The “Great Replacement Theory” and the Dangers of Zero-Sum Worldviews
The racist murderer who killed ten people in Buffalo on Sunday was a follower of the “great replacement theory”: the idea that there is a conspiracy to “replace” white Americans with immigrants from poor, non-white nations, and thus seize the resources of the former for the benefit of the latter and various nefarious elites. GRT supporters also often blame the plot on Jews, adding an anti-Semitic twist to their racism. The Buffalo shooter targeted Blacks because he hoped reducing their numbers would bolster White interests.
Sadly, this isn’t the first time GRT has inspired mass murder. Similar ideas were embraced by perpetrators of mass murders targeting Muslim immigrants in New Zealand and Hispanics in El Paso, Texas, both in 2019. The Buffalo killer praised both of these earlier atrocities in its manifesto.
While GRT was born among fringe extremists, its precepts have been kissed by A good number mainstream right-wing politicians and political commentators, including Tucker Carlson. This helps underscore the theory’s right-wing pedigree. But worshipers, including the various mass killers, also espouse ideas traditionally associated with the political left, including hatred of big business and concerns about environmental degradation (which they largely attribute to the immigration). The Buffalo Killer, for example, describes himself as an “eco-fascist”, and opposes non-white immigration in part because he believes it destroys the environment (as well as “uncontrolled urbanization” promoted by corporate elites).
What unites the racist, nationalist and seemingly left-wing elements of these peoples’ worldviews is the assumption that the world is a zero-sum game: immigrants can only win at the expense of natives, rich at the expense of the poor. Whites can only flourish and prosper by excluding blacks and other groups, and so on.
Sadly, this kind of zero-sum thinking goes far beyond a few extremists and is not confined solely to the nationalist right, although the latter is a particularly egregious and dangerous manifestation. What I wrote in the aftermath of the New Zealand and El Paso killings remains relevant:
Some may find it surprising that the perpetrator of the horrific New Zealand terrorist attack that killed fifty Muslim worshipers in two mosques, combined a seemingly right-wing nationalism with a seemingly left-wing socialism and environmentalist….
But in this case, the terrorist’s worldview is less unusual than it seems. A similar combination of views is evident in many xenophobic nationalist movements, past and present. Socialists and nationalists have their differences. But they also have a lot in common, including a zero-sum view of the world.
Anti-immigrant nationalist parties in Europe often combine hostility to non-white immigration with support for extensive government control of the economy. This is true in cases such as the National Front in France (now renamed “National Rally”) and the AfD in Germany. These parties also often blame immigrants for real and imagined environmental degradation, just as the author of the New Zealand attack….
Similarly, author of New Zealand attack argues that environmentalism and immigration restriction ‘are the same problem [because] the environment is being destroyed by overpopulation,…” Some influential far-left environmentalists have also advocated coercive population controlincluding Defending China’s Cruel “One Child” Policy….[note: the El Paso killer also uses the supposed need for population control as a justification for keeping out immigrants].
Racial nationalists and far-left socialists share a common zero-sum worldview in which some groups can only succeed and prosper at the expense of others. It’s easy to see how this kind of worldview often leads adherents to believe that drastic action – including violence – is essential to ensure that the “good” people end up winning in this cruel zero-sum world. . I have discussed this crucial commonality in more detail here…
Zero-sum thinking need not always lead to racial and ethnic hostility or xenophobia. It is also often channeled in other directions, such as hostility towards wealthier members of one’s own ethnic group or society. In some cases this leads to a combination of fear of strangers and fear of the rich.
For example, surprisingly popular Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders echoes Donald Trump’s hostility to international trade, while simultaneously arguing that ordinary Americans can only succeed economically by redistributing vast wealth from of the “1%”. Until recently, he also show strong hostility towards immigrationdenouncing the idea of free labor migration as a plot by the “Koch brothers” and other malevolent billionaires, which would impoverish the working class and ultimately “eliminate the concept of the nation state…”.
Fortunately, most nationalists and socialists are not willing to go so far as to personally commit acts of terrorism. But too many are willing to advocate large-scale coercion that inflicts great damage on large numbers of people, to ensure that they and their favorite causes do not end up losers in a zero-sum world. Whether it is banning migrants fleeing horrific oppression, separating immigrant children from their parents to deter them from entering, coercive population control, mass expropriation of property and repression of “capitalists” in order to transfer the wealth of the nation to the “people”. The list can easily be extended….
There is no easy antidote to the spread of dangerous zero-sum ideas. But perhaps the beginning of wisdom is recognizing the danger they pose, and understanding why they are wrong…
Far from enriching the natives, restrictions on immigration often end up undermining their freedom and prosperity as well as that of potential immigrants. Standard economic estimates indicate that free migration around the world would double world GDP, with much of the earnings going to natives, not just migrants. Natives lose gains from trade with immigrants, and also suffer from civil liberties violations inherent in efforts to remove and deport migrants. Rich and poor are not locked in a zero-sum game either. On the contrary, they can prosper together through mutual exchanges, and this is often the case historically.
Pollution and global warming are really serious problems. But fixing it doesn’t require massive coercion or keeping millions of people in poverty. Historically, the increase in wealth has actually led to reductions in pollution (after an initial increase early in the industrialization process), as wealthy societies can more easily afford to invest in pollution reduction. Even when it comes to the particularly difficult challenge of climate change, there are ways to fight it that simultaneously increase prosperity rather than stifle it. They include reduce regulatory barriers to the use of nuclear energy, reduce zoning restrictions that make it difficult to build denser housingand offer prizes for the development of new “clean” energy technologies. Where regulation is needed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, it should take the form of a scalpel a revenue-neutral carbon taxrather than the meat cleaver of coercive population control and government takeovers of huge swathes of the economy.
I would add that some forms of leftist identity politics also promote the idea that relations between ethnic and racial groups are a zero-sum game. For example, prominent “anti-racism” advocate Ibram X. Kendi famous writing that “[t]it only remedies
racist discrimination is anti-racist discrimination. The only cure for the past
discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to discriminate is
future discrimination.According to this theory, black progress depends on discrimination against whites. White nationalists and GRT supporters hold much the same view – differing primarily in their assessment of which groups they want to defeat.
The zero-sum ethnic nationalism of racial majorities is far more dangerous than the adoption of comparable ideas for minorities by people like Kendi. Among other things, majority groups hold more power (especially in democratic societies) and can therefore inflict greater injustices by adopting wrong ideas. But the two types of zero-sum identity politics can be mutually reinforcing, with one helping to promote the other.
Recent events provide even more evidence that the interests of immigrants and natives – and those of different racial and ethnic groups – are mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive. Immigration restrictions hurt natives of a wide variety of waysincluding by reducing scientific innovation of the type led to the development of the first two successful Covid vaccines. I discuss these synergies of interests further (as well as ways to mitigate the potential negative side effects of migration by means other than exclusion) in my book Freedom of movement: voting on foot, migration and political freedom.
Both minorities and whites could benefit massively from reforms that expand freedom and opportunity for both, such as removing exclusionary zoning, making it easier for both to move to areas with greater opportunities, thus making our society whole more innovative and productive.
More fundamentally, immigrants, natives, and people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds could benefit from a society that rejects zero-sum thinking and minimizes racial and ethnic identity. Instead, we should promote universal liberal principles of the kind that inspired the American Revolution and the abolition of slavery. These ideas led to enormous progress, even if the nation never fully respected them. And they can do even more, if we give them more of a chance.
NOTE: Since the perpetrators of terrorist attacks often undertake them largely to gain publicity and attract media attention to themselves and their ideas, I have refrained from mentioning the names of the men who carried out the attacks in New Zealand, El Paso and Buffalo, nor to link to their “manifestos”. I have instead linked to other summaries of their ideas. But the names and manifestos are easily found online, for those who wish to see them.