The Volokh Conspiracy

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"Great Replacement Theory" and the Perils of Zero-Sum World Views

The racist Buffalo mass murderer's ideology drew on dangerous ideas common on both the ethnonationalist right and the far left.


The racist murderer who killed ten people in Buffalo on Sunday was a devotee of "great replacement theory": the idea that there is a plot to "replace" white Americans with immigrants from poor, nonwhite nations, and thereby seize the resources of the former for the benefit of the latter and of various nefarious elites. GRT advocates often also attribute the plot to the Jews, adding an anti-Semitic twist to their racism. The Buffalo shooter targeted blacks because he hoped reducing their numbers would bolster white interests.

Sadly, this is not the first time GRT has inspired mass murder. Similar ideas were espoused by perpetrators of mass murders targeting  Muslim immigrants in New Zealand and Hispanics in El Paso, Texas, both in 2019. The Buffalo killer praised both of these earlier atrocities in his manifesto.

While GRT originated among marginal extremists, its precepts have  been embraced by a good many mainstream right-wing politicians and political commentators, including Tucker Carlson. This helps underscore the right-wing pedigree of the theory. But devotees, including the various mass killers, also espouse ideas traditionally associated with the political left, including hatred of major corporations, and concerns about the degradation of the environment (which they attribute in large part to immigration). The Buffalo killer, for example, describes himself as an "eco-fascist," and opposes non-white immigration in part because he thinks it destroys the environment (along with "uncontrolled urbanization" promoted by corporate elites).

What unites the racist, nationalist, and seemingly left-wing elements of these peoples' world views is the assumption that the world is a zero-sum game: immigrants can only gain at the expense of natives, the rich at the expense of the poor. Whites can only thrive and prosper by excluding blacks and other groups, and so on.

Unfortunately, this kind of zero-sum thinking goes far beyond a few extremists, and is not solely confined to the nationalist right, though the latter is a particularly egregious and dangerous manifestation. What I wrote in the aftermath of the New Zealand and El Paso killings remains relevant:

Some may find it surprising that the perpetrator of the recent horrific New Zealand terrorist attack that killed fifty Muslim worshipers in two mosques, combined seemingly right-wing nationalism with seemingly left-wing socialism and environmentalism….

But in this case, the terrorist's worldview is less unusual than it might seem. A similar combination of views is evident in many xenophobic nationalist movements, both past and present. Socialists and nationalists have their differences. But they also have much in common, including a zero-sum view of the world.

Anti-immigrant nationalist parties in Europe often combine hostility to nonwhite immigration with support for extensive government control of the economy. That's true of such cases as the National Front in France (now renamed as the "National Rally") and the AfD in Germany. Such parties often also often blame immigrants for real and imagined environmental degradation, just as the perpetrator of the New Zealand attack does….

Similarly, the perpetrator of the New Zealand attack argues that environmentalism and immigration restriction "are the same issue [because] the environment is being destroyed by over population,…" Some influential far-left environmentalists have also advocated coercive population control, including defending China's cruel "one child" policy….[note: the El Paso killer also uses the supposed need for population control as a justification for keeping out immigrants].

Racial nationalists and socialist far leftists share a common zero-sum view of the world under which some groups can succeed and prosper only at the expense of others. It is easy to see how that sort of world view often leads adherents to believe that drastic action—including violence—is essential to ensure that the "right" people end up as winners in this cruel zero-sum world. I discussed this crucial commonality in greater detail here

Zero-sum thinking need not always lead to racial and ethnic hostility, or xenophobia. It is also often channeled in other directions, such as hostility to the wealthier members of one's own ethnic group or society. In some cases, it leads to a combination of both fear of foreigners and fear of the wealthy.

For example, unexpectedly popular Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders echoes Donald Trump's hostility to international trade, while simultaneously arguing that ordinary Americans can only be economically successful by redistributing vast wealth from "the 1 percent." Until recently, he also expressed considerable hostility towards immigration, denouncing the idea of free migration of labor as a plot by "the Koch brothers" and other malevolent billionaires, which would impoverish the working class and end up "doing away with the concept of a nation state…."

Fortunately, most nationalists and socialists aren't willing to go so far as to personally commit acts of terrorism. But all too many are willing to advocate large-scale coercion that inflicts great harm on large numbers of people, in order to ensure that they and their preferred causes don't end up as losers in a zero-sum world. Everything from barring migrants fleeing horrible oppression, to separating immigrant children from parents in order to deter them from entering, to coercive population control, to massive expropriation of property, and repression of "capitalists" in order to transfer the nation's wealth to "the people." The list can easily be extended….

There is no easy antidote to the spread of dangerous zero-sum ideas. But perhaps the beginning of wisdom is to recognize the danger they pose, and understand why they are wrong…

Far from enriching natives, immigration restrictions often end up undermining their freedom and prosperity as well as that of potential immigrants. Standard economic estimates indicate that free migration throughout the world would double world GDP, with many of the gains going to natives, not just migrants. Natives lose the gains from trade with immigrants, and also suffer from the civil liberties violations inherent in efforts to keep out and deport migrants. Rich and poor are not locked in a zero-sum game either. To the contrary, they can prosper together through mutual exchange, and historically often have.

Pollution and global warming are genuinely serious problems. But addressing them does not require massive coercion or keeping millions of people in poverty. Historically, increasing wealth has actually led to reductions in pollution (after an initial increase early in the process of industrialization), as wealthy societies can more easily afford to invest in reducing pollution. Even when it comes to the particularly difficult challenge of climate change, there are ways to combat that simultaneously increase prosperity rather than stifle it. They include reducing regulatory obstacles to using nuclear power, cutting back on zoning restrictions that make it hard to build denser housing, and offering prizes for the development of new "clean" energy technologies. Where regulation is needed to cut back on carbon dioxide emissions, it should take the the scalpel form of a revenue-neutral carbon tax, rather than the meat cleaver of coercive population control and government takeovers of huge portions of the economy.

I would add that some forms of left-wing identity politics also promote the idea that relations between ethnic and racial groups are a zero-sum game. For example, prominent "anti-racism" advocate Ibram X. Kendi famously wrote that "[t]he only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination." On this theory, black progress is dependent on discrimination against whites. White nationalists and GRT advocates hold much the same view—differing primarily in their evaluation of which groups they want to win out.

The zero-sum ethnic nationalism of racial majorities is much more dangerous than the espousal of comparable ideas for minorities by the likes of Kendi. Among other things, majority groups generally wield more power (especially in democratic societies) and thus can inflict greater injustices as a result of adopting misguided ideas. But the two types of zero-sum identity politics can be mutually reinforcing, with one helping to promote the other.

Recent events provide yet more evidence that the interests of immigrants and natives—and those of different racial and ethnic groups—are, mostly mutually reinforcing, rather than mutually exclusive. Immigration restrictions harm natives in a wide variety of ways, including by reducing scientific innovation of the kind that led to the development of first two successful Covid vaccines. I discuss more such synergies of interests (as well as ways to alleviate potential negative side effects of migration by means other than exclusion) i my book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom.

Minorities and whites could massively benefit from reforms that expand freedom and opportunity for both, such as breaking down exclusionary zoning, thereby making it easier for both to move to areas with greater opportunity, thereby making our entire society more innovative and productive.

Most fundamentally,  immigrants, natives, and people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds could benefit from a society that rejects zero-sum thinking and deemphasizes racial and ethnic identity. We should instead promote universal liberal principles, of the kind that inspired the American Revolution and the abolition of slavery. These ideas have led to enormous progress, even if the nation has never fully lived up to them. And they can achieve still more, if we give them more of a chance.

NOTE: Because perpetrators of terrorist attacks often undertake them in large part to gain fame and media attention for themselves and their ideas, I have refrained from mentioning the names of the men who committed the New Zealand,  El Paso, and Buffalo attacks, or linking to their "manifestos." I have instead linked to others' summaries of their ideas. But both the names and the manifestos are easily found online, for those who wish to see them.