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The ‘Great Replacement’ Delusion

The conspiracy theory—believed by nearly a third of American adults—muddles the facts of demography and immigration history.
September 15, 2022
The ‘Great Replacement’ Delusion
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

As the midterm elections draw near, Republicans have seized on inflation as their prime weapon for bludgeoning Democrats. Yet at the same time, most Republicans are hostile toward one of the best tools available for reducing inflationary pressure: immigration.

For decades, the Republican party wasn’t uniformly hostile to newcomers. It was conflicted on immigration, as the libertarian and pro-business elements of the party coexisted fitfully with immigration opponents—although the two factions were held together by a shared law-and-order opposition to illegal immigration. That coalition fell apart with Donald Trump’s takeover of the party in 2016. Ever since, the GOP has overwhelmingly opposed immigration, legal and illegal alike, largely on the grounds that it changes the racial and ethnic composition of the country—a conviction exacerbated by the so-called “great replacement” theory, which holds that liberal elites are behind the decline in the portion of the population that is non-Hispanic white.

It is true that the past half-century has seen the beginnings of a demographic transformation in the United States. In 1965, 84 percent of Americans were non-Hispanic whites, while currently about 60 percent of the population consists of non-Hispanic whites. But these facts don’t support the pernicious “great replacement” belief—held by nearly one in three Americans, thanks in large part to promoters with large platformsthat this trend reflects a conspiracy by elites to replace the country’s white population with immigrants. To counter this widespread delusion, it is worth revisiting the history behind the changing demography, which shows that it was popular, consensus-driven, bipartisan immigration legislation that decreased the proportion of America’s white population over the decades, not a scheme by elites—and further, that this demographic change was not a goal of that legislation, but one of its inadvertent results.

There was a time when elites did intentionally engineer America’s demography—but their goal was to bolster white racial hegemony, not tear it down. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, politicians enacted such racist federal immigration legislation as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1924 National Origins Quota Act, which were designed to prevent changes to the country’s demography. Immigration from Asia was mostly banned, and immigrants from Northern and Western Europe were favored over those from southern and eastern Europe. The legislation, especially the bills passed in the early 1920s, dramatically reduced immigration to the U.S. and succeeded in limiting demographic changes for decades.

However, by the 1950s and ’60s, growing public concern over racial inequality in American society brought new scrutiny to the quota-based immigration system, which was perceived as limiting the country’s influence abroad during the nervy era of the Cold War with the USSR. These concerns invigorated efforts to change the system. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, in 1956 the platforms of the two major political parties called for an end to the discriminatory quota system. Within a decade, immigration legislation was enacted that replaced it with the immigration system that largely remains in place today. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 allows people to immigrate to the United States on the basis of family ties to U.S. citizens and permanent residents and, to a lesser extent, on skills possessed by individuals or their pending job offers. That year, national-origin restrictions were done away with: Immigration became available to qualifying citizens of all countries. (Annual caps do continue to limit the number of immigrants allowed to receive visas, although some relatives of U.S. citizens are exempt from the cap, and the caps are applied universally instead of targeting specific countries.) This rough summary doesn’t capture the expansive and complicated nature of the law and later changes to it, but it suffices to show that the 1965 legislation constituted a major shift away from the previous system.

In the decades since the act went into effect in 1968, the system it created has been one of the major drivers of U.S. demographic change. Tens of millions of immigrants have entered the United States from around the world since then; by 2015, they made up 14 percent of the country’s population. Contrary to the “great replacement” belief that a cabal of elites is engineering America’s changing demography, the bill was supported overwhelmingly in both houses of Congress, with most Republicans and Democrats alike voting for it. The law was not expected to bring about radical change: Supporters of the measure, including President Lyndon Johnson, anticipated a modest impact, although they may also have downplayed the demographic eventualities they did perceive to allay the racial and nativist anxieties of the bill’s opponents.

A Bipartisan Policy Center report notes that the law’s prioritization of family connections

was not initially intended to spark a demographic shift. At the time, this priority was thought to continue to favor European immigration because of the mostly European-descended population in the United States—in fact, this was a key factor in winning over some of the law’s detractors.

Aristide Zolberg, author of A Nation by Design, similarly observes that

the record clearly indicates that while the lawmakers did intend to eliminate the immigration system’s discriminatory features, notably as they affected Asians and West Indians, they did not anticipate that incoming flows would expand as much as they did, nor that non-European sources would become as dominant.

But decades after the 1965 bill had already started to change American demography, further legislation in 1986 and 1990 enabled still more immigration, and the bills enjoyed similarly bipartisan support. The 1986 measure, signed into law by Republican President Ronald Reagan after being passed with strong majorities in both chambers, which included the support of almost two thirds of Republicans in the Senate, allowed almost 3 million undocumented immigrants to legalize their status; it also strengthened immigration enforcement and made it more difficult to hire undocumented workers, further incentivizing the pathway to citizenship. The 1990 law expanded employment-based immigration while also increasing other categories. As in 1986, the 1990 bill was signed by a Republican president, and it also had the support of a large majority of Republican senators.

Speaking of inadvertent consequences, some of the policies that right-wing believers in the “great replacement” theory support actually exacerbate the alleged problems they are meant to address. For example, as counterintuitive as it seems, there is evidence that increasingly vigorous border enforcement has itself contributed to an increase in illegal immigration to the United States from Latin American countries. According to sociologist Douglas Massey and population researcher Karen Pren, that’s because it has historically incentivized temporary or seasonal workers to settle in the United States permanently instead of going home.

Before 1965, many Mexican workers entered the United States on temporary work permits through the Bracero Program, which was introduced in 1942 following agreements between the U.S. and Mexico. When the program ended in 1964, rates of illegal immigration from Mexico went up, but much of this increase was “circular”—that is, at the end of the job or season, many illegal migrants would cross back into Mexico to go home, following the same pattern they did when it was legal under Bracero. Illegal immigration plateaued in the 1980s—but with increased border enforcement beginning in the 1990s, Massey and Pren argue that

the costs and risks of unauthorized border crossing mounted, [and] migrants minimized them by shifting from a circular to a settled pattern of migration, essentially hunkering down and staying once they had successfully run the gauntlet at the border. It was thus a sharp decline in the outflow of undocumented migrants, not an increase in the inflow of undocumented migrants, that was responsible for the acceleration of undocumented population growth during the 1990s and early 2000s, and this decline in return migration was to a great extent a product of U.S. enforcement efforts.

The current American immigration system is hardly welcoming to most immigrants—a reality that is difficult to square with the one stipulated by the “great replacement” theory. Thousands of men, women, and children have died or been seriously injured trying to enter the United States illegally; because of how few legal options are available to them, migrants often undertake serious, even deadly risks in order to get across the border by other means. Further, there have been millions of deportations in recent decades. Haitian migrants have been interdicted at sea and prevented from reaching U.S. shores. Our immigration system is also characterized by workplace raids, detentions, abuse of immigrants by government agents, and years-long waitlists for visas.

“Great replacement” true believers are also out of step with the opinions of the majority of their fellow citizens, who are comfortable with both immigration to the United States and the demographic changes that result from it. This is hardly the stuff of minoritarian cabals: Nearly two thirds of Americans favor either increased or current levels of immigration, and even 73 percent of non-Hispanic white Americans are either neutral or positive about demographic change. Most Americans believe that immigration “enriches American culture and values” and see immigrants as a boon to economic growth. The latter belief reflects research showing that while a relatively small number of native-born American workers compete with immigrant workers, and while immigration may elevate real estate prices, in the main, “immigration is an economic resource that enhances the U.S. workforce—not to mention the tax base and consumer base,” according to the American Immigration Council.

Then, too, the millions of immigrants who reside in the United States are hardly a political monolith; their politics are far too ambiguous to serve a conspiratorial agenda, and it is unclear how their votes will affect future elections. That doesn’t stop Fox News host Tucker Carlson from spreading a version of “great replacement” that focuses on supposed Democratic efforts to replace “American” voters with immigrant voters—but what would he make, for example, of the fact that many Latino voters are increasingly voting for Republicans?

And while naturalized immigrants cast votes in ways that pundits find hard to predict, many immigrants never naturalize their status and thus are ineligible to participate in elections, rendering them quite ineffective as far as “replacements” go. It is also difficult to predict how their descendants will vote: The ancestors of many of Trump’s supporters belonged to “undesirable” immigrant communities because they came from disfavored parts of Europe.

All this irrationality aside, it is important to identify the underlying political failure of those who advance the “great replacement” conspiracy theory: They have given up on the responsibility of every political party to adapt their message and policies to appeal to the voting population, whatever its racial or ethnic makeup.

There are many sources of American demographic change, but not one of those sources is the secret machinations of a group of elite conspirators working to consolidate their waning power over American culture and society. The truth is that popular, bipartisan legislation over half a century ago made greater rates of immigration to the United States possible following years of nation-based quotas and caps. Immigrants moved to the United States in large numbers from unexpectedly diverse places, and stronger border enforcement had the unexpected effect of inducing many to stay permanently who otherwise might have gone home after a season.  These and other factors have all contributed to the forming of a more diverse America. Moreover, most Americans report welcoming—or at least accepting—both recent immigration levels and the demographic changes that have resulted. It is time for the conspiracist minority to accept reality, and for the politicians and members of the media who promote “great replacement” lies to devote their energy to making appeals to all Americans instead.

Joel Newman

Joel Newman writes on immigration from Washington state.