In 2004, Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde published The Populist Zeitgeist, an attempt to define the growingly important but haphazardly applied concept of “populism.” He had an emotional as well as an academic interest, because “far-right” nationalism had enmeshed his own brother. His influential conclusion was that populism was an unlikable “thin ideology,” almost infinitely flexible because focused on a binary division between a good, put-upon “people” and a corrupt, out-of-touch “elite,” and the conviction that the “general will” should always prevail. His definition helped birth an academic subfield of “populist studies” and a billion editorials denouncing Brexiters, Trump voters, Italy’s Lega Nord, Geert Wilders, Germany’s AfD, Viktor Orbán, and all kinds of others—while mainstream politicians strove to adapt his “general will” to their narrower purposes. While the word is still sometimes applied to Bernie Sanders or Spain’s Podemos, it is now usually associated with nationalist, “right-wing” movements, because parties like the Sweden Democrats or Spain’s Vox are more interesting/terrifying to the talking classes than Occupy Wall Street or Greece’s Syriza.
Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, long-time monitors of the radical right, prefix populist with “national” to show there are other possible populisms, but otherwise almost ignore the hard-left movements that have prospered in recent years. They prove that the populist challenge not only lies in volatile parties, but has long taproots. They differentiate scrupulously between modern populists and interwar fascists (no “Godwin’s Law” for Goodwin!), pointing out that “most national populist voters want more democracy—more referendums and more empathetic and listening politicians that give more power to the people.”
Many populist concerns are, the authors insist, “widespread and legitimate,” and some of their beliefs, for example about George Soros’s involvement in a plethora of anti-nationalist campaigns, are “not entirely without credence.” Eatwell and Goodwin are sometimes too understated—“the refugee crisis started to stoke fears that not all those entering Europe were genuine refugees”—although this approach is infinitely preferable to the usual panicky hyperbole. They can also be overly accessible: “The economic system that characterizes the West is known as capitalism.”
They dispose handily of obfuscatory stereotypes—reminding us, for example, that one in three British ethnic-minority voters, one in two urbanites, and half of 35-to-44-year-olds opted for Brexit. They speak of the “four Ds” that have jolted politics out of its long complacency—distrust of politicians and institutions; destruction, or the perception of destruction, of national identities; deprivation brought about by growing economic inequality; and de-alignment of old parties from former supporters. Simplistic explanations cannot cover the motivations of the 62 million who supported Trump, the 17 million who wanted Brexit, or the AfD’s 6 million electors.
Nor are these revolts the last stand of “old white men” soon to be superseded. At least a fifth of young people (half in some countries) are already national populists, and more may become so—and anyway older voters are more likely to turn out on election days (although today’s leftist 20-somethings may become leftist 50-somethings). Political correctness has lost much of its force. Ethnicity and nationalism may be irrational, based upon myths and symbols—but their opposites are even more so. The wish to belong to a distinguishable “tribe” in a “poetic space” seems founded in Gestalt psychology. It is likely, the authors say, that “national populism is only just getting going.” Some parties have attracted steadfast supporters, and have a sense of both agency and urgency. They may decline if they fail to live up to the promises some have suddenly been given the chance to deliver, but on the other hand they could consolidate their electoral successes by detaching interest groups from other parties—most obviously, by embracing green concerns. National and natural preservation are, after all, inseparable. (Populists interested in the long game would also be more active in universities and the creative arts.) The proximate peril for populists lies in the co-optation of their key messages by “populist-lite” politicians—and here, conservatives have an advantage, because all they need to do is “turn up the volume” of their stated programs.
The authors’ calm approach has led to their condemnation (along with Eric Kaufmann) as part of the “academic Alt-Right,” even though they plainly dislike national populism, and suggest ways populist grievances might be assuaged—by creating more local democracy, empowering more working-class lawmakers, and choosing legislators by lottery. Such schemes seem unlikely, while another prescription—more emphasis on civic obligations and “common values”—has already proved woefully inadequate.
Whiteshift goes further into these bitter borderlands. Concerns about endangered national-racial identities fuel populism, and suffuse all kinds of debates. As Anthony D. Smith noted in his 1986 The Ethnic Origins of Nations, “We are probably never so aware of phenomena and objects as when we are about to gain or lose them.”
Renaud Camus’s “Great Replacement” is being replicated far beyond the frontiers of France—and the implications are Earth-altering. Whites are already a minority in many North American cities, and minorities are projected to become the majority in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand by 2050. Even in Europe’s ancient and echoing heartlands, where many ancestries go back to the Mesolithic age, white people are under siege by a mélange of liberal humanitarianism, free-market globalism, cultural criticism, and chiliastic fanaticism. The once world-straddling whites are retreating, and many are deeply fearful (even if they may not always admit this).
There are leftists and conservative Christians who do not like to think about “whiteness”—yet it is impossible not to when one thinks about Europe, just as one cannot separate “blackness” from Africa. Every nation has images, and self-images, which define it—found in old descriptions and representations, which may go back millennia. Exceptional individuals who have come to embody a nation are also partly physical archetypes, examples of what a member of a nation “looks like.” Aesthetics, culture, history, myth, physicality, and romance combine, and implicit associations surround all collective nouns of nationality, from Afghan to Zulu. Even “American” carries connotations; the shift from “all-American” to “all are American” signifies a long trickling away of power from WASPs toward ever-expanding “Others.”
Whiteshift pivots on how people now define “race,” and might define it in future—how they apply this tricksy word to themselves, or project it outward onto others. The author, a University of London politics professor, is an indefatigable researcher who knows civic nationalism is thin gruel, that even liberal whites prefer living in white areas, and that anti-racists have overreached themselves. He says white identity politics are not intrinsically extreme, and whites have real ethnic identities and a natural “self-interest” that can justify less immigration and an element of cultural-ethnic selection. Whites should be allowed to express their feelings, rather than couch existential unease in arguments about benefits, or crime, or security, which may have the unintended effect of increasing racial resentments. He criticizes media that allow “emotion to run away with the truth,” singling out Time for its June 2018 cover depicting a crying immigrant child looking up at Trump. Kaufmann is interested in how genetics alters ideas about identity, and raises the possibility that gene-mapping could eventually be used to make individuals appear whiter (as hair dye or contact lenses are used today), or even recreate vanished groups.
Kaufmann’s concern is how the diminished white populations of the near future can be reconciled to their (perhaps) inevitable fate. Whiteshift is therefore palliative care as much as it is “positive vision,” but it provides an excellent outline of American (and Canadian) self-abnegation, showing how a combination of Protestant divines, liberal progressives like John Dewey, and Greenwich Village’s Young Intellectuals long encouraged asylum, immigration, cultural relativism, and “missionary nationalism,” and inadvertently initiated today’s angst (against bitter opposition from organized labor). The horrors of 1939-45 drove countless homilies home, and by the mid-1960’s white angst and Dewey-eyed sentimentality were in the ascendant. Kaufmann’s discussion of political efforts to restrain or regulate the immigration of nonwhite populations into the U.K. is, however, disappointingly cursory. He mentions the U.K.’s 1905 Aliens Act, the first immigration-control bill, but the 1948 British Nationality Act is not mentioned, although it theoretically opened U.K. residency to unlimited “New Commonwealth” citizens. (Half a million came, sufficient literally to change the face of Britain.)
Like Cas Mudde, Kaufmann has a personal interest in these matters, because he is of mixed ancestry, and has children. Concern about his and their status impels him to advocate white (or “white”) survival by widening the definition of whiteness, and encouraging whites to be “open,” moving from race to name/culture as differentiator—that is, toward a “liberal ethnicity.” He predicts the future will be “relatively stable” after the present discontent, as more whites become “beige,” their countries more like Turkmenistan. White majorities will remain in place, although they will be less white by 2019 understandings of that term—although there will always be unmixed whites, religious minorities with high birthrates, who will increase in importance as they grow in proportion to their national populations. Kaufmann cites as hopeful harbinger an Algerian-French writer who claims the Gauls as “collective ancestors,” and notes how colors can bleed into one another in culture as they do in electromagnetism. He advocates “multivocal” creolization under a benign (because unthreatened-feeling) core, where all could share allegiance to a single flag, because they would all see that flag in different ways; John Major’s “long-shadowed cricket grounds” would be figuratively adjoined by curry houses.
Kaufmann admits to difficulties—“established racial categories will be difficult to recast.” Today’s racism may be tomorrow’s “colorism,” as seen in India. National symbols can carry contradictory meanings depending on who is looking at them—but only up to a point. It seems unlikely that the ultra-left will easily give up the aggressive identity politics they enjoy, wherein “whiteness” can be simultaneously real (to browbeat whites) and unreal (whenever whites seek to cohere). He decries rightist authoritarianism, but underestimates the corresponding tendency on the left. Too many of his well-intentioned prescriptions hinge on the pious hope that discussions of these more than skin-deep subjects can be carried out in a “neutral and encouraging” manner. Even so, Whiteshift should be welcomed, because it signifies a conceptual shift in itself—a venturesome academic foray into territory too rarely visited, and too much feared.
[National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin (London: Penguin) 384 pp., £9.99]
[Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities, by Eric Kaufmann (London: Allen Lane) 624 pp., £25.00]
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