Magazine | April 22, 2019, Issue

Whiteshift: Identity Politics in an Era of Demographic Change

Then-nominee Donald Trump at High Point University in N.C., September 20, 2016 (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities, by Eric Kaufmann (Abrams Press, 624 pp., $35)

In mid March, on Fox News, Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was once again the topic of conversation. Host Laura Ingraham and her guest, Joe DiGenova, were in the middle of a segment when DiGenova said something that set off a revealing exchange. “She does the Latina thing where she does her, you know, ‘Anastasio Ocasio-Cortez,’” said DiGenova, exaggerating the pronunciation of her last name while managing to get her first name incorrect. “And then, when I introduce myself, I say, ‘Giuseppe DiGenova.’ And I assume she’s gonna love that.” She didn’t. “Siri, show me the brand of ‘economic anxiety’ that mocks Americans of color as unintelligent + unskilled, while *also* mocking those same Americans for speaking more languages than you,” tweeted Ocasio-Cortez. She added that “being multilingual” is a “21st century thing,” not a “Latino thing.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s response has two key elements. First is her mocking reference to “economic anxiety,” a progressive meme that parodies the media coverage of white voters who helped elect Donald Trump. The notion that Trump voters were motivated by “economic anxiety” is obviously false to people such as Ocasio-Cortez, who see white-identity politics as the major driver of support for Trump. Second was the congresswoman’s assertion about multilingualism — a celebration of the vibrant ethnic diversity of the New York City district she represents but also, by implication, a suggestion that being only an English speaker is a thing of the past.

I thought of this exchange while reading Eric Kaufmann’s sprawling new book, which attempts to diagnose what is happening in Western politics right now and to propose a remedy that will soothe the distemper. For while Kaufmann is not a man of the Left, his book advances claims about the roots of Trump’s rise that suggest that Ocasio-Cortez was closer to the truth than it might appear.

Whiteshift is an extremely ambitious book, not only stuffed with reams of data and social-science research but also featuring a detailed history of immigration politics in the United States and a detour into the modernist movement in Western high culture. But it is intelligible for anyone who has been following American politics, because its basic starting point is a familiar argument: that Trump and the populist Right currently flourishing in Europe get their energy from a reaction not to “economic anxiety” but to demographic change.

Unlike the latter-day inheritors of 20th-century race science, Kaufmann treats whiteness not as an immutable biological reality but as a sort of social norm. But as demographers define them, whites currently compose between 62 and 95 percent of the population in Western countries. Kaufmann’s major claim is that there is a causal relationship between the ongoing decline of that share of the population — a trend that demographic, economic, and ecological projections show will not only continue but accelerate — and the rise of the populist Right.

Like Ocasio-Cortez, he dispenses with the “left behind” thesis. Instead, he marshals a vast and convincing body of research that shows concerns over immigration, ethnic change, and national identity predicting support for Trump. We see such concerns having an effect at a local level: Rapid ethnic change occasionally results in anti-immigration blowback, as happened in Hazleton, Pa., an old coal town that elected firebrand Lou Barletta mayor following an influx of Hispanic immigrants. Trump’s election, Kaufmann argues, was a similar phenomenon, spurred by cues from national politicians and the media that resonated among order-seeking voters with lower education levels for whom issues of immigration and group identity are increasingly salient.

That Trump’s election was an expression of raw ethnic nationalism is a popular thesis on the left. But unlike most of those who share his diagnosis of Trump’s victory, Kaufmann argues that an attachment to white identity and to the current ethnic composition of the country is not necessarily racist: Many voters with this attachment were motivated by something he calls “ethno-traditional nationalism,” distinct from ethnic nationalism in that it merely seeks to avoid rapid ethnic change rather than seeing ethnicity as an essential criterion for national inclusion. He cites research by political scientist Ashley Jardina that finds no relationship between in-group attachment among whites and hostility toward racial minorities.

“I define racism as (a) antipathy to racial or pan-ethnic outgroups; . . . (b) the quest for race purity; . . . or (c) racial discrimination which results in a violation of citizens’ right to equal treatment before the law,” he writes. This is an idiosyncratic definition of the word, increasingly so in an era when many in the West see in its history — and its present — the twin sins of colonial aggression abroad and the systemic disempowerment of racial minorities at home. From that perspective, expressions of in-group attachment among whites, or expressions of attachment to the cultural symbols and ethnic mix of a white-majority nation, are necessarily insidious. In this view, whiteness is a Trojan horse for the reproduction of the same racial hierarchies that have prevailed in Western countries throughout their existence, and it’s incumbent upon whites to leave behind their identitarian concerns.

Kaufmann deems that school of thought “left-modernism,” a set of beliefs and taboos prizing egalitarianism and diversity that dates back to the early 20th century, when WASP intellectuals such as Randolph Bourne argued that “ethnic minorities” such as Italians and Jews “should preserve themselves while the majority should dissolve itself.” Summarizing the history of the immigration debates in the U.S., Kaufmann sees in Bourne and his followers many of the same arguments advanced today by proponents of liberal immigration laws, who, he says, encourage racial minorities to celebrate their culture while propounding anti-racist norms that discourage whites from doing the same.

Kaufmann sees four possible responses to the ongoing demographic change in the West, with the rise of populist-Right parties representing the first: fight it. Figures such as Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, represent the second: repress the concerns it causes, in the name of anti-racism, “the cornerstone of a liberal-egalitarian belief system that dominates Western high culture.”

But left-modernism — and the strategy of repression more generally — invites blowback as it inevitably overreaches. The tandem rise of campus protests and conservative provocateurs is a good, if convenient, example of what happens when left-modernist norms are perceived to overreach. “When a moral narrative starts to be challenged,” writes Kaufmann, “sceptics realize others share their doubt,” setting off “a self-fulfilling process of norm unravelling which has produced a rollback of anti-racist taboos” — a cycle that plays out not just on campus but across the West.

Kaufmann spends most of the book treating left-modernism as an object of inquiry rather than a set of claims to be challenged. Yet his major objection to it is nonetheless forceful: Repressing (not necessarily hostile) expressions of in-group attachment among whites does not so much allay white anxiety as  allow it to ferment and eventually bubble over in unpredictable, occasionally dangerous ways. Take the false yet seemingly immortal claim that immigrants commit crime at higher rates than native-born Americans. In Kaufmann’s view, this is an unfortunate “sublimation” of white identity: Because they are not permitted to express concerns about rapid demographic change, anxious whites make pernicious claims about the out-group.

It’s a compelling point. But if “fight,” which has brought us political turmoil and unready leaders, and “repress,” which invites blowback and is based on dubious principles, are out as responses, then what is left?

Kaufmann briefly considers the possibility that mass white “flight” could bring about a situation akin to that in South Africa before turning to his proposed solution: “join.” Kaufmann argues that, just as the category “white” expanded in the 20th century to include Italians, Irish, and Jews, the current white majority should expand to include the growing ranks of mixed-race people in exchange for a broad cultural agreement that whites can advocate their own perceived interests. (This would mean, for example, that they’d be able to call for reductions to future migration on demographic grounds, but not that they’d be able to call for mass deportations or express hostility to prospective migrants.) He calls for severing national identity from ethnicity, predicting that “with a relaxed and fuzzy line between the majority and minorities, people can focus on their common, multi-vocal nationhood.” And he offers himself — a quarter Chinese, a quarter Latino, yet often construed as white — as an example. If such a bargain is struck, he predicts, fears of demographic decline will abate and the distemper in the West will ease.

Kaufmann’s case that rising white anxiety is an urgent political problem seems almost unassailable, but his solution is sure to be controversial: to left-modernists, who will find too many concessions to the Right; to conservatives, who will think that Kaufmann is too friendly to group interests and identity politics; and to comparative political scientists, who will think he blurs the lines between Europe and the U.S. Our contemporary experience suggests that populist politicians are unlikely to observe the careful distinctions he draws — for instance, between an exclusive and hostile white identity and an ostensibly inclusive and benign one — and instead opt for baser formulations. And insofar as his proposed bargain depends on convincing both group-oriented whites to adopt a more inclusive identity and left-modernists to relax their repressive stance, its chances of success seem up in the air.

But Kaufmann’s book is valuable for its breadth, for its clear analysis of often-confused issues, and for its asseveration of the stakes of politics in an era of demographic change. Perhaps its most urgent claim is that the concerns of order-seeking voters, or “ethno-traditional nationalists,” are not going away simply because left-modernists find them distasteful. To be clear, Kaufmann doesn’t think that demographic change poses a first-order threat to social stability. Rather, as someone who wants to avoid seismic changes to Western institutions, he fears the inevitable reaction to demographic change by a critical mass of people and the condemnation that such a reaction invites.

Thus does Kaufmann seek a way out of the cycle of toxic demagogy and left-modernist boundary policing into which our politics has depressingly degenerated — and which the Ocasio-Cortez–Ingraham Angle episode neatly represents. Whiteshift makes the reader aware that DiGenova’s mocking attitude toward Ocasio-Cortez’s Latina identity is a form of sublimated, unconstructive pandering to white identity. Yet aware, too, that many people who monitor Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter were surely put off by her flippant suggestion that those who don’t speak a second language are relics of the past. It is a reminder that, as much as being bilingual may be a 21st-century thing, so too are the concerns of those who bristle when told to press 1 for English.

This article appears as “Color Bind” in the April 22, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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