Sue Lani Madsen: Demographics are not destiny in politics

Reports following the domestic terrorist attack at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store have pushed the phrase “great replacement theory” into the vocabulary. It’s being used as a weapon to otherize with fear and division at a time when we need to be building unity.

The Rev. Timothy J. Brown, speaking at a prayer vigil recorded by NPR at the site of the shootings on Monday, said “the only one we can lean on is God. Because in a few days, all these cameras will leave and it will just be us [after] a terrorist attack on our community. And what we need now is unity. The indoctrination of a boy to kill people that don’t look like him is only because somebody is having a conversation that divides our people as a race and as humanity.”

That “somebody” is us, and our culture.

Brown’s words stood out in the Monday morning media search for the usual suspects. The young man had been referred for mental health care after making death threats, and cleared. He could have been red-flagged to prevent access to firearms, and wasn’t. Laws intended to prevent such tragedies were in place, and apparently weren’t used.

And so the media focus turned to “great replacement theory,” a phrase applied to both ordinary analysis of demographic shifts in the electorate and to a blatantly racist conspiracy theory passed around in dark corners of the web. It provides many convenient scapegoats.

The 18-year-old who drove hours to reach his selected targets released a lengthy diatribe citing the same fringe conspiracy theory that drove his murderous role models at a mosque in New Zealand, a church camp in Norway, and the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He was sucked into a fringe theory that looks at natural demographic shifts in population and sees instead a secret cabal manipulating birth rates and immigration to eliminate the “white” race. It’s ugly and false and must be excised like any cancer on society.

It exists because society encourages conversations dividing people by race instead of seeking our common humanity. In a Facebook video posted by Brown the morning after the attack, he included the shooter on his list for prayer in addition to the victims, their families and his community. He saw the young man’s humanity and the need to turn away from anger.

Studying the intersection of demographics and voting patterns is a staple of political kibitzers and commentary. When “The Emerging Democratic Majority” was published in 2002 by Ruy Teixeira and John B. Judis, they predicted the Democratic Party would dominate the century as the U.S. shifted to a majority-minority population. After President Obama’s victory in 2012, Democratic strategist James Carville pointed out in a Rolling Stone interview how “every four years, the white vote goes to minus two – and it’s picking up steam. From 1948 to 1992, it went from 91 to 87 percent” and predicted a continued drop to 70% in 2016.

A U.S. Census Bureau report in 2015 predicted “the point at which the non-Hispanic White alone population will comprise less than 50 percent of the nation’s total population” would be 2044. Democrats smugly assumed demographics was their destiny. The gloating fed into the conspiracy theorists’ narrative, giving it just enough toehold in reality to be believable to the gullible. Or by the mentally and emotionally fragile, as this young man who went on shooting spree in Buffalo appears to have been.

It is Mental Health Awareness Month, a reminder that most people with mental illness are not violent. Statistically, they are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. We need to see their humanity, as Brown did in the face of intense grief for his community.

And we don’t need any more weaponized catchphrases encouraging “conversation that divides our people as a race and as humanity.” As it turns out, Teixeira is now insisting his book has been misinterpreted. Demographics is not destiny. Or as he was quoted in the New York Times in January 2022, “That was only part of what we were saying. Demographic change was inevitably shifting the political terrain. It did not make it inevitable that Democrats would benefit.”

They haven’t. It all unraveled in 2016, and pundits have been scrambling ever since.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at

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