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We Need to Talk About White Identity Politics

Western societies can either accept moderate forms of ethnic majority politics or risk the current populist uprisings mutating into more extreme versions

Eric Kaufmann
February 19, 2019
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, a maelstrom hit social media. Unlike other online firestorms, this one wasn’t squarely about a policy or politician. On Tuesday, Esquire magazine posted the first in what its editors described as a series about “growing up in America today” this one a profile of a white 17-year-old boy, from the Wisconsin town of West Bend. The actual profile is a perfectly reasonable character study, but the cover and display copy—“What it’s like to grow up white, middle class and male in the era of social media, school shootings, toxic masculinity, #MeToo and a divided country”—inspired an impassioned backlash, with critics arguing that it put another unnecessary, even dangerous spotlight on “white people,” giving even more attention to the thoughts, feelings, biases, and struggles of the dominant majority.

The story undeniably did that. “West Bend is a blue-collar town with a strong German heritage in a county where Donald Trump won 67 percent of the vote. ‘If you’re a moderate Republican in West Bend, you’re a liberal,’ Joe Carlson, a former school-board president, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2011. It’s also overwhelmingly white,” wrote the author of the Esquire article, Jen Percy. Her subject, Ryan, is described as supporting:

The death penalty, and limits on foreign goods. He doesn’t support welfare, unless those who receive it are made to get a job. He doesn’t support needle exchanges. On issues of gender, Ryan is mixed. He doesn’t think abortion should be legal. He doesn’t support condom distribution in high schools to prevent pregnancy. If a man and a woman earning the same salary have a child, and if one of them must quit their job to raise it, Ryan thinks it should be the woman. But he supports marriage equality and the right to enlist in the military regardless of sexual orientation.

Ryan also offers lukewarm support for President Trump, a position that one commentator suggested, “he doesn’t appear to grasp as being aligned with a vast array of troubling ideologies many Americans consider direct threats to their way of life.”

That locution, “a direct threat to a way of life,” struck me, since it could easily be used to describe traditionally white communities which I’ve studied. But it is fundamentally mistaken. The politics of national populism are not, as critics claim, simply and only cloaks for fascistic voters and governments’ pursuing policies of racial discrimination—though some obviously are. But other iterations of this are instead natural expressions of community—a perfectly uncontroversial idea that was indeed once conventional wisdom. Those of us interested in moving beyond flame-throwing—and into a useful conversation about how to create meaningful and effective public policy that benefits the most people—would do well to return to it.


“The distinctiveness of cultures and groups depends upon closure,” wrote Michael Walzer, in his magisterial Spheres of Justice (1983). “If this distinctiveness is a value, as most people … seem to believe, then closure must be permitted somewhere.” From a different angle, the Marxist philosopher, Gerald Cohen, in his essay “Rescuing Conservatism: A Defense of Existing Value,” adds that conservatism is primarily about valuing how things are in the present and seeking to preserve this particularity. This orientation encompasses causes dear to the left, such as the conservation of nature, species, architecture, and folk traditions, as well as enthusiasms of the right such as the preservation of national character and ways of life. The tension between these contradictory impulses is captured by the British writer James Meek who notes the dilemma of his fellow left cosmopolitans who value local particularity among the working-class cockneys of the East End of London, but not the locals’ anti-immigration and Brexit orientation.

Social psychology further reinforces the insights of communitarian political philosophy with experimental evidence that people’s deep values are between a third and a half inherited. Jonathan Haidt recounts a study involving dots moving on a screen where conservatives prefer when the dots move in orderly patterns while liberals favor a more chaotic arrangement. These differing value orientations are partly captured by the Big 5 personality trait of openness to experience, which is a significant predictor of immigration attitudes and voting for Brexit in two major data sets I have analyzed.

Two overlapping value orientations underpin the new cultural axis of politics: One is what social psychologist Karen Stenner describes as authoritarianism—a preference for order over difference; the other is status quo conservatism, which the political philosopher Cohen characterized as a preference for maintaining things as they are. This is what anchors the divide between nationalists and globalists, between people attached to ascribed ethnic and national identities, and those who identify with their portable credentials and achievements. Insofar as this crucial divide stems from psychology, it is highly resistant to social learning. Indeed, as Stenner showed, trying to convince someone who prefers order to embrace diversity tends to produce a backlash. In practical terms, countries seeking to maintain social harmony in periods of flux could avoid emphasizing change and, instead, appeal to the conservatism of these voters by highlighting what remains the same. In my own work, I find that emphasizing the cultural continuity of the nation through the assimilation of newcomers tends to reduce support for hard-line anti-immigration positions among those who voted for the populist UK Independence Party (UKIP).

There are two key aspects of the new culture war. First, conservative and order-seeking voters respond differently to diversity than liberals. For instance, U.K. data shows that, at a local level, ethnic diversity lowers conservatives’ trust in neighbors and attachment to locality but leaves that of liberals unaffected. In Europe, voters who value safety tend to vote for populists more than those who aren’t concerned about it, but only in more diverse countries like France or the Netherlands. Similarly, Tim Gravelle finds that if you begin on the Canadian border and move south to the Mexican border where county Hispanic share is higher, the partisan gap between white voters over whether to deport illegal immigrants or offer them a path to citizenship widens by 50 points. In effect, diversity affects people differently. Second, as conservatives express their discontent with diversity and change, liberals mobilize against them in the name of anti-racist morality. This second-order polarization is most evident in the United States, where white liberals have, since 2014, grown more suspicious of white people as a group, more likely to view the United States as sexist and racist, and increasingly favorable to higher immigration. In Western Europe, disaffected cosmopolitan voters have been switching from mainstream parties to the pro-immigration Greens.

The partisan divide over whether majority-group interests are racist is stark. When I ask Americans whether a white woman who wants less immigration to help maintain her group’s share of the population is being racist or “acting in her racial self-interest, which is not racist,” 36-39 percent of Americans, depending on the survey, respond that this is racist and 61-64 percent say it isn’t. In most West European countries, 20-25 percent claim this is racist against 75-80 percent who say it’s an expression of white group interest, which isn’t racist. Let’s zoom in on the partisan gap: 91 percent of white Clinton voters with postgraduate degrees think the woman is racist, compared with just 6 percent of white Trump voters (and zero white British Leave voters) without a degree. In the middle stand ethnic minorities: 43 percent of nonwhite Americans believe the white woman in this example to be racist compared with 57 percent who say she isn’t.

The difference turns on whether attachment to being white, and being willing to act in the majority interest, is racist. Yet psychologists have clearly established that an attachment to one’s own group is not correlated with hostility to an out-group unless the protagonists are locked in direct political competition or war. Indeed, whites’ warmth toward blacks in the American National Election Study (ANES) is uncorrelated with their feelings toward whites. On the other hand, liberals’ feelings toward conservatives, and vice versa, show a strong inverse correlation, reflecting what Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff term a “common enemy” form of identity. Many white liberals acknowledge that identities are not zero sum: Just 18 percent of white Clinton voters in my sample consider a Latino who wants more immigration from Latin America to “boost her group’s share” to be racist. Yet when a white person who is also attached to her group acts defensively to restrict immigration to achieve the same ends, she is deemed racist by nearly three-quarters of the same people.

Of course there is a crucial historical context that accounts for some of this disparity in opinion toward expressions of white political self-interest as compared with the collective organizing of minority ethnic groups. White majoritarian rule has not only been the historical norm in American politics; it is also directly tied to the enforcement of racial hierarchies in American life and the disenfranchisement of nonwhite ethnic groups. And yet, the historical grounds for exceptionalizing white identity has not simply lost its political valence after more than a half century of civil rights reforms—it has become increasingly counterproductive, inflaming interethnic division and conflict and contributing to racial Balkanization in America and elsewhere. Most of us wouldn’t insist on muting the Catholic identity of certain Americans due to Catholicism’s historic association with anti-Semitism, or argue that anti-Catholicism is in the DNA of American Protestantism. Countries should extend the same latitude to white majority groups that have learned from past mistakes. Surely the dangers of continuing to suppress this identity outweigh the risks of permitting it to be moderately expressed.

When people of any racial background try to slow the rate of ethnic change in their home nation, they do so because it is, in Cohen’s phraseology, an existing value for them. Many would agree that if Harlem were to become just another superdiverse New York neighborhood, it will have lost its African-American “ethno-tradition”—part of what constitutes its identity. Yet to ban certain groups from moving to Harlem, based on their ethnic identity, would be a form of illegal discrimination. Between these two poles there is a third choice: to govern the pace of gentrification and thus mitigate the impact of its attendant dislocations. It is neither desirable nor possible to stop change entirely, but the pace can be regulated, newcomers assimilated, old traditions preserved and new ones adapted.

Here again, we find different ethical yardsticks used to measure majority and minority groups, despite the lack of a consistent principle justifying this distinction. As Yael Tamir remarks in her 1993 book Liberal Nationalism, “If national claims rest on theoretically sound and morally justified grounds, one cannot restrict their application: They apply equally to all nations, regardless of their power, their wealth, their history of suffering, or even the injustices they have inflicted on others in the past.” Indeed, groups which have confronted their own past misdeeds may be less likely to re-offend or develop a “common enemy” version of ethnicity than majority groups elsewhere. Systematic studies of genocide show that the greatest danger lies not in groups embracing a majority identity (i.e., being Hindu in India), but rather in exclusionary ethnic nationalism (i.e., only Hindus can be Indian citizens, not Muslims). Moreover, the latter, though deplorable, is not more dangerous than exclusivist versions of universalist ideologies like socialism, or civic nationalism. When pushed to an extreme, all can be used to target out-groups.

Perhaps talk of a country’s ethnic composition as an aspect of nationhood that conservatives are attached to—and therefore wish to conserve through slowing immigration or encouraging assimilation—sends a signal to newer groups that they are not wanted? No more than calling a set of accents “American” excludes American citizens who speak with a French or Nigerian twang. People generally understand that a person’s accent is not a criterion for national membership or special treatment, even as the American accent serves as a distinguishing feature of the nation. If, like the ethnic majority, it declines in prevalence, this may legitimately worry conservatives who are attached to features of their nation. Tagging these concerns “exclusive” presents a classic example of the fallacy of composition: analogizing from collective to individual properties.

The mischaracterization of people’s attachment to a majority ethnicity or demographic status quo as racist hostility is a powerful source of resentment in many Western societies. More broadly, opposition to political correctness is a major predictor of the Trump vote. Ashley Jardina, author of the important new book White Identity Politics, finds that in experiments where Trump’s policies are labeled “racist,” support for him rises among voters who are skeptical of the view that structural impediments explain the black-white income gap.

In survey data, the new cultural divide is far more strongly associated with populist right voting than is the left-right economic axis. Trump and Brexit voters earn roughly the same as others, and are no more hostile to politicians or the system than backers of left-wing parties. But they differ widely in cultural and psychological orientation. We see this in the ANES, which reveals a shift of economically moderate voters who want less immigration from Obama to Trump between 2012 and 2016.

Since there is a taboo on majority-group ethnicity and ethno-traditional nationalism, these sentiments are expressed in sublimated form. Ostensibly “civic” national laws like language and residency requirements for spousal migration are designed to limit immigration—and such limits are justified on the grounds of state interests.

The desire to reduce the speed of ethnic change gets rationalized as the need to control immigration for material reasons. This could be to halt the flow of drugs and terrorists (Trump), to reduce pressure on the welfare state or housing, safeguard jobs (Bannon), protect secularism, gays or Jews from Islam (Le Pen and Wilders) or to reassert British sovereignty against Brussels (Farage). These rationalizations matter, but are secondary drivers. No wonder a far higher share of Trump voters agree that “immigrants fuelling urban sprawl” is a problem than “urban sprawl” itself. Brexit voters are moderately worried about “pressure on public services” but greatly concerned about “immigrants putting pressure on public services.” Denying services to needy immigrants, stigmatizing Muslims or bashing the European Union is deemed more acceptable than making the conservative case for slower ethnocultural change.

White majorities will gradually become “beige,” in Michael Lind’s terms, because intermarriage produces a logarithmic rise in the mixed population. In America and Western Europe, those of mixed race will become the majority in a century or so. However, it’s important that on the way there, people are able to travel at a pace that allows moderate conservatives to maintain a sense of continuity while enough change takes place to satisfy moderate liberals. Failure to do so risks alienating conservatives, perpetuating the populism and polarization that are convulsing western politics.

Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. His latest book is Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities.