I just can't get overly concerned about the 138 or so candidates running for Congress under the auspices of the various Tea Parties. I understand the electorate is mad, but it's not insane. I'm sure the pundits are correct that Democrats will lose seats in the upcoming election, but this plethora of extremists running as Republicans are the true inheritors of the nativist "Know Nothing Party" of the 1850s.
Like the Tea Party, the Know Nothings exploited fear of immigrants — Catholics instead of Latinos — to fuel the resentment of white male Protestants. In fact, that was a qualifier for joining the party. They had minor successes, especially in Maryland and Massachusetts, but their base of wealthy white guys was not sufficient to compete with the Democrats, and they were eclipsed by the anti-slavery Republican Party before the Civil War. Their national agenda, however, sounds eerily familiar to the corporate-sponsored, grass-roots confederacy of pissed-off white people who intend to "take our country back" in the coming days.
The Know Nothings earned their nickname after being instructed to reply, "I know nothing," when asked about the party's platform. With good reason, since it consisted of restricting immigration, especially from Catholic countries, demanding all public officeholders to be American-born Protestants, mandating daily Bible readings in public schools, and requiring immigrants already in the country to wait 21 years before applying for citizenship.
Observing Tea Party candidates in action, from Rand Paul, whose libertarian philosophy is so inflexible as to be closer to anarchy than democracy, to Colorado gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes, who called the Denver bike-sharing program a "socialist plot organized by the United Nations," is like looking at sideshow oddities. Add Delaware's non-masturbating witch, Christine O'Donnell, Alaska's man with the handcuffs and a 10 o'clock shadow, Joe Miller, and a few more, and you could film a remake of Tod Browning's 1932 horror classic, Freaks. The single difference is that in the original movie, the pinheads, Zip and Pip, were far more lovable than microcephalics like Carl Paladino or John Raese, who advocates abolishing the minimum wage while his wife lives in Palm Beach, Florida.
On the other side of the demilitarized zone known as the aisle, the spineless Democrats are acting like the Mugwumps. Historian David Tucker wrote, "The Mugwumps embodied the liberalism of the 19th century," and their writings are "testament to a high-minded civic morality." The problem was their grievances lasted only as long as Grover Cleveland's campaign, when most were absorbed into the Democratic Party. That's why the term "mugwump" has also come to mean a fence-sitter, like the passive, timid Democrats who can't even manage a counterattack in the face of the ugliest campaign in modern history.
Analysts have compared this year's election to the disastrous 1994 mid-terms and to the Reagan revolution of 1980, but I have yet to hear anyone correlate the correct period, so allow me: When the Democrats imploded after the 1968 convention in Chicago, voters were horrified by what seemed to be a takeover of the party by leftist radicals. During the 1972 convention, which nominated anti-war hope George McGovern, the televised images proved it. Party discipline had acquiesced to the demands of activists for every imaginable cause. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem bitterly clashed over the feminist agenda. Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman to be nominated for president. Abortion rights and gay rights were not just discussed openly from the podium for the first time, there were floor fights over whether the issues should be included in the party platform. When McGovern was finally nominated, his acceptance speech came so early in the morning, most viewers had gone to bed. What my young eyes witnessed was contentious progress for civil rights. What the American people saw was a small group of fire-breathing extremists carrying the party over a cliff. Nixon won reelection by a landslide.
What happened on the left in1972 is happening to the right in 2010. The rhetoric is just as inflammatory and the loudest voices are those on the fringes, purging Republican establishment candidates and replacing them with the wildest bunch of ideologues since the days of the Yippies. The Tea Party folks say they're mad? Well, I'm mad too.
I'm mad about candidates for office referring to the president as a "committed socialist" or a "secret Muslim." I'm angry that so many people's minds have been twisted by right-wing propaganda that they believe Obama is working against the interests of this country. I'm sick of GOP lackeys blaming Obama for Bush's disaster while refusing to work with him on anything and everything. And I'm particularly weary of the Tea Party "patriots" who have screamed for two years without managing to form a coherent message — other than antipathy toward Obama. I believe sanity will win out on Election Day but only if Democratic voters are motivated to protect what gains they've made. If the threat of a Congress full of Tea Party mini-despots with subpoena power isn't enough motivation to go out and vote, nothing is.
Randy Haspel writes the blog Born-Again Hippies, where a version of this column first appeared.