ANALYSIS:

America Knows How to Do Xenophobia

Bigotry can still get candidates elected in America.

by John Hickman
Monday, 23 August 2010
Loyalty to a state based upon commitment to ideals demands more from people than claiming membership in a nation that is defined by exclusive identity markers like language, religion and race.

That the temptation to exchange patriotism for nationalism is most intense when Americans confront an economic crisis or an unpopular war is no surprise. Where patriotism is hard, nationalism is easy. Loyalty to a state based upon commitment to ideals like liberty, equality and democracy demands more from people than claiming membership in a nation that is defined by exclusive identity markers like language, religion and race. Where patriots are responsible for drawing boundaries around a political community to include everyone who lives and works in society, nationalists are free to insist on arbitrary boundaries drawn around a narrow political community based on privileged belief or descent. The primitive in-group/out-group impulse is never far beneath the surface of human motivation and there are always nationalist demagogues ready to give it voice as xenophobia.

With Americans anxious about the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and two of the longest and least conclusive wars in our history, it is unsurprising that some Americans have succumbed to the nationalist temptation. Protests against the construction of new mosques, state and local laws targeting Hispanics on the pretext of policing illegal immigration, calls to amend the 14th Amendment, and the conspiracism of the ‘Birthers’ and Tea Party racism all indicate that fear and frustration are now being channeled into renewed xenophobic nationalism.

We have seen it before in American history. Religious bigotry and economic insecurity made Roman Catholic Irish and German immigrants the targets in the two decades before the American Civil War. Racism and economic insecurity made Chinese immigrants and African Americans the targets in the decades that followed. The historical eruption of xenophobia that most resembles what we see today occurred during the First World War and the immediate postwar years.

The historical eruption of xenophobia that most resembles what we see today occurred during the First World War and the immediate postwar years.

Although forgotten by most Americans, including most of the descendants of the victims, German immigrants and ethnic German-Americans were subjected to official repression and populist hate when the Wilson administration marched the United States into a war that was deeply unpopular with many Americans. Thousands of German nationals were interned as enemy aliens. Members of the 100,000-strong American Protective League monitored their German neighbors for signs of antiwar sympathies. German American community leaders were publicly humiliated by mobs. One German immigrant was lynched by in mob in Illinois. State and local governments targeted German language and culture for repression. German language newspapers and schools were closed. Public libraries purged their shelves of books published in German. Some 27 states passed laws prohibiting teaching German language or teaching other subjects in German. In April 1919, some five months after the end of the war, Nebraska authorities went so far as to enforce a state statute forbidding instruction in German by arresting and fining a Missouri Synod Lutheran Sunday School teacher for telling his class Bible stories in the forbidden tongue. Even the U.S. Supreme Court of the period, so bitterly conservative that it affirmed the constitutionality of long prison sentences by state courts for membership in a communist party or the distribution of antiwar leaflets by anarchists, found that Nebraska had gone a little too far.

Imperial Germany was not the existential threat to the United States that it was portrayed in the press at the time. Neither are radical Islamism and the Mexican drug cartels today. German Americans were not a domestic threat to national security as they were portrayed in the press at the time. Neither are American Muslims or Hispanic Americans today. Conservative populists exploited fear, ignorance and selfishness without restraint then, just as today. Where the historical parallel breaks down is that the Obama administration has not encouraged xenophobia to divert attention from the rotten economy and seemingly endless wars, although it could do more to discourage the viciousness.

There is no guarantee that state and local governments will remain the only entities adopting xenophobic measures. Some of the Republican 2012 presidential hopefuls have recognized the potential of Islamophobia and Hispanophobia for mobilizing voters. Presented in the form of other issues to deflect criticism, as with the thinly coded racism in the Willie Horton advertisements used in the 1988 campaign of George H.W. Bush, bigotry can still get candidates elected in America. Successful campaign themes are often reflected in subsequent policy making. Little imagination is needed to picture some future Republican President faced with a still-stalled economy and continuing failure in the Middle East and Southwest Asia pulling a Woodrow Wilson by unleashing the bigots to scapegoat vulnerable ethnic minorities and punish political dissent. In an America where partisan politics has become a zero sum game, nothing is unthinkable.


John Hickman is associate professor of comparative politics at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. His published work on electoral politics, media, and international affairs has appeared in Asian Perspective, American Politics Research, Comparative State Politics, Contemporary South Asia, Contemporary Strategy, Current Politics and Economics of Asia, East European Quarterly, Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans, Jouvert, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Political Science, Review of Religious Research, Women & Politics, and Yamanashigakuin Law Review. He may be reached at jhickman@berry.edu.



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This story was published on August 23, 2010.