The United States’ Demographic Revolution Doesn’t Need to Be Destabilizing
But to avoid collapse like the Soviet Union, inclusivity must begin now.
Around the world, demographic sea changes—in which a once-majority verges on tipping into the minority—are assumed to be dangerous. As a given country’s core national identity, invariably maintained by groups in power, is challenged by rising minority populations, the old group will be wary of the new one. The problem isn’t just that the old group wants to avoid sharing power; it is that the old group believes it will be excluded from power, just as it excluded out-groups before. In turn, it will fight back, either subtly through electoral tampering or less so with repression and violence.
That was true of Iraq in the last two decades, in which Sunni Arabs were suddenly ruled by Shiites rather than ruling over them, and of the Soviet Union, where a Russian-Slavic majority feared becoming a minority in the 1970s. Today, the United States, which was once dominated by white male Protestants, is becoming a predominantly multiracial, interfaith, and gender-open society. It should take note, particularly of the Soviet example. If the United States isn’t careful about how it manages the transition, it could also collapse, and its fall may not be peaceful—as the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, when supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump stormed the halls of power, revealed.
With the notable exception of Joseph Stalin (an ethnic Georgian), the Soviet Union’s mythology and national identity narratives produced heroes who were Orthodox Russian Slavs, and almost exclusively male. Their heroic achievements were thought to be a result of their sex, national origin, and faith. This created a self-reinforcing and exclusive mythology that left little room for the union’s minorities.
But even in its earliest days, the Soviet Union was in fact home to hundreds of distinct ethnic, linguistic, racial, and religious groups. The problem, to paraphrase George Orwell, was that although all Soviet ethnic groups were formally equal, some ethnic groups, in this case Russian Slavs, were more equal than others. The same applied to men.
For a few years, the system worked well enough for Moscow. But after World War II, Soviet census data began to record an alarming trend for the old guard. Slavs, concentrated in major urban areas with better access to higher education and employment, were not having nearly as many babies as Chechens, Tatars, and Uzbeks. At the same time, the life expectancy of Slavic men began dropping due to widespread abuse of alcohol. This made their female partners, most of whom were also employed full-time, increasingly reluctant to start or expand families.
At first, the actual demographic statistics were simply falsified for public release—a very common practice in authoritarian countries. But, by the mid-1970s, the demographic demise of the Soviet Union’s Slavic majority was too major a policy concern to remain hidden. The results of the 1979 census, which showed that Slavic birthrates were not keeping pace with non-Slavic, notably Muslim, birthrates, went unpublished for five years, even as the government ramped up efforts to raise the birthrate among Slavs and dampen the rates among others.
But pro-natal policies for Slavic residents came with an unanticipated risk. Women from all ethnic groups had become major contributors to the formal, non-agrarian economy. Therefore, attempts to encourage Slavic women to marry young and have three or four children threatened to undermine already fragile Soviet economic productivity. Meanwhile, an impossible-to-win war in Afghanistan only made things worse. Post-traumatic stress disorder along with heroin and opium abuse among young men piled on top of the scourge of alcoholism. The Politburo thus faced intensifying pressure to adopt economic reforms, partly to keep up with the West, but partly to free Slavic women to have more babies.
This pressure led to the ascent of the young economic reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, who, faced with a planned economy and Slav population in decline, innovated two core policies: openness and restructuring.
Openness was intended to allow workers, planners, and academics to work together to share best practices. But as the availability of knowledge of the outside world expanded, Soviets learned that none of the party’s long-standing claims to superior Soviet technology, education, health care, and standard of living were true. And non-Slavs became aware of just how much their heroes, traditions, languages, and histories had been unfairly left out of the Soviet national identity.
The resulting resentment might have been manageable had Gorbachev not combined openness with restructuring. His reforms gave political power to what had formerly been low-level political and managerial positions—and created pathways for the political release of anger through large-scale demonstrations. As resentment began to pull the Soviet Union apart, Gorbachev faced a stark choice between simply hoping the Soviet ship would right itself economically and politically, and resorting to the long-established practice of using troops to kill protesters at mass rallies. Gorbachev refused the latter, and the Soviet Union disintegrated largely without bloodshed.
As with the Soviet Union, the United States also has a national mythology: and it features predominantly white, male, and Protestant heroes. And as in the Soviet Union, many white men are today feeling threatened by what they perceive as a rising tide of “others” anxious to gain privileges and benefits formerly exclusive to white men.
Today the fastest-growing group in the United States is those who are multiracial. Recent census estimates indicate that the number of white Americans has actually declined in the past decade, which, as William Frey of the Brookings Institution points out, marks the first 10-year period since 1790 that the white population did not grow. For those who follow the politicking that happens with censuses around the world, it did not come as a surprise that those threatened by these demographic trends intensified their efforts to undermine the United States’ 2020 decennial census.
In addition, a generation of changes in tax policy and the ease of tax avoidance by the wealthy have led to extreme income inequality. Stacked on top of that is a decline in industry and manufacturing, leading to economic decline for many majority-white communities. Coupled with polarizing news media and rising misinformation, non-Hispanic white men with a high school education may feel increasingly marginalized, and they now appear equally divided between insensate rage and despair.
The Republican Party, too, has become a minority party, composed increasingly of older white Protestant men. A February 2019 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute revealed that only 29 percent of Republicans preferred an ethnically and racially diverse country, and 12 percent a religiously diverse country. It appears, as with the Soviet leadership, they fear that new groups will replace them—and perhaps exclude them as they once excluded others.
Left undisturbed, rising identity groups rarely vote as a bloc, as dwindling majority groups might fear. They tend to form coalitions around different interests. To be sure, if those rising groups share a history of abuse at the hands of the declining one, they are more likely to vote as a bloc. But even then, they are relatively unlikely to enact violence against the fading majority. Rather, violence often goes the other way around.
There are at least two overlapping demographic groups in the United States—including Black Americans, through Black Lives Matter, and women, through #MeToo—unifying around their shared history of abuse as some white men arm themselves and vent their rage.
To head off a terrible cycle of self-destruction, in which the waning in-group responds to those movements with increasing violence, all Americans need to work together now to commit to a future of inclusiveness, and for leadership at all levels to reach across divisions. What is so striking is that the Republican Party and its leadership used to mobilize broad constituencies: for example, around issues of limited regulation, small government, and a strong military. But if recent events under the Trump administration are any indication, the party is now more committed to catering to a more limited and extreme base, determined to bend rules, even break them, in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable. What is needed is new ideas around policy, not identity, and a broadening of what the party represents beyond the “Make America Great Again” white, Christian core.
By midcentury, when white Americans are due to become a demographic minority, every American can win if diversity is defended and inclusivity is welcomed. E pluribus unum, “out of many, one,” the national motto that dates back more than two centuries, needs to be embraced yet again such that nonwhites, non-Christians, and women are treated as normal and desirable voices in power. If the United States fails to embrace its multiracial and interfaith future, the declining group will only continue to escalate its demands for unearned privilege, and everyone will wind up losing in the end.
Monica Duffy Toft is a professor of international politics and the director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. She is a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the Peace Research Institute Oslo.