William Nelligan on Monday, Jan. 10th
I never thought I would see the day. CSPAN has finally jumped on the news comedy bandwagon! On Monday, CSPAN aired one of the funniest hours of political satire I’ve seen in a long time: the Republican National Committee chairman candidates debate. Seriously, I’m hoping for a re-run, because RNC Chairman Michael Steele and the four partisan politicos trying to oust him are some of the most hilarious characters I’ve seen in a long time. You can catch HuffPo’s coverage of the event here, but I think it suffices to say, any forum that claims “how many guns do you own” as a legitimate question for debate should be categorized as “satire.” As much as we wish it and want it though, this isn’t satire. This is political reality, and it’s as far from the realities of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, or Everett Dirksen as it could be.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. This semester, my first in college, I learned and wrote about another time, 150 years ago, when another wave of hysteria overtook our national political conversation. The “Know Nothings,” as they were called, won every seat in the Massachusetts State Senate, and the governorships of nearly a dozen states. They swept races at every level and in every part of our country, running on a platform only one degree separated from the Republican platform today. A platform that proposed strict restrictions on immigration, bible study in public schools, and the promotion of English as the national language. Sound familiar?
I can only hope that the rest of the “Know Nothing” story will some day match up with the story of the RNC’s newest brand of Republicanism. Rather than becoming a permanent fixture on the political scene – in a structured way, at least – the same organization that elected hundreds of legislators in Sacramento and Harrisburg alike had gone from a political powerhouse in 1854 to an object of political folklore in 1860.
The reasons for this rapid decline, likely unique in all of our history, are still debated today. One reason has always seemed clear to me: voter alienation. In 1854, like 2010, a new and novel political ideology served as lightning for dissatisfied voters of many stripes. Once elected though, the same candidates that profited off of voter disenfranchisement experienced its destructive force by attempting to enact policies – like blatantly pro-protestant and anti-immigrant voter registration laws – that the broad coalition electing them must have seen as way beyond the pale.
I have no doubt that, with the right messaging and strategy from Democrats, the same can be done with newly-elected officials like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Florida Governor Rick Scott. Paul is on the record opposed to a key provision of the Civil Rights Act, while Scott is on the record for education vouchers usable at parochial schools.
The job of Democrats in these next two years isn’t simply to stand as bulwarks against the new GOP’s political posturing; their job is to expose and display that posturing to the American public. If Democrats do it right they will not only galvanize their base – especially young people like me – but will cast politicians like Rand Paul and Rick Scott to the same fate as the Know Nothings: political extinction.