If dispassion is the tone best suited for writing about contentious ethnic and demographic issues, this lucid survey of the numbers question across much of the Northern Hemisphere deserves every plaudit. With palpable restraint and sometimes maddening equivocation, demographer Michael Teitelbaum and historian Jay Winter survey the intertwined issues of birth rates, immigration, and other factors contributing to demographic instability in nine countries, where the resulting conflicts range from the relatively muted (in France, England, Germany, and the United States) through the more nettlesome (Canada, Russia, and the former Soviet Union) to the downright horrific (the former Yugoslavia). The authors are plainly aware that expressions of uneasiness concerning these issues may either be demagogic or inspire accusations of demagogy, and that in establishment circles throughout the contemporary West it is considered bad form to worry publicly about the demographic decline of one’s own group. For this reason, they write as the most cautious professors: to inform, not to alarm. While they occasionally point to the deeper and more contentious questions raised by their subject, they nearly always step back from the brink, refusing to venture answers of their own. Nevertheless, their work does convey that something very significant is going on throughout the Western industrialized world. As Teitelbaum and Winter claim, “every country’s public life is vitally affected by demographic issues,” and the Western developed countries, having surmounted (often painfully) the traumas of industrialization, nonetheless face “an uncertain future” as their internal ethnic balances undergo dramatic shifts.

Nearly all Western countries have low birth rates, often combined with high and rising levels of immigration. The authors begin with Germany, where fertility rates dipped below replacement level (an average of 2.1 births per woman) in 1970 and kept dropping through the mid-1980’s. The idea of German citizenship—forged in the 19th-century unification battles—is based on a community of common descent. Thus, guest workers from Turkey and elsewhere who migrated to West Germany in the 1950’s were never considered German, nor were their children. In the 1980’s, asylum seekers from all over the Eastern Hemisphere began to enter the country. These migrations would surely have seemed less significant were the Germans themselves not shrinking in number. When hoodlums engaged in sporadic violent attacks against the migrants in the early 1990’s, they found a considerable cushion of popular support. As one German banker notes, “Of course we need foreigners, but how many? Our elites have not been able to come up with good explanations for the fears people have about Germany’s future.” At present, the political establishment seems to have coalesced around a sensible middle ground: expanding the eligibility for German citizenship to include the long-resident Turks and others, while reducing the flow of new immigrants. But as long as ethnic Germans do not want many children of their own, the question of whether “the Germans are dying out” (the subtitle of a Günter Grass novel) will remain pertinent.

French intellectuals and politicians have been grappling with a sense of demographic decline for much longer: Since the Revolution, France’s population has grown more slowly than that of its neighbors (though it is now higher than Germany’s) and her relative power has been shrinking as a result. Pro-natalist policies have a long pedigree, and even specialized debates between demographers attract public attention. Virtually all major parties value an idea of French culture linked to the nation’s past, and it is not surprising that France was the first country to generate a hefty protest party against Third World immigration. Whether this kind of national self-consciousness will actually help the French navigate the demographic shoals ahead is, of course, another matter.

In England, the political class seemed ready to overlook the fact that it was playing host to a growing, unassimilated Muslim population until 1989, when Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses earned the author a fatwa, or death sentence, from Muslim clerics. In the weeks that followed. Englishmen were forced to acknowledge that there were hundreds of thousands of people living in their midst who favored putting an author to death for writing a book. Teitelbaum and Winter go right to the heart of the issue, asking, “Is Islamic belief compatible with citizenship in a Western country?” They give no answer but remind readers that, when Enoch Powell raised a similar question 30 years ago, he was kicked out of the Tory leadership: The issue was simply too charged for a political class operating within very fixed, unspoken assumptions about the proper boundaries of political debate. While distancing themselves from Powell, Teitelbaum and Winter admit that the question he put forward was entirely legitimate.

When the authors pass to the East, they find so few restraining barriers on demographic debate as to make one rue their absence. In the states of the former Yugoslavia, all contending factions keep track of the relative demographic weight and fertility rates of their rivals. Similarly, disparities in birth rates between Russians and non-Slavs are ever on the Russian mind. In the Soviet era, planners faced the vexing problem of developing family policies to encourage Russian mothers to have more children while lowering the much higher fertility rates in Muslim regions. This (perhaps impossible) task ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Still, Russia’s present situation cannot but breed despair. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn himself wrote eight years ago, “Everyone knows our deaths surpass our births, and we shall disappear from the earth.” It is an arresting formulation, put forth by a man who has never shrunk from speaking the truth as he sees it. Those trends, of course, have only worsened since then.

Turning to the United States, the authors provide a lucid and concise discussion of the failure of immigration reform to take hold. They quote an “open borders” advocate, the late economist Julian Simon, who acknowledged that, if the American people had their preference, the highly restrictionist immigration laws enacted in the 1920’s would never have been fully lifted. But America’s choices in this realm are not governed by the general will. On the right, the dominant ideological tendency is what the authors label “conservative libertarianism” and “cornucopianism”: roughly speaking, the more people—producers, consumers, whatever—the better. (Similarly, the cultural nationalism at the core of all the major European conservative parties is comparatively weak.) On the left, civil libertarianism and the civil rights lobbies drive the agenda; the United States has no democratic socialist heritage to speak of and thus no major institutions inclined to stress the negative impact of immigration on working-class wages and living standards. Congressmen, meanwhile, pay more attention to the highly motivated five percent—often those mobilized by ethnic or business lobbies—and retreat from immigration reform as soon as pressure is applied to them. Thus far, movement toward greater restriction has emerged only in the aftermath of populist and grassroots insurgencies, such as that which provoked California’s Proposition 187.

In Canada, where ethnic divisions are geographically rooted and officially sanctioned through linguistic policy, the political system is skating on the edge of breakdown. In 1993, the mainstream conservative party suffered virtual electoral collapse, induced at least partially by its failure to persuade voters it had any plan to deal effectively with either Quebecois separatism or immigration—a warning, perhaps, that ethnic issues can retaliate with startling suddenness upon conservative establishments regarded as too accommodating by the electorate.

Teitelbaum and Winter make no policy recommendations beyond expressing the hope that decisions regarding immigration, asylum, birth control, and natality policies will be based on knowledge rather than emotion. They do, however, bring home the point that these issues will remain at the center of Western political life for a long time to come. In the short and medium term, economic progress in poorer Southern countries will increase migration pressures rather than diminish them, since people raised to a slightly higher standard of living know more of the outside world, have greater access to transportation, and have more money to pay smugglers than they had formerly. Low fertility rates throughout the West ensure that even modest rates of immigration will cause noticeable shifts in the demographic balance, and inevitably many Westerners will come to feel that their national identity is threatened. As for potential panaceas, the authors note that no government has had any success in raising its country’s birth rate. To this somber prognosis, the authors append a warning: Politicians who seek “partisan” advantage in speaking about the powerful forces of demography are “playing with fire.”

Of course, not everyone will heed this advice: California Democratic Party state chairman Art Torres, for example, boasts that, because of demographic changes. Proposition 187 is “the last gasp of white America in California.” (The recent appearance of triumphalist Latino rhetoric illustrates this book’s central themes; failure to analyze or even mention it may be its most significant lapse.) Nor will the Russian nationalist Zhirinovsky—who has vowed to sire children in every department where his party has a headquarters—likely avoid partisan posturing with regard to the demographic question. So the counsel of caution and restraint is really intended for the leaders of the mainstream parties of Europe, Canada, and the United States. But if these issues are as vital as Teitelbaum and Winter maintain, it is hard to see how politicians can fail to address them without sacrificing their own political relevance.


[A Question of Numbers: High Migration, Low Fertility, and the Politics of National Identity, by Michael S. Teitelbaum and Jay Winter (New York: Hill & Wang) 290 pp., $26.00]