing their ideological, racial and religious identifications. Romanticized notions of the “Founding Fathers” supposed that every political position of the party at any time was actually derived from the originators of the American republic. A test was devised for party members (only male voters at the time) so that all would be initiated into a secret Order of the Star-Spangled Banner. Much as in the Masonic codes of the time, the members were pledged to secrecy. Their membership oath required them to answer “I know nothing!” to every question about decisions made.
The bile and hatred generated by Nativism has always been present in American political populism. After the Civil War, with urban cities in the Northeast and Midwest dominated by immigrant groups, the Nativists retreated to rural isolation, most notably in the Confederate South where they became the Ku Klux Klan. The “Other” for them was the “Negro,” a label often pronounced as a slur.
At its core, Nativism is against modernity and change. It is a completely negative movement without a plan of action or any new ideas. It exists to blame the “Other” for all social ills and any protest to the contrary is considered part of a conspiracy. Equal treatment of all Americans is opposed because it represents robbery of the “real” Americans who, it is supposed, are the only ones paying taxes. Nativist xenophobia requires that immigration of “Others” must end and those already here should be punished by repressive curtailment of freedom until they voluntarily leave or are deported.
A succession of radically conservative causes have mounted the Nativist tiger throughout the 20th century: the restoration of the Gold Standard, Prohibition, States-Rightist nullification, anti-Evolutionism and forms of anti-Communism, such as union-busting, the John Birch Society, and McCarthyism. The 21st century spawning of the tea party has added Islam, black-helicopters-after-your-guns, and climate change to their lists of imagined imminent threats.
Given the Nativist pre-set categories that deny logic in favor of conspiracies, rational debate with these folks is probably not a fruitful strategy. In the American past, Nativism was eventually thwarted on the one hand by ridicule of their outrageous conspiracy theories and on the other by revulsion when their extremism turns violent. Can Democrats today employ these strategies? Can ridicule replace credulity about the tea party’s supposed “scandals” and conspiracies – (all of which are hype and do not merit reasoned attention)? Will the same strategies work against a very activist Supreme Court that follows a similar ideology? The future is not certain, but history teaches that freedom is within the arc of the American dream.