The Neo-Know-Nothings

Ray Abernathy

I knew nothing about the Know-Nothings until the Neo-Know-Nothings began disrupting healthcare town hall meetings all across the country. Now I know the Know-Nothings were an anti-Catholic political party that flourished briefly back in the 1840s and 50s, split apart on the slavery issue, renamed itself The American Party,” and eventually morphed into the modern-day Republican Party. Somehow, I just knew it all along.

Can you imagine what life in the United States would have been like without Flannery O’Connor, and Eugene O’Neill? Jack, Bobby and Teddy? Stephen Colbert, Conan O”Brien, and The Boston Police Department?

It’s the kind of no-Irish-need-apply life envisioned by the Know-Nothings, a mid-19th century white, protestant secret society like the Ku Klux Klan, whose members were sworn to answer, I know nothing,” if asked about their organization.

According to Wikipedia (who else can we trust), their movement was a reaction to the potato-famine refugees from the Emerald Isle who made up one-third of all immigrants coming to the United States between 1820 and 1860 (the Greening of America?).

The Know-Nothings specialized in burning down Catholic churches and using bully-boy tactics to elect mayors in several big cities and even governors in a few states. Remember The Gangs of New York, with Daniel Day Lewis playing a fictionalized version of Know-Nothing leader William Poole?

Flash forward to the year 2000 and the Brooks Brothers Riot” at the Miami-Dade polling headquarters, where cadres of goony Congressional staffers organized by House Majority Leader Dick Armey physically disrupted the Gore-Bush vote recount. Then connect the dots to August 2009, when mobs organized by Armey’s fake grassroots organization, FreedomWorks, started tearing up healthcare town hall meetings hosted by members of Congress.

This is the same FreedomWorks that earlier generated phoney protests against President Obama’s housing bailout” by an astroturf” organization called AngryRenter The same Dick Armey who has long led movements to put Social Security out of business, and to build walls across our border with Mexico. And his responsive legions are angry white voters who are losing their homes, their jobs and their self-respects, ironically, to the Bush recession.

Here’s my thesis: Dick Armey is a direct descendant of William Poole, just as the Republican Party is the ugly grandchild of the Know-Nothing Party. They prey on and organize the dazed, the dispirited and the disappointed. And their motivating mission isn’t healthcare at all — now as then, it’s immigrant-bashing, only today it’s the browning” of America.

By 2050, the majority of voters in the United States will be non-white. The shift is slowly putting the GOP as we know it out of business, and President Obama’s presence center-stage is heightening the tension.

The collective screams coming from the waddled throats of well-heeled protesters at the healthcare meetings are actually the death rattle of a nativist, conservative, white protestant movement that dates back not just to the Know-Nothing Party, but to the Whigs, who opposed Andrew Jackson and the Democrats and favored tilting power away from our Executive Branch and ceding it to Congress, where, then as now, all good ideas went to die.

Thankfully, our strong presidency form of government has survived. And progressive healthcare, immigration, economic and labor law reform are still alive.

This post originally appeared at Ray Abernathy’s blog, From the Left Bank of the Potomac.

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Ray Abernathy has been a political, labor and public relations consultant for more than 40 years, working exclusively for labor unions and nonprofits. His blog, From the Left Bank of the Potomac, is at www​.rayaber​nathy​.com. He is co-author of The Inside Game: Winning With Worksite Strategies and author of A Practical Press Guide for Local Labor Unions.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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