Bryan Caplan  

Gonzalez on the Multicultural Threat

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Mike Gonzalez replies to my doubts about the practical import of multiculturalism:

In my talk, I underlined the point that another friend, Niger Innis, always makes: Even if we were to shut the immigration doors completely, the next president will have to start reversing the social engineering of the past five decades.

If he or she doesn't, we will end up with another country, and not a better one. Bryan Caplan is a nice guy, but he's wrong; multiculturalism is taking root and reordering society.

At risk of compromising my "nice guy" status, Mike's evidence is underwhelming.  Why should we think identity politics is winning in America?  First, a little sensational journalism:

It is there in small ways. For example, when the principal at a San Francisco middle school cancels the student government election because too many white students won--and cluelessly defends abrogating the student's choice by saying, "I want to make sure the voices are all heard!"

It is also there when Salon writes the umpteenth brainless blog post (of the morning) decrying how there are not sufficient cast members of this group or that on any given TV show.

The whole new environment has left Peggy Noonan pining for Joe Biden, because the vice president reminds her of Democrats of old.

Second, a little history of thought:

[M]ulticulturalism builds on the works of Marxist European thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse and Antonio Gramsci, whose "Critical Theory" has greatly influenced American progressives.

As my colleague John Fonte and I wrote recently in The Weekly Standard, multiculturalism inherits from Critical Theory the idea that society is "divided along racial, ethnic, and gender lines into a dominant group (white males) and 'marginalized' groups (ethnic, racial, linguistic, and sexual minorities). The goal of politics should be first to 'delegitimize' the ideas of the American system and second, to transfer power from the dominant group to the 'oppressed' groups."

Read the whole piece; I don't see anything else resembling evidence.  If that's all one of the most prominent opponents of multiculturalism has to offer, I shall sleep easier than ever.  What would count as evidence?  Some basic facts from public opinion would be a great start.  I'm only a dabbler here, but if we'd really endured five decades of social engineering, you'd think it would show up in the General Social Survey.  Most of the most pertinent questions were only asked in 1994, but here's what Americans thought after what Mike paints as thirty years of strident multicultural indoctrination.

Question: "When you think of social and political issues, do you think of yourself mainly as a member of a particular ethnic, racial, or nationality group or do you think of yourself mainly as just an American?



Question: "How proud are you to be an American?


What about longer-run trends?  This was asked in 1996, 2004, and 2014: "Some people say the following things are important for being truly American. Others say they are not important. How important do you think each of the following is... g. To feel American."



If I were Mike, I'd be tempted to hail the big decline from 2004 to 2014.  But the change from 1996 to 2014 is barely visible.  The simplest explanation is that 2004 was the tail-end of the post-9/11 rally-round-the-flag effect.

The best evidence for Mike's view: If you regress these responses on age, you do indeed see that younger respondents have a more multicultural orientation.  The size of the difference, though, is minute - in the ballpark of one year of age making answers on a 1-4 or 1-5 scale a hundredth of a point more multicultural.  On the implausible assumption that multicultural propaganda explains all of this generational shift, it's still chicken feed.

I freely concede that I'm only doing a fly-by of the relevant public opinion evidence.  Feel free to add to my efforts in the comments.  But Mike's the one claiming the damage of a half-century of multicultural social engineering is all around us.  I don't see it.

Where does Mike go wrong?  Like most intellectuals, he takes ideas seriously.  An admirable trait, but it blinds him to the fact that most people don't take ideas seriously.  Whatever their pseudo-intellectual pretensions, normal humans are lazy, forgetful, and compartmentalized.  Putting multiculturalism in a history textbook does little harm because most students - and plenty of teachers - don't even read the textbook.  The identity politics activists that Mike decries aren't America.  In fact, there's little sign that most Americans know these activists are alive.

COMMENTS (16 to date)
Matt H writes:

We live in a country where some folks think it's OK to cancel an election if too many white people win. This is the mainstream in one of the 2 major political parties. It's where the overton window is now. Brain, do you really think it's going to start heading the other way? What's likely to swing it?

People didn't take the ideas of feminists seriously, now in NZ men accused of rape are considered guilty until they prove otherwise. How long until that happens in the US, it's already that way on our campus's, will the future judges and lawyers take these ideas seriously?

R writes:

Right now you have a big polarization in party vote according to race/ethnicity/origin. I don't know how this is not reflecting a very important social problem.

Pedro Albuquerque writes:

I fear that the current South Park season nailed it better than any scholarly work that I've read: social changes have happened but not necessarily for the best.

ThomasH writes:

Bryan, you sound like a Liberal, high praise in my book.

Nathan W writes:

Matt - Who ever suggested cancelling an election if too many white people win?

I think you exaggerate greatly. Or, is this the NZ experience?

Andy Hallman writes:

Does his evidence really consist of a couple of anecdotes, including the results of a school election!? Surely that can't be right.

AlexR writes:

Intellectuals may take ideas too seriously, but economists shouldn't take survey results too seriously. As I recall, patriotism is one of the major topics beset by social desirability bias.

MattB writes:

AlexR: Yes surveys are influenced by social desirability bias, but is there any evidence that this bias has changed over time?

For example, is it less desirable or more desirable to self identify as "patriotic" now than it was in 1996?

Is it more desirable or less desirable to self identify as multicultural now than it was in 1996?

Also it would seem to me that the effects of social desirability bias would run in the same direction as public sentiment. Meaning that if America really was becoming more multicultural, it would be more socially desirable to self identify as multicultural. Thus the effect of the underline trends that the survey is trying to measure would be magnified.

Jon Murphy writes:

I guess I don't understand why multiculturalism is a good/bad thing. As long as they are not harming me, why should I care what they choose to call themselves or what traditions they choose to follow?

JHanley writes:

I think Gonzales is assuming too much when he suggests that multiculturalism is just that social theory. For most folks, multicultuarism may just be different foods. For example, in my globalization class, when we're discussing the arguments about "American cultural imperialism," I like to turn the issue around by telling my students that when I lived in San Francisco, the ideal day meant having Mexican food for lunch, Thai food for dinner, then watching the Chinese New Year parade, topped off with gelato in the historically Italian neighborhood of North Beach. San Francisco has lots of political problems, but that kind of multi-culturalism isn't one of them.

Matt H: You are dead wrong in thinking that canceling an election due to whiteness is a mainstream position among the Democrats. I'm not a Democrat myself, but as an academic I'm surrounded by them--academic Democrats, mind--and no such position is remotely mainstream among them. They'd be inclined to want to investigate why only white candidates won, but they wouldn't support just canceling the results like that.

It might be time to talk to real Democrats, instead of just reading about them through the perspective of right-wing news sources. Those folks get Democrats just as wrongly as the left-wing news sources get Republicans.

_NL writes:

As far as I can tell, this is a general gripe about progressives, not multiculturalism. I'm not sure that expanding punishments for sexual contact is multicultural - that seems monocultural ("there is one approved mode to consent to sex, and all others are illegal"). And I don't know that it's necessarily new immigrants that complain about lack of representation or lack of diversity - that's mostly the descendants of immigrants who are noticing that they do not feel fully assimilated.

It's too easy to lay this on "multiculturalism" when it seems like a general gripe about progressives or maybe "political correctness."

Seth Green writes:

I also find the adduced evidence underwhelming. But perhaps the most charitable lens for it is the following story.

1) Certain powerful groups in America have fully bought into identity politics. This intersectional-minded coalition includes tastemakers at, people in positions of direct, coercive authority like school principals and college presidents, and vocal, well-organized minorities, like the groups of students at Smith, Swarthmore and elsewhere that successfully demanded for certain graduation speakers to have their invitations rescinded.

2) Politics is a sequence of collective action problems.

3) These groups are better organized and more motivated than the 90% of Americans who put their American identities first. When Smith students demand that Christine Lagarde be sent packing, the political mainstream doesn't have the stomach for a protracted fight over something so trivial. Also, I suspect the mainstream doesn't want to find out how violent the vocal minorities* might become if pushed.

4) Therefore, the public goods of discourse and policy that reflect majority preferences will be under-provided.

Think of this as the Affluence and Influence story, except for culture.

* I am using "minority" in the sense of non-majority opinion rather than racial minority -- for all I know the majority of protesters at Smith were white.

Psmith writes:

Nathan and Jhanley, New Zealand has legislative seats reserved for Maori (for which, I suppose, an aspiring white legislator would not be allowed to run), although I'm pretty sure this started before 1900.

ThomasH writes:

Bryan, you sound like a Liberal, high praise in my book.

I don't know where Matt H lives; maybe he should consider immigrating to the US, which he can more easily do if Bryan's arguments prise open the door a bit more.

robert writes:

My concern is that you are data mining.

How beneficial is corruption to our political and economic system?

How much is the current immigration policy influenced by corruption?

We know that there are politicians who have made hundreds of millions of dollars after changing the banking regulation and participation of the sale of US assets to foreign governments. How much of the current policy is influence to benefit the powerful?

How much thought do you give to the possibility that the reaction to the current immigration policy is due to a concern about a powerful oligarchy instead of the immigrants themselves? Have you done any analysis on this?

How much of an influence does culture, traditional, and institutions play in the economic development of the US?

Based on a cost benefit analysis, shouldn’t we be trying to also improve their home countries? Should we be trying to educate everyone across the world about the benefit of free exchange and rule of law?

What is the probability that the equilibrium point is for autocratic, corrupt governments? Recently and after the fall of Soviet Russia and the semi-fall of Communist China, we have seen a decrease in political freedom. Both in Germany and the US, the current immigration policies are unpopular, is not this a case of an autocratic and corrupt government, who now represent the benefits the elite and foreigners over the people they have taken an oath to represent?

If you could answer these questions, I think you would be much more persuasive.

Chris Thomas writes:

Here's a "cultural Turing Test" type idea for measuring whether multiculturalism is particularly detectable. Have somebody look at GSS data for both natives and first and second generation immigrants, minus that particular demographic data. Then have them take a quiz to see if they can distinguish consistently between the three.

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