Nativists Are Great! Except When They Aren't, at All.


As one of the "sensible" conservatives on The New York Times' editorial page, Ross Douthat has a habit of using his column to provide a thin veneer of respectability to otherwise ugly ideas. Riffing off of the Cordoba House controversy, Douthat relies on the country's past experiences with unfamiliar immigrants to endorse nativism and xenophobia as a way of pushing immigrants toward greater assimilation.

But this is bad history; the nativists of 19th-century America weren't much interested in having "new arrivals adapt to Anglo-Saxon culture," rather, the nativists of mid-19th-century America wanted to keep immigrants off of American shores. In its 1856 platform, the American Party -- otherwise known as the "Know-Nothing Party" -- pushed for the mass expulsion of poor immigrants, and declared that "Americans must rule America, and to this end native-born citizens should be selected for all State, Federal, and municipal offices of government employment, in preference to all others."

Likewise, nativism in the late 19th century was preoccupied with keeping foreigners out of the United States. Here is a passage from the constitution the Immigration Restriction League, formed in 1894 by a handful of Harvard graduates:

The objects of this League shall be to advocate and work for further judicious restriction or stricter regulation of immigration, to issue documents and circulars, solicit facts and information on that subject, hold public meetings, and to arouse public opinion to the necessity of a further exclusion of elements undesirable for citizenship or injurious to our national character.

This seems completely obvious, but nativists and xenophobes have never been interested in seeing immigrants join our nation and culture as Americans. Our modern-day nativists -- as represented by the previously mentioned Tea Party activists -- see "undesirable" immigrants as pests to be dealt with, not potential Americans:

“Instead of finding bugs in our beds, we’re finding home invaders,” said Tony Venuti, a Tucson radio host who attached a huge sign to the fence that told immigrants to head to Los Angeles, where they will be more welcome, and even offered directions for getting there.

Contra Douthat, nativists and xenophobes have never been integral to assimilating immigrants. That distinction goes to the assimilationists of American life who understood -- and understand -- that "American-ness" can be learned and adopted. Different assimilationists had different approaches to bringing immigrants into American life, but they were united by a common view of America as an open society.

At the end of his piece, Douthat suggests that the Cordoba House is under attack because its critics want Muslims to be "more American." But that's bullshit; Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich aren't attacking Cordoba out of some misplaced sense of inclusion; they are attacking it because like their 19th-century forebears they see Muslims as "injurious to our national character." To those demagogues, America simply doesn't have room for Muslims.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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