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Letter to the Editor: Modern Day Know Nothings

Wilton resident Kelly Franklin responds to an earlier article on the Tea Party Movement in Wilton.

A little over a week ago, Wilton Patch ran an article on the tea party movement

While I take issue with some of the unsubstantiated claims in the article indicating that there is a growing interest in this movement in Wilton, and with the assertion that it is a grass-roots organization, my reason for writing today is Steve Symonds' comment on that article that asked town Democrats and Republicans to stop speaking in code, and be clear about their stance on this issue.

Mr. Symonds is right to ask for that clarity, and as a registered Democrat in Wilton, I'd like to make my position clear. I think the tea party movement is both dangerous and misdirected. It is also not unique. After almost every period of economic upheaval or social change in American history, we have seen the rise of these sorts of groups.

For example, the 1850s nativist Know Nothing movement also had no centralized organization or cogent platform, and was spawned  by fear of "the other." Today's inchoate tea party movement, which laments taxation (despite the fact that taxes have gone down in the last year, and are lower than those imposed by Ronald Reagan), and boasts anarchic, but ill-informed citizens who loudly demand that the "government keep its hands off Medicare" certainly echoes its predecessor.

The primary difference is that the Know Nothing movement grew organically, playing on reactionary fears and fueled by the influx of immigrants to the United States and evolution in culture and voting patterns that that trend engendered.

Conversely, the tea party movement, while feeding off a real anger shared by the left and the right at citizens picking up the tab for Wall Street's bad bets, got its start as an astroturf (fake grass roots) movement, funded by Republican-led PACs like Freedomworks, and fostered by "news" outfits like Fox which seek to make a cage match out of public discourse. 

While not all that identify with this movement are conspiracy theorists and bigots and anti-government extremists, many are. That these people, who hold up signs of our president defaced with a Hitler mustache dare call themselves "patriots" cheapens the achievements of our founding fathers and denigrates the sacrifices of generations of Americans who have given up their lives in service to our country. That they disrupt public discourse by hijacking town halls robs their fellow citizens of our right to engage in reasoned discussion and debate with our representatives.

This town, this state, and our nation have serious challenges - problems that require intelligent and thoughtful debate, and willingness on the part of our elected officials to take unpopular stances and make tough decisions. 

Unfortunately, many Republicans at every level of our government seem more interested in fanning the flames, just saying "no," and playing political games than they do in living up to the responsibilities we've entrusted them with to help govern thoughtfully, and make tough choices.  

A cynical donor presentation for the Republican National Committee was made public last week (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0310/33866.html) and revealed just how eager this political organization is to stir up fear in order to co-opt and channel the anger of those who affiliate themselves with the tea party movement.

It is perhaps worth noting that the Know Nothings' largest legacy was that it killed the dying party of no ideas that was the Whigs, while forming the basis for what we today know as the Republican party. Perhaps history will repeat itself.

-Kelly Franklin, Wilton

Steve Symonds March 17, 2010 at 04:40 PM
I'd like to express my thanks to Ms. Franklin for making her position clear. I'm not sure if she represents the Wilton Democratic Town Committee, and I would welcome knowing that as this matter is not only about an individual's position (not to diminish the importance of this) but more importantly the position of our political parties. It's particularly important to know where the Wilton Republican Town Committee stands on this matter because the Tea Party "movement" at the national level appears to be closely tied to the GOP. There are quite a number of current and former GOP officials who are either directly involved in the Tea Party movement -- or seek to seize on issues or positions taken by the Tea Party to advance their own. Ironically, this pattern of activity appears to be a source of controversy within the Tea Party itself, with some of its "founders" who are displeased with the GOP trying to subordinate their "movement" by tying it to the GOP agenda. So, this is complicated to be sure. But -- to Ms. Franklin's point -- there has been some truly ugly, wacky, and downright un-American goings-on at Tea Party events in the past year. Again, it is my contention that the citizens of Wilton should hear from both the Democratic Town Committee and the Republican Town Committee on their respective positions about the evidently-nascent Wilton Tea Party. What say ye?
Christian Camerota March 17, 2010 at 05:20 PM
Steve- I agree with you. It would be great to hear from both parties, whether in this space or elsewhere. I will say that Ms. Franklin made it a point to say that this piece was her own opinion and was not necessarily meant to reflect the feelings of any party in particular.
Joe Burke March 17, 2010 at 08:30 PM
I find this opinion piece interesting- in particular I find this quote intriguing- "After almost every period of economic upheaval or social change in American history, we have seen the rise of these sorts of groups." Can the author cite some examples of this happening after 1850. In terms of economic upheaval, I would think that the Great Depression, and the recessions in 1973-74, 1979-80 and 1994 as well as the economic disruption following 9/11 would be qualifying events. In addition, I would think that the culture wars in the 60s would also be a qualifying event. Did organizations like the Tea Party groups form after these events? The author seems exceptionally knowledgeable so I am curious why she chose not to use a more contemporary example rather than an arcane one from 1850. I look forward to learning more about this connection to which the author infers so eloquently.
Steve Symonds March 17, 2010 at 09:14 PM
Interesting question...and while I am not a historian I am a student of history and will give you my take...it being understood that this is a side-discussion and we don't want to get distracted from the Main Event here, i.e. DTC and RTC positions on the Tea Party in Wilton. As for the Great Depression, WWII basically swallowed up all the social dyspepsia that could have led to such a political movement spawning from the Great Depression; indeed, the biggest debates of that day had to do with whether to stay neutral or not. Historians note that the Republicans back in the day tried to derail the major social programs FDR was launching to bring the country out of the Depression and stabilize our economy (e.g., Social Security) with many of the same loony over-the-top arguments that we hear today about health care reform leading to a socialist takeover were made back in the day...as they were again when Medicare was passed. Remember that this era was also one that saw the rise of lots of reactionary and radical movements that tried to use various techniques to gain political legitimacy but didn't succeed. Some were based on racial "purity" and led to the U.S. instituting pogroms for the first time in its history (the Japanese internment); others driven by mendacious politicians trying to scare the wits out of the citizenry by claiming a conspiratorial ideological take-over (the "Red Scare"). Indeed, Liz Cheney is embarked on a modern day reinvention of this. End of Part 1.
Steve Symonds March 17, 2010 at 09:40 PM
Part 2. As I recall in 73-74 the recession was bad but not like what we are working through now. The politics of the day were about Viet Nam; lots of odd-balls attempted to spawn anarchic parties of one sort of another, but by definition anarchists don't form political movements, their purpose is to destroy political organizations. There were loony organizations left and right (e.g., Black Panthers, Yippies, YAF), and many predating this period (e.g., John Birch Society). 79-80 was certainly an unhappy couple of years...and it'd be fair to say that it led to the election of Ronald Reagan. I will leave it to others to characterize whether this constituted a moment where a "movement" finally succeeded in winning electoral office. IMO, post-9/11 through 2004 was a period characterized by the take-over of the government by an ideologically driven group that turned into the most irresponsible administration in our nation's history. On the day President Bush took office, the national debt stood at $5.727 trillion; by the end of his term, the national debt stood at $9.849 trillion. That's a 71.9 percent increase on Mr. Bush's watch. That is before the Stimulus (TARP) bill. Bush 43 really set the stage for the Tea Party movement, IMO. True, many of the structural controls were removed by his predecessors (e.g., Glass-Steagal). But 43 & Co (e.g., Club for Growth) laid the foundation for our current, deep woes...which is the oxygen on which Tea Party feeds. One man's opinion.
Joe Burke March 18, 2010 at 01:52 AM
Steve- I have zero interest in the political motivation of the letter writer- her view is known from the 2nd half of her letter. I am interested specifically in the quote as it is central to her point that formation of groups like the Tea Party are somewhat common after economic upheavals. I have done some extensive google searching and can find little to support her comment- I sincerely hope that is because I have not looked carefully enough. I would be disappointed if the quote were used as a kind of "straw man" device. BTW- the 73-74 recession was as bad as the current one- at least from an unemployment standpoint
Steve Symonds March 18, 2010 at 12:45 PM
Valid point, Joe. No dispute that 73-74 had high unemployment...my real point in my ramble through the period 1930 to the present day was that there are so many variables at play in determining whether fundamental social upheavals lead to a coalescing of political forces that actually impact a nation's political and social structure. There's a truly great book on the subject: "Why Men Rebel" by Ted Robert Gurr from Princeton. It's the seminal work in the field, IMO, looking at virtually every violent civil insurrection in the past 1,500 years (up to 1970 when the book was released) to come up with a framework of analysis for understanding why some upheaval's lead to major structural changes in a nation...and why many times they don't...and which variables are the "combustible" ones. Here's a link: http://www.beyondintractability.org/booksummary/10680/. Perhaps there's a more recent work that builds on this...
Steve Symonds March 18, 2010 at 01:53 PM
Semi-funny (and semi-dead serious) piece from Jon Stewart on the health care reform bill and Tea Baggers (and their national GOP "enablers"). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/18/stewart-takes-on-tea-bagg_n_503858.html. 8 minutes of serious humor. Still waiting to hear from the DTC and RTC on the Wilton Tea Party....the radio silence is deafening.
Anthony B. March 18, 2010 at 03:10 PM
Why is Ms. Franklin so afraid of people expressing their views, in whatever forum they choose? Throwing around references to "nazis" and "bigots" just tells me she wants to STOP honest debate, not encourage it; name calling is the go-to strategy of extremists of all sorts. I for one find it refreshng that people are taking the time to get involved and enter the political debate. And calling people who want to express a view different from theirs "teabaggers" rather than "tea party" is a gross and abusive sexual reference. More name calling from the side that hates anything or anyone that disagrees with their views. Where have "taxes have gone down in the last year?" Fed income tax is unchanged. Soc Security is up as the threshhold for collecting it increases every year; Wilton property taxes are up; And those in Ms. Franklin's party are quite eager to see the personal income tax increased back to 39.6% from the current top rate of 35% as soon as possible. The effective tax rate for a CT resident in the top bracket is well over 50% between state, federal, and property taxes. Not enough?Since the Democratic Party is so eager to make special deals with unions and others to exempt them from provisions of the health care so-called "reform" boondoggle, how about if we have a tax increase that only applies to Democrats? They'll feel great about forking over more of their money and the rest of us can have a fighting chance to keep our homes and send our kids to college.
Steve Symonds March 18, 2010 at 03:53 PM
1. I didn't see any comment from Ms. Franklin telling people not to express their views. Please document that. Everyone has the constitutional right to express themselves, even calling them ugly names. I will defend your right to do so. However, name calling (and yelling people down) is sociopathic behavior, completely unproductive for coming together to find solutions to common problems. 2. "Teabaggers" is a term now commonly used by the Media; I've certainly never heard anyone before refer to this as abusive. Thank you for sensitizing me; I will certainly desist...can I expect you will do likewise and not refer to elected officials as "nazis", "bigots", "socialists", "communists" (etc.) simply because you disagree with their point of view? Sounds like a fair deal to me. 3. As for the health care reform bill, the Congressional Budget Office has scored both House and Senate bills now and indicated that they will SAVE taxpayers on the order of $100 Billion a year; that's a savings of $1 Trillion over the next 1o years...not enough, but a heck of a lot better than what we'll have if the bill is not passed. According to the WHO, the U.S. health care system ranks 38 compared with other countries -- behind Costa Rica and before Slovenia. http://www.photius.com/rankings/healthranks.html. I think you would agree that we should be getting a better bang for our buck...which is in fact what the health care reform bill would deliver. Lower taxes (yay) and better care (double yay
Michael Graupner March 18, 2010 at 04:01 PM
Obviously, we have some lefties in town with nothing to do but drone on and on with nonsense and self-serving pap. Get a job guys. Not making sandals or useless web design. Get something "shovel ready".
Steve Symonds March 18, 2010 at 04:20 PM
To quote Abraham Lincoln (you may remember him...a Republican President): "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."
Andy Pforzheimer March 19, 2010 at 09:28 PM
Joe - I would amend Kelly's wording slightly and say that these fringe groups pop up in times of perceived "threat" coupled with political impotence. In addition to the Know-Nothings, you had the first Ku Klux Klan (1870s) in response to freed blacks and an "imposed" government; the second Ku Klux Klan (1920s) in response to waves of Eastern European immigration and unionism; the John Birch Society (early 1960's) in response to emboldened minorities and the Kennedy Administration's "interference" in states' rights. They are generally a combination of lower-class fear of social change, abetted by demagogues. It is my position (you can feel free to disagree) that History usually proves them to be wrong. And I do agree that the pattern holds here.
Andy Pforzheimer March 19, 2010 at 09:55 PM
And Michael - CEOs of Google, Morgan Stanley, and Citibank are Democrats. None make sandals, last time I checked.
Anthony B. March 20, 2010 at 01:06 PM
Steve, from Ms. Franklin's post about Tea Party advocates: "...that they disrupt public discourse by hijacking town halls robs their fellow citizens of our right to engage in reasoned discussion and debate with our representatives." So I apologize- while she doesn't explicitly say that those who disagree with her shouldn't have a right to speak, she makes it quite clear that we are all knuckle draggers who haven't reached her level of enlightenment and should just be quiet so her party can complete the job of destroying the fabric of self reliance and individual achievement in favor of the quasi-socialist nanny state.If one doesn't agree with the Democratic Party view that government is the answer to everything, and higher taxes are the way to achieve all social goals, then we are extremists, bigots, and just plain ignorant. And do you believe that a trillion in new spending is a "deficit reduction" plan? What a hoot! The sleight of hand required to show this thing saving money makes the Wall Street accounting tricks look like Boy Scout stuff. The new taxes in the bill are far higher than any mainstream media wants to talk about- 5% or more EXTRA on top of the current confiscatory rates. But Obama needs a victory, right? Who cares if the plan is horrible. In November, we'll find out if the Tea Party movement can be so easily dismissed as a bunch of know nothings.
Steve Symonds March 20, 2010 at 07:02 PM
Would be nice to see some facts accompanying your strong opinions. That would certainly help folks to understand what you are proposing as solutions to very obvious problems. A few facts for you: 1. The CBO has scored both House and Senate bills as creating savings of $1 Trillion over 20 years. The CBO is an independent entity....not a group of political boosters for either side. 2. George Bush added approximately $5 TRILLION to the nation's debt. $2.48 Trillion of that was for tax cuts, 51% of which went to the wealthiest 5% of Americans. In other words, Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy cost more than twice as much as the Health Care Reform Bill. And, the Health Care Reform Bill, if passed, will pay for itself as the CBO notes. Bush's tax cuts fueled the economic bubble that led to the Great Recession. 3. The graph at this site puts all of this in perspective. http://crooksandliars.com/susie-madrak/study-bush-tax-cuts-cost-more-twice-m. I would like to inquire whether these facts shock you as much as they do me. Name-calling (e.g., "quasi-socialist nanny state") is easy but unpersuasive -- and completely misses the point. Where was the outrage and indignation when the American Tax Payers were really getting trashed from 2000 - 2008?
Steve Symonds March 20, 2010 at 10:30 PM
Here is a link to Tea Party protests on Capitol Hill today. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/20/tea-party-protests-nier-f_n_507116.html. Absolutely despicable stuff but, as Americans, we must defend to our last breath the right of these crazies to spew toxic garbage. What we must not do is let these loons stop serious, thoughtful patriots of all stripes from working together to address the many difficult problems that threaten to sink our great country. Once more, I ask the DTC and RTC to tell us where they stand on a Wilton Tea Party. The radio silence is deafening.

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