“We need to talk about white identity. Not as a fabrication designed to maintain power, but as a set of myths and symbols to which people are attached: an ethnic identity like any other.” These are the opening words of Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift. The book is as timely as it is politically taboo. Kaufmann argues—over the course of 540 pages encompassing reams of data and an almost obsessive level of detail—that the seismic demographic shifts in the make-up of western nations and the ensuing crisis of white identity are the root causes of the rise in far-right populism and the increasing political polarization over the past few years.
By virtually all accounts, most white majority countries in the Anglosphere are set to become majority minority through immigration and interracial marriage by 2050 and the rest will follow suit shortly thereafter. The declining white share of the population has caused much identity-based insecurity and existential terror at the prospect of losing a connection to white heritage, Kaufmann argues. Managing the cultural and political fallout of these changes is one of the most urgent undertakings of our age. If the reviews are any indication, the message of Whiteshift has been misunderstood by the media and academics as an excuse for oppression and a lamentable ode to whiteness. But maybe that is why the book is needed more than ever.
Vox’s Zack Beauchamp pays the book a backhanded compliment:
the book’s fundamental conclusion—that the only way to defeat the far right is to appease its voters—is both wrong and, as I’ll explain, morally repulsive. Understanding how such a careful analyst ended up here can help explain another kind of modern reactionary movement: the “classical liberals” who wage war on political correctness.
It is entirely unsurprising that Kaufmann, whose views neither fit snugly into the prevailing progressive narrative or the anti-immigration pro-Trump camp, has been categorized as a rabble-rousing reactionary—before his arguments have been grappled with.
Whiteshift poses a direct challenge to the political narratives of both the left—who often dwell on historical grievances—and the right, who cling to an idealized past. Kaufmann is one of a very small group of public figures who recognize the inconvenient truth that the problems of the present cannot—in fact must not—be approached through a lens of victimization. Instead, we must accept a moral trade-off, since these problems have no easy solution.
We are living through a transition period. The deepest divide in our culture, Kaufmann explains, is no longer between different racial groups but between nationalists and globalists. Survey data shows that the current wave of right-wing populism is primarily the result of attitudes toward immigration, rather than fears of economic stagnation. One of the most reliable predictors of a Trump vote was feeling that white people are under attack in the United States (a statement with which 70% of Asian and Latino Trump voters agreed, as a series of polls conducted after the Charlottesville riots demonstrates). Dubbing particular policy positions racist actually increases support for those policies; attacking supporters for being politically incorrect makes them more likely to vote for Trump. The share of white Americans who identify with their race has nearly doubled over the past thirty years. We are highly sensitive to issues of identity, in ways that are not always obvious.
The book is divided into four sections, each of which deals with a specific reaction on the part of whites (and those who cherish white cultural symbols) to the demographic transformation of the west: Fight, Repress, Flee and Join. Whites can fight ethnic change by voting for right-wing populists and pushing back against the prevailing multicultural narrative. They may repress their anxieties in the name of politically correct anti-racism. Many opt to flee by avoiding ethnically diverse neighborhoods, schools and social networks. And others may join the newcomers through intermarriage. The first two reactions are the most relevant and the most indicative of a crisis of white identity. Many choose to breach anti-racist taboos by openly embracing their whiteness; at the same time, many others—especially liberal whites—virtue signal by censuring the first group for what they see as retrograde and histrionic behaviour:
The loss of white ethno-cultural confidence manifests itself in other ways. Among the most important is a growing unwillingness to indulge the anti-white ideology of the cultural left. Ethno-cultural change is occurring at a rapid rate at precisely the time the dominant ideology celebrates a multicultural vision of ever-increasing diversity. To hanker after homogeneity and stability is perceived as narrow-minded and racist by liberals. Yet diversity falls flat for many because we’re not all wired the same way. This is leading to a polarization between those who accept, and those who reject, the ideology of diversity.
Much of the destabilizing polarization that is taking place in western countries is a result of fundamental differences in how white people are responding to the crisis of their collective identity. Some argue that ethnic minorities are more heavily represented on the political left, therefore this is not so much a battle within the white population as a conflict of interests between whites and other groups. This would be true if the far left were made up mostly of minorities—but, in fact, the progressive activist camp identified in the extensive Hidden Tribes study was found to be the whitest, wealthiest and most educated subgroup. Woke rhetoric is primarily a white phenomenon.
Consider the general tone of public discourse on the most contentious political issues. Donald Trump was one of very few candidates to make immigration reform a major part of his platform. He even made the symbolic promise to build a wall to safeguard the country against outsiders. White progressives generally want the exact opposite of social and cultural preservation: they want to deconstruct the patriarchy, decolonize the racist white hegemony, introduce greater diversity into society, etc. The fundamental disagreement between liberals and conservatives has always been over whether to conserve culture or change it: but this divide is especially clear today.
Kaufmann’s central thesis is that attitudes towards immigration and its salience as an issue—rather than economic factors or anti-elitism—explain why people vote for right-wing populists. However, I believe that the situation is exacerbated by economic stagnation. America lost four million manufacturing jobs to automation between 2000 and 2015; the labor force participation rate is exceptionally low in relation to GDP; fewer businesses are being launched; and 57% of Americans do not have enough savings to pay an unexpected $500 bill. However, economic factors alone cannot explain our political divide. I am inclined to agree with Kaufmann that economic factors are peripheral to the issue, given how compelling his data is, especially with regard to people’s voting choices. Had the economy been in recession as these cultural conflicts unfolded, that would suggest economics as a primary cause. But, as Whiteshift illustrates, demographics matter.
Kaufmann’s solution involves what he calls ethno-traditional nationalism, which values the ethnic majority as an important component of the nation, alongside other groups:
Ethno-traditional nationalists favour slower immigration in order to permit enough immigrants to voluntarily assimilate into the ethnic majority, maintaining the white ethno-tradition. The point is not to assimilate all diversity, but to strike a balance between vibrant minorities and an enduring white-Christian tradition. This is the view of many conservative white voters, even if there is an important (if tiny) tranche of exclusionists on the far right who dream of repatriating minorities.
An important distinction is made here between an ethnic identity and a national identity. Ethnic identity involves mythology derived from a person’s cultural heritage, while national identity involves our relationship to our country as a political unit. The latter cannot fill the space of the former. We need to rein back the predominant cultural orthodoxy—which regards the celebration of white identity as a form of implicit bias or a justification for historical oppression—in order to develop a healthy relationship between nationhood and ethnicity. This means moving beyond the pride/shame binary of the past and recognizing that neither white guilt nor white race pride are going to help us solve the problems of an ever-changing world.
Some might regard the book’s attempt to bridge the political divide as futile. A cynic might say that we are not going to convince the other side to see things our way, and that compromising on our principles is just another form of surrender. This attitude, held by both sides, is a toxic adaptation to our polarized times. People change their minds all the time: they just usually do so quietly, in the privacy of their own minds. The loudest and most inflammatory voices do not represent the silent majority. Moreover, it is not necessary to convince everyone—and the attempt to do so often backfires. We need only present our views in such a way that our positions become normalized. If we remain steadfast in our convictions and continue to engage those who disagree, there is a decent chance that our efforts will not be in vain. It is worth attempting to bridge the political divide—even if it makes us look weak. We should cultivate intellectual resilience and accept the price of dissent, as Kaufmann does—otherwise we’ll be merely chasing a chimera because we can’t force reality to conform to our wishes.