These days calling someone a “know-nothing” could mean one of two things.
If you’re a student of history, you might be comparing that person to a member of the Know Nothing party of the 1850s, a bigoted, xenophobic, anti-immigrant group that at its peak included more than 100 members of Congress and eight governors. More likely, however, you’re suggesting that said person is willfully ignorant, someone who rejects facts that might conflict with his or her prejudices.
The sad thing is that America is currently ruled by people who fit both definitions. And the know-nothings in power are doing all they can to undermine the very foundations of American greatness.
The parallels between anti-immigrant agitation in the mid-19th century and Trumpism are obvious. Only the identities of the maligned nationalities have changed.
After all, Ireland and Germany, the main sources of that era’s immigration wave, were the shithole countries of the day. Half of Ireland’s population emigrated in the face of famine, while Germans were fleeing both economic and political turmoil. Immigrants from both countries, but the Irish in particular, were portrayed as drunken criminals if not subhuman. They were also seen as subversives: Catholics whose first loyalty was to the pope. A few decades later, the next great immigration wave – of Italians, Jews and many other peoples – inspired similar prejudice.
And here we are again. Anti-Irish prejudice, anti-German prejudice, anti-Italian prejudice are mostly things of the past (although anti-Semitism springs eternal), but there are always new groups to hate.
But today’s Republicans – for this isn’t just about Donald Trump, it’s about a whole party – aren’t just Know-Nothings, they’re also know-nothings. The range of issues on which conservatives insist that the facts have a well-known liberal bias just keeps widening.
One result of this embrace of ignorance is a remarkable estrangement between modern conservatives and highly educated Americans, especially but not only college faculty. The right insists that the scarcity of self-identified conservatives in the academy is evidence of discrimination against their views, of political correctness run wild.
Yet conservative professors are rare even in hard sciences like physics and biology, and it’s not difficult to see why. When the more or less official position of your party is that climate change is a hoax and evolution never happened, you won’t get much support from people who take evidence seriously.
But conservatives don’t see the rejection of their orthodoxies by people who know what they’re talking about as a sign that they might need to rethink. Instead, they’ve soured on scholarship and education in general. Remarkably, a clear majority of Republicans now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on America.
So the party that currently controls all three branches of the federal government is increasingly for bigotry and against education. That should disturb you for multiple reasons, one of which is that the GOP has rejected the very values that made America great.
Think of where we’d be as a nation if we hadn’t experienced those great waves of immigrants driven by the dream of a better life. Think of where we’d be if we hadn’t led the world, first in universal basic education, then in the creation of great institutions of higher education. Surely we’d be a shrunken, stagnant, second-rate society.
And that’s what we’ll become if modern know-nothingism prevails.
I’ve been rereading an important 2012 book, Enrico Moretti’s “The New Geography of Jobs,” about the growing divergence of regional fortunes within the United States. Until around 1980, America seemed on the path toward broadly spread prosperity, with poor regions like the Deep South rapidly catching up with the rest. Since then, however, the gaps have widened again, with incomes in some parts of the nation surging while other parts fall behind.
Moretti argues, rightly in the view of many economists, that this new divergence reflects the growing importance of clusters of highly skilled workers – many of them immigrants – often centered on great universities, that create virtuous circles of growth and innovation. And as it happens, the 2016 election largely pitted these rising regions against those left behind, which is why counties carried by Hillary Clinton, who won only a narrow majority of the popular vote, account for a remarkable 64 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, almost twice as much as Trump counties.
Clearly, we need policies to spread the benefits of growth and innovation more widely. But one way to think of Trumpism is as an attempt to narrow regional disparities, not by bringing the lagging regions up, but by cutting the growing regions down. For that’s what attacks on education and immigration, key drivers of the new economy’s success stories, would do.
So will our modern know-nothings prevail? I have no idea. What’s clear, however, is that if they do, they won’t make America great again – they’ll kill the very things that made it great.