Immigration & social tensionsRising ethnic diversity in the West may fuel a (temporary) populist right backlash

By Eric Kaufmann and Matthew Goodwin

Published 1 November 2018

When people’s neighborhoods or wider social contexts change in visible ways, as with increasing ethnic diversity, it can be disconcerting for established residents, and trigger perceptions of “threats” that evoke “backlash” political responses. Alternatively, the diffusion of ethnic groups may increase knowledge and tolerance. Drawing on a meta-analysis of studies on the topic, Eric Kaufmann and Matthew Goodwin argue that ethnic diversity transitions may contribute to a populist right backlash. However, such effects may be temporary.

The ethnic make-up of many western countries is changing, and in countries previously seen as having ‘white’ majorities that past predominance is declining. In the United States, Canada and New Zealand, the ‘majority-minority’ point will arrive around 2050, while in western Europe it is projected to occur towards the end of the century. Some commentators have asked if this change may lead to a growing reaction or ‘white backlash’. All else being equal, we suggest that the answer may be yes.

Our recently published statistical meta-analysis of the quantitative literature on this question uncovered 171 academic papers, books or dissertations since 1995 containing some 4 million data points across various datasets and western countries. Studies were heavily slanted toward the present, with a median year of 2011. Using the effects of minority share (i.e. % immigrant, or % non-white) on immigration attitudes or populist right support as our measure of possible ‘threat perceptions’, we discovered such an effect was present in 71% of the 257 models where there was a significant statistical relationship. On the other hand, in 29% of cases, increased diversity was associated with greater tolerance of immigration amongst the ‘mainstream’ population.

When we include statistically insignificant results, as in Figure 1, only a third of all tests uncovered a significant ‘threat perception’ response. But this partially reflects data and model noise: papers with a longitudinal basis help screen this out. This set of studies shows a substantial ‘threat perception’ effect. In around 90% of models where ethnic diversity was measured over time, or where the authors tested for the effect of ethnic change (i.e. minority growth between 2000 and 2010), rising diversity predicted greater opposition to immigration or support for the populist right. And this was usually statistically significant.

Ethnic changes matter most for ‘threat’ perceptions, but levels of diversity (regardless of change) are also important. Critically, Figure 1 shows that the contrasting ‘threat perception’ and toleration effects of minority levels both vary by geographic scale.