During the early 19th century, there was a movement called the “Know Nothing” party. It was a party formed in reaction to a perception that the country was being taken over by Irish and German immigrants, most of whom were Roman Catholic and supposedly controlled by the church. The name of the party came from its semi-secret nature when it was first formed. When members were asked about the party, they were supposed to answer, “I know nothing.” Eventually, after the party failed, most of its members became Republicans.
The thing that gave the “Know Nothing” party its temporary power was the collapse of the two-party system, when the Whigs, or the Liberals of their time, became disorganized and fragmented.
Does any of this sound familiar? A third party, whose members are fearful and whose orientation is conservative, even Republican? How about the liberal party being fragmented? Being a liberal and a Democrat, I am more or less use to disarray and fragmentation. Wasn’t it Will Rogers in the 1930’s who said, “I don’t belong to any organized party, I’m a Democrat”1? He also said “You’ve got to be optimist to be a Democrat, and you’ve got to be a humorist to stay one.”2 He also said “The more you read and observe about this Politics thing, you got to admit that each party is worse than the other. The one that’s out always looks the best.” 3
Well, I guess not much has changed in the last 90 years, but you might hope they would. I believe what we are seeing is the fragmentation of the Liberal wing, and the rise of the Conservative wing, Now I’ve always believed in the pendulum aspects of politics, so I guess I expect this to happen and to pass again sometime in the future. What I do worry about is, have enough people who are reacting, read what they are reacting to, or read enough to say what they really want. I think it’s too easy to react to gut feelings without any true basis for the reaction. Maybe that’s wrong, maybe there is a true basis, but I wonder how many people can articulate that basis and offer a reasonable alternative. I wonder if I can. I see unemployment, way too much debt, and, of course the two wars that are almost background noise by this time (compare how we reported the wars in Korea and Vietnam with the way the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being reported), as being main springs of the discontent. I have to believe there is an element of racism in the discontent, and I have seen it first hand, although I would not brand everyone who disagrees with Obama as racist.
I suppose where I am going with all this rambling is, I want to say all this turmoil is not new, it’s just publicized better. It need not be “the end of civilization as we know it,” or something equivalent, but a learning curve. I hope we can all learn to have faith in our country and allow ourselves to trust our fellow Americans, at least a little.
1. Will Rogers, Ambassador of Good Will, Prince of Wit and Wisdom (1935) by P. J. O’Brien.
2. Good Gulf radio show (24 June 1934)
3. “Breaking into the Writing Game” The Illiterate Digest (1924)