How important is white fear? | Aeon

Rancher and border security guard Frank Almendaria at the bar. Photo by Alex Webb/Magnum

How important is white fear?

It’s become a commonplace that demographic anxiety is driving white voters to the far Right. This is dangerously wrong

Rancher and border security guard Frank Almendaria at the bar. Photo by Alex Webb/Magnum

Why are so many white people throughout the liberal democratic world moving to the illiberal Right? The conventional explanation is that they are being driven by fear of the ‘demographic shift’. That is, because of immigration, both legal and illegal, and differing fertility rates among the relevant groups, white people of specific ethnic and religious backgrounds will soon no longer make up the electoral majority in the regions they currently dominate. Losing their majority status, in turn, is understood as meaning that the days of white privilege and political dominance in liberal democratic societies are now numbered.

An alarming number of whites, however, are not prepared to allow a commitment to liberalism to stand in the way of resisting the threat that the demographic shift seems to pose to their self-interest. They are accordingly embracing nationalist, racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-feminist and other anti-liberal attitudes, and the parties and politicians that express them, in an effort to retain their social, political, economic and cultural dominance.

This view of what is driving whites to the Right has lots of adherents. The demographic shift explanation is offered by those on the Right as well as those on the Left. It appears in serious books, respected media outlets and the reports of non-partisan think-tanks, not just in outlets of the far-Right fringe. Those on the Left frown on the fact that people seem to be allowing their perceived self-interest to interfere with basic liberal values. Those on the Right see this shift toward anti-liberal values as morally commendable, as a way of a defending whites against erosion of what they see as their deserved political, social and economic position. But both sides agree that the upcoming demographic shift has real explanatory power. Indeed, the demographic shift makes the white move to the Right seem not only predictable, but almost reasonable. After all, who hasn’t been tempted to let perceptions of one’s self-interest overcome the better angels of their nature?

But the demographic shift explanation is in fact both unconvincing and dangerous. It is unconvincing because it is built on a series of what are in fact highly implausible presumptions. It is dangerous because it disguises the fact that what is really going on is not a battle with what philosophers call akrasia, or weakness of the moral will – the struggle to live up to our moral ideals when doing so seems contrary to our self-interest. Rather, the battle is over what moral values society should embrace. It is a battle over whether society should remain committed to liberalism, even if imperfectly so, or whether it should reject the aspirations of liberalism entirely and embrace illiberalism and all the consequences that flow from this.

Recognising the true nature of the conflict in which liberal democracies are now engaged could not be more important. Accepting the demographic shift explanation encourages liberals to focus their energy and political capital in challenging the perceived anti-white effects of the demographic shift, not on defending the liberal values that make these changes irrelevant. But if the move to the Right is a principled move, it is going to continue and even accelerate regardless of how the self-interest argument plays out. What liberals need to do is make a positive case for their values – toleration, neutrality, equality, proportionality and freedom from arbitrary infringements of liberty – on the merits. If they do not, and proceed as if this case were self-evident, then illiberal values such as nationalism, white supremacy, ethnocentrism, male superiority, religious fundamentalism, homophobia and the liberty to take advantage of the weak will surely take their place.

Let’s start by looking at the striking similarities between the demographic shift explanation and what the alt-Right calls ‘The Great Replacement’. This latter claim is that there is a worldwide conspiracy in operation, led by ‘the Jews’, to import minorities into various white liberal capitalist states and thereby remove white Christians from their ‘rightful’ dominant position. The demographic shift explanation does not claim that what is happening is the result of an imagined Jewish conspiracy. It claims instead that what is going on is the product of an ‘invisible hand’ – that is, the unintended consequence is a result of the uncoordinated acts of multiple independent forces. But both the demographic shift explanation and the Great Replacement theory rely on the same demographic trends as evidence. More importantly, both claim that these trends are what is driving the rise of the illiberal Right.

Of course, the demographic shift explanation does not claim that white Christians should be moving to the Right, as the Great Replacement theory does. But the demographic shift version might be even more pernicious. It makes the demographic shift seem less insidious, but no less efficacious. It allows some prominent people on the Right (the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, for example) to use the demographic shift explanation as a way of making the Great Replacement theory more palatable. One can simply emphasise the effects of the shift and omit the antisemitic claim about what is behind it. Both theories are otherwise the same. They both claim that fear of changing demographics – and not a principled, ideologically committed embrace of anti-liberal values – is driving people to the Right. But this is a fallacy. Just look at the number of implausible assumptions built into the idea.

There is no evidence that more subtle forms of anti-white discrimination are on the rise

First, losing majority status does not actually threaten white self-interest. The thinking here, I suppose, is that there is only so much wealth and income, good jobs and housing, power and opportunity, to go around. Once the non-white population achieves majority status, they will have decisive political power, and they will use this to eliminate discriminatory practices that have benefited whites for generations. Perhaps they will even introduce anti-white discriminatory practices of their own, for this is what whites did when they had decisive political power.

But no minority population that has become a majority in a liberal community has ever introduced the kind of blatant discriminatory practices used by whites to consolidate their power. There is no evidence that more subtle forms of anti-white discrimination are on the rise either. Most politicians are still white men at all levels of government. Even existing majority-minority cities and states are often ruled by whites.

There is, I recognise, anecdotal and even well-regarded survey evidence showing that a majority of white people see instantiating racial equality as a zero-sum game. They think that, even if anti-white discriminatory practices are not introduced, the numerical rise of other groups will result in the reduction of pro-white discriminatory practices and thereby threaten white self-interest. But this is not true either. Reducing racially discriminatory conduct does indeed help those who are the direct object of such discrimination more than it helps whites. But the evidence shows that reducing discriminatory attitudes and conduct helps white people too. It raises poor whites’ income, rate of employment, standard of living, access to education, access to public services, access to credit – and by a lot. Accordingly, these people have nothing to lose in terms of the measurable advantages of life and much to gain by the demographic shift. Yet they are moving to the Right faster and in greater numbers than anybody else.

Of course, the demographic shift explanation could be rephrased as what philosophers call ‘an error theory’. People think that they are playing a zero-sum game, and even a mistaken belief can provide a powerful reason for people to conduct themselves in certain ways. This still would not explain why homophobia and misogyny are rising in certain segments of the population too, for it is hard to see how this could be connected to a fear of the demographic shift. Indeed, many new immigrants are often devout Catholics or Muslims or otherwise have illiberal attitudes themselves toward homosexuality and women. But let’s ignore this inconsistency, since this is what the proponents of the demographic shift explanation do.

The problem is that, even as an error theory, the demographic shift explanation is not plausible. It is true that people often cite the demographic shift when asked why they are moving to the Right. But what else do we expect them to say? They are going to rely on the demographic shift explanation precisely because this seems to be an understandable, even if morally disappointing, reaction to perceiving a growing challenge to one’s share of the social, cultural, political and economic pie. They are not going to say they think that racial and religious purity are values they want to maximise and defend. Because, even though they think there is nothing wrong with this, they know that many people think differently, and they want to protect themselves from criticism.

Second, the demographic shift explanation implies that white people were psychologically content to embrace de jure liberalism as long as their numbers ensured that this would not mean losing their de facto dominance. In other words, the implication is that the post-Second World War move toward liberalism was viewed as costless as long as it did not seriously threaten white privilege. Once it did, or seemed about to, many whites found the strains of their commitment to liberalism too burdensome to maintain.

However, this is credible only if we believe that a large segment of those ostensibly committed to liberalism was never really committed to it at all. But there are plenty of aspects of liberalism that threatened white privilege well before any demographic shift began. Indeed, this is the whole point of the liberal commitment to equality, which expressly rejects the idea that there should be such a thing as ‘white privilege’. The liberal commitment to reason also tells us that, because white people enjoy no genetic superiority to other kinds of people, white privilege is unjust. In turn, the liberal commitment to the separation of religious and political power undermines the promotion and maintenance of religiously sourced political ideology. And the liberal commitment to toleration and neutrality outlaws the majoritarian suppression of minority views, while the liberal insistence on informed, widespread, democratic participation instantiates all these ideas in various ways.

White people have never been a monolithic polity; they have been at each other’s throats for centuries

Of course, the commitment to the ideals of liberalism in every ostensibly liberal society has always been imperfect, allowing illiberal attitudes and practices to survive and sometimes even flourish within a liberal moral framework. But it is hard to see how a simple slip from a modest majority to a dominating plurality could be taken to mean that liberal societies might suddenly overcome their imperfections and thereby trigger panic among a large portion of white people. White privilege has, after all, mostly meant white male privilege, and white men have never been more than a plurality. Why should white men fear a change in numbers now, when they felt perfectly comfortable neutralising their numerical inferiority through law and custom for centuries? For even where democracy is not already rigged in favour of white people, non-whites are, as a practical matter, still overwhelmingly underrepresented in all positions of power. Why should a modest rise in numbers of those effectively cut out of power through gerrymandering, voter suppression and various structural quirks that also work to favour white people in many liberal democracies suddenly be so terrifying?

Third, accepting the demographic shift explanation requires us to embrace the idea that, as long as white people remain in the majority, most whites won’t have a paranoid reaction because they know they can count on their fellow whites to protect them. Really? White people have never been a monolithic or unified polity; they have been at each other’s throats for centuries. Think Protestants versus Catholics, Northerners versus Southerners, East versus West, Democrats versus Republicans, the Hatfields versus the McCoys, and so on. The fact that a majority of white men are illiberal does not mean that as long as white men are in the majority there is nothing to worry about for those who want to maintain white privilege.

After all, even though Donald Trump won the white vote by an impressive margin in the 2020 US presidential election, a sizeable minority of white men (about 40 per cent) demonstrated their commitment to liberalism by voting against Trump. Even if white men were to form a majority of the population, that would not guarantee that the advocates of the continuation of white privilege would prevail. It is not a change in the overall percentages of whites to non-whites that is threatening to white privilege. It is the persuasiveness of liberalism itself.

Remember that whiteness has always been an indeterminate and unstable categorisation. Indeed, part of the reason why ‘whiteness’ has survived as a method of designation for the power elite for so long is its flexibility. It has allowed white people to deal with changes in numbers for centuries simply by expanding the notion of who is white. Italians and Irish were at one time seen as not fully white; now they are. Since many Latinx people already see themselves as and aspire to be recognised as white, welcoming such people into white society is a much more painless and effective way of ensuring a continuing white majority than overturning liberalism in its entirety. It is just not credible to think that the upcoming numerical tipping point could be viewed as an insurmountable obstacle, driving many who had previously thought of themselves as liberals toward the illiberal Right, when this supposed obstacle has been so easy to get around in the past.

Believing that white people see the emergence of a non-white majority as an especially threatening event also requires that we believe that whites view non-whites as monolithic. But this is not credible either. Non-whites have also been battling each other for centuries, often with the encouragement of whites but sometimes entirely as an expression of their own felt rivalries. Why would we think that white people suddenly find the rise of non-white majorities threatening when they have been so successful in splitting non-whites into warring factions for hundreds if not thousands of years?

No matter how strongly we might wish that it were otherwise, the fundamental moral commitments of many of those in supposedly liberal societies are now changing. People’s allegiance to liberal values is fading; not because they are trying to protect their self-interest and putting this above satisfying what they continue to recognise as the demands of morality. It is fading because they are becoming convinced that certain types of people are not entitled to be treated with equal concern and respect. They think that society should be as hierarchical in assigning moral value to people as it is hierarchical in assigning income, wealth, power and everything else. They see ‘others’ as ‘beings of lesser moral worth’. They find authoritarianism, not democracy, as most comforting, even when they have little influence over that authority themselves. And they would feel this way regardless of whether a demographic shift was coming.

Indeed, this is the only way to explain why support for illiberal attitudes is also increasing among non-whites and other minorities, even though these views do clearly threaten their self-interest. Just like white people, these minorities are not being driven by self-interest, but by principle. They are accordingly willing to overlook being subject to attack by whites themselves, for they see various kinds of ‘others’ as the greater threat. Whether we look at the movement toward illiberalism as a purely white phenomenon or a wider one, this is the problem that those who remain committed to liberalism now face.

Illiberal arguments are not based on facts, but on self-affirming narratives

So how do we engage with the real issues here and stop focusing exclusively on questions of self-interest? Most importantly, we must stop taking the force of liberal values for granted, and start arguing for them. Calling someone a racist, for example, is not an effective tactic to use against someone who is a racist and thinks that racism is an admirable moral value. As exhausting as this is, we must explain again and again why racism and other illiberal attitudes are wrong, not just because they hurt the people subject to them, but because they diminish us all – they pollute the world with ugliness, which stains everyone. And our arguments for liberalism must be as passionate and vigorous as the attacks on liberalism now coming out of the illiberal Right.

This means that we must abandon the cool, detached and technocratic language that liberals often employ today, and start using language and promoting liberal narratives that are as compelling as the rhetoric and illiberal narratives being promoted by the other side. We must recognise that attacking the factual basis of illiberal arguments, while necessary, is not enough. Illiberal arguments are not based on facts, but on self-affirming narratives about how certain people would like the world to be, narratives that purport to justify the existence of a dominant class and the demotion of all others to the status of servants or working animals or pets. But we can stay faithful to the truth and still use rhetoric and narratives to support a liberal vision of the world. And we can do this in a way that is compelling even to white people. If this were not true, such a sizeable minority of whites would not be liberals now.

We can also fund public education in a way that halts its current march toward corporatism and restore it to a place where ideas, not the ability to attract funding, are most important. We can do something to reduce the enormous gap between the rich and poor, the kind of gap that has repeatedly fed the rise of illiberal governments in the past. And we can shift our focus back from introspection about what kind of individuals we should be, to what kind of society we should have, given the individuals that we are. The personal might be political, but the political is political too. Solving political problems is not done through psychotherapy, but by moral advocacy, no matter how irrational or crazy one’s opponents might seem.

Difficult, you say? Not in the way we usually think. The policies and mechanisms needed to accomplish these various goals are not mysterious. We could have technical disagreements on occasion about what effects specific policies and programmes might have, but the obstacle we really have to overcome is a lack of political will. For there is a strong liberal tendency to avoid being disagreeable; to try to see both sides of every argument, no matter how unreasonable one side might be. But illiberalism is unreasonable. And the sooner we stop pretending otherwise and recognise that an appeal to values, not self-interest, is what is needed to convince those attracted to the unreasonable to reject it, the sooner we will start making progress in halting the decline of liberalism throughout the world.

Political philosophyDemography and migrationPolitics and government

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