Nativism is a recurring social and political movement characterized principally by hostility to supposed foreigners. While the attitudes and dynamics that distinguish nativism have developed and continue to develop in many countries, the term itself has been elaborated primarily by sociologists and historians in studies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American politics and social relations. Nativism, as a form of ethnic discrimination, is closely related to racism but may be distinguished by its emphasis on language and the privileges of citizenship as the bases of its politicized rhetoric.
In the United States nativism led to the formation of influential political parties beginning in the 1830s and declining in the years before the Civil War, when slavery became virtually the exclusive issue of political contention. The most important of these parties was the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s. The Know-Nothings began as the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, a secret fraternal organization whose members allegedly claimed to "know-nothing" whenever queried about the group. The efforts of the members were directed toward stopping the immigration of Catholics who were arriving principally from Germany and Ireland. Officially registered as the American Party, the Know-Nothings asserted in their party platform of 1856 that "Americans must rule America (emphasis in original); that is, naturalized citizens—whose national allegiance and devotion to the principal of the separation of church and state were considered suspect—were not considered eligible to hold government office.
As John Higham described in his seminal study of American nativism, Strangers in the Land (1955), during the periods of economic crises in the late nineteenth century nativists became increasingly concerned with the political rather than the religious beliefs of recent immigrants. It was deemed that American institutions were imminently threatened by radical socialist ideas and movements that had periodically toppled European regimes. Elements of economic nativism also characterized nationalist labor unions, where leaders such as Samuel Gompers argued that open immigration policies lowered wages and degraded the condition of the native-born American worker.
Nativism surged again in the early decades of the twentieth century, when the retrospectively pseudoscience of eugenics manifested widespread fears of racial degeneration. This most explicitly racialized nativism embraced simplified notions drawn from evolutionary science to elaborate a paranoid vision of imminent national and even human catastrophe. These nativists—well represented by Madison Grant, author of The Passing of a Great Race (1933)—argued that Anglo-Saxons were the pinnacle of human evolution. Open immigration, particularly of what were described as the degraded peoples of southern and eastern Europe, threatened Anglo-Saxon racial purity and thus the very future of the American nation. It was in fact such racial nativism that led to the passage of National Origins Act of 1924; the act severely limited immigration of people from southern and eastern European countries.
Nativism is again a force in American politics and society. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it became increasingly difficult for Arabs to immigrate to the United States, and anti-Arab sentiments and policies were employed with virtual impunity for political gain. However, ethnic Arabs are a small minority population in the United States; nativists in the early twenty-first century contended over the matter of the status of legal and illegal Hispanic immigrants.
In 1994 the passage of Proposition 187 in California marked a watershed moment in American nativism. No longer was it possible to consider nativism a movement of the past; furthermore Proposition 187 clearly demonstrated that the principal issues around which nativists rallied had once again shifted, though arguably to a refined form of economic nativism focused on social services. Proposition 187 called for the denial of public education, health care, and other social services to illegal immigrants, most of whom, in California, came from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Nativists, such as the members of Americans for Immigration Reform, consider social services for illegal immigrants an unreasonable cost burden for taxpayers. Though Proposition 187 was eventually overruled in federal courts, efforts to pass restrictive legislation persisted, including President George W. Bush’s 2006 immigration reform bill.
Exclusivist movements that share the dynamics of nativism have grown rather than ebbed throughout the world alongside increasing globalization, which many scholars once thought would put an end to such movements and conflicts. Versions of nativists’ attitudes have achieved (sometimes violent) social and political expression in virtually every European nation since the late twentieth century, and what might fairly be called nativist policies are taken for granted in many Asian and African countries. In the United States nativism endures as a remarkable contradiction to the powerful myths of American egalitarianism and opportunity, including the notions that the United States embraces and prospers from the diversity of its peoples.