The Know-Nothings Ride Again

In 2012, the political descendants of America’s Know-Nothings demonstrated that they had seized control of the Republican Party, which for much of the past six decades has held the White House and looks to reclaim that immense power again, as Lawrence Davidson explains.

By Lawrence Davidson

There is a universal phenomenon that I call natural localism. The majority of people, wherever they might live, are affected by this condition. It results in limited knowledge knowledge about what is local but ignorance (often breeding fear) about what is not local. Unless countered by positive education and tolerance, natural localism can result in aggressive behavior toward the unfamiliar.

In the year 1849, natural localism was institutionalized in a small nativist party in the United States called The American Party. It was basically an anti-immigrant affair with these white male Americans (overwhelmingly Protestant) ignorant and fearful of outsiders, such as Catholic immigrants of all nationalities, undermining the true character of the U.S. The party was influential for a short time, particularly in the Northeastern states, electing candidates to local office throughout the region.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaking to a rally on a recent bus tour. (Photo credit:

Appropriately enough, adherents to the American Party came to be called “Know-Nothings.” There were two reasons for this: On one hand, party members tended to be secretive about their political affiliations, giving their party a strong conspiratorial flavor.

When asked about the activities of the American Party they would reply, “I know nothing.” On the other hand, they really did know almost nothing of the groups that exercised their passions. They thought all Catholics were under the complete command of the Pope, like religious zombies.

Ignorance was the hallmark of the “Know-Nothings” and, while they never did capture national power, they never went away. Today you can find their successors throughout the land, fixated on a wide range of issues:

, There are Americans who really know nothing about Muslims but are sure they are a mortal threat to the country. Muslims have replaced Catholics as the chief target of the modern Know-Nothings.

, There are other modern Know-Nothings who know nothing about Mexicans and other people from south of the U.S. borders but are sure that anyone who speaks Spanish or has a Spanish accent must be a threat.

,- There are some who know nothing about Iran, cannot even locate it on a map, but are sure it is a threat and should be attacked.

Actually the list of enemies and targets is nearly endless. And, given that Americans know so little about so much of what they have strong opinions about, it is inevitable that know-nothingness should contaminate the politics of the nation, except that today the Republican Party one of America’s two major parties plays the role of the modern Know-Nothing party.

Strong evidence for this conclusion comes from the circus that was the Republican presidential nominating campaign. Since almost all of the contenders for the nomination were self-congratulatory Know-Nothings, it is no surprise that the man who won that contest, Willard Mitt Romney, is one as well.

The Know-Nothing Candidate

Romney affirmed himself as the standard bearer of America’s modern Know-Nothing party during his recent trip to England, Israel and Poland. Here is how it went:

, He came close to being declared persona non grata in England by gratuitously questioning the adequacy of British security for the Olympic Games after all security issues had been addressed. The British papers pilloried Romney for his comments.

, In Israel, he made a speech before an audience of wealthy potential donors to his campaign (many of them flown in from the United States for the occasion). He told them that the difference between Israel’s economic achievement and that of the Palestinians was a function of a) superior Jewish culture and b) God’s will. Not one word about the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

This statement was so outrageous, so historically off the mark, that one might wonder if it was just a publicity stunt to win favor with a moneyed crowd. But that is doubtful since  Romney had long ago aligned his views with his friend, Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu comes from a long line of fanatical Israelis who see the Palestinians as inherently inferior.

And, there is the fact that Romney has publicly stated that his thinking about Israel and the Jews was shaped by a book written by Dan Senor (now a foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign) titled Start-Up Nation The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle.  This book suggests that Israel succeeded economically because of genetics: Jews are born smart and entrepreneurial.

Of course, this is just rubbish. Israel is a “donor state.” That is, from the beginning of its modern history and to a great extent today, it continues to thrive because of a huge annual influx of foreign aid. Billions of dollars pour into Israel every year from the U.S. government, donations from elements of world Jewry and also from Christian Zionists.

Given the level of these handouts, any relatively stable nation with a highly educated citizenry could do what the Israelis are economically doing. No Jewish genes required. Yet, just as the reality of occupation is absent from Romney’s frame of reference, so is the largess that has sustained Israel’s economic “miracle” for over 60 years.

, If you would like to publicly challenge Romney or his campaign staff on any of this, the reply you can expect was set down during his brief stay in Poland. As reporters sought to ask questions, Mr. Romney’s press assistant Rick Gorka replied, “kiss my ass.” Mr. Gorka is a Know-Nothing too. His crude response has not been disavowed by the candidate.

Willard Mitt Romney knows about what has been local in his life. He knows how to be a particularly negative businessman, the kind who takes corporations apart and exports their jobs. He also appears to know how to make a lot of money and not pay taxes on it. As a politician he can glad-hand you in order to get a donation and play the chameleon so you are not sure what many of his positions are.

He probably knows the other local things that most of us also know: how to balance a checkbook, drive a car and stay clean, etc. Beyond this, however, it is a safe bet that he is a Know-Nothing. Worse yet, he is prone to fill his void of ignorance with magical thinking. For instance, that declaration that Israeli success is not only based on cultural superiority, but is also a function of the “hand of Providence.”

Now this Know-Nothing candidate wants to be President. And he may well succeed depending on just how many other Americans know nothing in ways that make them comfortable with Mr. Romney’s ignorance.

For instance, we know that Christian Zionists (who outnumber the American Jewish kind) are the same sort of Know-Nothings and magical thinkers as Romney. They will almost surely vote for him.

The infamous 1 percenters, many of whom agree with Mr. Romney’s assertion that corporations “are people too” and have the same rights as individuals (more magical thinking), will vote for him. The “American Firsters,” many of whom think Barack Obama is a closet Muslim and no U.S. citizen at all, will vote for Romney, too.

But that coalition is not enough to win unless the Election Day turnout is exceedingly low. So, how many other Americans, who otherwise might pass for relatively rational individuals of voting age, will successfully be lured into Mr. Romney’s Know-Nothing party? After all, most Americans really know very little about the world beyond their local realm.

As the saying goes, “Ignorance is as ignorance does” particularly on Election Day.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

10 comments for “The Know-Nothings Ride Again

  1. isdivc
    August 12, 2012 at 23:46

    I agree that “Know Nothings” is a useful metaphor for describing the world view of Romney and others. However, rather than being derived from an anti-immigrant, anti-catholic political group, it is more a function of their class viewpoint. When you are born rich, as Romney was, you don’t want to acknowledge that you gained a huge advantage just by chance, you want your personal success to vindicate the multitude of privileges that you have. Romney is virtually a “legend in his own mind”. He alone save the Olympics, you know. He, maybe with just a little help from Dad and other land sharks, built a multi-million dollar business that cashed in on weak companies, government tax breaks and weak regulations. He built nothing, produced nothing (except paper profits), and provided damn little help to others other than perhaps Mormons. Yet he knows with great certainty he is the one to lead the country out of this economic crisis although he “knows nothing” about governing, foreign affairs, real economics or even rudimentary people skills. He is much like other super-wealthy people who, as the old saying goes, were born on third base but believe they hit a triple. This is a function of class, not historical political strands.

  2. Morton Kurzweil
    August 12, 2012 at 20:32

    The problem lies not with the Know Nothings but with the Know Somethings who feel that what they comprehend feels like knowledge and is sufficient to create a sense of purpose or design in an otherwise chaotic universe.
    The attachment to groups is instinctive in herd animals and the result of a prolonged infancy develops a dependence on group values for self-identity. Each person relies on the others for reenforcement of values. Without group think there would be no certainty, no purpose, no superiority, no God. Natural forces , being incomprehensible, leaves the Know Somethings without a center, without a purpose. Fear of the unknown drives the group to hate other groups, to respond with violence against what is unknown in defense of a perception of who they are. That is the extent of their knowledge.

    • Chris Stahnke
      August 13, 2012 at 19:21

      The people you describe are just normal humans. People must affiliate and the job of most people is to follow that affiliation–we are hardwired to be in sympathy with others. The leadership class uses hatred of others to create cohesion when there are few natural affections in our society since it values only cash–this makes everyone uneasy. The problem is not with the people but with cultural leaders and I include here entertainers, directors, writers, academics, intellectuals, professionals, scientists and so on. This group of people have dramatically failed to offer reason- and science- based solution to our collective problems. All classes of the elites have lost their sense of connection with not just the earth but with culture, civilization and their progeny to bathe in a world of narcissism. The common people are now willfully and proudly ignorant, supersticious, fearful (I remember when cowardice was once looked down on) and tribal. This trend will continue because there is nothing countering it in society other than isolated leaders here and there who try to do what they can and who are increasingly isolated and vulnerable to sanctions.

  3. squidd
    August 12, 2012 at 19:51

    reagan, bush jr., and now willard are useful idiots. poppy bush was to a point. he actually had a few decent cells. he lost 2nd term. he raised taxes in his ‘deal’ w/ congress. that disqualified him from UII (Useful Idiots, Inc.).

    and obama is black. (half – but black is the only color you see – his white heritage is dismissed as it is tainted by “blackness”). so the ‘i won’t vote for a negro’ demographic will vote romney – hell they could put bob dole up for this crowd.

    it’s sad. the know-nothings have partially succeeded in pinning the current mess for everything’s begin date as 1/20/2009.

    nevermind that every republican since including and since nixon has left the economy a shambles.

    and paul ryan’s already running out of the starting gate: “You CAN have it all!!! And, it won’t cost ANYTHING”.

    THAT’s what “Know Nothings” also like to hear. I CAN have it ALL. And it won’t cost me ANYTHING. And IF it does – that’s some other blokes fault – like the usual laundry list of libruls, gays, foreigners, women, gun control advocates or GOD FORBID…don’t SCARE me with those pesky facts.

  4. bobzz
    August 12, 2012 at 19:05

    I agree that Christians have done quite a bit with the sword, gun, bomb, etc., but if I recall, Islam “scimitared” their way across north Africa, did they not?

    • Joe Stecher
      August 12, 2012 at 19:27

      Allthree religions — Christian,Jew & Muslim — have a great deal of blood on their hands. It’s tough keeping rebelious young inline and smiting down the “enemy.” And they thrive on making demonsout of the other guy. Someday, mankind willawaken and throw off the chains of all relgiion and finally face the fact that we just animals with rather high-developed nervous systems.

      • bobzz
        August 13, 2012 at 00:28

        Nope. Religion will always be around. The church began very well. The common criticisms regarding the church today are justified. The criticisms of the church of the first couple of centuries were polar opposites of today, e.g. you don’t serve in the legions; you don’t hold public office; you don’t participate in the national festivals, etc. Those early critics would be very happy with the church today. That was when the church lived by the teachings and example of Christ instead acting as the arm of government. But I will say that it is terribly naive to thinks that the end of religion would spell a golden era of world peace, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. Most wars are fueled by greed not religion. As Richard Dawkins has astutely pointed out, religion does not cause war, but it is the flag around which the warriors gather. Without religion, warriors would create another flag (or idol).

  5. Dan Good
    August 12, 2012 at 05:03

    “donations from elements of world Jewry” would be better stated as “donations from Jewish Zionists” rather than “world Jewry”. “World Jewry” is not monolithic and definitely does not universlly support Zionism. It is Zionist Jews who have foisted the notion that they represent all Jews, despite much opposition among Jews to Zionism. Today, more and more Jews are questioning the concept of a Jewish State, the basic tenet of Zionism. The horrors going on in Israel are incompatible with Jewish teaching, not to say any and all religious teaching. But Zionists continue to intimidate Jews and non-Jews into silence about Israeli policies of ethnic cleansing for the sake of the “Jewish State”, citing Jewish suffering as an excuse. Here lies the basic problem and as the article says, the ignorance and the “know nothing”.

  6. JosephW
    August 12, 2012 at 01:50

    You sort of overlooked the way Romney praised Israel’s health care system while completely ignoring the fact that Israel has a system that’s not too dissimilar to Obamacare (né Romneycare), and instituted it back in 1995.

    Oh, another thing that escapes the American Know-Nothings about Israel: It’s a REAL -shudder-Socialist-shudder- society. Given the Teabaggers’ irrational accusations of Obama’s being a dreaded Socialist, they certainly don’t seem too upset at the way the US sends so much of *their* money to a REAL Socialist country.

  7. Rick
    August 11, 2012 at 15:17

    Excellent article. Thanks,Rick

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