Replacement Theory and Replacement Facts

The “American Flag of Faces” display at Ellis Island. (Carol Highsmith/Library of Congress)

America’s present native population and its way of life are the enemy of America’s posterity.

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America’s present native population and its way of life are the enemy of America’s posterity.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE {T} here was a time when Boston was a jewel of Protestant cities, nearly on par with Geneva and London. Not only had the Puritans settled in New England, but they also were followed by the Scots-Irish Presbyterians. This is why New England is overflowing with the names of Northern Ireland: Londonderry, Vt., and Belfast, Maine. Boston was a center of both Protestant devotion and intellectual innovation.

When, in the 1840s, Irish Catholics began immigrating into the Northeast, Boston became the epicenter of the Know Nothing movement. In the 1850s, Boston elected nearly a full slate of the anti-Catholic immigration America party in 1854. The Know Nothing movement was conspiratorial in its behavior and itself a spreader of conspiracy theories. It had a violent and radical edge. The Irish Catholic tide was opposed both by conservative Protestants and by a more modernizing sentiment that would later inform the Liberal Leagues of the 19th century. But these forces of resistance were overwhelmed, and eventually replaced. By 1855, 42.5 percent of the population of Boston was Irish.

In at least the numerical sense, the Know Nothing fear of Irish-Catholic domination was amply vindicated. The Irish population swelled over the coming decades to the point where, by 1914, the Irish were electing one of their own as governor of Massachusetts. By 1919, Ireland’s own Eamon De Valera was raising funds for a war and for his revolutionary Irish government in Fenway Park. Irish Americans captured Boston’s mayoralty and held it from 1914 to 1993. To describe the gun-running and corruption of law enforcement by Whitey Bulger, or the machine politics of Chicago under mayor Richard Daley, would far exceed even the most lurid nightmares of most Know Nothings.

So the sheer numbers mattered very much indeed, but the cultural consequences were often surprising. The Know Nothing fear that the Irish would remain illiterate, particularly criminal, and vectors of disease, as they were seen in the 1850s, did not come true. Nor would the Irish Catholics remain Catholic in the way many Americans of the 1850s feared. Instead of the bishops implementing Rome’s Rule in America, the success of the American Church tended to convert Rome to a version of Americanism. Irish Catholics in America, and even in Ireland, didn’t just grow faster numerically than their low church Protestant rivals; they eventually surpassed them in education and economic achievement.

The roiling debate about “replacement theory” has taken an odd turn. The phrase the “great replacement” comes from the French far right, and then leaked into American politics through extremist message boards. The conspiratorial version of it posits that, somehow, subversive Jews are deliberately working to demoralize white America and replace it with a progressive voting bloc made up of foreigners. It is this conspiracy that motivated the mass killer in Buffalo.

Nobody of real consequence shares the killer’s views. And much of the commentary subsequently has been a kind of hot potato about who is allowed to talk about the fact of demographic change, and how they are allowed to talk about its political implications. And yet, even this game of recriminations seems to miss the point.

There is obviously no plan to lower the native birth rate. Without coordination, birth rates are collapsing in almost the entire world, well below replacement level in every country that is sufficiently urbanized. As native populations slow their growth, and eventually begin to decrease, immigrants to these societies may be seen less as “reinforcements” and more as replacements. But the effect is not exactly what the conspiracists allege. Because some number of Hispanic immigrants eventually identify as whites, it is actually African Americans who bear the brunt of “replacement,” such as it is. The African-American population of America is declining as the population of whites begins to stabilize or potentially increase.

The cause of this demographic shift is only partly the work of policy: a policy of allowing mass immigration. The far more consequential part of the equation is the low fertility rate of natives, a fertility rate that new immigrants are converging towards faster than ever. Unless there is an unfathomable change in our culture, even the immigrants who are supposedly replacing the natives are merely next in line to be replaced by others still. Their numbers will not increase relatively, as those of Irish-Catholic immigrants once did, from generations of a notably higher-than-average family size.

Americans are not being replaced so much as self-extinguishing. America’s present native population and its way of life are the enemy of America’s posterity. Perhaps it is the immigrants who should fear that joining us is a threat to the generations yet unborn.

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