Politics of Nativism.
Reviewed by Larry Kilbourne
Vol. 11, No. 5, 1989, pp. 20-21
The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to New Right in American History by David H. Bennett (University of North Carolina Press, 1988. 509 pp. $29.95.)
Right wing extremist groups are scarcely a neglected subject. Persistent survival from one era to another, violence, paradoxical relationship to a country which they profess to love while repudiating its values of equality and tolerance, these characteristics have won and will continue to win them the attention of critics and historians. Most interpretations have followed Richard Hofstader, Daniel Bell, and Seymour Martin Lipset. For these authors, the racist, religious, and anti-alien hate groups endure because they appeal to the displaced and marginalized, to those whose social positions and cultural norms have been threatened by too rapid change. As consolation to the. orphans of change, abandoned in a social landscape grown suddenly unfamiliar, right wing movements offered rituals and ceremonies which restored the feeling of community that modernization had eroded.
On the whole, William Bennett, professor of history at Rutgers University, accepts their thesis. From the several themes of right wing rhetoric, however, he isolates one–nativism, the irrational fear and hatred of foreign peoples and foreign ideas–as the primary attribute of the traditional right. For Bennett “Americanism,”–as defined by the dominant Anglo-Protestant culture–is the binding thread. Newcomers, with unfamiliar religions and customs, became convenient scapegoats for resentments that could not be safely expressed otherwise. In the colonial and early national periods, Catholics from France, Germany, and Ireland served this function. Later, nativist animosity focused on eastern European immigrants, and the virus of anarchist and socialist ideas they were presumed to carry.
Much of this is familiar. Bennett’s originality lies in his contention that with the assimilation of the ethnic groups that arrived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries nativism gradually lost its force, and that the new right which has emerged in the last two decades is largely free of this preoccupation. In Bennett’s treatment, Father Coughlin, the radio priest of the 1930s, emerges as a pivotal figure who, by directing his attacks at foreign ideas rather than at groups and by adding the WASP
establishment to the right’s customary list of villains, was able to make nativist themes appealing to Catholics who were themselves of immigrant German and Irish stock.
Can Bennett’s contention, that recent developments on the right show a decline of nativist bias, be accepted? I would question whether the psychological dynamics underlying nativism have died out, or merely been deflected. Rather than vanishing, the anger that once drove religious and ethic hatred has merely been refocused, so it appears to this reviewer, on subcultures and lifestyles perceived as alien. The poor, the homeless, homosexuals, and AIDS patients have become the objects of a hatred once directed at immigrants. Moreover, when viewed in larger perspective that includes other competing hatreds, nativism seems a less pervasive, less central preoccupation than racism. For throughout American history, blacks more than any other group have played the roles of the “disturbing alien,” the vaguely threatening “outsider,” to mainstream white society.
Yet even traditional nativism may still possess more vitality, albeit latent, than Bennett imagines. The retreat of nativism during the last few decades was linked to the decline of immigration and the acculturation of the descendants of the immigrants who had arrived around the turn of the century. But the nation is now once again receiving large numbers of immigrants–this time from below the Rio Grande and the Caribbean, from southeast Asia and Korea, from Africa once more–and the middle years of the century may be a trough between the crests of two waves. If so, the weakening of nativist sentiment may prove equally transient. Thus far new Americans from the Pacific rim have met with relatively little hostility, certainly far less than their turn of the century counterparts. On the contrary, their success in adapting has been praised in the news media and compared to the supposedly poorer performance of older minority groups. All this could change: nativism thrives on hard times, and might return with added overtones of racism should the economy drop.
The ecumenicalism of the religious right, which Bennett points to, doesn’t, I think, go very deep. The alliance of Southern Protestant fundamentalists and conservative Northern Catholics–to which President Reagan owed much of his support–is a marriage of convenience that might dissolve under other circumstances. An off-the-cuff remark of Jerry Falwell’s cited by Bennett, about the unlikeliness of Mother Theresa going to heaven without first undergoing the born-again conversion experience, bears witness to the contradictions within this coalition. Why should someone who feels called upon to reshape society according to the literal word of God be less incensed by doctrinal heresy (the Virgin Birth, Papal Infallibility, Transubstantiation) than by secular apostasy (Darwinism, abortion, religiously neutral schools)? Indeed, given that many Vietnamese and most Hispanics are Catholic, the conditions may exist once again for coalescence of religious and ethnic hatreds. Intolerance is implicit in the logic of the religious right.
LARRY KILBOURNE graduated from Brandeis University and is now a U.S. Air Force historian living in Ohio.