How do societies respond to great demographic change? This question lingers over the contemporary politics of countries where persistent immigration has altered populations and may soon produce a “Majority Minority” milestone. Until now, most of our knowledge about responses to demographic change are based on studies of individual people’s reactions; they are defensive and intolerant. Why and how are these instincts sometimes tempered to promote more successful coexistence? Grounded in rich narratives and novel statistical data, George Mason University political scientist Justin Gest reveals the way this contentious milestone and its accompanying identity politics are ultimately subject to good governance.
On March 28, 2022, Jessica Stallone spoke to Justin Gest and published this Q&A.
You have such a fascinating and impressive research agenda. Your 6 books have looked at Muslims in the West, the white working class, immigration policy across 30 countries, and more recently, the consequences of mass demographic change. These projects seem very interconnected. Can you tell us about your research trajectory? What were the different motivations for exploring these research projects? What is the common underlying thread between these projects?
I’ll start with motivations. I am the son of a refugee. I grew up in Southern California in Los Angeles. I went to Los Angeles public schools my entire childhood. In many ways, immigration and demographic change crafted the contemporary California that I knew and it also crafted who I am as a person. I think it was natural that eventually my career would lead me down the path of focusing on those subject matters very intensely because they were critical to my own formative development. In terms of the motivations for the various projects that I study, I’m really interested in questions that relate to belonging and inclusion, marginality and alienation. I’m really interested in questions of power. I’m interested in questions of conflict and co-existence. These are themes that run through all my work, which is focused on the management of demographic change through immigration policy and the consequences of demographic change through backlash and nativism. The common threads are the politics of identity, citizenship, and belonging. In terms of the trajectory, what I always try to do with my work is to lead. I’m really interested in what’s next so I try to think futuristically, not in the sense of having a ‘crystal ball’, but rather, following the trajectory of our politics and our social affairs to anticipate important political and social questions.
You spoke about nativism. In my opinion, it seems to be growing in the immigration literature. Was this something that has always been a theme in the research that you’ve done in the last decade or so?
It was sort of unavoidable. I think that anyone who has studied immigration over the last 30 years at some point comes face-to-face with backlash and nativism. However, it is only recently that scholars like me have decided that it is well within our purview to study it closely and that actually, in order to understand immigration politics, we must understand the nature of the dynamics of nativism. It doesn’t surprise me that it is growing. I was in that space a little bit earlier than most because of my earlier interest in white working class people about a decade ago. Now, it has become a critical force in transatlantic politics.
Your new book, Majority Minority explores how societies respond to mass demographic change. Can you tell us a bit more about this book, and the motivations behind this research project?
In my studies of immigration and backlash to it, what has become unignorable was the shadow of majority-minority transition in the United States — but also more broadly in settler states like Canada or Australia and even the European continent where immigration has increasingly grown as an issue. I came to realize that we know precious little about what happens when societies or governments confront majority-minority transitions. It was thought of as this exceptional and unique moment and as it turns out, it is rare, but it is not unique. So I studied places that have already experienced majority-minority transitions to better understand and anticipate the politics that await the United States and elsewhere. I embarked on a comparative-historical analysis of 6 different societies that experienced a majority-minority milestone. I then visited those societies in the contemporary moment and I explored the different manifestations of the politics of the minority-majority transition. Then, I also undertook survey research to test some of my hypotheses about what drives backlash and conflict, and what drives coexistence and the embrace of immigration.
The data presented in the book relies on 6 case studies that describe the political consequences of a majority-minority society. What about the cleavages within these majority and minority groups? How can majority v. minority be defined in the West when there are so many cleavages within the group across race, political affiliations and so forth?
There are already dozens of majority-minority spaces in the United States and we already have 4 majority-minority states at the provincial level in the United States so a lot of this has to do with definitions. I focus on circumstances where the numerical majority ethnic or religious group loses its population advantage to one or more minorities. Of course, being of one ethnicity or racial group may imply identifying with a particular religious group but that is not always true, so being sensitive to that matters. I work within the social construction of identity and what it means to be a majority or a minority in the different milieu that I study. It is a literal definition because you could argue that majority or minority groups are not based on numbers, but on power. That is a fair point. In democracies, however, numbers typically translate to power. That is precisely what makes the politics of population dynamics so fraught. When a group gains or loses numbers, it is almost implied that they will gain or lose power. As a result, the group that was once in power or is currently in power may try to maintain power by adjusting electoral institutions.
One of the reasons I thought about this question is because, especially in the United States, there’s a lot of data that explains the biggest cleavage is political affiliation. The fact that there is such a divide between Republicans and Democrats. Do you think that overshadows racial differences?
I think it’s conflated with racial differences, and that’s not good either. What we are seeing is the racialization of political parties in the United States and that is something that is consistent with other minority-majority societies abroad. In many ways, the politics in the United States resembles Trinidad and Tobago in the Eastern Caribbean where you have two primary political parties that are separated by racial grouping and that’s bad news when political parties are so closely affiliated with a particular identity group. The debates then are no longer about policy differences, but on identity grounds and that makes all debates feel existential in nature.
We addressed this in the talk, but it might be interesting for the readers to know. The book uses case studies from the Global South to make prescriptions about majority-minority relations in the Global North. With the different political and colonial histories between these two global regions, how can the case studies from the Global South be indicative of possible future societal relations in the West?
First off, it is important to emphasize that there are cases in the Global North too because I study New York quite closely, which I think simulates a majority-minority milestone. Even if it is not sovereign, it had sovereign control over immigration at the time of the majority-minority milestone. Of course, Hawaii which was a developing country in the 19th century, but with its annexation in the United States, it became part of a highly developed democracy. I don’t think the cases are monolithic either. Even Singapore and Bahrain, while they are not Western cases, I wouldn’t call them developing countries. These are advanced societies, and in the case of Singapore, really quite wealthy and highly educated. In the case of Bahrain, it may not be the most developed economy, but nevertheless possesses quite a bit of wealth. I don’t think what we are talking about is the Global South. Inherent in this comparison is the idea that there is a universal human nature. Even if we are not all Western, or the same ethnicities, races or religions, there is a common human experience from which we can learn. All of that said, another factor is convenience. We don’t have many other examples of minority-majority transitions at the level of a sovereign country or society. We have to work with what we’ve got. And I think what we’ve got gives us sufficient variation to simulate a diverse environment.
It seems as though an underlying premise of this work assumes that mass demographic shift can lead to political conflict between majority and minority groups. What are your thoughts about future societal relations in the West between majority and minority groups?
I think we are at a crossroads. I think we are at a critical juncture where much of what we do — particularly in the United States, but also in places like Canada or Britain or Australia — depends on how we govern the here and now. Do we make choices that reinforce the social boundaries between us or do we make choices that try to break those boundaries down to recognize a common, civic identity? I think that the book lays out the ways that states commonly address these pivots to inflame conflict or cultivate coexistence. It will alert us, when we see our contemporary politics, to which path we are taking. That is the goal of the book. While the book is somewhat prescriptive at the end, really it seeks to understand what are the propensities of states facing these demographic milestones and how do we avoid their worst excesses?
Just to probe a bit further, you’re talking about how states govern but is that ideological? Particular policies that are inclusive? What does that look like?
In some cases, it can be ideological. Understanding who we are can be a very ideological question and that is the fundamental question at the core of any nation confronting demographic change. But in other ways, it can be quite practical. It can be in the practical governance of markets, the socialization of youth and their educational systems, and the practical governance of culture and the identification of threats, both foreign and domestic. I do think there are a lot of practical choices that states make in governing this transition. There are also ideological questions that relate to rhetoric and the conception of who we are as a group identity.
I think we can even see that with the backlash against multiculturalism in Europe, and there is a lot of conversation to be had about the Canadian case as well.
In the Canadian case, the identity is ideological. What holds Canada together, in many ways, is this championing of this diversity. It’s almost the irony of that which makes us one is everything that makes us different. What makes us similar is our embrace of difference. That is a paradox that has historically worked for Canada.
Do you have any plans for a future research project?
Yes. I am leading the development of a database of migrant rights. Several colleagues and I are studying migrant right protections across 45 countries. We will be writing up a number of research papers related to that. And through a book with my co-author Jeremy Ferwerda from Dartmouth, I am studying the implications of people’s emigration on prospects for democracy in their countries of origins.
Where do you see future research of the field of immigration headed to?
Oh, the sky is the limit. It’s such a growth area and it’s been booming in the last decade. I think it’s going to continue to boom because what we are realizing is how critical immigration and population change and citizenship questions are to contemporary politics. I think that’s only going to continue onward. As far as I’m concerned, let a thousand flowers blossom.
Justin Gest is an Associate Professor of Policy and Government at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. He is the author of six books on the politics of immigration and demographic change. He co-founded and co-edits the Oxford University Press book series, “Oxford Studies in Migration and Citizenship” in 2020, and co-founded the Migration Studies Unit at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 2007. He has provided reporting or commentary for ABC, BBC, CBC, CNN, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, NPR, The New York Times, Politico, Reuters, Vox, and The Washington Post. In 2014 and 2020, Professor Gest received Harvard University’s Joseph R. Levenson Memorial Teaching Prize and the George Mason University Teaching Excellence Award, respectively each university’s highest award for faculty teaching.