This week, The Atlantic released its newest issue, provocatively titled “How to Stop a Civil War.” Leading its collection of essays is a fascinating piece by Yoni Applebaum. In it, Applebaum posits that at the crux of America’s vitriolic politics lies demographic change: “The United States is undergoing a transition perhaps no rich and stable democracy has ever experienced: Its historically dominant group is on its way to becoming a political minority — and its minority groups are asserting their co-equal rights and interests.”
This, he suggests, has led to an impasse for the center-right, which refuses to adapt to changing demographics, instead doubling down on President Donald Trump’s white, working-class base. Applebaum explains, “When a group that has traditionally exercised power comes to believe that its eclipse is inevitable, and that the destruction of all it holds dear will follow, it will fight to preserve what it has — whatever the cost.”
But Applebaum’s thesis doesn’t explain why, in his view, conservatives have abandoned the attempt to persuade new populations. Applebaum himself acknowledges that a “conservatism defined by ideas can hold its own against progressivism, winning converts to its principles and evolving with each generation.” Why, then, have conservatives supposedly given up?
The answer lies in a simple truth: Conservatives haven’t despaired of winning over new converts.
While a slight majority of Republicans believe that immigration should be reduced, pluralities or majorities of Republicans in the majority of polls believe that immigration is good for the country; a heavy majority of Republicans favor a “merit-based” immigration approach.
Conservative opposition to increased immigration isn’t driven by fears of demographic change. It’s driven by fear of ideological change. And that fear of ideological change is actually driven by Democrats’ radicalism — and their overt suggestion that demographic change will provide the fodder for that radicalism.
Applebaum rightly states, “The United States possesses a strong radical tradition, but its most successful social movements have generally adopted the language of conservatism, framing their calls for change as an expression of America’s founding ideals rather than as a rejection of them.”
But today’s successful social movements — the movements of the Democratic left — no longer bother with such niceties. Instead, they declare that America was, has been and always will be a racist place, riven by hierarchies of power, a corrupt structure to be overturned by that emerging demographic majority. These movements overtly call for curbing essential American freedoms — freedom of speech, freedom to bear arms, freedom of religion — in order to overthrow the corrupt power structure. The Democratic left then insists that immigration levels be increased both legally and illegally and suggests that its opponents are driven by unbridled racism.
In essence, the Democrats have decided that rather than expanding the application of American principles to new groups, they prefer to fundamentally change the definition of American principles and utilize immigration policy to facilitate that change. No wonder conservatives have responded by calling for immigration restrictions.
Conservatism must indeed root out and destroy any elements of race-driven policy from its midst. Conservatism speaks every language and can reside in any human heart. If the left wishes to avoid a civil war, it can start by doing the same: refraining from the argument that demographic change innately signals rewriting the definition of Americanism, and arguing in favor of that revision.