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Is Demography Destiny?

Experts know that eventually, minorities will outnumber whites in the U.S. and Europe. So how do we talk about it?

Unease with rapid demographic change is a major driving force in our politics. Neopopulist parties advocating tougher immigration restrictions continue to advance in Europe, most recently in Spain and the Netherlands. The more established parties of the European center-right, ineffectual at stemming immigration when in power, increasingly give rhetorical backing to enhanced restriction.

It now seems clear that at least a plurality of voters in Europe favor stark immigration limits. In the United States, President Donald Trump propelled himself past the rest of the GOP presidential field by promising strong measures to stem illegal immigration. He unexpectedly won the presidency and will quite possibly win a second term, even if he has failed to fulfill the promises he made to voters who backed him to get control over immigration.

How are we to think of an issue which produces such shockwaves to Western political systems? One tactic is simply to deny that concerns driven in part by demographic change have any factual basis, to label what the French writer Renaud Camus first dubbed “the Great Replacement” as racist, conspiratorial talk relevant only to the most ghastly extremists, such as the murderer who committed the despicable Christchurch mosque shootings.

New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo thus dismissed the “racist and misogynistic theory that holds that white people face existential decline” because of rising immigration and falling birthrates. “That’s pretty much the whole argument; as a bit of rhetoric this theory is about as deep as the one pushed by flat earthers without that group’s scientific rigor.” In other words, it’s obviously and ridiculously false. But Manjoo does not go on to explain why this is so. “The future is unknowable and demography an imprecise science” he tries, by way of reassurance.

The Washington Post enlisted a demographer to explain that scholars in the field have “begun coordinating…to rethink how we talk about fertility rates and changing racial and ethnic composition.” Elsewhere in the Post, the call was not for rethinking language of conversation about the demographic future, but for more or less squelching it. An editorial called for Trump “to state unambiguously that the New Zealand replacement ideology is an unacceptable trope in civilized discourse.”

This was also the tactic taken by Le Monde, the Parisian paper which occupies in the French media sphere roughly the space of The Washington Post and The New York Times combined. Days after the Christchurch attack, Le Monde produced an article by four journalists (called “the decoders”) to explain its ideological origins. Under a photograph of Camus—now a proper looking elderly gentleman, once linked with leading French structuralists and the author of edgy novels about gay sexuality—the authors explain that the theory is based on an “supposed established fact” that “massive” non-European immigration and higher birth rates mean that non-European populations will overtake the native populations and impose their culture and religion on the continent. 

Le Monde argues that not only is this racist in theory because it considers blacks from the French Antilles to be “replacers” even though they have been French for almost forever, but that “actual statistics contradict the core of the thesis because non-European migrants and their descendants make up only 6 percent of the French population. Curiously, Le Monde soon had to publish a correction to the statistics of its “decoders” and a week later wrote that migrants and their descendants in fact made up 12 percent of the population, not six percent. That didn’t change its condescending conclusion that “we are obviously very far from a ‘replacement.’”

The fact that the Le Monde writers felt, perhaps subconsciously, that they needed to cut in half the immigrant population figure in order to be genuinely reassuring to readers is telling in itself. The scholar Philippe Lemoine has an interesting paper about French demography on his blog utilizing standard demographic projection models. Under the most conservative scenarios, with very low rates of immigration, the French whites would make up  65 percent of the population by 2100. If immigration rates double, French whites would become a minority by that date. Such projections make no claims about the future nature of French society, but simply demonstrate the essential intellectual unseriousness of Le Monde’s claim that a group which comprises 12 percent of the population in 2015 can’t possibly become a majority in three or four generations.

From reading such commentary, you would never know that demographic triumphalism is a major theme among left-wing activists, who have been crowing for years of the electoral and political power they will accrue as the white share of the population declines. Ruy Teixeira, a relative moderate in this group, writes in his 2017 book The Optimistic Leftist that his side of the political divide will dominate the 21st century, and “there is little the right can do about this except adapt.”

Texiera explains that “across European countries, as in the United States, the general tendency is for immigrant/minority voters to vote left.” Migrants from Turkey in Germany, migrants of African origin in France, and people of Caribbean origin in the UK vote overwhelmingly for the Left. Regardless of variation, he concludes, “the rising immigrant/minority population is a boost for the left across advanced Western countries.” Texiera’s think tank, the Center for American Progress, has on its website a helpful interactive spot where one can examine state by state when exactly whites will become minorities.

Steve Phillips, political activist and author of the Brown Is the New White, is more explicit in touting the retributionist promise of the new demographics. “Because of the population changes in the last fifty years, the very groups that were formerly oppressed now have the numbers to secure the political power necessary to set the country on the course to true justice and equality… so that time, attention, and massive amounts of resources are directed to the country’s communities of color.” 

Phillips’s book is in part a shoutout to a smorgasbord of leftist causes (reparations, amnesty, abolishing standardized tests) coupled with the assertion that the new demographics bring the power of a “new American majority” within reach if the Democrats only give up their futile efforts to woo moderate “swing voters.” The New American Majority is “inherently progressive” and “growing larger every day because 90 percent of population growth consists of people of color.” Its essential template is the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign of 1984, now majoritarian because of demographic change. Lest one think this argument represents a tangential radical stream within the Democratic Party, it was a New York Times best-seller endorsed by John Podesta and purported moderate Cory Booker.

Perhaps it was arguments like this which Dowell Myers, a liberal demographer from the University of Southern California, had in mind when he recalled the Left’s reaction to the Census Bureau’s 2008 projection that whites in America would be a minority by 2044. Progressives couldn’t contain their enthusiasm, remembered Myers. “People went crazy. It was conquest, our day has come. They wanted to overpower them with numbers. It was demographic destiny.”

If anything is clear from all this, it’s that whether or not the subject of Western demographics is considered okay to talk about depends on one’s political point of view.

If it seems unfair to mock the trends in liberal commentary without clarifying my own ideas, I will try. An altogether possible scenario is that a politically significant slice of new immigrants (in both Europe and the United States) would choose to identify, more or less, with the existing cultures and narratives of the societies to which they immigrate. The whole concept of whiteness could shift, as it has in the past, and generally group identity issues would become less important and less adversarial, as there would be plenty of intermarriage, producing a new kind of melting pot. The necessary precondition for this would be an immigration stream which by numbers and skills admitted people who were a pretty good match to the existing society—that is, an immigration tailored to facilitate assimilation, more middle-class than not.

This is clearly not the way Texiera, Phillips, and others on the Left expect things to pan out, and the evidence thus far seems to favor them. The academic performance of new immigrant groups is uneven, which has predictable consequences for the prospects of the poorer performers to advance into the middle class.

One need also consider the dramatic emergence of a large political/cultural movement devoted to anti-whiteness, now traveling under the umbrella of combatting “white privilege.” Its dominant message is that it is bad to be white, a sentiment which even white people (like presidential aspirant Elizabeth Warren) seem to have internalized and sought to benefit from. Groups whose members once sought to be identified as white for census purposes (like Middle Easterners) now seek to be classified and considered non-white. So while there could be renewed movement towards assimilation and the melting pot—and one can point to myriad examples in the United States and Western Europe where this is happening almost despite the prevailing cultural winds—for now at least the strongest winds are pushing in the opposite direction.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcConnell9.