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Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities

by eric kaufmann 
abrams, 624 pages, $35

At last count, 22 percent of Canadian residents and nearly 30 percent of Australian residents are immigrants. In just the last twenty years, the relative size of the foreign-born population in the United Kingdom has doubled. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that sometime before 2030, the United States will have its largest relative number of immigrants in nearly three ­hundred years.

In a bold if overlong new book, Eric Kaufmann, a political scientist at the University of London, argues that demographic change is at the heart of contemporary politics across the West. In Kaufmann’s view, demography is not exactly destiny, but it nonetheless makes up the slow-­moving, yet unstoppable tectonic plates upon which the political architecture of nations and states is built. Following his adviser Anthony D. Smith, the eminent late scholar of nationalism, Kaufmann argues that every national society has an “ethnic core” defined by markers such as language, religion, and race. This group defines its wider society politically, socially, and culturally. If it is powerful and self-­confident, it welcomes newcomers and assimilates them into itself much as American WASPs did with ­European immigrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If it is weak or governed by a self-­abnegating elite, the ethnic core is wracked by “existential insecurity channeled by the lightning rod of immigration.” The result is right-wing populism.

This explains why populist-­nationalist backlash continues to proliferate. In 2019 alone, conservative nationalist governments have been elected in Belgium, Australia, and Estonia; a right-wing populist party entered the national legislature for the first time in Spain, a country once thought immune to the phenomenon; and populist, nationalist, or Eurosceptic parties took nearly one-quarter of the seats in the European Parliament elections while winning pluralities in France, the United Kingdom, and Italy, three of the four largest E.U. countries. Kaufmann has no sympathy for the arguments of writers like John Judis and Edward Luce, who claim this populist wave is motivated by material interests. If Whiteshift had a slogan, it would be, “It’s not the economy, stupid!” In Kaufmann’s view, our familiar left-right political continuum born of the French Revolution is passing away, suited as it was for ethnically homogeneous societies. As all Western countries become ethnically diverse, we are moving toward a new “globalist-nationalist axis” or, following Kaufmann’s preferred social psychological approach, “polariz[ing] the electorate along the open-closed psychological dimension.”

Kaufmann does not attend only to the nationalist side of Western politics. Whiteshift gives ample consideration to the globalist side as well, animated by what Kaufmann calls “left-­modernism.” This is an ­ideology peculiar to the West, originating among late-­nineteenth- and early-twentieth-­century American intellectuals. Progressive advocates of ­left-modernism such as John Dewey and Jane Addams were already defining the United States as the “embryo of . . . a universal civilization,” continually fed by open immigration. Left-modernism urges minorities to cultivate their particularities while the ethnic majority is instructed to “universalize itself out of existence,” a policy Kaufmann describes as “asymmetrical multiculturalism.”

Open immigration and asym­metrical multiculturalism support global capital’s bottom line as well. Dissolving borders allows greater access to low-wage unskilled labor. It also helps businesses that rely on high-skill workers avoid supporting the schools that educate them, the families that rear them, and the communities in which they grow up. Anti-majoritarian politics, mean­­while, undermines the ability of any demos to form and wield democratic power against business. Thanks to these shared interests between intellectuals and investors, left-modernism has combined with capitalism’s “four freedoms”—the free movement of goods, services, capital, and labor across borders—to become the ruling ideology throughout the West. It is hegemonic in English Canada—Kaufmann analogizes left-modernism there to the status of Islam in Iran!—and was so in the United States prior to the election of Donald Trump.

Immigration patterns combined with larger demographic trends show that whites will become a minority in all English-speaking countries by 2100. Kaufmann projects “unmixed whites” will make up just 40 percent of the U.K. and only 20 percent of Canada by that time. This is a stunning transformation from a near 100 percent white population in each country as recently as the 1980s. Yet Kaufmann is confident that our future is not the “multicultural millennium” of ­left-modernism’s “‘­majority-minority’ dream.” Instead, our great-grandchildren will be living in a mixed-race majority country. By the time their grandchildren are adults, “pretty much everyone [will be] mixed” in the ­high-immigration Anglosphere. The challenge, as Kaufmann sees it, is to aid that transition from the white-majority (and in most cases white homogeneity) equilibrium of the mid-twentieth century to the mixed-race majority of the twenty-second century by enabling conservative whites “to see a future for themselves” in their own countries. His goal is “a positive vision which can draw the sting of right-wing populism and begin to bridge the ‘nationalist-­globalist’ divide.”

That vision is Whiteshift, Kauf­mann’s term for declining white majorities’ identification with a browner future, and that browner future’s identification with the paler past. Much as American WASPs absorbed and assimilated European immigrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Kaufmann believes the likely outcome of the demographic transition of the twenty-first century will be a similar absorption through intermarriage of non-white persons into a more loosely defined “white” mixed-race group that “remain[s] oriented around existing myths of descent, symbols and traditions.” Racial boundaries will blur. They will not disappear, but their definitions and meanings will change. Kaufmann is himself an example of this phenomenon, a descendant of Asian, Hispanic, and Jewish forebears who is often assumed to be simply white.

Kaufmann predicts that political affiliation will increasingly determine racial identification. One can already see this phenomenon in the cultural inversion of the 2018 Texas Senate race that pitted Rafael Edward “Ted” Cruz against Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke. In the future, whites and mixed-race conservatives are likely to identify as white or with the traditional culture of the former white majority. Non-white and mixed-race liberals will embrace anti-white or minority racial and cultural identities. Political inflections of mixed-race heritage are hardly unprecedented. Prior to the American Civil War, white British-descended Northerners and Southerners entertained distinct racial myths of descent in which the former claimed to originate from the democratic Saxons while the latter asserted an aristocratic Norman ancestry. In nineteenth-century Russia, political and cultural clashes between Slavophiles and Westernizers claimed to be rooted in Russia’s racial origins, the former in Asia and the latter in Europe. As Kaufmann warns, “Ethnic options will carry political freight.”

Yet because of racial mixing over time, Kaufmann believes racial boundaries will blur and non-racial markers, including religion, will play a larger role in delimiting future ethnic groups. Rather than disappearing from the face of the earth, religion and family-oriented conservatism have a bright future, even in places like Canada and Blue State America. It’s a simple matter of demography.

Kaufmann’s argument in White­shift is a continuation of themes from his 2010 book, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century. Despite strong secularization trends across the West, Kaufmann insists that in the long run, low-fertility seculars are no match for high-fertility, low-assimilation religious who have already proven themselves immune to the charms of modernity. Kaufmann mentions Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, but more notable are what he calls “white fundamentalists,” such as the Amish, ultra-Orthodox Jews, Quiverfull evangelicals, and Mormons. The demographic power behind such groups is impressive. Mormons actually increased as a percentage of Utah’s residents over the course of the twentieth century in the teeth of significant non-Mormon in-migration. In Israel, the Haredi went from making up a small percentage of the Jewish school-age population to comprising one third in just fifty years. Five thousand Amish a century ago have become 250,000 today, and should current trends persist, by the late 2200s half of the United States will be Amish.

Even without demographic models, survey data since the 1970s show that the percentage of Americans with a “strong” religious affiliation has not declined at all; it is the “weak” that have turned into “nones.” Moreover, immigration brings primarily religious people from the Global South into the Global North. In his earlier book, Kaufmann predicted that America’s secular high-water mark will occur around 2030; in Western Europe, no later than 2070. In Kaufmann’s view, religious identity will largely overpower ethnic identity a century hence, “with seculars and moderates of all backgrounds lining up against the fundamentalist sects.”

Kaufmann gives a sunny reading of such deep diversity, anticipating a “multivocal” future in which citizens crowdsource a unifying national identity that is simul­taneously “everywhere and nowhere.” A less sanguine conclusion is that our multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial, ­multireligious future will look like contemporary Lebanon, a deeply divided society wracked by sectarian social tensions, elite-dominated politics, and regular political violence. This is hardly an ­irrational fear. Solidarity always comes hard in super-diverse societies.

In his 2016 book Twilight of the Elites, the French geographer Christophe Guilluy argues that globalization has transformed his country into “an American society like the others, inegalitarian and multicultural.” From his perspective, an ethnically and culturally diverse society is necessarily an unequal one. This certainly seems to be the history of the United States and what until recently set it apart from all other Western countries. In 2017, a group of conservative European intel­lectuals including Roger Scruton, Rémi Brague, Ryszard Legutko, and Pierre Manent issued the “Paris Statement,” which defended national democracy with the claim that “only empires can be multicultural.” Historically, the combination of self-government and solidarity has been constructed on the foundation of the nation-state. Will Western people living in what Kaufmann admits will be “a dynamic, low-cohesion, future-oriented society with an attenuated connection” to their own history and traditions share enough to form a self capable of meaningful self-government? On what basis can elites in such a society be held accountable by the populace?

Manent has written ex­tensively and elegantly on pre­­cisely this problem. To enjoy both civilization and liberty, there must exist what Manent calls a “mode of communion” that brings together diverse individuals and unites them into a single political body. Through taxation and trade, communication and deliberative self-government, they share both material and spiritual goods and through the community realize fruits of justice, peace, and everything that makes a good society possible. Manent uses the religious imagery of communion intentionally. At least throughout the West, for the past two hundred years the nation has been the “sacred community” with which people identify and for which they sacrifice. The nation has been the great horizontal comradeship through which our rights and duties of citizenship are created and realized.

In Manent’s view, the nation is the necessary mediator between the particular and the universal. Like the ancient and medieval city-state, the nation embodies limits of size and place. Yet like empires of old, the ­nation also reaches out toward all mankind as an accessible civic form. It is, in ­Manent’s words, “a proposal by humanity for humanity.” Today, the very existence of the nation is challenged both by demographic change and the ideology of left-­modernism. Populist-­nationalism rises in an almost instinctual reaction against not only our contemporary obsession with difference but our lackadaisical ancillary attitude toward our political form. If Kaufmann is correct, then political solidarity through ethnicity is neither desirable nor possible in the twenty-first century, and liberal civic nationalism is too vapid to realize any actual mode of communion.

White nationalists and left-­modernists are both wrong about our present and our future. We need neither racial purity nor multiculturalist imperialism, but instead a limited society ordered toward material and spiritual sharing, a common good. Christian nations once mediated between city and empire, nature and human artifice, particularity and universality. If the religious really shall inherit the earth a century hence, they likely will do so again.

Darel E. Paul is professor of political science at Williams College and author of From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage.

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