America's Complicated Demographic Destiny

At least since the 2002 publication of The Emerging Democratic Majority, “demography is destiny” has increasingly been the battle cry of the left. Barely hidden behind the wonky platitude is the sinister wokey threat, “We can’t transform the country in the way we want to just yet, but wait until we have obtained a ‘majority-minority’ population.” Ethnic (and by implication, cultural) churning will transform our democracy over time, leading the United States in a direction different from the one it has taken for the past 240 years.

You don’t have to attend closed-door meetings at the Center for American Progress to hear this message. Just turn on the TV. “You’re watching the metamorphosis of Texas, Chris,” former Democratic Presidential candidate Julian Castro triumphantly told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, in those heady days before this year’s election when Democrats thought Joe Biden would flip the Lone Star State.

Like the related concept of declinism—the idea that America’s role as a superpower will soon disappear, also embraced by the left—demography’s ascendancy is a policy choice. It does not need to happen. In fact, the 2020 election offers a window as to how Americans might avert this future. Some of the reasons to be optimistic that America does not need to change because its demography does actually came in Castro’s home state of Texas.

Its Rio Grande Valley is the heartland of Tejano country, rural communities where Mexican-Americans comprise over 95 percent of the population. Surprisingly, especially to the media and activist elites constantly making the “demography is destiny” argument, several of the RGV’s counties—Cameron, Starr, Willacy, Webb, and Hidalgo—all went over 40 percent for Donald Trump on election day. Indeed, the president beat Joe Biden outright in another one of those counties, Zapata. These were all massive swings of 40 percentage points or more from the support Hillary Clinton received in 2016 and that Barack Obama in 2012. 

This came atop an apparent 40-percentage point win by Trump among Florida’s Cuban-Americans, and an improved performance in heavily Puerto Rican Osceola County in central Florida. Oh, and Chinese-American parents, mostly immigrants, organized a revolt against the attempt to introduce racial preferences in California. Someone appears to have thrown a monkey wrench in the gears of Julian Castro’s plans.

Mind you, demography and democracy are intimately related; they just don’t always work the way that people such as Castro prefer. The two words have roots in classical Greek. Demos means people, while graphy and kratos roughly mean, respectively, measurement and rule. One therefore means the study of people and the other rule by the people. One supplies the grist for the other one’s mill. What they have in common is the demos. At least in theory, the people are the actors who play the lead role.

Demography provides the raw material for the government and policies that democracy manufactures. America has combined a long-standing, inordinate attachment to liberty with a constantly churning demography, and the continuity of this attachment has been provided by what has been called, without embarrassment until recently, Americanization.

The phrase All Men Are Created Equal, the animating spirit at the heart of the nation’s concept of itself, is of universal application. Up to this point, what has mattered is not the DNA aspect of demography, but the cultural one. What many Americans—and particularly those animated by identity—often miss is that America has been multi-ethnic since before it became a country. The leftist organizers who salivate at the thought of being able to finally transform the country tend to argue that multi-ethnicity began with the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which opened the door to immigration from Asia and Africa (it is often mistakenly believed that it did so for Western Hemisphere countries as well, but there were not quotas for Latin American countries prior to 1965).

Always Multi-Ethnic, Never Multicultural

These activists are wrong. There were, of course, Africans, Native Americans, and Europeans living in the Plymouth and Virginia colonies almost from the start. But even within the “white” population, ethnicity was diverse. First there were the German and Swiss Pietists and other persecuted religious minorities who started settling in Pennsylvania and Virginia in the 1670s. Then came the heavily Presbyterian, or Church of Scotland, Scots-Irish from Ulster (an American term used by them to distinguish themselves from the Irish Catholics; in their home counties they would have been more likely to call themselves “Ulster Scots”). They began to settle in the colonies in large numbers in the first decades of the 18th century, coinciding with the expiration of their 99-year leases back home. 

At the turn of the last century, the Transnationalists sought to make ethnic groups supreme and to transfer to them the moral autonomy previously enjoyed by the individual and the nation.

The mid-19th century saw the start of heavy immigration from Germany (some seven and a half million German immigrants between 1820 and 1870), from other Catholic principalities, Scandinavia, and heavily Catholic Ireland (in the last instance, because of the potato famines). Then, in the 1892-1924 Ellis Island period we saw a gaggle of people from Southern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Caucuses—Sicilians, Greeks, Hungarians, Macedonians, Lebanese, Chaldeans, Armenians, Jews, and Poles. These were the great unwashed of the three polyglot, cosmopolitan empires of Europe—the Russian, Hapsburg, and Ottoman Empires. They were second-class citizens of those regimes and came here seeking opportunity.

The (largely uninformed) woke of today will think that this long story of diverse immigration cannot be related to the experience of today, because these were “white” immigrants, very different from today’s gaggle of Koreans, Indians, Cubans, Chinese, Nigerians, Peruvians, and Pakistanis. This analysis gets almost everything wrong. First, the earlier lot were not all considered “white” by any means, while many Latin Americans were; second, religion was at least as great a differentiator then as race is today; and, third, the treatment meted out to these immigrants was not exactly a welcome wagon.

On the last point, the German wave of the 17th and 18th centuries was seen as an ethnic force that would change the country, and not for the better. “Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours?” asked a famous resident of Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin. “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?”

The Scots-Irish, meanwhile, were so insufferable that Boston in 1720 passed a law that ordered “certain families recently arriving from Ireland to move off.” Nine years later, Puritan mobs rioted in Boston to prevent new ships from Ulster to dock. In Pennsylvania, the colonial governor James Logan asked them to move in, thinking the warlike Scots-Irish could create a useful buffer state between the equally warring Indians in the west and pacifist Quakers in the east, but he soon grew tired and asked them to leave. “A settlement of five families from the North of Ireland gives me more trouble than fifty of any other people,” the exasperated Logan wrote a friend in 1730. Finally, in Virginia, the Anglican authorities in Williamsburg told these Ulstermen that they could practice their Presbyterianism, but only in the mountains to the west—where many of their descendants still live.

The German, Irish, and Scandinavian immigrants of the mid-19th century did not fare better. Much is known about anti-Irish discrimination, because of popular movies like Gangs of New York and the like. As I take pains to describe in my new book, The Plot to Change America, Germans were treated perhaps worse. It was opposition to immigration by both groups that gave birth to the Know Nothing Party in the 1850s. Know-Nothings set fire to the houses of German-Americans and to a brewery in Louisville on August 6, 1855, an election day known as “Bloody Monday,” killing 10 German-Americans. Anti-German riots took place in other cities. The hatred of Germans—who were seen as socialist agents, as indeed their leaders had taken part in the failed revolutions of 1848 and were known as Forty-Eighters—continued for decades. Almost 18,000 German-Americans were prosecuted for speaking German in public during World War I, a crime in many states.

And of course, hatred of the Southern and Eastern Europeans, and others deemed worse, of the Ellis Island period is so well known that it hardly merits mention here. They were seen as intellectually, not just culturally, inferior. Aversion to their arrival, to the threat of their “contamination” of the existing stock, was so strong that it led to the effective end of immigration from anywhere but Northwestern Europe in 1924. This law stood pretty much intact until the Hart-Celler Act of 1965.

Now, at every point in this history, America could have decided to create minorities out of these immigrants, have their members instilled with grievances, and weaponize them to transform the country. This could have been tried with the German religious refugees of the 1670s, the Potato Famine Irish of the 1840s, and the Sicilians of the 1910s—and every group in between. Our leaders decided against this approach because the first law of nature famously is self-preservation, and societies, as individuals and all systems, have built-in mechanisms that work against self-destruction.

That does not mean it was not proposed (some people do mutilate their bodies, after all). A group of intellectuals (of course) did promote this form of national suicide at the turn of the last century. They were known as the Transnationalists, and among their main thinkers were Randolph Bourne, Horace Kallen, Louis Adamic, and Leonard Covello. They sought to make ethnic groups supreme, to transfer to them the moral autonomy previously enjoyed by the individual and the nation. “Before the American people at the present time there are two ideals of American nationalism, sharply focused and emphasized by the war. One is that of the traditional melting pot, the other is that of a co-operation of cultures,” wrote Bourne at the height of World War I.

The Transnationalists were crushed, however. Assimilation was embraced by leaders of both parties, just as it always had been in the nation’s history. America was able to always be multi-ethnic because it was never multicultural. Of course there were ethnic enclaves, especially in the big cities, and regional differences persisted—Texas and New England retain quite different cultures. But everyone was enjoined to accept that All Men Are Created Equal, that man was endowed with some pre-political rights by nature or by God, that there were to be no privileges granted by government because of caste membership (the exception being the legal and cultural deprivation imposed upon blacks, though legal segregation has now blessedly ended), that hard work ensured self-sufficiency and self-rule, etc. This credo was preached to immigrant children by the Common Schools in the 1800s, first in the East, and then in the Southwest after 1848. And this credo was preached to the Ellis Islander children by the New York City Public Schools and to their parents by the factories where they worked.

Not Today

In recent years we have dramatically departed from this tradition. On his 90th birthday in 1972, the longest-lived of the Transnationalists, Horace Kallen, was able to glimpse the future and exclaim, “It takes about 50 years for an idea to break through and become vogue.” The catalyst was the Civil Rights Movement. As the color-blind promise of that era quickly devolved into color-conscious pursuit of privileges for identity groups, leftists who sought to transform the country seized the moment and created a panoply of other categories by falsely analogizing the suffering of blacks to the newly created “Hispanics,” “Asians-Americans,” “LGBTQIA,” etc. Even the experience of white women was compared this way, and a law review article of the time was pointedly titled, “Jane Crow and the Law.”

This past Election Day offers a challenge to this view. Voters in the Rio Grande Valley, in Hialeah, in Tampa, or the Chinese-American parents who organized in the Golden State to defeat the effort to bring back racial preferences, clearly saw themselves as Americans and eschewed the victimhood label. They acted more as the Armenian-American did in the 20th century, the German in Ohio in the mid-19th century, and the Scots-Irish of Appalachia in the 1700s. The young Andrew Jackson was aware of his parents’ birth in Ulster, and his mother raised him with the steely resolution of that warring breed, but when he volunteered to fight in the Revolutionary War at the age of 13 in 1780, he was an American patriot. Will conservatives and liberals adopt this view of our present-day immigrants?

Conservatives have become comfortable with the concepts of multiculturalism, the victim categories, anti-racism training, etc., because they fear being called “racist” if they buck these worrisome trends.

The left is giving some indication that it is absorbing what happens, even if it does it in its usual comical way. Matt Yglesias, in one of his last posts at the leftist publication Vox, was finally struck with the blindingly obvious when he wrote, “Looking at Democrats’ problems with Cubans and South Americans in Florida in the context of their struggles with Mexican Americans in Texas suggests a different diagnosis. What if many U.S. Hispanics simply don’t see the racial politics of the Trump era the way intellectuals—whose thinking and writing on structural racism and white supremacy have gained broad influence in recent years — think they should?” (Indeed, what if that is the case…?) 

Even John Judis, one of the co-writers of the Emerging Democratic Majority, is starting to have second thoughts. “‘People of color’ is a term that’s been adopted by the cultural left as a way of arguing that if these groups proportionately voted Democratic in the past, they will do so in the future,” Mr. Judis told the New York Times recently. “I don’t see how you can make the argument.”

Conservatives, on the other hand, continue to gladly speak of “people of color.” They have too often allowed their minds to be colonized, and it isn’t clear that what Trump achieved—or how, or why—will sink in. Minority leader Kevin McCarthy, for example, has complied with the opening of an “Office for Diversity and Inclusion” in the House of Representatives, even though it should be equally blindingly obvious to him that these endeavors are expressly intended to further the left’s project. Conservatives have also become comfortable with the concepts of multiculturalism, the victim categories, anti-racism training, etc. They think nothing of continuing to allow the government to impose ethnic categories through the census and other surveys, to endorse the racial preferences of affirmative action that suborn individuals to victim groups, and, until Donald Trump finally banned it, of supporting indoctrination through Critical Race Theory sessions that pass for anti-racism training.

They do because they fear being called “racist” if they buck these worrisome trends. That is not an insignificant fear. But Trump was called that for four years by a press that used the term in straight-up news articles, not just in op-eds and editorials, and he won a larger share of these groups than any Republican since the 1960s.

Conservatives should understand that the second-class citizens of the Ottoman, Russian, and Hapsburg Empires came in search of prosperity and liberty here because in this country we have no official castes, as those empires did. We did only with Americans of African descent, and the Civil Rights Movement finally and thankfully destroyed legal discrimination. Ironically, the same movement produced, through its entitlement dispensations, a new caste order in America. Conservatives must shed their fear of proclaiming this truth to all Americans, otherwise, they will lose what Trump gained, rather than expand it.

Demography is only destiny if we allow it to be, by accepting the left’s transformation of culture. Until now, conservatives have thought only of the DNA part of demography, and have not minded the culture as much. Understanding that the DNA churned from 1670 on, but that the Bournes and Kallens had to be defeated, is the mental challenge going forward. If the left understands that today’s immigrants don’t see the racial politics the way the elites think they should, the left is sure to do something about it. What will conservatives do?