The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization
by Patrick J. Buchanan
St. Martin’s Press • 2002 • 308 pages • $25.95
Reviewed by Daniel T. Griswold
Give Pat Buchanan his due: The man can write. In his latest book, The Death of the West, he unleashes his rhetorical howitzer against his own “axis of evil” threatening Western civilization: the birth dearth, the secular left, and “mass” immigration. But his barrage of well-crafted words cannot hide gaping holes in his argument.
As usual, Buchanan delivers his message with clarity and passion: Cutting tax rates and spurring economic growth are good causes, he grants, “But what doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his country? . . . With the collapsing birthrate, open borders, and the triumph of an anti-Western multiculturalism, that is what is at issue today — the survival of America as a nation, separate and unique, and of Western civilization itself — and too many conservatives have gone AWOL in the last great fight of our lives.”
Along two of those battlefronts, demographic and cultural, Buchanan’s arguments resonate with more than a grain of truth. Most economically advanced Western nations are indeed on the verge of a demographic implosion with birthrates now below the replacement level of 2.1 per woman of child-bearing age. Russia and Japan will soon begin to shrink. Meanwhile, populations in most of the Third World, including the Middle East, continue to grow albeit more slowly than in the past. But this story is nothing new.
On the cultural front, Buchanan again is on to something. For decades, an educated elite, mostly in universities and the media, has been waging an intellectual war against traditional American values of family, individual responsibility, private property, and free markets. According to its worldview, Western civilization is basically a force for evil in the world and the breakdown of the family something to be celebrated, not a problem to be addressed. But here again, Buchanan only wraps in his own rhetoric a message that we’ve heard before from the likes of Allan Bloom.
On immigration, however, Buchanan’s arguments take a contradictory and sometimes even bizarre turn. He argues that Mexicans in particular are immigrating to America in unprecedented numbers, that they have no desire to assimilate, and that they will profoundly change our culture and politics. Buchanan minces no words: “Uncle Sam is taking a hellish risk in importing a huge diaspora of tens of millions from a nation [Mexico] vastly different from our own. And if we are making a fatal blunder, it is not a decision we can ever revisit. Our children will live with the consequences, balkanization, the end of America as we know her.”
Buchanan’s fears of mass immigration are greatly exaggerated. First, the numbers: The rate of immigration today is well within historical American experience. The annual inflow of immigration during the past decade, as a percentage of the U.S. population, was less than half the rate a century ago during the Great Migration of 1880-1914. The rate of Mexican immigration today, legal and illegal, is proportionately smaller than Irish immigration in the mid-nineteenth century, or Italian or Russian immigration in the early twentieth century. We managed as a nation to successfully absorb those millions despite worries at the time that they were too different in religion, language, and culture to become “real Americans.”
American culture and the English language have penetrated every corner of the globe. Why would immigrants right here in the United States be immune to those same powerful influences? Immigrants come here because they admire the United States and the opportunity it offers. Ironically, the long list of characters that Buchanan names as enemies of traditional American culture, from the intellectuals of the Marxist “Frankfort School” to John Lennon, are all dead white Europeans.
As for our shrinking population, immigration is obviously not the problem but in fact the answer. By maintaining America’s population growth, immigrants expand our productive capacity as a nation and strengthen our cultural and economic ties abroad — enhancing America’s influence in the world. Immigration is a key reason why American influence has grown in recent decades, while that of Europe and Japan has receded.
Finally, the jury is still out on the political implications of immigration. We do not know that future immigrants will necessarily be lockstep supporters of statist politicians. Maybe a party with a strong commitment to economic freedom and opportunity would be highly appealing to people who are yearning for success.
Buchanan is a master of the emotive phrase, appealing to our values and, more cleverly, to our prejudices. And he does his homework, stocking his argument with interesting, if highly selective, facts and quotations. But his talents as a polemicist cannot mask what in the end is an incoherent argument.