Politics and Love, Uncategorized

What the Irish Potato Famine and Weird Rumors Can Teach Us about Elections Today

Here is a brief, tragic, and important history lesson, and it relates to your life today, I promise:

In the mid-1800s, Ireland was struck by the now-infamous potato blight. It had devastating consequences on the Irish population. (You can find all of this information about the Irish Potato Famine and the immigration patterns associated with it here and here.)

At this time, Ireland (which was primarily a Catholic nation) was under British rule (which was primarily a Protestant nation). By British law, people who practiced the Catholic faith in Ireland could not own land. Thus, a majority of landholders in Ireland were British, many of them absentee landholders, living in Britain.

Photo by Jesse Gardener, Courtesy of Unsplash

A majority of the indigenous Irish people worked as tenant farmers on British-owned land, a state of affairs which required them to send the majority of the crops they grew to Britain. This often meant that Irish farmers were barely able to grown enough crops to feed themselves and their family. (And remember, they weren’t able to own their own land if they were practicing Catholics.)

As you can imagine, Irish families in this situation were constantly on the lookout for cheap and effective ways to feed their families. Because of this, Ireland became heavily dependent on the potato as their main food supply. Potatoes were hardy, nutritious, and plentiful.

And that is why the potato blight that struck Ireland in the mid-1800s was so devastating. It took away the main staple of indigenous Irish people who had very limited opportunities to provide for themselves and who were already just barely making it.

The potato blight destroyed the majority of potato crops, and people in Ireland began to starve. Irish political leaders asked Britain for help.

Photo by Jan Antonin Kolar, courtesy of Unsplash

And Britain did help . . . a little. It repealed some laws requiring Ireland to send some of its crops to Britain. So, Ireland had a little more food, but it wasn’t enough, and thousands of Irish people continued to starve and die.

To make matters so horribly worse, many people in the British government believed the Britain should refrain from interfering and should let the Irish die because this was nature’s way of correcting over-population, which wasn’t actually a problem at the time of the potato famine, but people believed it was. (You can watch a video about this here.)

Conditions in Ireland grew catastrophically tragic. One million inhabitants of Ireland died because of the potato famine. Another million emigrated from Ireland to other countries.

Many of them emigrated to the United States.

The boat trip to the U.S. was a nightmare, and many of the emigres who attempted the voyage perished because of the extremely dangerous sanitation conditions people had to endure on the ship. Many of them became ill and had no access to medical aid.

Irish Immigrants Arrive in the U.S.

You would think that people in the U.S. would have accepted the Irish immigrants (who had suffered unimaginable tragedy) with open arms. I mean, that’s kind of U.S.’s thing. After all, the phrase, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is etched on our Statue of Liberty. The U.S. has often been a champion of the underdog.

Well, that is our ideal. It is sometimes buried beneath fear: namely the fear of the Other, of people who are different from us.

Photo by MT Elgassier, courtesy of Unsplash

To be fair, a lot of people did welcome the Irish with open arms. However, many people also responded to the Irish immigrants with fear, paranoia, and conspiracy theories.

People started spreading rumors about the influx of Irish immigrants. Some people said that the Irish were kidnapping women and hiding them in Catholic convents where Catholic priests raped them and strangled the children born from this crime.

Other people said that the Pope was plotting to invade the United States, backed by an army of Irish immigrants.

Irish paranoia seized people. Riots broke out, one of which was the Bible Riot of 1844, in which a mob fueled by Anti-Catholic and Anti-Irish sentiment rampaged through the streets, torching homes and businesses.

Several secret societies formed with the intent of protecting Protestant U.S. against Catholic invaders. A political party called the “Know Nothing Party” formed, fueled primarily by anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment.

A large number of people in the U.S. seemingly bought into a conspiracy that the Irish were out to get them and destroy the U.S.

And certainly, some Irish immigrants did commit crimes and do bad things. But this wasn’t because they were Irish or immigrants. It was because they were human beings, and human beings of all races and ethnicities sometimes do bad things.

There was no grand conspiracy behind the influx of Irish immigrants. There was a much simpler reason for why they came to the U.S.: because they were starving and looking for a chance to live and flourish.

As you are probably aware, no Irish or Catholic army took over the U.S., and no convent rape plot was discovered. These were all rumors based, not on evidence, but on people’s fear and paranoia that it “might be true”.

The Irish immigrants assimilated very well into U.S. In fact, an Irish-Catholic—Amy Coney Barrett—just became a member of the Supreme court.

Photo by Claire Anderson, courtesy of Unsplash

Why This Matters Today

Since the elections, I have been working on a series of posts about the election and whether concerns about the legitimacy of the elections are valid. You can read the first post in that series here.

One of the most common assertions behind claims that the elections are somehow illegitimate is the persistent rumor that millions of immigrants from other countries are voting illegally and swaying the presidential election. This is a claim the President made in 2016 (after he won the election). He also made this suggestion after he lost the 2020 elections.

This claim is fueled primarily by immigrant fear, very similar to the fear people had over Irish immigrants.

I would like to explain why.

Some Facts and Statistics You Might Find Interesting

First, it may be helpful to look at a few facts and statistics about immigrants:

There are about 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

The majority of immigrants (both documented and undocumented) are from Mexico, about 25% (which makes sense because Mexico is a border country). There are also large numbers of immigrants from China, India, the Philippines, and El Salvador.

Since 2009 and the Great Recession, more immigrants from Mexico have been leaving the United States than entering it.

Since 2009, more immigrants from Asia have arrived than immigrants from Latin American countries.

These facts are important because they suggest that immigrants are not a monolithic, uniform group. They are a diverse group and obviously come from diverse cultures with widely differing cultural beliefs, languages, and practices.

Photo from the New York Public Library, Courtesy of Unsplash

For the purpose of this post, it is also helpful to examine how these different groups of immigrants lean politically. Because undocumented immigrants are not likely to broadcast their undocumented status, it can be hard to determine their exact political inclinations.

But we can generalize based on some common political patterns among immigrants who are American citizens.

For example, research suggests that Asian-American citizens have a low voter turnout rate, for a variety of reasons. (You can read more about this here.)

Regarding the voting habits of people in the Latino community, Latino voters, in general, do tend to lean more Democratic than Republican. However, there is no such thing as “the Latino Vote”. Latino communities don’t all vote the same way. For example, many Latino voters because of their Catholic faith hold traditionally conservative political positions on issues like abortion and family structures.

So, it is not the case that Latino voters always vote for Democratic candidates. And, in fact, two states with a high Latino immigrant population—Texas and Florida—both went to President Trump this year. And it appears that there was strong Latino support for President Trump in Florida and other parts of the country.

These facts and statistics suggest that immigrants—whether undocumented or American citizens—have very diverse political beliefs and varying levels of political engagement.

Let’s Return to Concerns about Non-Citizen Voting

Despite the fact that immigrants come from a variety of backgrounds and hold a range of political beliefs and engagement, some people worry that large groups of undocumented immigrants are voting in the elections and that it consistently sways the election in favor of one party.

Let’s take a minute to consider these claims.

Take a Minute to Think about It

I would like you to imagine for a minute how people would actually go about gathering concrete evidence that non-citizens are voting in the election, so much so that it is swaying the outcome of our presidential election.

Photo by Steve Houghton Burnett, courtesy of Unsplash

Let me first point out what does not constitute concrete evidence.

Somebody’s gut feeling is not evidence that widespread non-citizen voting is occurring.

The fact that one party lost an election and people are upset about is not evidence that widespread non-citizen voting is occurring.

The fact that there are large groups of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. is not evidence that widespread non-citizen voting is occurring.

The hypothetical possibility that undocumented immigrants could sway the outcome of the election is not evidence that widespread non-citizen voting is occurring.

The opinion (or even evidence) that some immigrants commit crimes is not evidence that widespread non-citizen voting is occurring.

The feeling that immigrants are taking over the U.S. (this is a claim I have unfortunately heard people make sometimes) is not evidence that widespread non-citizen voting is occurring.

What Would Constitute Actual Evidence? 

So, how could people legitimately investigate whether widespread, non-citizen voting is occurring?

I can tell you how it has happened in the past: In 2016, the Brennan Center, a non-partisan, non-profit organization interviewed the people best able to comment on the likelihood of widespread, non-citizen voting: election officials. They “interviewed a total of 44 administrators representing 42 jurisdictions in twelve states, including officials in 8 of the 10 jurisdictions with the largest populations of noncitizens nationally.”

Their research showed that in the various states and jurisdictions they researched (i.e. the areas of the country with the largest populations of non-citizens), there were either no instances of non-citizen voting, or the percentage of non-citizen voting was .0001% of all the votes cast in that jurisdiction. (By the way, the hyperlinks in this paragraph include information about how the election officials determined this.)

It’s important to note that every state hires outside observers to watch the voting process to ensure its integrity. In most states, these observers represent both political parties, and people from the public are also allowed to observe the voting process. You can read more about this here.

And in regards to 2020, election officials reported extremely high levels of voter security.

But Does Non-Citizen Voting Ever Occur?

To be fair, some immigrants do vote illegally in elections. However this is uncommon and is usually because of misunderstandings, rather than because of ill-intent. And several claims of widespread voting by undocumented immigrants (for instance, in Texas, Florida, and Colorado) have been retracted.

Many people who make such claims about widespread illegal voting by non-citizens make such claims, not because they have discovered any actual, convincing evidence that such widespread behavior is occurring but because of fear and paranoia that it “might be true”, much like the fear and paranoia that drove conspiracies theories about the Irish.

Is There a Conspiracy?

Sometimes when people talk about widespread illegal voting by immigrants, there is the menacing implication that immigrants are coming to the United States with the sole intent, somehow, of destabilizing U.S. politics.[1]

There is a much simpler explanation about why immigrants—including undocumented immigrants– come to the U.S.

I have a friend who works with communities of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. One night I was eating dinner at his house and sat next to a young man I will call Mateo who was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico.

Mateo’s neighborhood in Mexico was controlled by a drug cartel. Mexican boys, when they reached a certain age, were forced to join the cartel or suffer serious harm or death. People could not turn to the police for help because they, too, were controlled by the cartel.

Mateo had fled from Mexico and crossed a treacherous desert to enter the U.S. to escape being forced into the drug cartel. He had come to the United States, not to destabilize U.S. elections, but to live a life free from harmful coercion. He wanted to be able to flourish—just like Irish Immigrants. Just like our ancestors that came to the U.S. looking for a better life. Just like you and me.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who treat immigrants badly, not because they actually pose any actual widespread, evidence-based, consistent danger, but because people often have an instinctual fear of people different from them and are paranoid about “what could happen”, but never actually will.

Immigrants from Mexico and other countries are assimilating well into the United States, and in time, we will look back on our fear of immigrants today—election fears and all– much like we now look at our fear and paranoia of Irish immigrants in the past.

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You can read more about misunderstandings of immigrants and refugees here, here, and here.

I would also invite you to follow my blog. You can find the follow button at the bottom of this page if you are on your phone or at the right of your page if you are on your laptop. I post about once a week on a variety of topics about living from the inside out to build a more resilient life.


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[1] Some people also suggest that Democrats are somehow paying or coercing large groups of illegal immigrants to vote democratic. To be fair, some politicians, both Republican and Democrat, do conspire to do illegal things with the election. For example, here is a story about a Republican politician who was recently convicted of voter fraud. Most Democratic politicians are like most Republican politicians—they want to uphold fair and legitimate elections. And most immigrants–including undocumented immigrants–are coming to the U.S. because they just want a chance to flourish. They certainly don’t broadcast their illegal status. They know that voting illegally is a crime and wouldn’t take the risk to do so. Most of them risked their lives or payed a lot of money to come to the U.S.—they don’t want to do anything to jeopardize their ability to stay here.

7 thoughts on “What the Irish Potato Famine and Weird Rumors Can Teach Us about Elections Today”

  1. Wise words, Shelly. This is why the study of history is so important…we can learn from it, spotting patterns and trends and bear-traps. To be fair to the US, fear of migrants isn’t limited to that country and xenophobia is alive and well across the world. But that doesn’t excuse the mischief that you describe in your post.

    Interestingly, even though the the UK has sought to come to terms with its colonial past, the Irish potato famine is hardly taught here (I write as a Brit with a history degree from Cambridge University). Had that famine occurred in, say, Yorkshire or Cornwall [ENGLISH counties] what happened and how the government responded would be etched into our national consciousness, but because it happened in Ireland it’s largely forgotten or ignored . How can we learn from the past if we don’t teach it properly?

    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Friend. Yes, indeed, the study of history is so important. And you are very right, we are unfortunately living in a time of heightened xenophobia and migrant fear. I know we are going to get through this period in our history, but it feels very dark right now, indeed. I am sorry for the issues you all are dealing related to this, too. I think Brexit is driven my some of these same fears, if I understand it correctly, and that must be very stressful. It’s so interesting that many Brits do not know a lot about the Irish potato famine. I had heard recently that this was true, but it is very interesting to hear it from someone who studied history at Cambridge! I think this is very similar to the fact that a lot of U.S. folk don’t know about Japanese-American internment during WWII. Cheers, Friend!

  2. The arguments around Brexit were complex, but in my personal view there’s no doubt that anti-migrant sentiment / xenophobia / naked racism was a significant strand. Many “Leavers” deny this and try to put a positive spin on the line they took, but they often appear disingenuous. Those of us on the Remain side of the argument were dismayed by the outcome, ashamed even. It remains a hugely divisive issue, although for now it’s almost a non-issue while all eyes are on Covid. It will return, however, and the arguments will resume in 2021 when it becomes clear that some sectors of the economy and some areas of public service can’t function effectively without substantial input from migrant labour. Woe is me!

    1. It is really good to get your persepctive on this! The rise of xenophobia, nationalism, racism , and anti-migrant sentiment are so alarming. I am convinced we can overcome this period in our history, but sometimes it is really frightening.

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