By now you've heard the cookie joke. You know: a CEO, a tea party member, and a union worker are all sitting at a table when a plate with a dozen cookies arrives. Before anyone else can make a move, the CEO reaches out to rake in eleven of the cookies. When the other two look at him in surprise, the CEO locks eyes with the tea party member. "You better watch him," the executive says with a nod toward the union worker. "He wants a piece of your cookie."
It's funny for the same reason most good jokes are funny, because it contains a strong element of truth. This little game, pitting one group of working class voters against another, isn't just a trick, it's the trick. It's what enables bankers to rob the nation blind and walk away. It's what lets executives take an ever larger share of corporate income when they're doing well, a larger share when they're doing poorly, a larger share when they're staying, and a larger share when they're leaving. It's what allows corporations to sit on the greatest stacks of money the world has ever seen, turn profits that dwarf those of even a few years ago, and still demand that their workers surrender a little more. A little more. A little more, please. Thanks, now get out.
Not only that, they get their workers to fight for them. Fight for surrendering their own rights, and fight to take those rights from others.
The engine of this schism is always powered by the same forces: fear and envy. There's always someone out there to be the "other," someone whose cultural values don't line up with yours. Someone who is getting a better deal than you. Robber barons and corporations have always been good at promoting factionalism, and of course it helps when you have the media and politicians under your thumb. No doubt nobles played the same game to keep their comfy seats throughout history. Heck, there was probably a nice "Intro for New Pharaohs" scroll that explained how to keep the stonecutters jealous of the hieroglyph carvers, just so neither group ever got around to wondering if carving Rootintootin III's face on blocks the size of houses was really the best use of their time.
For America, the tea party movement is just an update of a very old script.
You could see the same forces at work in 1843, as factionalism split the Whig Party and produced a third party movement. The American Republican Party first appeared on local election ballots in New York. This wasn't the Republican Party that would emerge over a decade later, but it was one of several movements and parties that boiled up out of the Whig's weakness. Supported by business organizations and trade unions , the party scored shocking victories in its first elections first in New York then in Philadelphia. Almost overnight, the party spread and within a year it had become a national movement challenging the established parties in almost every state. Both major parties quickly adjusted their policies to try and accommodate this new entity, but the new party had a focus and energy that delivered surprising wins in Boston, in Chicago, and in several other cities.
What powered the movement? Most of the energy came from a source that's still highly potent today: demonization of immigrants. The leaders of the movement (which soon changed its name to the American Nativist Party and then just the American Party) warned that the uncontrolled wave of immigration was destroying what made America great. The new immigrants lacked both education and culture. They were insular, odd, and dangerous; unwilling to adopt American customs and values. They were shiftless, without the productive and creative spark of Americans, but at the same time they were willing to work so cheaply that they threatened to steal jobs from American workers.
These immigrants were other. This invading army had their own language, their own music, and most threatening of all they brought with them a corrosive philosophy, one that was the enemy of both democracy and capitalism. This philosophy was out to cripple trade and destroy companies. It encouraged laziness, diminished respect for personal property, and threatened established institutions. Despite these un-American tendencies, traitorous and corrupt politicians had been elected who were beholding to these immigrants. These America-hating politicians refused to pass tough federal laws to clamp down on immigration. They even argued that state and local laws limiting immigrant's rights were unconstitutional. They tolerated or encouraged their new philosophy. Some even embraced it. In response, the American Party platform mandated English as the official language and restricted the government from printing documents in other languages, it sharply limited immigration and raised the requirements for citizenship, and it limited all political offices (including school teachers) to native born Americans.
The wave of dangerous immigrants came from Ireland and Germany. The anti-American philosophy they propagated was Roman Catholicism.
The nativism that spurred the appearance of the American Republican Party mirrors exactly the feelings and ideas that now power anti-immigrant movements in Arizona and across the nation. If the hatred for union workers, government workers, and really anyone not part of their own small group may not be precisely the same, but it's a close cousin. It's not racism, but it fills that racism-shaped hole in society's soul. For tea partiers, the lazy, fat-cat teacher taking home a big pension on the government dime has replaced the Cadillac driving welfare queen. It doesn't matter that both are myths. Both of them are just placeholders for the other, a symbol of that person you just know is out there taking advantage of you – a focus for unfocused anger. A focus provided by people who are so, so relieved that you're willing to keep looking enviously at other workers and never glance up to see what your betters are doing.
At America's founding, there were dire predictions that the nation would not last out one election cycle. Then, as now, there were far more poor than rich. What was to prevent the have-nots from passing legislation that stripped wealth from the hands of the haves? Democracy was seen as utterly incompatible with capitalism. Traders and businessmen viewed it with horror, certain that they would be overrun by the mob. But it never worked that way.
Instead, those at the top have always found it easy to get people to champion their cause. There's always a group that feels wounded, angry and neglected. This group is susceptible to being told that they're better than some other group, that some other group is getting a better deal, that some other group deserves to be put in its place. It doesn't matter if that group is called Irish or Italian, Black or Hispanic, Union members or government workers. Anyone can be painted as a threat with enough hot air and yellow journalism. Anyone.
In the heyday of the American Republican Party, members developed a not-so-secret phrase. Asked what they knew about party activities, they were taught to respond "I know nothing." Because of this, members of the group soon carried the name "Know-Nothings." Over a century and a half later, there may not be anyone eager to embrace the title of Know-Nothing. But as long as some working class voters are willing to carry the billionaire's water by attacking other workers, there are certainly plenty of Learned Nothings around.
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