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New book explores the rise of populist nationalism

28 May 20190 comments

In the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, academics and commentators have been trying to work out what was behind these event. The dominant theory, in a nutshell, is that in the wake of recession and financial crisis, those doing it tough have punished the political elites and favoured populist figures.

This narrative says that what we have seen is a backlash by those alienated by globalisation, open borders, and migration on a scale that threatens the culture and identity of the majority community.

A new book ‘Whiteshift’, by Canadian political scientist Eric Kaufman, explores this theory but with a few twists.

Kaufman says that the idea that western ‘white’ or ‘anglo’ nations are about to be invaded by foreigners of disparate colour and creed are not necessarily inevitable.

He defines ‘Whiteshift’ as “the mixture of many non-whites into the white group through voluntary assimilation” and he says it’s happened before.

Kaufman argues that a hundred years ago, Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish immigrants pouring into the United States were considered to be of different “races” by white Anglo-Saxon protestant elites.

Half a century ago, their descendants were regarded as still culturally and politically distinctive.

Today, Kaufman argues, all these groups are lumped together as “whites,” even though there are still perceptible, though muted, differences in political attitudes and perspectives between those with different ancestries.

Going back even further in history, 17th Century England welcomed Jews and Huguenots; tolerated Catholics and Quakers; nurtured representative government; and protected individual rights, unlike almost all other European regimes.

That’s a template for an inclusive society, one that gives Anglosphere nations a useful model as migration brings ethnic change.

Kaufmann argues that a majority ethnicity facing minority status can respond in several ways, and is likely to do so successively over time.

The first way is to fight, to shut off immigration and bar asylum seekers, as Hungary and Poland have done, or just to enforce existing immigration laws.

President Trump’s call for a “beautiful wall” is, Kaufman implies, shorthand for the latter course, even if he hasn’t managed to do it yet.

Another alternative is to repress opposition to change. The US Democrats’ vehement opposition to Trump’s measures, almost in itself an open-borders policy, is an example.

“Cosmopolitanism and what I term ethno-traditional nationalism are both valid worldviews. But imposing either on the entire population is a recipe for discontent,” Kaufman says.

Instead, he says, we should let the two other responses go forward. One is flight, and indeed in Britain as well as America, young families flee multiethnic central cities for mostly white suburbs, while rural and small-town people tend to stay in place.

Kaufman suggests that whites’ fears of cultural transformation can be ameliorated by restricting immigration and promoting a “multi-vocal” nationalism that legitimises both conservatives’ ethnic identities and liberals’ cosmopolitan vision.

Although it has a marked point of view, this is a work informed by data, public opinion studies and theoretical insights from psychology, philosophy, and anthropology.


Laurie Nowell 

AMES Australia Senior Journalist