Getting to know the Know-Nothings

0110Ideas_flag2Douglas Kierdorf at The Boston Globe:

AS ELECTION DAY drew closer, an undercurrent of anxiety and discontent swept the country. The public had lost faith in both political parties that were controlled by big business types who had lost touch with the common people, the professional political class, and lawyers who rigged the game. Meanwhile, mass immigration was choking urban centers with legions of poor, uneducated people who barely spoke the language and were of dubious religious and national allegiance. Rapid technological change was putting people out of jobs and degrading the nature of work for those who had them. Beneath the surface appearance of business as usual, a political upheaval was brewing that would obliterate one of the two major parties and leave the other as only a regional force for two generations.

It was the fall of 1854.

From this period of political upheaval, the country came to know the Know-Nothings, a group whose name is still used as short-hand for xenophobic nativism. But the story of the Know-Nothings is far more complex. Yes, they were militantly anti-immigration, but they were also quite progressive on issues of labor rights, opposition to slavery, and the need for more government spending. Given our current age of anxiety, it’s worth dwelling on a few lessons of an earlier period, which has such obvious echoes.

more here.