Exclusively in the new print issue of CounterPunch
THE DECAY OF AMERICAN MEDIA — Patrick L. Smith on the decline and fall of American journalism; Peter Lee on China and its Uyghur problem; Dave Macaray on brain trauma, profits and the NFL; Lee Ballinger on the bloody history of cotton. PLUS: “The Vindication of Love” by JoAnn Wypijewski; “The Age of SurrealPolitick” by Jeffrey St. Clair; “The Radiation Zone” by Kristin Kolb; “Washington’s Enemies List” by Mike Whitney; “The School of Moral Statecraft” by Chris Floyd and “The Surveillance Films of Laura Poitras” by Kim Nicolini.
The Revival of American Nativism

Santorum and the New Know-Nothings

by DAVID ROSEN

Money matters, in politics as in other aspects of American life.  The March 6’s Super Tuesday Republican playoffs in 10 states were one more round in the political-Nascar crash-dummy derby.  And for all his money and organizational muscle, Mitt Romney’s campaign yet again failed to win a decisive victory and secure his party’s presidential nomination.

Romney’s squeakers in Ohio and, earlier, Michigan, were slim, unconvincing showings.  While he will keep juggling, trying to be everything to everyone, the rest of the primary campaigns may well witness the same degree of fierce contestation.  Big money, and the media buys and organizational follow-through that it pays for, gives him an undisputed advantage.  However much the Romney candidacy may stumble on its way to the Republican convention in Tampa, FL, the fix seems in.

Unfortunately for Romney, the Republican establishment, the corporate and country-club set, is facing a fierce (and apparently uncompromising) hardcore “radical right” insurgency.  This faction is represented by the Tea Party, rabid anti-abortion activities and Christian culture warriors, among others.  If they fail to name the party’s presidential nominee, they surely will have a say in selecting the vice presidential candidate.

The lame efforts of Govs. Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman left only Romney to represent what traditionally would have been the Republican mainstream.  In the face of McCain’s failed 2008 campaign (even with Sarah Palin on the ticket) and the strong showing by the Tea Party right in 2010, the far right has been embolden in its effort to capture the GOP.

Elements of this nativist sentiment have been expressed by all the major candidates: whether Christian reactionaries Rep. Michelle Bachman and Gov. Rich Perry, opportunist clowns Donald Trump and Herman Cain, and hokum-masters Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum.  Santorum’s relatively-late emergence as the “true” Christian candidate touches a deep nerve among the Republican activist rank-and-file.

During the primary season, the ever-shrinking roster of Republican presidential candidates has ceaselessly genuflected before the god of corporate conservatism.  Instead of appealing to moral suasion, the essence of both Jesus’ message and the best of the American political tradition, these crusaders shamelessly call for the use of state power to impose their moral order.  While they want to “shrink” government when it comes to socially useful programs and for taxes on the rich, they (with the exception of Paul) want to “expand” the power of the state to enforce their moral dictates.

In all likelihood, if Romney becomes the official Republican presidential candidate, he will move toward to the “center,” attempting to appeal to a more independent, moderate electorate.  And, as with the more progressive wing of the Democratic party, the hardcore conservatives who vehemently opposed him during the primaries will likely vote for Romney in November.  Like progressives, many will be shamed into voting for the least of the worst.

 

* * *

A powerful rightwing nativist tendency has, for much of the last century, repeatedly attempted to gain control of the GOP and, through it, the state apparatus to impose its values on the nation.  This tendency is now galvanized around Santorum, but its roots go deep in American political history.

In fact, it dates from 1798 with the adoption of the Alien and Sedition Act that enabled the president during peacetime to deport aliens deemed “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.”  This tendency was rejected for much of the mid-20th century by mainstream Republicans as the “radical right” (e.g., John Birch Society).  It has come to increasingly define the party.

Nativism emerged as a political force in the Know-Nothing movement of the pre-Civil War era.  It drew together Protestants who felt threatened by the rapid increase in European immigrants, especially Germans in the mid-west and Catholics in the east.  It found strong support among those who felt threatened by the large-scale Irish immigration that followed the 1848 potato famine.

Most troubling, they felt that Catholics, as followers of the pope, were not loyal Americans and were going to take over the country.   Religious intolerance led to numerous anti-Catholic attacks, including the burning of churches, random beatings and killings in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and Louisville where 22 people were killed.  In 1849, a secret Order of the Star-Spangled Banner was formed in New York and spread to other cities.

However, during the 1850s, Know-Nothing supporters came out of the proverbial closet and formed the American Party.  It championed restrictions on immigration, exclusion of the foreign-born from voting or holding public office and a 21-year residency requirement for citizenship.  By 1855, 43 Congressmen were American Party members; in 1856, it backed Millard Fillmore for president, who secured nearly 1 million votes, a quarter of all votes cast.  The growing battle over slavery led to its demise.

A second nativist revival emerged in opposition to the profound social destabilization caused by America’s great industrial revolution of the late-19th century.  It drew together a diverse assortment of resentments, coalescing around temperance.

Alcohol, and the saloon, was seen as the root cause of all social ills.   But nativists also championed racial purity and sought to prevent the alleged “pollution” of the white Protestant American “stock” by freed slaves and immigrants.  They opposed science and the teaching of evolution.  Yet, they supported the pseudo-science of eugenics and engaged in a war against “feeblemindedness,” especially targeted at African Americans and immigrants.  They opposed the “new woman” symbolized by the flapper, a modern, 20th century woman who was urban, held a job and had money in her pocket, had a basic education, some going to college, and (especially at night in speakeasies) liked to drink, smoke, wear makeup and dance to jazz.  Perhaps most threatening, the new woman had access to birth control information, contraception, sex education – and sex.

Most important, this round of nativism revival drew together sophisticated organizations like the the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League, the Immigration Restriction League and the Klan.  They not only captured the Republican Party, but used it to mobilize federal and state governments to impose its moral values on all Americans.

Only the Great Depression, World War II and the post-war economic recovery saved America from becoming the New Jerusalem envisioned by the Puritans.  A new world order suppressed this nativist tendency for nearly half-a-century.  However, its model of effectively using the power of the state to impose morality on a nation serves as the virtual blueprint of today’s nativism movement.

* * *

For much of the first half of the 20th century, the Republican Party – the party once of Lincoln – served as the political apparatus of the corporate establishment.  During the ‘10s and ‘20s, the GOP was famous for decision-making in smoked-filled rooms; that’s how presidential candidates were selected.  It put forward rather ho-hum, mainstream figures like Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover; surprising, it was a party that also included the progressive Robert La Follette.

With FDR’s election in 1932, Democrats held the White House for the next 20 years.  Roosevelt bequeathed to the nation the liberal state, one based on Keynesian economics, high taxes on the wealthy and meaningful social mobility.  He set the foundation for what is known as the American Century.  Dwight Eisenhower,  and Richard Nixon might well be considered the last New Dealers.

In 1960, Nixon was the Republican compromise candidate; while the Vice President, the moderate Nelson Rockefeller and the conservative Barry Goldwater challenged him for the nomination.  More significant long term, the Democrats were splintering, beginning to refight the Civil War; Sens. Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond deeply opposed the Yankee Catholic John Kennedy.  This division would set the race-based, Christian conservative framework for the reborn Republican Party of the South.

Goldwater 1964 presidential campaign was the first indication of a revival of American nativism.  Nevertheless, his was the campaign of a sacrificial lamb.  If Americans of the post-WWII generation were asked to recall the defining image of the Kennedy presidency, it’s the shot of Lyndon Johnson, standing next to a grief-stricken Jackie, taking the oath of office.  Anyone who ran against that image was committing political suicide.  Further ensuring LBJ’s victory, Goldwater’s all-or-nothing nativist rhetoric was artfully exploited in a campaign ad featuring a child counting down flower petals to doomsday.

When LBJ announced he would not run in ’68, Richard Nixon reemerged as the safe candidate, flanked by Ronald Reagan to his right and George Romney and Rockefeller as more moderate options.  With the Democratic convention engulfed in street fighting in Chicago, Tricky Dick was a shoe-in.

The Republican Party started to unravel under Nixon.  While many of his policies were old-fashioned New Deal liberal (e.g., Public Heath Service Act (Title X), Environmental Protection Agency and Clean Air Act), his practices were arch reactionary.  Nixon’s embrace of Patrick Buchanan’s “Southern strategy” in his 1972 campaign set in motion the current nativist revival and the realignment of the Republican Party.  The strategy was based on appealing to the basest of instincts, artfully exploiting old-time social insecurities about race, class and sex.  It proved a winner.

The old order was under attack. The Southern strategy was a perfect counter-offensive to contest the social unrest spreading throughout the country, one of mass movements championing civil rights, an end to the Vietnam war, women’s rights and counter-culture values (especially sexual mores).

In the second phase of post-WWII modernization, from the mid-1970s to 2000, the U.S. underwent a fundamental reordering.  Globalization super-ceded the domestic economy; finance capital replaced manufacturing as capitalism’s driving force; industrial unionism was decimated; and a two-tier society was forged.  And establishment Republicans and Democrats were complicit in the reordering of American society.

Parallel to the economic restructuring, the nation witnessed the rise of the culture wars.  Where abstinence campaigners drove the early-20th century nativist revival, anti-abortion crusaders succeeded in setting the nation’s moral values.  While Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land, the anti-abortionists have used it to lead powerful campaign (especially at the state level) to restrict personal privacy rights.

As this reordering of America took place, the Republican Party was increasingly taken over by a hard-line nativist faction.  In the wake of Nixon’s abdication, Gerald Ford fought back the right’s candidate, Reagan, only to lose to Jimmy Carter in 1976.

The more conservative, nativist tendency within the party backed Reagan in 1980 against old-line moderates, George Bush, Sr., Robert Dole and Howard Baker.  His victories in ’80 and ’84 established the reign of corporate, free-market capitalism as the party’s gospel and gave legitimacy to state-imposed conservative “culture war” morals.  In ’88, Reagan’s mantle fell to his VP, Bush-1, who had little difficulty putting down the threats represented by more conservative figures like the evangelist Pat Robertson and Rep. Jack Kemp.

In 1992, Bush-1 was challenged by far right militants Buchanan (the architect of the race-based Southern strategy) and David Duke (formerly of the KKK).  With his loss to Bill Clinton, the Republcian Party’s moderate center began to unravel.  For all of Gingrich’s efforts to impeach the president, Clinton won reelection in ’96.  Dole served as the party’s throwaway candidate, but one threatened from the right by Buchanan and publisher Steve Forbes.

With George W. Bush’s run in 2000, the GOP’s axis formally shifted to the conservative right.  A born-again, good-old-boy, Bush-2 knew how to accommodate to the Christian social values of Texas and play ball with the Republican establishment symbolized by his father.  He learned, as have his subsequent more mainstream presidential aspirants, that to be a Republican one had to be not only conservative, but a god-fearing, anti-choice, gun-toating, anti-immigrant, big military, pro-big-money super-nationalist.

With MaCain’s loss in 2008 and the 2010 Tea Party victories, the empowered nativist faction of the GOP demanded its pound of flesh from all 2012 presidential candidates.  And Romney, the shameless opportunist, gladly rediscovered his “true” conservative roots.  Fortunately, no one believes him, least of all those who vote for him.

* * *

Today, the U.S. is once again being restructured, confronting an historical sea change in the way we live.  Worst case, it is shifting from a nation of shared prosperity to one of oligarchy and austerity, from a society of relative social equality and mobility to one of the rich “haves” and the rest of us “have-nots.”

We are now living through a third phase of the post-WWII modernization, a period in which capitalism is consolidating into a truly global enterprise.  Domestically, the nation is subject to a form of post-modern “structural adjustment.”  The outcome of these development is fashioning a new, belt-tightened American reality.  An early symptom of this change is expressed in the widely-shared sense of lowered expectation articulated by the Occupy movement and haunting the land.

Another symptom of this restructuring is the rise of a reinvigorated nativist movement.  Their campaign today, best represented by Santorum and, to a lesser degree, Gingrich, recycles many of the same fears that defined the nativism of the the late-19th century and culminating in Prohibition.

In place of alcohol, we have illegal drugs; in place of Asian and European immigrants, we have non-documented Hispanic immigrants; in place of race pollution, we have interracial amalgamation; in place of evolution, we have evolution and global warming; and, in place of the new woman and sex, we have a more empowered new woman and even more sex.  One significant difference, we are living in the after-shock of the collapse of a bubble economy; the earlier wave helped promote the bubble of America’s first consumer revolution.

Those backing Santorum, as well as Gingrich, seem to be among the Republican Party’s whitest, least well educated, more blue-collar and older constituency.  Many of them might well be vulnerable to the social restructuring now taking place.  Like their Know-Nothing great-grandparents and the Prohibitionist grandparents, today’s nativists invoke a surity of purpose that the new world order of 21st century capitalism denies nearly everyone else.

Today’s nativism is, like the earlier movements, an attempt to halt the fundamental changes in demographics, society and values that are remaking the nation.  As political analysts of every stripe point out, the clock is ticking down (demographically speaking) on white people remaining the majority “racial” group in American.  If Census Bureau projections hold, the U.S. population will be minority white in the year 2042.  This is the same clock ticking for the Republican Party.

In all likelihood, Romney will win the nomination and, bowing to the nativist right, will pick someone like Mark Rubio (R-FL) as his running mate.  Like Palin, Rubio (or whoever is selected) will be a 2012 political trophy bride.

But just imagine if Santorum actually is the Republican candidate and, somehow miraculously, wins the general election.  A half-century ago, Kennedy ran not only believing in the separation of church and state, but assuring the nation that as president, he would not be influenced by the pope.

The world has surely turned upside down.  Santorum proudly tells the world that he rejects JFK’s two commitments.  He does not believe in the separation of church and state; not does he believe that he shouldn’t accept counsel from the pope.  As president, Santorum could usher in a new dark ages in America, one championed by his nativist supporters.  It remains to be seen if the Republican establishment can contain its nativist base.

David Rosen is the author of Sex Scandals America:  Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming, is a regular contributor to the Brooklyn Rail, and writes the “Medica Current” blog for Filmmaker.  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.