It’s time for the United States and Europe to face the politics of cultural displacement

Editor’s Note:

What can the United States and European countries learn from each other’s experiences contending with turbulent forces around immigration on the one hand and nativism on the other? Spencer Boyer explores in a piece originally published on

In the wake of the disastrous G-7 meeting in Quebec, tension-filled NATO summit in Brussels, and widely condemned lovefest between the Russian and U.S. presidents in Helsinki, all in the past few weeks, the popular narrative has focused on the United States as a trans-Atlantic disrupter and Europe as a possible savior of the liberal international order. Fair enough. My experience as the senior Europe analyst in the U.S. intelligence community under the Obama administration and first few months of the Donald Trump presidency gave me a front-row seat to the early stages of major dysfunction and Trump’s hostility toward Euro-Atlantic institutions. The United States and Europe, however, have a common plague that should not be underestimated. Cultural displacement, masquerading as economic and border security anxiety, is chipping away at societal cohesion on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the United States, the shockwave of Trump’s election in 2016 and the widespread appeal of his policies continue to magnify a gulf in political allegiance and ideology. This divide is perhaps most prominent on the issue of immigration, as indicated by polling on the administration’s abandoned policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border. Democratic and Republican voters were miles apart.

These differences, however, show something much deeper than opposing policy preferences. The U.S. electorate is perhaps more polarized today over the definition of American identity and the value of diversity than at any time in recent memory. There are, of course, many drivers of this divide, including economic anxiety about globalization, wage stagnation, and career displacement, along with a perceived loss of community values due to continuing immigration and a fear of immigrant crime and foreign terrorism, often driven by exaggerated claims about the threat.

The result is that for many Americans, demographic change and immigration pose a direct challenge to established concepts of identity and pre-existing social hierarchies. While economic concerns are real, they are often a byproduct of an overarching narrative that explains economic success or failure as being tied to industries, cultural norms, and a way of life that perhaps died out some time ago. Whether the narratives are about trade protection for steel and aluminum, preserving the coal industry, or protecting U.S. workers from low-cost labor around the world, the resonating theme is about preventing dynamic societal change.

Unfortunately for those seeking to stop the march of time, demographic change is coming quickly.


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