The Danger of the ‘Great Replacement’ Theory
[On the May 20, 2022 episode of The Bulwark’s “Beg to Differ” podcast, guest Yascha Mounk, author of the new book The Great Experiment, discussed why it is unwise to make long-term predictions about American politics based on demographic projections.]
I spent a good amount of time in this book arguing—and I think especially recording [this podcast] a few days after [the mass shooting in] Buffalo, this is important—that a lot of the racialist way we now talk about the demographic future of this country is a deeply dangerous idea.
So, the replacement theory, the conspiracy theory of the “Great Replacement,” claims that there’s this deliberate attempt to replace the U.S. population that this will put whites in the minority and then everything will change. That is a crazy conspiracy theory.
But it has a more respectable cousin, which actually has been widely embraced by Democrats and Republicans, by liberals and conservatives and progressives. And that is the idea that, just objectively, the United States will be majority-minority by about 2045, and that this will give a rising demographic majority to Democrats.
Now, I don’t believe that this rising demographic majority will materialize. If you look at the politics of the 1960s, Irish Americans very reliably voted for the Democratic party. Now they reliably vote for the Republican party. If you look at 2020, the reason why Donald Trump was competitive, is that he significantly increased the share of the vote among every non-white voter demographic, especially Latinos, but not only Latinos. And Joe Biden became the legitimately elected 46th president of the United States because he significantly increased his share of the vote among white voters—relative to Hillary Clinton in 2016. So, we just don’t know what the politics of 2040 or 2045 is going to look like in demographic terms.
But I want to go a step further than that. Because to apply the one-drop rule, which has an obvious historical salience in the United States because of its role in slavery—and I’ve assumed that it will always buy into the self-conception of somebody who might be let’s say, three quarters white and one-quarter black, might have three white and one black grandparents—is to make a hazardous prediction about what the future will look like.
To try and apply it to immigrant groups that don’t share that same history, to apply it to the many mixed-race Americans who don’t have black ancestors, starts to make little sense. To assume that people who have European ancestry, but who’ve lived in Mexico or South America for a number of generations, and who are very much considered white within their own political system, who very much now consider themselves white if asked the question, will somehow metaphysically be part of a monolithic group of “people of color” is not sociology—it’s a form of magical thinking.
And I think that on this point, we should be much, much more careful precisely because the sometimes triumphalist or sometimes alarmist predictions of this demographic change bear this eerie similarity to conspiracy theories of the far right. Thankfully, it doesn’t, in fact, describe the most fundamental divisions in our society, which are often based on race in certain respects, but much, much more complicated than this division of America into ‘whites vs. people of color.’