Eric Kaufmann, Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities. New York: Abrams Press, 2019. 624 pages.

In Whiteshift, Eric Kaufmann recognizes the long-term, unavoidable decline in White majorities in the West and begins to pick apart the implications. This is an old-fashioned book, with 600+ pages dissecting topics from a wide variety of angles. While lacking in causal clarity, it is a fascinating compendium that sheds much light on the sources and strains of racial evolution in the West. Kaufmann’s underlying motivation is mentioned but not analyzed in detail: declining birth rates in the West mean that non-European-origin populations will become majorities by midcentury. Many themes are treated, but the principal ones are the links between White decline and the rise of populism in the United States and Europe, immigration and the potential for managing the “shift.”

Sections of the book rely on polls and surveys, others on historical background and simple observations. Kaufmann must have spent many years compiling these strands of evidence, and his assiduousness must be commended. However, multiple strands and methods lead to some incoherence, making it difficult to tie the evidence to his policy and social recommendations which, while plausible, are not well argued.

Populism as a racial backlash

The debate around populism over the last decade has centred around two theories: race and economic decline. In parts of this book, Kaufmann dismisses the economic decline argument. He contends that the populist wave represented by Trump and Brexit, his two main case studies, is linked to White backlash, rather than any economic factors. He provides survey data reflecting consistent anti-immigration attitudes across economic classes, and he declares in the introduction,

No one who has honestly analysed survey data on individuals – the gold standard for public opinion research – can deny that white majority concern over immigration is the main cause of the populist right in the West. This is primarily explained by concern over identity, not economic threat.

Kaufmann admirably traces the discourse around race relations and immigration policies in the West from imperial superiority to a generally bifurcated response of nativism and cosmopolitanism. He includes historically dense national studies of the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. He traces the nativist response in the United States back to anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant movements in the second half of the 19th century. Cosmopolitanism in the United States gained ground and legitimacy during the civil rights conflicts of the 1960s and the introduction of academic Critical Race Theory, which pushes cosmopolitanism from tolerance to a proactive embrace of diversity and has roots going back to anti-bourgeois writers at the turn of the 20th century.

Kaufmann describes the deeper roots of contemporary “culture wars” reflected in the evocation of “cancel culture” at the 2020 Republican National Convention as well as the more inflammatory threat stories, such as the “war on Christmas” and radical right conspiracy theories on Fox News and its internet-based soulmates such as Breitbart. It’s impossible to deny the role of Steve Bannon and race-baiting in Trump’s approach, including his infamous tolerance of the White supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. However, the cultural war is not simply partisan, as Kaufmann points out. It is part of a wider debate in society that has been building for many decades, as seen in debates around whether controversial speakers should be given a platform at universities, and how to deal with cultures whose practices, such the wearing of a burqa, go against Western concepts of basic rights.

The racial content of the Brexit vote is less clear. Kaufmann points out that the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party, under the diection of Nigel Farage, determinedly avoided racial depictions of the immigration issue. However, racial themes are more manifest elsewhere in the European Union, from the Front National in France and the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany to the more overtly discriminatory policies of eastern European leaders, most prominently Viktor Orbán in Hungary, who shut the border to Syrian migrants and offers bonuses for native Hungarians willing to give birth to more children. These events show that racial tensions in the West go well beyond the delusional fantasies of Anders Breivik (who shot 75 young supporters of the social democratic party in Norway in 2011) or those who subscribe to the dystopian Islamophobia of Jean Raspail’s famous 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints.

Undoubtedly the Syrian refugee crisis, which peaked in 2015, the terror attacks across the EU from 2004 (the year of the Madrid train bombing) and illegal immigration from the Middle East and North Africa have affected European sensibilities. The same is true, to a lesser extent, going back decades in the United States. Trump’s 2015 campaign initiation speech depicted illegal Mexican immigrants as “drug dealers, criminals and rapists.” Kaufmann (questionably) asserts that the Brexit vote was not based on wage competition arising from immigrating eastern Europeans but on increased non-European immigration.

Historical perspective is important. As Kaufmann points out, the United States, Canada and Australia are all immigrant nations, and thus immigration has very positive connotations in all three countries – as reflected in the Statue of Liberty, a welcoming beacon for “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Kaufmann corrects the current cosmopolitan discourse reflected in Democratic platforms. He notes the west European White majority resistance to waves of mid-19th-century Irish immigration and, later, south and east European immigration at the turn of the 20th century. Kaufmann compares current Australian and U.S. anti-immigration politics to previous history, noting that the challenges of assimilating non-Whites will be much greater than those of assimilating European immigrants. Moreover, present anti-immigration platforms reflect post-1960s surges in migration to the West from non-European countries. The differences in birth rates, generally declining in the West and rising in the South, figure in the nativist discourse.

Furthermore, more fundamentalist groups, from Orthodox Jews to Mormons to those tied to Islamic fundamentalism, tend to have higher birth rates, according to Kaufmann, and are less likely to intermarry. Canada and Australia, privileged by geography, do not have the steady stream of illegal immigration in the U.S. and EU. Canada has formally embraced immigration, despite (or perhaps because of) the struggles between anglophone and francophone Canada. Kaufmann, who grew up in Vancouver, sees Canada as a potential proto-model for the future, though he is less sanguine about Quebec. He does not really unpack the reasons why there is an underlying civic discourse in Canada that makes racist and xenophobic statements unacceptable. One plausible suggestion is that the language split forced Canada into embrace of multiculturalism, in an attempt to transcend this bipolarity.

Melting pot or salad bowl?

Those of us who witnessed the birth of the Canadian Nationalist Party as well as the treatment of Haitian immigrants put in a Montreal stadium for shelter in 2017, know that the cosmopolitan multicultural discourse in Canada is far from being fully embraced. For example, assimilation of immigrant professionals is an ongoing concern. As Kaufmann notes, the rapid rise of real estate prices in Toronto and Vancouver over the last decade led to British Columbia’s imposing a nonnative home purchase tax in Vancouver. Ethnic enclaves, such as Richmond and Surrey in greater Vancouver, reflect more of a mosaic of cultures than a melting pot.

Multiculturalism as promoted by political theorist Will Kymlicka has not been well defined in practice. Does it mean equity of opportunity or, for example, more affirmative action outcomes ensuring proportional representation by ethnicity, gender and sexuality? Does it mean that we should strive for a cultural mélange (“postethnic society”) or see a long-term continuation of ethnic differences as long as everyone plays by the same rules? And who would set the rules? At present, Canadian multiculturalism is a formal “live and let live” approach, tolerating and approving ongoing ethnic differences, while in practice there are subsurface conflicts, such as Quebec’s pushing of a pro-francophone assimilation policy and burqa ban. While Kaufmann focuses on the issues posed by Quebec policies, there is a wider hand-wringing discussion about First Nations culture as well. As Kaufmann notes, such an approach is hard to transfer to any other country, including Australia, where the sense of national identity through shared history and cultural symbolism (“a convict nation”) is much stronger than Canadian equivalents.

Kaufmann largely ignores the power variable in much of his discussion, specifically the fact that racial differences represent stark differences in opportunities, particularly among indigenous and African-origin citizens. He observes that whiteness is a universal historical marker for power across societies, including those in the South, where whitening creams are popular and shades of whiteness continue to matter. He concludes that the White majority in most nations is not prepared at this point to give up their national culture and identity for an ambiguous polyglot definition of nationality. He illustrates this, noting opposition to the removal of statues of Columbus, particularly among Italian Americans. The same debate has arisen in Canada around removal of Macdonald statues. Should his racist notions about “Indians” bear more weight than his contributions to nation-building?

Kaufmann suggests that assimilation of some sort is a more acceptable course to most Whites than legitimizing long-term racial enclaves. The melting pot, he implies, should be based on principles, such as democratic norms and tolerance for free speech. Resistance to religious fundamentalism should be separated from prejudice. This is the rationale for the French interpretation of assimilation. Laïcité républicaine entails immigrant embrace of Western liberalism. For example, religious freedom does not extend to preventing women from having access to education. Kaufmann has an important contribution to make here, though it is underdeveloped. More controversial is his suggestion that immigration policies be based on the likelihood of prospective entrants assimilating to national norms. How could this be implemented? Many refugees are Muslims with conservative moral attitudes, fleeing Muslim-majority countries in crisis. How do we weigh the humanitarian needs of refugees against their potential embrace of Western liberal values?

Overall, Kaufmann suggests four possible responses by Whites to demographic change:

  • fight ethnic change, which he suggests is a losing battle;
  • repress anxieties through antiracism campaigns, which he concludes will not remove prejudice, just bury it;
  • flee to separate neighbourhoods, clubs etc. defined by ethnicity or race;
  • mix with newcomers whatever their attitudes toward liberalism.

In the end, he surmises that both the third and fourth processes will take place. Some Whites will continue to flee to their homogeneous White neighbourhoods (which he demonstrates using geographic data on rural and exurban ethnic composition) while others will mix (which he shows is happening through intermarriage in cosmopolitan neighbourhoods, principally in urban centres). Kaufmann adopts a more conservative approach than many multicultural advocates. He is favourable to immigration, so long as immigrants don’t harm others, which he terms “negative liberty.” He rejects the assertions of Critical Race Theory. This rejection is problematic considering the differences in basic services (such as quality of education) by race, which in turn limits immigrant economic mobility and income. Kaufmann acknowledges that “Whites get used to a minority presence” over time; thus, the rate of change, and not change itself, is more likely to be the issue.

One trend Kaufmann underplays is differences in attitudes by age of cohort. Younger people are far more cosmopolitan and intolerant of racism than older cohorts, as seen in voting trends in the United States and in the Brexit vote. As Kaufmann states, “cultural tradition, not genes, tells us which markers matter and which don’t.” Perhaps with the dying off of the old, a more tolerant society can be built. A mixed-race candidate with an Islamic-sounding name, Barack Hussein Obama, won the presidency with widespread cross-ethnic support, particularly strong among younger cohorts. Kaufmann acknowledges as much in his allusion to declines in religiosity in the West (in contrast to the rapid growth of Christianity and Islam in the South), and increases in intermarriage across ethnic groups. One can add increasing acceptance of racial, gender and sexual equality.

The Democratic Party in the United States represents the cosmopolitan direction, oriented toward the country’s developing majority-minority status. While this orientation is bound to become more pronounced over time, the major stumbling block is geography and the U.S. constitution, especially the composition of the Senate and Electoral College. Hillary Clinton resoundingly won the popular vote while losing the 2016 presidential election, in good part because minorities’ turnout in swing states was down relative to 2012.

To sum up, we are at a transition point. We have yet to construct a new definition, ethos and set of myths that define a Western nation. Nor have we dealt with the fact that rapidly increasing migration from non-Western states is bound to make assimilation challenging. The existence of ethnic ghettos in the United States and Europe is not just a replay of previous waves of immigration. Significant areas of concentration by ethnicity raise questions about exacerbation of both cultural/ethnic and socioeconomic differences and the accompanying backlash against them, rather than the rosy picture painted by multiculturalism. The persistence of widespread illegal labour in the American food sector and the ghetto origins of some recent Islamic European terrorists are examples.1

It’s the economy, stupid

The major weakness of Kaufmann’s treatment is his complete dismissal of economic factors. It is easy to show that economic issues routinely register as the most important in Western voters’ minds absent an immediate crisis; usually, immigration ranks considerably lower. In my 2019 book The Great Disruption: Understanding the Populist Forces Behind Trump, Brexit, and LePen I make the economic argument for populism, putting it in the perspective of larger disruptive forces.

Populism is a global phenomenon, including many actors from Duterte in the Philippines to Bolsonaro in Brazil to Modi in India. It cannot be based solely on race. In addition, I point to the survey shifts Kaufmann acknowledges: in general, Western attitudes have become steadily more cosmopolitan, accelerating in the post–World War II period. The voting blocs for Trump, Brexit and LePen very clearly reflect a map of economic winners and losers. Kaufmann dismisses the increase in White rural suicides in the United States2; I link them to a loss of well-paying jobs in labour-intensive industries from coal mining to manufacturing.

Moreover, he ascribes Brexit solely to White resentment at changing neighbourhoods because of increased non-European immigration. Undoubtedly the challenge to White identity played a role, but he ignores the geographic nature of the Brexit vote. London, the region whose ethnic composition has changed more than anywhere else in the U.K., is prosperous and voted Remain. Northern and rural areas of the U.K. suffer from postindustrial decline, similar to the U.S. midwest and northern France. Here the majority voted Leave.

Kaufmann concludes that education, not income level, predicted the Brexit vote, which allows him to dismiss economic factors in favour of racial identity. To quote him, Leave voters were “willing to sacrifice economic benefits to cut immigration”; yet the Leave campaign was premised in good part on the idea that the U.K. was not getting a fair economic deal from the EU, and post-exit negotiations are stalled on economic terms. Education levels closely correlate with income levels as well as race. It seems strange to completely dismiss the ubiquitous stories of British working-class (with less than high school) resentment against eastern European immigrants. The same voter profile supports Trump and LePen. On this subject, identity vs. economic interests, Kaufmann is inconsistent. Later in the book, he concludes that Brexit marginalized UKIP: “As long as Britain’s economy remains healthy … immigration will be difficult to reduce to 1990s levels.” Given this conclusion, how could he claim that the Brexit vote was based only on non-European immigration?

If we accept some measure of economic causality, then how do we explain the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Trump and Europe’s far right? As previously mentioned, the surges of migration and Islamic terror, mentioned in passing by Kaufmann, help to explain the timing, but the real challenge is the diffuse causal reasons for economic disruption. A politician cannot readily point a finger at automation, whereas pointing a finger at immigrants as a convenient scapegoat is easy. Politicians blame immigrants even though their crime rates are no higher than those of the U.S.-born, and that they tend to assimilate over a few generations, as seen in the case of Hispanic-origin leaders such as Ted Cruz, who is now seen as a White politician. Given demographic decline, what choice does the West have but to accept a managed increase in immigration? The alternative is a declining population and size of economy, as in Japan.

Another factor ignored by Kaufmann is globalization, and in particular the shift in manufacturing to Asia. This has led to increasing inequality of incomes in high-income countries, including the financialization of the economy, as reflected in urban/coastal vs. rural incomes. This inequality, rather than a sudden retrograde increase in racism, underlies the growing backlash against urban elites.

Like racial mixing, globalization seems impossible to reverse in the long run. We are all now global consumers, used to purchasing items at the lowest price, largely ignoring labour and environmental conditions of those who do the manufacturing, as well as their country. Despite Trump’s trade war against China, there has been no effective return of manufacturing to the continental United States, and despite his war against Huawei, China continues to improve its technological competitiveness and potential leadership. Brexit has yielded no plan to restore the U.K. to its previous economic state; if anything, we see movement of companies to the continent. As Kaufmann notes, support for the EU is strong in continental Europe, and growing among younger demographics.

A real break from globalization would be impossible given the complex integration of supply chains and the free flow of global finance, including vast Chinese holdings of U.S. Treasury bonds and company shares. Thus, populism is properly seen as a retrograde resistance in the face of overwhelming change on several fronts; it cannot be reduced to racial resentment. Moreover, in Kaufmann’s focus on nations, he misses action on the global level. In the end, it’s hard to see how a sensible immigration policy could ignore the “push” factors in the South, yet that’s what the West has done to its own detriment.


1 For example, the 2015 Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan theatre attacks were carried out by European citizens of Middle Eastern origin, claiming to attack on behalf of Islam.

2 For more on U.S. White suicide rates, see Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 112, No. 49 (2015), pp. 15078–83.