It’s the demography, stupid: does population drive politics?

Sunday 3 November, 14:0015:30, Cinema 2Political futures

Changing demographics has become a recurring feature of any discussion about politics in the West in recent years. For example, the fact that Leave voters were, on average, older than Remain voters led to some leading anti-Brexit campaigners celebrating ‘crossover day’ in January this year – when the cumulative deaths of older Leave voters were supposed to have given Remain a belated referendum majority. In the wake of the 2012 US elections, the Republican Party’s own review of successive defeats urged the party to embrace Hispanic-friendly policies and candidates – and soften immigration rhetoric – as the only route to victory in an increasingly diverse America. While Donald Trump’s victory forced commentators to remind themselves that ‘demography is not destiny’, that hasn’t stopped such analysis. Indeed, the resurgence of nationalist and populist movements is widely understood as the result of anxiety from older white voters about their declining status as a cultural majority.

From Thomas Malthus’s pessimistic predictions about the dangers of population growth to endless fascination over the consumer tastes of millennials, demography has long been a key concern of policymakers and consumer forecasters. Few would doubt the significant impacts demographic change can have on the organisation of society. For example, governments need to face the difficulties presented by rising lifespans, with implications for healthcare and pensions, combined with the relatively smaller working population to pay for such welfare measures. In politics, many of today’s socially liberal policies were driven by the postwar ‘baby boom’ generation. Similarly, demographers observe that events such as the Arab Spring and French Revolution can be partly understood by the forces of demographic and economic trends creating conditions for social unrest.

Critics contend that pointing towards demography underplays the role of human agency, reducing individuals to broad identity groups and failing to account for adaptation and innovation. Political demographers such as Eric Kaufmann have argued that Western societies cannot take their liberal values for granted when immigrant and religious groups, who tend to hold more conservative values, have markedly higher birth rates. For some, such arguments are uncomfortably close to the ‘great replacement’ theory espoused by many white nationalist groups, including the perpetrators of the New Zealand mosque attacks and El Paso shootings. Yet demographers contend they are driven by evidence, rather than ideology, in attempting to understand social forces, even if that may produce uncomfortable findings.

Does the current prominence of political demography in debate represent a technocratic approach to politics or an evidence-driven attempt to apply the lessons of history? Are demographers reflecting the significance of social forces in shaping political events or downplaying individual agency in favour of identity politics? What role can demography play in helping us understand our political future – and our past?