I’ve observed an interesting trend in the last few years: political commentators have started analogizing anti-intellectualism in contemporary politics with the antebellum era Know-Nothing political party. Most recently, Governor Christie did it yesterday in his rant about Congress and Sandy aid, calling out Congress as “know-nothings.” The meme is best illustrated by what Peter Beinart wrote last year in an article titled “GOP Rejects Know-Nothings, Opts for Candidates who Understand Public Policy”:
Until this fall, GOP anti-intellectualism not only seemed alive and well. It seemed to be going wild. George W. Bush—who loved to joke about being a C student—had been more blatantly anti-intellectual than Ronald Reagan. Sarah Palin was even more blatant than Bush. And when Palin decided not to run for president, conservatives rallied around Michele Bachmann (who explained that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States”), Herman Cain (“when they ask me ‘who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan’ I’m going to say, you know, I don’t know”) and Rick Perry (enough said).
Andrew Sullivan then repeated it in his post linking to the article, titled “The Limits of Know-Nothingness.” The problem, however, is that the term “Know-Nothing” doesn’t originate from an anti-intellectualism of the antebellum political party of the same name, but from that party’s sorta-secret nature. In response to questions about the party, the member was supposed to respond, “I know nothing.” The genesis of the term wasn’t a statement about political intellectualism, either by the party itself or as a derogatory slur placed on the party by others. There’s just no historical connection between the party name and any sort of ignorance of public policy.
Now, throughout American history, the term “Know-Nothing” has been used derogatorily in politics. But again, it was not a charge of anti-intellectualism; it was a charge of nativism. The Know-Nothing Party (later, the American Party) was virulently anti-immigrant in the antebellum era, and to call someone a Know-Nothing in the late 19th or 20th century was to charge them with hostility toward immigrants or hostility toward liberal immigration policies. And while it’s probably true that nativism and anti-intellectualism have some sort of correlation of appeal, it wasn’t the case that the Know-Nothings presented the sort of plain and outspoken hostility to intellectualism that some ascribe to the modern GOP. I mean, their only major candidate for President was Millard Filmore, not exactly an anti-intellectual.
Indeed, you see the nativist angle in many (or maybe most) contemporary uses of the term, such as this Tim Egan piece in the Times last summer, or by Bill Kristol as quoted in this Craig Shirley WaPo piece. Still, I’ve detected a rise in the use of the term as a blanket charge of anti-intellectualism. There’s certainly nothing wrong that — the meaning of words and phrases change all the time. But it’s interesting to see the process occur in real-time, and watch how a historical word slowly drifts from one meaning (the name of a party) to another (a slur based on that party’s positions) to another (a general slur based on the plain meaning, but incorrect, assessment of the party’s name).