The return of the “Know Nothings”

By: - April 11, 2017 5:00 am

Anti-immigrant fervor spawns destructive (and utterly illogical) proposals on Jones Street

There are a lot of labels that have been applied to the ideology that has held sway in North Carolina policy and politics over the past six years. Some have been embraced by the politicians and pundits who have been running the show (“conservative,” “libertarian,” “fundamentalist” stand out) while others (“reactionary,” “backward-looking,” “right-wing”) have not.

Of course, such labels are rarely static and can, over time, come to mean something very different from the original. There was a time in the United States in which “liberal” was widely understood to be a moniker for those who opposed government participation in the economy. Likewise, a century ago, Democrats were the party of southern racists and the Republicans were the party of Lincoln. Today, Republicans dominate the vote of white men and people of color vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

One name from American history that seems unlikely to be embraced by modern politicians and advocates, but that seems especially apt to describe the policy positions and proposals of conservative, anti-immigrant champions these days, is one that dates to the mid-19th Century. The term is “Know Nothing.”

It may seem remarkable today, but in the 1850’s there was a prominent American political party that called itself the Know Nothings. This is from a recent article by writer Lorraine Boissoneault in Smithsonian magazine in which she examined the history of a party that grew out of a secret, anti-immigrant society in which members originally denied their membership whenever asked about its existence by answering “I know nothing”:

At its height in the 1850s, the Know Nothing party, originally called the American Party, included more than 100 elected congressmen, eight governors, a controlling share of half-a-dozen state legislatures from Massachusetts to California, and thousands of local politicians. Party members supported deportation of foreign beggars and criminals; a 21-year naturalization period for immigrants; mandatory Bible reading in schools; and the elimination of all Catholics from public office. They wanted to restore their vision of what America should look like with temperance, Protestantism, self-reliance, with American nationality and work ethic enshrined as the nation’s highest values.”

Modern-day Know Nothings

Today, of course, one need not look very far to find evidence of 21st Century Know Nothingism at work. In Washington, the President of the United States owes his office in large measure to his embrace of anti-immigrant fervor. What’s more, one of his chief advisors – a man regularly described in mainstream publications as a “white nationalist” – came to prominence running a website that frequently published articles about the alleged scourges of “black crime,” “Muslim hordes” and supposed threats to “western civilization.”

Indeed, there are eerie parallels between the Know Nothings of the 1850’s and the Trumpists of the current era. Here’s Boissoneault again:

“…the Know Nothings displayed three patterns common to all other nativist movements. First is the embrace of nationalism—as seen in the writings of the OSSB. Second is religious discrimination: in this case, Protestants against Catholics rather than the more modern day squaring-off of Judeo-Christians against Muslims. Lastly, a working-class identity exerts itself in conjunction with the rhetoric of upper-class political leaders. As historian Elliott J. Gorn writes, ‘Appeals to ethnic hatreds allowed men whose livelihoods depended on winning elections to sidestep the more complex and politically dangerous divisions of class.’”

Sound familiar?

And since taking office, Trump has been aggressive in advancing the modern day Know Nothing cause – whether through his efforts to implement a ban on Muslim immigrants, the actions of his attorney general to cow local and state governments into becoming immigration enforcement vigilantes or his own embrace of that holy of Know Nothing holies, a southern “border wall.”

Here in North Carolina, anti-immigrant Know Nothingism has been especially active for a number of years. During each of the last several legislative sessions, state lawmakers have advanced proposals designed to make life more difficult for immigrants – especially those who are here without full authorization – and to help expedite their deportation. Even young immigrants who came to the country as infants and who grew up as – for all practical purposes – full-fledged Americans, have found themselves targeted.

At the General Assembly: An unintentional double entendre

This year has been no different when it comes to “know nothing” anti-immigrant proposals. Recently, members of a House Committee advanced a bill (the so-called “Citizens Protection Act”) that seeks to put the power of state government to work to help promote deportation efforts. And this morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee will take up a similar proposal – one that operates under the less-highfalutin title of “Government Immigration Compliance.”

The term “know nothing” is especially apt in describing this latter proposal because not only does its content pay homage to the original nativists of the 19th Century, it is constructed with such an utter lack of logic and concern for common sense procedures as to raise real questions about whether its authors know much of anything about the rational operation of government.

Among other things, the proposal seeks to establish an entirely new state government bureaucracy under which any person can file a complaint with the state Attorney General alleging that a “city, county, or local law enforcement agency is not in compliance with a State law related to immigration” (whatever that means). The complaints can even be anonymous.

Once the complaints are filed, the Attorney General is required to “commence an investigation” within 45 days and conclude it within 60 days. The Attorney General is further empowered to enlist the State Bureau of Investigation to help him or her conduct the investigation and local governments must “produce records or documents related to alleged noncompliance with a State law related to immigration within 10 business days.”

To make matters even more absurd, if the Attorney General determines that the local government is somehow in “noncompliance” (whatever that means), there are all sorts of destructive consequences that would immediately flow – including a loss of numerous streams of vital state funding. And while the language in the bill pays lip service to the idea of an appeal right for local governments found in noncompliance, it is completely silent as to how that would work or to the question of process generally. An Attorney General with ambition and a vindictive streak could, quite literally, hold local governments hostage to take whatever action he or she required lest they be found in “noncompliance” and have their state funds cut off.

To complete this downright bizarre and nonsensical proposal, the bill would also purport to empower “any person” (presumably even an unauthorized immigrant!) to bring suit in Wake County Superior Court whenever he or she “believes” a local government is not in compliance.

The bill is, in other words, a preposterous jumble of absurd, unworkable and unconstitutional provisions that reads as if it were dictated by Trump himself in a 4:00 a.m. Twitter rant or perhaps constructed as an afterschool project by a group of distracted middle schoolers. And those descriptions don’t even take into account other illogical and destructive sections in the proposal that seek to a) prevent local law enforcement officers from using certain documents to identify persons who don’t have driver’s licenses and b) bully the UNC system into joining the anti-immigrant crusade.

Going forward

In the era of Trump, Americans are, sadly, growing increasingly used to the idea that actions of many public officials bear little connection to facts or common sense. This is particularly true when it comes to immigration policy, where the “Know Nothing” label is an ever-more-accurate descriptor of the ruling politicians and their agenda.

At such a time, it’s critical that caring and thinking people empower themselves with the truth so that they can push back. Next Tuesday, April 18, NC Policy Watch will host a special Crucial Conversation breakfast, “Immigration policy in the era of Trump: Where do things stand in North Carolina? What is the reality ‘on the ground’? How can caring and thinking people speak out and push back?” at which a panel of experts will provide some of that kind of information.

Hope to see you there.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.