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.