This isn’t the first time we’ve seen an anti-immigrant, slavery-tolerant populist wave in the United States. Back in the 1850s, just as the two major parties of the time were imploding, the Know-Nothings emerged as the first notable third party in American politics. Thinking of themselves as the only “real Americans” (and doesn’t that sound familiar?), the Know-Nothings were working class people proud of their Anglo-Saxon heritage. Know-Nothings wanted to deport foreigners, got their hate on for Catholics (that is, yesterday’s Muslims), and found women’s suffrage repellent. Had the Civil War not intervened, the Know-Nothings may have made a more lasting impression on our political landscape. Instead, their agenda was pushed into the nation’s subconscious.
Today’s Know-Nothings seem to be taking the term more literally. A recent study released by the Pew Research Center shows that Republicans’ opinion of higher education is slipping dramatically. As recently as 2015, 58% of Republicans and 65% of Democrats polled by Pew thought that colleges and universities were good for America. Nowadays, though, not so much. Only 36% of the Republicans polled viewed higher education positively, compared to 72% of Democrats. Among Republicans, 58% said that colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the sociopolitical trajectory of the United States. While college-educated Republicans and Democrats agreed that their education was valuable to their personal growth, Republicans felt that the main purpose for higher education was to teach job skills that prepare students to enter the workforce. It’s a cog factory.
The liberal-leaning Salon report put these findings in a relatively optimistic light, saying that we have reached “peak anti-intellectualism.” However, I believe the conservative National Review hit the nail closer to the head. Observing that college campuses are viewed as hotbeds of liberalism, the National Review predicts that the next Republican standard-bearer will rise to power by feeding the anger aimed at higher education. This seems likely not only because it stokes the kind of partisan resentment that drives people to the voting booth (while furthering the agenda laid out in the Powell Memorandum), but also because of a larger reason that lurks just out of view.
Once a civilization peaks and coasts into decline, the institutions of that society become associated in the public mind with the ruling elites who can no longer provide the kind of prosperity to which we’ve become accustomed. No matter what benefits higher education can provide to a country, a disappointed, envious, and angry population who can’t directly reap the rewards will take pride in opposing them. Tearing down the elites means tearing down everything.
The rising tide of anti-intellectualism, currently championed by Donald “I love the poorly educated” Trump, also has a darker side. Historically, women, slaves, and other oppressed classes have been kept illiterate as a means of control. Speculative fiction, from Orwell’s 1984 to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, explores what happens when people are kept from the very idea of having ideas.
Meanwhile, jurors are now being preferentially seated not because they have enough knowledge and experience to be able to make sense of complicated evidence presented in court, but because they are know-nothings that have minimal interest in being informed about the world around them.
Meanwhile, just as conservatives introduced politically skewed “fair and balanced” media coverage in the form of FOX News, they appear poised to aggressively colonize education not only through home schooling and charters, but by setting up an “alternative truth” sort of higher-ed. If you can’t stop people from having ideas, at least you can plant the ones you want them to have.
Meanwhile, water in aging schools throughout the country is testing positive for elevated levels of lead, just as the Trump administration is bent on slashing budgets and regulations that protect us. If you can’t destroy public education, at least you can make the schoolkids drink a neurotoxin that leads to cognitive damage, right?
Sadly, there’s one last irony in any comparison between today’s ruling party and the historical Know-Nothings. The Know-Nothings got their name not from a distaste for education, but because they were supposedly a secret organization. One reason the Know-Nothings vilified Catholics is because the Catholics favored religious schools and didn’t want to fund public education. Nowadays, it’s the modern Know-Nothings who want to do that the most.