As white ethnic minorities fall in population share, their polarisation increases. We need a deeper conversation
The pandemic has interrupted populism, focusing political attention on health care and the economy. Immigration is essentially zero. Globalisation has ground to a halt. We rely on scientists and medics to get us out of this mess. NHS workers, our current heroes, are disproportionately immigrant or non-white, showing that these groups make an important contribution. This is a hostile environment for populists.
And yet. When the vaccine arrives, things return to normal and the planes start flying again, the same forces which led to the rise of national populism will re-emerge. Why? Because the deepening cultural divide within western societies has not been addressed. This divide is rooted in ethnic shifts, which are interacting with a surging new progressive ideology to create polarisation. Consequently politics in western countries will revolve more around ethno-cultural issues and less around economic ones. Recent elections in Britain and America resulted in large numbers of working-class people voting for right-wing parties. Across Europe, the centre-left is in unprecedented decline.
The class background of Labour and the Conservatives is now similar, while views on immigration are drifting apart. In 1964, the British Election Study showed that Labour was heavily working-class compared to the Tories, but that there was scant difference between partisans on immigration. Even in 1975, the vote to remain in the EEC was completely uncorrelated with immigration preferences. But in 2016 views on immigration were the key predictor of a Leave vote. These upheavals are cultural realignments, not material ones. When it comes to the forces powering populism and polarisation, it’s not the economy, stupid.
The new political dispensation is about the decline of white ethnic majorities across the West. As they fall in population share, identity insecurity rises among their more conservatively-minded members.
In 1960, those of European descent formed 85 per cent of North America’s population and 92 per cent of New Zealand’s. Around 2050, they will fall below half the total. In Western Europe, assuming current migration patterns and fertility rates, the same thing will happen towards the end of the century.
In surveys, white Americans who are reminded of whites losing their majority position become more conservative and anti-immigration. A study I conducted in Britain, showing a relatively modest decline in the percentage of white Britons in the country’s population, prompted a shift toward more restrictive immigration attitudes. Immigration becomes the key issue because it is both a cause and a symbol of the ethnic change that is occurring.
The rub is that anti-racism, and, by extension, liberal immigration policy and hostility to white majorities, also happens to be the sacred value of contemporary progressivism. This creed, a liberal-egalitarian fusion ideology I term “left-modernism”, emerged in the first two decades of the 20th century in the United States. Initially confined to small circles of bohemian intellectuals, it rapidly expanded in the 1960s with the university system and television. As its influence spread within the elite institutions of society, radical moral innovators took it to new levels of intensity, giving rise to the term “political correctness” in the late 1980s.
If the late 1960s represents the first “Great Awokening”, as it has been termed, and the late 1980s and early 1990s the second, the third took place after 2014, encouraged by social media and partisan online sites such as Buzzfeed. Terms such as “microaggression”, “cancel culture” and “triggering” are its calling cards. Race, gender and sexuality took over from class, and the millenarian endpoint of history mutated from the worker’s state to the multicultural utopia of equity-in-diversity.
Left-modernism is currently at a peak—at precisely the moment that demographic shifts have moved into high gear. Immigration is greeted by progressives as the engine of history, redeeming Western society from its Fall. In this world view, immigration restriction is offensive to racial minorities. Anything that can be framed as racism is a call to outrage. Policy-makers can’t simply reduce immigration and endorse assimilation to calm the anxieties of ethnic majorities. In so doing, they transgress the sacred values of left-modernism. As former Labour MP Frank Field recalls, the rise of Eastern European immigration finally allowed for conversation in polite circles: “The truth is, I wasn’t brave enough to raise it [immigration] as an issue—though I thought it was an issue for yonks—until we were talking about white people coming in. And even then the anger that this was racist was something one had to face.”
Majority ethnicity used to be demarcated by religion much more than race. In 1960, the Protestant-Catholic line distinguished majority from minority ethnicity in many Anglo societies, but by the 1970s and ’80s, Protestant-Catholic intermarriage and demographic change increased the salience of the racial dimension as the key marker of majority identity. Towards the end of our century, this racial line will blur as a new mixed-race majority emerges and other cultural codes take over as markers of ethnicity. This “Whiteshift” in majority ethnic boundaries ultimately holds the key to overcoming polarisation.
In our lifetimes, however, politics is likely to be culturally cleft by the division between declining white majorities and their minority fellow travellers, and between white left-modernists and high-identifying minorities. Yes, more minorities will vote for Labour than for the right. But an important group of minorities will be conservative, in part because they are attached to their nation in the form they know it. For instance, soon after the Charlottesville riots in 2017, a majority of Latino and Asian Trump voters agreed that it was important to “preserve and protect” the white Christian heritage of America, the same as white Trump voters. In Canada, the same share of minorities as whites (around 40 per cent) say there are too many visible minorities among recent immigrants to Canada.
On the other hand, a significant minority of whites, especially those with degrees and young urban singles, are drawn to the empathic message of the progressive Left. Many white liberals view immigration restriction as racist while conservatives place increasing importance on it.
This divide is rooted in psychological factors. Some people like difference and change, others prefer homogeneity and continuity. Progressives erupt in outrage against ethno-conservatism, viewing it as morally disgusting. In turn, conservatives object to being looked down upon as racist. When the term “racist” is used to describe Trump or conservative policies, a significant number of voters respond by increasing their support for them.
Progressives insist that ethnic majority sentiment is racist while minority group sentiment is not. When asked if it is racist or “racially self-interested, which is not racist” for a white American to want less immigration to help maintain her group’s share of the population, 73 per cent of white Clinton voters say it is racist. When the phrase shifts to “a Hispanic American wanting more immigration to boost her group’s share”, just 18 per cent of white Democratic voters call this racist. On many diversity and race issues, white liberals are considerably more “progressive” than minorities.
Whereas white conservatives and many minorities are able to see white group attachments as similar to minority attachment, this is an impossible ask for most progressives. They see whiteness as a quest for political and economic domination, with minority identity a strategy of resistance. This structural explanation doesn’t stand up well to empirical scrutiny, however. In surveys I have conducted in the US, Britain and Canada, racial identity is heavily correlated with attachment to ancestry, for both whites and non-whites. If you feel strongly Chinese, you feel strongly Asian. If you feel pulled toward being Irish or Italian, you feel strongly white. Being more attached to family matters for both. Ideology plays a limited role, and only in America.
The net result of the politics of ethnic change, however, is deeper division, with immigration a central issue. The following figure shows the sudden cleft that appeared within White America on this question between 2012 and Trump’s election in 2016. But this was not just about Trump. The same 50-point spread also sprung up in Canada between Conservative and Liberal or left party voters around the same time. In Britain, Tory and Labour voters are now 40 points apart on immigration, twice the 2010 gap. Part of this is down to anti-immigration voters switching parties, but much of the change on the left is due to left voters being convinced by their leaders to embrace liberal immigration. Sixty per cent of white Democrats now call for higher immigration.
The blend of progressivism’s “Great Awokening” and on-going ethno-demographic shifts is driving political tribalism in western societies. In the short-term, the remedy lies in managing migration to the level that most voters are comfortable with. This is not just an issue of control and skills, but ultimately of numbers and rate of change.
We need a deeper conversation about ethnic majorities and the ethno-traditions of nations. So long as these are assimilative, embracing inter-racial marriage and emphasising ancestry and culture rather than physical appearance, they should not be condemned. In fact, nations with ethnic majorities tend to function better than more plural societies where social and political interaction takes place principally on group lines. No one should be pressured to assimilate, but the cultural pull of the majority is such that it will happen organically so long as barriers are not placed in the way.
Some minorities will choose to remain attached to their ancestral traditions and identities. That’s fine. They can be equally attached to the nation, but will do so in a somewhat different way from many in the majority. For example, a BBC survey on Englishness found that minorities and white Remain voters are less attached to England through its history and landscape than through its “diverse cultural life”. Here national identity is “multivocal”: more like a menu than a one-size-fits-all hymn sheet of British Values or American Creed. Everyone finds what they like and identifies with the nation through those symbols. If you attach to the nation through your English ancestry and the green and pleasant land, fine. If you value its urban diversity and cultural life, great. There are, after all, different ways to be British.
To overcome polarisation, we need to be honest and open about whiteshift. White majorities should not have to fear their ethnic oblivion, but should have an optimistic future in the emerging “beige” majority.
Alongside regulated migration, we need a new vision of society which gets beyond multiculturalism and civic nationalism to include space for the flourishing of an inclusive majority ethnicity within an inclusive nation.
This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.