Political Replacement Theory

I haven’t posted in awhile, but here’s a piece I wrote for the Washington Post this week on the homegrown origins of the GOP’s replacement theory.

In the wake of the mass shooting in a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Buffalo, public attention turned to “The Great Replacement,” French writer Renaud Camus’s theory of White racial “genocide by substitution,” and its lethal impact in the United States. In just the last five years, this theory of racial apocalypse has apparently inspired three mass shootings.

But scholars and journalists have noted that in recent years, right-wing pundits and Republican politicians have also begun using the term “replacement” to assert without evidence that there is a liberal plot to outnumber Republicans with Democrats by opening the borders to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. This political version of replacement is neither an exotic import from European white nationalists, nor is it novel. Rather, its logic has deep roots in American democratic beliefs and practices.

Throughout U.S. political history, the fear of racial threats to democracy has emerged repeatedly, albeit in different forms. The principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, believed the nation would only survive the abolition of slavery through the wholesale deportation of formerly enslaved and free Black people. In the decades before the Civil War, White people without property who fought for political equality also fought to make sure it would not extend to African Americans.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, White people in the South reversed the move toward multiracial democracy during the post-Civil War Reconstruction by violently stripping voting rights from Black men, whom they claimed unfit for franchise. In the same period, Congress enacted new laws barring Chinese immigrants from U.S. citizenship and therefore voting, with proponents arguing that people of Chinese descent had racial characteristics that made them incapable of republican self-rule. And at the turn of the 20th century, voter registration laws aimed at immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe (who were not yet considered White) radically reduced voter turnout among poor and working-class people. In all cases, White voters across classes saw non-Whites as threatening their hold on political power.

The contemporary notion of political replacement draws on this longer history of perceived threats posed by non-White populations to White democracy, but it is more immediately rooted in the history of the modern Republican Party.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, the GOP began defining itself in opposition to the civil rights movement, over time assembling a cross-class alliance of Whites. Presidential candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) campaigned against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and opposed federal interference in southern affairs. Goldwater’s crushing defeat provided a valuable lesson to Republicans — there was limited appeal to his open extremism, on this and other issues.

That led the GOP to adopt more coded language in an effort to appeal to White backlash voters in the South and urban blue-collar Whites in the rest of the country, without offending suburban White voters who recoiled at open white supremacy. In 1968, for example, Richard M. Nixon promised to oppose “forced busing” to achieve school integration. In 1980, Ronald Reagan derided “welfare queens” and “young bucks” who allegedly gamed the system to live lavish lifestyles. And in 1988, George H.W. Bush castigated his opponent Michael Dukakis for being weak on crime — getting a boost from the infamous racist “Willie Horton” ad run by a third-party group. This rhetoric, along with opposition to anti-discrimination law and policy, helped Republicans capture a majority of White voters in every presidential election between 1968 and 2020.

But by the mid-1990s, studies showing changing racial-ethnic demographics in the United States began to raise long-term questions about the viability the GOP’s predominantly White coalition. When Reagan had run for president in 1980, Whites constituted almost 80 percent of the national population. When George W. Bush ran in 2000, they accounted for only 69 percent.

Combined with the contested presidential election of 2000 — which exposed how much every vote mattered — these demographic changes resurrected the racially marked question of who was worthy of exercising the franchise for the GOP. Republicans began to charge, without evidence, that voter fraud posed a serious problem to U.S. elections and began pursuing ever more restrictive voting laws, claiming that such barriers were necessary to safeguard elections.

These efforts bore fruit in the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder, which eliminated key portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and opened the door for Republicans to enact new obstacles that would have disproportionate impact on Black and Latino voters.

That same year, immigration became a front-burner issue for the second time in a decade, setting up debates within the GOP about the future of the party. Some Republicans, like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), saw an opportunity to expand their base into Latino communities. An autopsy after the 2012 presidential election by the Republican National Committee urged this course of action. Others, however, like right-wing media king Rush Limbaugh, said millions of new immigrant voters would be “suicide” for the party.

Together, the rhetoric around voter fraud and these claims about the threats posed by immigrants to the GOP laid the basis for Donald Trump’s false assertion in 2016 that there were 3 million fraudulent votes cast largely by undocumented immigrants, and his 2020 challenge to presidential election results in six states, largely in majority-minority districts.

As did different White coalitions in the 19th century, the GOP openly sees an increase in non-White voters as perilous for its predominantly White base’s political fortunes. Nevertheless, the shift from a literal notion of racial replacement to a more abstract appeal to party identity is dangerous precisely because it avoids discussion of race while indirectly invoking a long-standing racial logic of political exclusion. As Rep Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tweeted, “The Left/Media think of replacement solely on race/ethnicity terms. I don’t at all. Democrats failed the voters who relied on them to run their states/cities. Now they are importing new voters.”

This might help explain the results of the recent AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll showing that while two-thirds of Americans believe the country’s diverse population makes it stronger, more than a third still “agree that a group of people is trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains.”

The Republican replacement theory uses racial demonization to pursue more anti-democratic imperatives more generally — authorizing laws and policies meant to ensure Republican electoral success by shrinking the electorate along both race and class lines, or by subverting election integrity altogether. As Fox News host Tucker Carlson revealingly put it, “White replacement theory? No, no, this is a voting rights question.”

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