Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The demographics of bad politics

I was left impressed by former American presidential candidate Mitt Romney's concession speech last Thursday, in which he demonstrated--among other things--his perspective on the United States' relationship to Europe. After taking a casual swipe at France, he went on to point to low European birth rates as proof of Europe's decadence in choosing to reject Christianity and his brand of conservative social mores.

Europe -- Europe is facing a demographic disaster.

ROMNEY: That's the inevitable product of weakened faith in the Creator, failed families, disrespect for the sanctity of human life, and eroded morality.

Some reason that culture is merely an accessory to America's vitality. We know that it's the source of our strength. And we will not be dissuaded by the snickers and knowing glances when we stand up for family values and morality and culture. We will...


Conservatives here and conservatives across the country will always be honored to stand on principle and to stand for principles.

I was sufficiently annoyed by this excerpt to be somewhat snarky at my blog, but still, Romney did oversimplify the European situation immensely. As Edward's earlier analysis of some of the recent work of Tomás Sobotka has pointed out, there is no single European demographic pattern. It is possible to say that the end results of the demographic trends in northern and western Europe aren't very different from those of the United States, with one major difference lying in the postponement of childbearing on the part European women as compared to their American counterparts. The situation elsewhere in Europe is more serious, granted, but leaving aside the upwards effect of postponed childbearing on cohort fertility elsewhere, the case of Spain demonstrates quite clearly that massive influxes of immigrants can happen and transform demographic profiles quite radically.

On the subject of family values, again, it's not at all clear that the "family" values that Romney favours--values which seem to privilege relationships which employ the legal concept of marriage over all others--would necessarily work in a European context. In high-fertility France, 43% of births occurred outside of married wedlock, while in low-fertility Italy an excess of traditional family values might be substantially responsible for lowering fertility, especially in the context of the economic pressures common to high- and low-fertility developed countries across Europe. As The Economist noted in its recent survey of European demographics, "[i]n Europe, [. . .] only countries with many births outside wedlock and with high female participation rates have reasonably high birth rates. Those that have sought to maintain traditional family ties have seen fertility collapse."

In this respect, Europe may be more characteristic of the rest of the world than the United States. Take Iran, for example, a country where the traditional norm of the patriarchal extended family has collapsed under the pressure of the last few decades of radical change, as a wage economy has blossomed alongside Iranian regimes whichinvolve themselves in social welfare. Mohammad-Jabal Abbasi-Shavasi's paper "Recent Changes and the Future of Fertility in Iran" (PDF format) outlines the historical background for Iran's rapid fertility decline, noting how access to family planning, improved access to education for girls, a greatly improved public health infrastructure, considerably improved transportation and economic pressures to produce a transition in the space of two decades to replacement-level fertility. Abbasi-Shavasi further predicts that as Iran becomes still more urban, producing a more educated and more woman-friendly society, national fertility rates will continue to fall to sub-replacement levels. If rapid transition is occurring in a country run by profoundly anti-Western ideologues, how much more advanced might it be in countries like Morocco, Algeria, or Turkey with longer and much more intense relationships with West?

Mention of Europe's neighbours brings us to the flip side of Romney's talk of the decadence of Europeans. That came with an implicit question: If decadent Europe is facing a "demographic disaster," what population will benefit from Europe's decadence? Latin Americans, eastern Europeans, and Asians aren't mentioned much, even though the idea of a joint Ecuardian-Romanian hegemony over Spain and Italy does have a certain whimsical appeal. As one commenter noted at my blog, Romney's sort of coded rhetoric implicitly evokes the spectre of "Eurabia", the idea that declining Europe will be taken over by immigrants from a comparatively dynamic Muslim world and transformed into (in the words of Bernard Lewis) an "extension of the Maghreb". People have looked at the numbers before, and come away unimpressed. I took a look in 2004 and I'd like to think that I've debunked the idea of an imminently Islamic France. More recently, Westoff and Freyla's study comparing Muslim and non-Muslim fertility across Europe, is a considerably more thorough statistical debunking of the idea of decadent Europe's transformation into a Muslim continent.

Truthiness, though, drive the "Eurabia" rhetoric. Take Mark Steyn's recent America Alone, a profoundly unimpressive screed that masquerades as a book on population trends but actually helps reassure the egos of a certain brand of ideologue, all without providing any sources. (Check page 34, where he makes specific claims about the age structure of the French population by religion without providing any sources, anywhere.) That doesn't matter: Statistics don't really impact on the book's underlying philosophies. Pearsall Helms' study of Steyn's misleading use of statistics ends in quoting Steyn's conclusion that a hostile Europe would be easier to deal with than a continent filled with people who don't support American policy decisions. In The New Republic, Johann Hari expanded on this theme of Eurabianists' distaste for "European" culture by recounting his experiences on a cruise organized by National Review. This cruise seemed to be populated by vacationers who seemed positively thrilled by the prospect of a Europe overtaken by Muslim immigrants.

So, you're a European, one of the Park Avenue ladies says, before offering witty commentaries on the cities she's visited. Her companion adds, "I went to Paris, and it was so lovely." Her face darkens: "But then you think--it's surrounded by Muslims." The first lady nods: "They're out there, and they're coming." Emboldened, the bearded Floridian wags a finger and says, "Down the line, we're not going to bail out the French again." He mimes picking up a phone and shouts into it, "I can't hear you, Jacques! What's that? The Muslims are doing what to you? I can't hear you!"

[. . .]

At one of the seminars, a panelist says anti-Americanism comes from both directions in a grasping pincer movement--"The Muslims condemn us for being decadent; the Europeans condemn us for not being decadent enough." Midge Decter, Norman Podhoretz's wife, yells, "The Muslims are right, the Europeans are wrong!" And, instantly, Jay Nordlinger,
National Review's managing editor and the panel's chair, says, "I'm afraid a lot of the Europeans are Muslim, Midge." The audience cheers. Somebody shouts, "You tell 'em, Jay!"

Mitt Romney's campaign appealed to a strongly conservative base -- this speech was the same one where he equated an electoral victory by the Democratic party's presidential candidates as a "surrender to terror." This leads me to think that Simon Kuper was right to write, in the Financial Times back in November, many Eurabianists are motivated by domestic politics, seeking some sort of rhetorical advantage or even revenge against people who don't support the sorts of policies in vogue among some conservatives, both inside and outside the United States. If Romney wants to advocate particular public policies towards reproduction, family life, the structure of the welfare state, and foreign policies, why shouldn't he discredit countries with different policies? (Canada, it should be note, shares a relatively low completed fertility rate with many other European countries, and yes, Steyn's also skeptical about us.) If nothing else, the contrast between a vigourous and rising demi-continent of the United States with a declining and weak continent of Europe, the latter also threatened from within and without by great tides of people hostile, is a memorable one.

What's the problem with all this? For people like ourselves, interested in researching population trends here at Demography Matters and elsewhere, this sort of rhetoric creates yet another set of myths that have to be debunked. It is interesting to trace out some of the likely population futures of different regions, countries and continents, as is determining the different factors operating in different communities within a given territory. Turning a field that could be filled by an ongoing stream of productive research into an endless cycle of disproved popular mythologies would be boring. More to the point, the constant repetition of myths like the ones enunciated by Romney -- that the European continent is declining, that Europe is threatened by foreigners -- poisons public discourse by legitimating ever more radical statements. If Europeans at large are concerned about the extent to which communities of recent immigrant origin are or are not acculturating to the norms of a wider society and want to influence public policy accordingly, how likely will the debate be calm and rational if many the people who participate seriously believe things scarcely more sophisticated than "OMG the Muslims are going to P3WN Europe"?

As we've said all along, demography does matter. It matters too much to be left to the opining of failed politicians and --as Johann Hari cuttingly wrote in his review of America Alone--in particular to the sort of people who'd use a half-digested understanding of demography to justify almost anything. Describing ongoing demographic trends is great, talk about public policies in relation to childbearing and immigration is grand, but people in both the blogosphere and beyond should really not use demography simply to justify their own personal end-game fantasies.