How ‘Asymmetrical Multiculturalism’ Generates Populist Blowback

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign event in Harrisburg, Pa., in 2016. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Toward a solution for the rising distemper in the West

Right-wing populism and left-wing identity politics have risen in tandem since 2013. Why?

The connecting thread is the contradictions of multiculturalism, which encourage a “common enemy” form of minority identity while repressing even moderate expressions of majority identity. The former produces antagonistic identity politics on the left, while both contribute to populist blowback on the right.

In the high culture, the advent of social media helped the cultural Left experience its Third Great Awakening, matching the waves of enthusiasm of the late ’60s and late ’80s. Meanwhile, multiculturalism’s half-century sway has presided over profound ethnic shifts, producing mounting conservative discontent. By narrowing the space for debating immigration, progressive taboos prevented mainstream liberals and conservatives from reaching a settlement on the issue. We are now reaping the results.

Multiculturalism, which originated among small circles of bohemian intellectuals in the 1910s, came to be established in the elite institutions and mass culture of Western societies from the mid-1960s. Once ascendant, these values created new taboos that drew the boundaries of acceptable debate. These frowned on any expression of a national identity in which the ethnic majority was accorded a prominent role. Since slowing the rate of ethnocultural change is a primary motive for restrictionists, and this was viewed as beyond the pale, the desire to reduce immigration was considered racist.

Second, multiculturalism, as its name suggests, encouraged minority groups to celebrate a politicized version of their identity. At multiculturalism’s heart, therefore, lies a contradiction: White majorities are compelled to be cosmopolitan, urged to supersede their ascribed identity. Minorities are enjoined to do the reverse.

The beginnings of what, in 2004, I termed “asymmetrical multiculturalism” may be precisely dated to July 1916, when Randolph Bourne, a member of the left-wing modernist Young Intellectuals of Greenwich Village and an avatar of the new bohemian youth culture, wrote in The Atlantic that immigrants should retain their ethnicity while Anglo-Saxons should forsake their uptight heritage for cosmopolitanism:

“It is not the Jew who sticks proudly to the faith of his fathers and boasts of that venerable culture of his who is dangerous to America,” declared Bourne in reference to Jewish immigrants, “but the Jew who has lost the Jewish fire and become a mere elementary, grasping animal.” Bourne’s moniker for ethnic minorities who had assimilated to mainstream America was “cultural half-breed.” On the other hand, Bourne continued,

the eager Anglo-Saxon who goes to a vivid American university to-day [finds] his true friends not among his own race but among the acclimatized German or Austrian, the acclimatized Jew, the acclimatized Scandinavian or Italian. In them he finds the cosmopolitan note. In these youths, foreign-born or the children of foreign-born parents, he is likely to find many of his old inbred morbid problems washed away. These friends are oblivious to the repressions of that tight little society in which he so provincially grew up.

Wrapped up in this cosmopolitanism was a critique of Anglo-Saxon cultural and political domination and a vision of a nation of hyphens as the prelude to world peace.

Bourne’s desire to see the majority slough off its poisoned heritage while minorities retained theirs blossomed into an ideology that slowly grew in popularity. From the Lost Generation in the 1920s to the Beats in the ’50s, ostensibly “exotic” immigrants and black jazz were held up as expressive and liberating contrasts to a puritanical, square WASPdom. So began the dehumanizing de-culturation of the ethnic majority that has culminated in the sentiment behind, among other things, the viral hashtag #cancelwhitepeople.

In the ’60s, the expansion of universities and the television media enabled the logarithmic growth of asymmetrical multiculturalism. As the Boomers entered the universities, they began to set the tone and make the rules, transforming an upstart ideology of liberation into official dogma. Those who opposed the equity-diversity ethos of multiculturalism now did so at their peril. On the other hand, activists who took John McWhorter’s “religion of antiracism” to its politically correct apogee by calling out white privilege gained plaudits alongside their psychic wage of basking in the glow of virtue.

In a candid piece in the London Review of Books, James Meek owns up to his tribe’s contradictions:

There’s a tendency to assume that ‘good’ localism (the ideal of the ‘thriving local community’, locally sourced food, the preservation of vernacular local architecture and traditional local landscapes) can be neatly separated from ‘bad’ localism (hostility to immigrants and new ways of doing things). It can’t.

A good example is Meek’s discovery of an authentic old cockney East Londoner:

Writing about Britain’s housing crisis, I spent hours with an elderly resident of a council block in Bethnal Green, a fourth-generation East Ender.​ Eventually, after many fascinating stories about her life, she said: ‘The majority of people in here now are immigrants. Would there be a housing crisis if we hadn’t let so many people in? Now the white English are a minority.’ I liked her localism, and then, suddenly, not so much. Who was the more nativist here? Her? Or me, being so pleased at first that I’d found somebody whose personal history in that place reached back so deep?

Multiculturalism and Populism

A central premise of my book, Whiteshift, is that the contradictions of multiculturalism explain the current populist moment. Progressive-inspired elite norms suppressed the expression of white majority identity — or versions of national identity that recognize the majority — in stark contrast to the encouragement provided to minority cultures.

This has not gone unnoticed. There’s no better illustration of the process than the election of Donald Trump. The 2016 American National Election Study (ANES) shows that white identity, hostility to political correctness, and a perception that whites are the targets of discrimination were among the strongest predictors of Trump support in statistical models.

Importantly, Duke political scientist Ashley Jardina, in work informing her forthcoming book White Identity Politics, distinguishes between an attachment to white identity and the dislike of racial minorities. This reflects the well-established psychological finding that, in the absence of overt conflict, there’s no correlation between attachment to one’s own group and hostility to outgroups. In the ANES, those who feel warm toward conservatives tend to feel cool toward liberals and vice-versa, but, on average, whites who feel warm toward whites tend to feel warm toward blacks.

The first represents what Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff term a “common enemy” identity, whereas the latter is a “common humanity” identity in which in-group identification carries no negative charge for outgroups. We urgently need to start a conversation about a moderate, inclusive white identity, open to intermarriage and Michael Lind’s “beiging” and freed from the dehumanizing toxicity that decades of asymmetrical multiculturalism have stamped upon it.

Creating a Black Market for Populism

Hostility to the multicultural Left mattered for the Trump vote, but not as much as opposition to immigration. While political correctness looms large in elite circles, its effects weaken as one moves down the social scale and out from major metropolitan areas. By contrast, immigration’s effects are more evident to average Americans. Moreover, in comparing Trump and Brexit voters, I find that direct hostility to the politically correct Left is much less important for populism in Britain and, by extension, Europe.

The most important effects of multiculturalism’s contradictions are therefore indirect: creating political space for national populists. When liquor can’t be legally sold, bootleggers move in. So too, when no mainstream party will touch immigration, will a political entrepreneur eventually create a black market to cater to this demand.

Many on the right were only too pleased to piggyback on the Left’s narrowing of the Overton Window. The free-market Right has, quite naturally, always been keen on a motivated, low-cost labor force. Historically in the West, populist sentiment and trade unions acted as a brake on business’s desire for more immigration. The multicultural Left thus played a critical role in expanding the concept of racism to encompass immigration, removing the issue from political contestation and converting the union leadership to the cause of high inflows. This enabled an issue coalition to form between the pro-business Right and multicultural Left.

These dynamics were especially clear in the United States in the period up to 2016, when the Republican National Committee reflected the pro-immigration views of elite fiscal conservatives, religious conservatives, and neoconservatives. During the Republican primary, Trump was the only one of 17 candidates to make immigration restriction a central feature of his campaign because others were unwilling to challenge pro-immigration norms. This was the key factor helping him win the nomination. Likewise, in the presidential election, my ANES models show that immigration was the pivotal issue for both non-voters and Obama voters who switched to Trump.

Likewise in Sweden. In 2013, interior minister Tobias Billström was attacked by the media and other politicians as racist for suggesting that the country needed to set limits on the number of incoming immigrants and asylum seekers. The following year, the populist Sweden Democrats burst onto the scene with an unprecedented 12.9 percent of the vote. In Germany, the mainstream parties’ liberal consensus over the 2015 migrant crisis opened space for a new populist party, the AfD, to emerge as the country’s third largest.

Sometimes the mainstream is correct to refuse to supply political wares. Republican and Democratic support for black civil rights created a market for George Wallace’s segregationist populism, but this doesn’t mean the main parties should have taken a page from his playbook. Taking a position in favor of reducing immigration or ending affirmative action is different, however. These policies don’t violate a logically consistent, scientifically valid measure of racism or equal rights, so a mainstream party that adopts them shouldn’t be stigmatized.

Again, the own-group attachments of many who seek slower cultural change do not imply hostility toward outgroups. They are conservative, perhaps even clannish, but are not necessarily racist and should not be barred from the democratic arena. Yet many liberals consider white groupishness racist: I find that 91 percent of white Clinton voters with graduate degrees say it’s racist for a white woman to want less immigration to help maintain her group’s share of the population, compared with 6 percent of white Trump voters without a degree. Minority voters, who are less influenced by multiculturalist ideas than are white liberals, lie in between, at 45 percent, while the American average is 36 percent.

In accepting the expanded definition of racism used by the multicultural Left, the political mainstream closed its eyes to popular demands for lower immigration, paving the way for Trump and Brexit. Liberals subsequently mobilized in response to populist extremism, and survey data show increased liberal support for multicultural tenets such as affirmative action and increased immigration. All of this has further fueled polarization and eroded the quality of government.

The contradictions of multiculturalism lie behind this. How? The desire to slow immigration stems, in large measure, from an expression of majority cultural self-interest. There is no question that some restrictionists are motivated by racism against outgroups and oppose intermarriage. But most are simply conservative: attached to their own group and wishing to conserve the country they knew growing up. These people don’t dislike racial minorities and are open to immigrants who wish to assimilate. Yet multiculturalism views this, like all expressions of majority identity, as racism.

“There can be no cosmopolitanism without locals,” remarked Swedish anthropologist Ulf Hannerz. Multiculturalism attempts to surmount its contradictions by assigning whites the role of cosmopolitan while casting minorities as locals. Yet the contradictions in asymmetrical multiculturalism — identity and community for minorities, cosmopolitan individualism for majorities — are being pushed to the breaking point by demographic change.

Unfortunately for this ideology of diversity, the psychological differences between communalists and individualists observed by Karen Stenner in her experiments don’t map onto ethnic categories: Individualistic minorities such as Kmele Foster reject ethnic identity, while many white conservatives seek this forbidden fruit. In addition, an important share of minorities are attached to a traditional version of American nationhood in which whites are the largest group. Rather than forcing people to conform to their assigned ethnic “species-being,” we should allow them the freedom to choose — insisting only that their identity choices be moderate, viewing others as part of a common humanity, not a common enemy.

For all our sake, we must desacralize the immigration debate and find a sensible compromise between cultural conservatives and diversity-seeking liberals.

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