Ann Coulter, in so many words, thinks that I am responsible for the mass shooting in Buffalo in mid-May.
Not me alone. After the shooting, Coulter wrote a column dismissing the idea that Republican politicians and commentators had popularized the “Great Replacement” theory, a conspiracy theory that the young, white Buffalo shooter cited as a motivation before killing 10 people at a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Instead, Coulter argued that the theory had been popularized by political analysts and Democratic operatives who have predicted that the nation’s changing demographics will benefit Democrats over time.
In particular, Coulter, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and others on the right have cited the work of journalists like me, the Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, and the electoral analysts John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, authors of The Emerging Democratic Majority, claiming that, by writing about demographic change and its electoral impact, we are responsible for seeding the idea that white Americans are being displaced. “If you don’t want people to be paranoid and angry, maybe you don’t write pieces like that and rub it right in their face,” Carlson, who has relentlessly touted replacement theory on his show, declared in a recent monologue.
It might go without saying that documenting demographic change is not the same as using it to incite and politically mobilize those who are fearful of it. It’s something like the difference between reporting a fire and setting one. But given how many right-wing racial provocateurs are trying to disavow the consequences of their “replacement” rhetoric, it apparently bears explaining how their incendiary language differs from the arguments of mainstream demographic and electoral analysts.
Let’s start with defining replacement theory. It’s a racist formulation that has migrated from France to far-right American circles to some officials and candidates in the GOP mainstream. In its purest version, the theory maintains that shadowy, left-wing elites—often identified as Jews—are deliberately working to undermine the political influence of native-born white citizens by promoting immigration and other policies that increase racial diversity. This conspiracy theory was the inspiration, if that’s the right word, for the neo-Nazis who chanted during their 2017 march in Charlottesville, Virginia, that “Jews will not replace us.”
Stripped of the overt anti-Semitism, replacement theory has become a constant talking point for Carlson. A growing number of Republican politicians, such as House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik and the Ohio Senate candidate J. D. Vance, have incorporated versions of it into their rhetoric. It’s the most virulent iteration of the core message former President Donald Trump has imprinted onto his party: Republicans are your last line of defense against diverse, urban, secular, LGBTQ-friendly, “woke” Democrats, who are trying to uproot the nation from its traditions and transform it into something unrecognizable.
Undoubtedly, some Democrats over the years have argued that the party would benefit from higher levels of immigration. But this is the first point of difference between mainstream demographic analysis and replacement theory: No serious student of history or politics believes that a Democratic plot to import “more obedient voters from the Third World,” as Carlson puts it, has been the driving force behind U.S. immigration policy. Until the 1990s, most of the key decisions in modern immigration policy were bipartisan—from the passage of the landmark 1965 immigration-reform act to the amnesty for undocumented immigrants signed into law by President Ronald Reagan to the Republican-controlled Senate’s passage of comprehensive immigration reform in 2006, with unwavering support from President George W. Bush. A Democratic-led conspiracy that ensnared Reagan and Bush would be pretty impressive—if it weren’t so implausible.
Second, replacement theory pinpoints immigration policy, particularly the potential legalization of undocumented immigrants, as the key reason that white Americans are being “displaced.” But Frey, the Brookings demographer, has repeatedly documented that immigration is no longer the principal driver of the nation’s growing diversity. As he wrote in a 2020 paper, census “projections show that the U.S. will continue to become more racially diverse” no matter what level of future legal immigration the U.S. government authorizes. Diversity will grow somewhat faster under scenarios of high rather than low immigration, but diversity will increase regardless, Frey notes, because it is propelled mostly by another factor. Among those already living in the United States, people of color have higher birth rates than white people, who are much older on average. Even eliminating all immigration for the next four decades would not prevent the white share of the U.S. population from declining further, Frey’s analysis of the census data found.
A third big difference between replacement theory and analyses of demographic change revolves around the role that race plays in the changing balance of political power in America. Many on the right see racial change as the key threat to the Republican Party’s electoral prospects. But demographic analysts have never seen racial change as sufficient to tilt the electoral competition between the parties. White Americans still cast somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of all votes (depending on the data source). That number has been steadily declining, at a rate of about two to three percentage points every four years. Even at that pace, it would be another seven or eight presidential elections—roughly until 2050—before minorities cast a majority of the vote.
No party can write off America’s white majority for that long. Instead, I and other analysts have long argued that Democrats have the opportunity to build a multiracial coalition composed of both the increasing minority population and groups within the white population that are most comfortable with a diversifying America: namely those who are college-educated, secular, urban, and younger, especially women in all of those cohorts. The combination of these white groups (many of which are growing) and the expanding minority population is what I have called the Democrats’ “coalition of transformation.”
Even Democratic organizations that are focused on maximizing political participation among nonwhite voters recognize the centrality of building a multiracial coalition, on electoral as well as moral grounds. “First and foremost, multiracial democracy is inherently inclusive of white people,” says Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, the vice president and chief strategist for Way to Win, which helps fund organizations and campaigns focusing on voters of color. “I don’t imagine an America in which a winning coalition across the nation and in the key states we’re going to need to be winning … [is] without white people as part of the coalition.”
This leads to perhaps the most important divergence between replacement theory and theories of demographic change. Those on the right who push replacement theory tell their mostly white supporters that they are locked in a zero-sum competition with minorities and immigrants who are stealing what rightfully belongs to them: electoral power, economic opportunity, the cultural definition of what it means to be a legitimate American. “There’s always this underlying theft—they are taking these things by dishonest means; they are taking what is yours,” explains Mike Madrid, a longtime Republican strategist who has become a leading critic of the party’s direction under Trump.
By contrast, I and other analysts have emphasized the interdependence of the white and nonwhite populations. Building on work from Frey, I’ve repeatedly written that America is being reshaped by two concurrent demographic revolutions: a youth population that is rapidly growing more racially diverse, and a senior population that is increasing in size as Baby Boomers retire but that will remain preponderantly white for decades. (The Baby Boom was about 80 percent white.) Although these shifts raise the prospect of increased political and social tension between what I called “the brown and the gray,” the two groups are bound together more than our politics often allows. A core reality of 21st-century America is that this senior population will depend on a largely nonwhite workforce to pay the taxes that fund Social Security and Medicare, not to mention to provide the medical care those seniors need.
While the likes of Carlson and Coulter tell white Americans to fear that immigrants or people of color are replacing them politically, financial security for the “gray” is impossible without economic opportunity for the “brown.”
This isn’t to say that there is no political competition between older white Americans, who make up the core of the Republican coalition, and younger nonwhite Americans, who are more and more central to the Democratic coalition. In fact, a mistake that I and many other demographic and electoral analysts made over the past decade was to underestimate how big a coalition a candidate like Trump could mobilize in the name of protecting culturally conservative, white, Christian America.
For many years, I have argued that the diversification of the Democratic coalition wouldn’t always work to the party’s electoral advantage. As the party’s most culturally conservative components sheared off, I believed, Democrats would need to take more consistently liberal positions on social issues, which in turn would alienate more centrist voters from the party. That ideological re-sorting, I wrote in National Journal in 2013, would both “increase the pressure” on the Democratic Party “to maintain lopsided margins and high turnout among minorities and young people” and “make it tougher for [Democrats] to control Congress, at least until demographic change ripples through more states and House districts.” That prediction has held up.
At the same time, I stressed—and quoted experts from both parties who shared the view—that Republicans would face a growing long-term challenge in winning the White House if they could not improve their performance among minorities, young people, and college-educated and secular white voters. (The famous Republican National Committee “autopsy” of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential loss largely reached the same conclusion.) In one sense, that prediction held up too: Democrats won the popular vote in 2016 and 2020.
But, to a greater extent than I and others had forecast, Trump’s ability to win an Electoral College majority in 2016, and the fact that he came so close again in 2020, made clear that Republicans could seriously compete for the White House with what I have called their “coalition of restoration,” centered on the nonurban, non-college-educated, and Christian white voters who are most alienated by the changes remaking 21st-century America. The difficulty for the Democrats in holding the House, and especially the Senate, which favors smaller states that tend to elect Republicans, was even greater than I and others had expected.
Trump’s success among blue-collar white voters in key Rust Belt states was at least somewhat foreseeable. But his unique persona and message—a more open appeal to white racial resentments than any national figure since George Wallace, a bruising economic nationalism, and a sweeping condemnation of “elites”—generated even greater margins and larger turnout among his core supporters than I thought possible. And although some center-right suburban voters abandoned the GOP in the Trump era, many demographic analysts like me—along with the Never Trump movement—underestimated the number of Republican voters who would still vote for Trump or Trumpist GOP candidates as a way to block Democrats and advance other priorities, including tax cuts and conservative judicial appointments.
A new development in 2020 further solidified Trumpism’s hold on the GOP: Trump’s improved performance among Latino voters. That has convinced many Republicans that they can energize racially resentful white voters using nativist and racially coded messages, while still gaining ground among Latinos who are drawn mostly to the Republican economic agenda, as well as conservative views on some social issues such as abortion. This trend has proved an uncomfortable complication for the purveyors of replacement theory, who often portray Latinos as the invidious replacers. In a recent monologue, Carlson tried to square the circle by insisting that Democrats are still trying to displace white voters, but that they have miscalculated about the loyalties of Latino voters.
Due in part to the provocations of Carlson and others, the United States appears trapped in a cycle of increasing racial, generational, and partisan conflict that is escalating fears about the country’s fundamental cohesion. But imagine, Frey suggested to me, if instead of trying to convince older white Americans that younger nonwhite Americans are displacing them, political leaders from both parties emphasized the growing interdependence between these two groups. Ancona, of Way to Win, offers one version of what that message could sound like: “If we start telling a story that America is the richest country in the world, that there is enough pie for everyone, there is no need for ‘replacement.’ The whole construct is wrong. There should be enough for all of us to be free and to be healthy and to be living the life we want to live. There is a beauty in that story we could tell people, but it’s just not being told in a way that it needs to be.”
The refusal of many GOP leaders to condemn replacement theory even after the Buffalo shooting, and their determination to block greater law-enforcement scrutiny of violent white supremacists, underscores how far we are from that world. To me, the safest forecast about the years ahead is that the Republican Party and its allies in the media will only escalate their efforts to squeeze more votes from white Americans by heightening those voters’ fears of a changing country. I’d like to be wrong about that prediction, too, but I’m not optimistic that I will be.