Writing at the New York Times, historian Kevin Boyle has created something of a stir with his review of two recent books on the Ku Klux Klan. Here is the lede of the piece, which also doubles as the offending passage:
Imagine a political movement created in a moment of terrible anxiety, its origins shrouded in a peculiar combination of manipulation and grass-roots mobilization, its ranks dominated by Christian conservatives and self-proclaimed patriots, its agenda driven by its members’ fervent embrace of nationalism, nativism and moral regeneration, with more than a whiff of racism wafting through it.
No, not that movement.
Naturally, this inspired a torrent of criticism from right-wing blogs and pundits. National Review’s Jonah Goldberg attacks the review as “lame” and complains that Boyle failed to mention the Klan’s ties to Democrats and Progressives (as if either group was the same in the 1920s), while the right-wing Media Research Center described the review as offensive. The Weekly Standard takes Goldberg’s approach, and points its readers toward proof that Democrats and Progressives were the real allies of the Klan.
A few things. Any honest historian will readily acknowledge the extent to which the Klan was entwined with the Democratic politicians in the early part of the twentieth century. Although both parties had largely abandoned civil rights by the beginning of the twentieth century, it’s fair to say that up until the 1940s, the Democratic Party was the unambiguous party of white supremacy in the United States, particularly in the South. That the Klan was involved with the Democratic Party through the 1920s isn’t a shock, given the degree to which both groups dominated border states like Kentucky in the early part of the century.
More importantly, Boyle says nothing about the Klan as an organ of Republican politics. Instead, he makes the (correct) point that the forces that animated the Klan—conservative Christianity, nativism, white populism, hyper-patriotism and racial prejudice—have manifested themselves throughout American history, including the present day. And while the Tea Party isn’t an anti-black terrorist group, it’s hard to deny the extent to which the movement is motivated by the same constellation of reactionary forces.
The facts bear this out. According to a recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, 47 percent of Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement also identify with the religious right, and 75 percent of those who identify with the Tea Party label themselves Christian conservatives. Tea Partiers are overwhelmingly white, more likely to see immigration as a problem, and more likely to harbor racial resentment toward African-Americans. Put another way, it’s no accident that birtherism found a home among Tea Partiers. And of course, Tea Party rhetoric tends toward to loud proclamations of “real” patriotism, and a desire to return to the foundations of American political life.
The Tea Party is a classic reactionary movement in the American tradition, and as a result, it shares similarities with the Ku Klux Klan. I repeat, that doesn’t mean that Tea Partiers are Klansmen, but it’s simply true that the movement draws from similar threads in American life. Given the extent to which this is abundantly clear, the Tea Party’s conservative defenders are, perhaps, protesting a little too much.