The forces driving ‘white fright’

The blame for the seeming rise of racist words and actions targeting people of color and immigrants has sometimes been placed on what might be called ‘white fright’, the fear of the white majority that changing demographics might undermine their position of power and put them in the second class category of citizenship that they had been able to impose on others up until now. Mark R. Reiff argues that that view is too simplistic and that we need to look deeper into the dynamics at play.

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

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.

Reiff looks at the strong similarities of the demographic shift explanation and what the alt-Right calls ‘The Great Replacement’, the belief “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.”

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.

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.

He argues that liberal values have always been threatening to the dominance of any one group over others and to the perpetuation of privileges so why does it seem like the commitment to those values is declining at this time? He argues that understanding the causes of that decline is important in the effort to counter it.

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.

He says that to counter this trend, we should not focus our arguments on trying to persuade members of the majority community, especially the white, male, heterosexual Christians, that their interests will not be adversely affected by the demographic shifts, because such a fear is not what is driving their hostility towards those who do not belong to their tribe. Instead we should launch a full-throated defense of liberal values and attack illiberalism in all its forms.

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 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.

This is a huge issue and there are going to be many analyses of why we see this illiberal trend. Reiff’s argument, interesting though it is, is just one of many that will be debated.


  1. steve oberski says

    “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

    ― Lyndon B. Johnson

  2. Matt G says

    Steve@1- I mentioned that quote on another blog a few days ago. Didn’t LBJ also say “there goes the South for a generation,” referring to some piece of civil rights legislation (Voting Rights Act?). He underestimated the time, though….

    Amazing how people will tell you they aren’t racist, and then tell you, directly or indirectly, how whites should be in charge. I think a lot of the illiberalism is driven by a desire by people who aren’t straight, white, Christian males to seek acceptance by those who are. The racist gay person, the black homophobe, the white, female anti-Semite, etc.

  3. JM says

    The Republican party is also trapped in a feedback loop that is driving the party further right. A lot of Republicans are selling themselves as being as far right as possible. As these people get elected the base line for the right moves and they have to push further and further right to stand out. This means going further right issues like racism and immigration.

  4. marner says

    Are we becoming less liberal? For example, Americans views on gay marriage has changed markedly in just one generation.. According to Gallup polling, support for gay marriage was at 27% in 1996. This year it is 70%. Even a majority of Republicans support it. Or interracial marriage. How many people are up in arms about Kamala Harris being married to a white person? I mean I am sure some are, but as recently as 1990, 63% of non-black Americans would oppose a family member marrying a back person. In 2017 it was 14%.
    For the record, this is not meant to be a “look how far we have come” in an attempt to justify current complacency.

  5. mnb0 says

    “The conventional explanation is that they are being driven by fear of the ‘demographic shift’.”
    Perhaps conventional in the USA. I’ve never met it in Dutch media, let alone Surinamese ones.

    “It is a battle over whether society should remain committed to liberalism.”
    Yup, definitely American. In the Netherlands the alt-rights call themselves liberals. Geert Wilders in 2004:

    So I suppose Reiff actually means “defense of the democratic rechtsstaat”. Of course he doesn’t wonder if there is still a democratic rechtsstaat to defend in the USA; I think not (and as expected only few voters for the current American president try to do something about it). Instead the USA has a political system that actually encourages white fright. It’s only a matter of time before a Republican candidate worse than Donald the Clown will win.

    “Indeed, this is the only way to explain why …..”
    No, there is another one and then we have to start with Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent. Then we understand how white fright is stimulated by the 1% according to the good old principle Divida and Impera, both in politics and the media. Xenophobia and nationalism (“my country right, my country wrong, my country”) are great tools for this agenda. They appeal to and then pervert basic human instincts.
    It works in other countries as well. Extreme right parties in march 2021 have gained 28/150 in Dutch parliament, 6 more than in 2017. PM Rutte (like JoeB) poses as a bulwark against Dutch extreme right and in the mean time mainly serves the interests of big companies and multinationals.
    Coincidentally his anti-covid policy also is a string of blunders. Since two weeks the amount of covid infections has exploded again (from 500 to over 10 000 a day); as always the reaction of the Rutte administration was too little too late. At least that’s something JoeB is doing better, so it seems to me.

  6. mnb0 says

    @3 JM: “The Republican party is also trapped in a feedback loop that is driving the party further right.”
    Yup. And so is the Democrat party -- just a bit less right. Kamala Harris of course is selected because she’s a hardliner and still can make those who voted for JoeB feel good about themselves. Nice that you mentioned her, because she should make you ask yourself: how far have you come if you have to bring up her as an example?

  7. garnetstar says

    I do agree with the author of the article. The attitudes towards a liberal democracy are changing, as it doesn’t deliver what the whites-in-fear want.

    I’ve always thought that their fear was not so much becoming second-class citizens when they were “replaced”, in terms of losing civil rights. I’ve thought that it was cultural: they fear an existential loss of their culture, which must be, in their minds, the supreme and only and ruling culture. It provides a safe space for them, a predictable universe that they like and can function in, since they are by definition at the top of, and the embodiment of, that culture.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    … 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.

    We have always been at war with Akrasia!

  9. Matt G says

    Pierce@8- One of the two classic blunders: never get involved in a land war in Akrasia!

  10. lanir says

    “Fright” is the wrong word. It’s naked greed and nothing else. Even saying the whole mess is caused by some form of demographics based fear is extra special pandering to a group used to being coddled. It’s greed. Just greed. It’s never been about anything else.

  11. says

    Maybe I need to think about it more, but I find their argument not entirely convincing. Take this quote, for example: “It is unconvincing because it is built on a series of what are in fact highly implausible presumptions.” But this itself assumes these people are rational actors. Does it not? What I’m saying is it doesn’t necessarily matter that these are “highly implausible presumptions.” These people aren’t necessarily putting in the critical thought to realize this. That said, I do think they have a fair point when they say, “Support for illiberal attitudes is also increasing among non-whites and other minorities.” OK, that may be true. But I would be curious as to the reasoning behind that conclusion. I am also in agreement with the idea that we need to defend liberal ideas. That, though, may be hard to do when so many of the enemies of liberal ideas boast about how they are for “freedom” and “liberty.” So it means exposing that façade as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *