On Monday night, the Fox News personality doubled down, insisting that his comments were entirely race-neutral and that they were only about defending the “voting rights” of U.S. citizens.
But if anything, Carlson’s defense reveals his worldview as the one that’s truly hostile to democracy. And that in turn exposes the ideological underbelly of the broader right-wing populist nationalist movement that he and his defenders champion.
On Fox, Carlson unapologetically reiterated his claim about nefarious Democratic intentions.
“Demographic change is the key to the Democratic Party’s political ambitions,” Carlson declared. “To win and maintain power, Democrats plan to change the population of the country.”
I’m somewhat agnostic on whether these segments constitute a dog-whistling reproduction of “great replacement” theory. I’d argue the comments are revealing for what they say explicitly.
Distortions of national sovereignty
Carlson is trading on a profound but frequent distortion of the concept of national sovereignty. He simply treats it as self-evident that more immigration, even more legal immigration, undermines the character and political integrity of our nation.
“Our leaders have no right to encourage foreigners to move to this country in order to change election results,” Carlson declared, adding that this is an “attack” on democracy: “If you believed in democracy, you’d work to protect the potency of every citizen’s vote.”
There are two big deceptions here. The first is that Democrats want to increase immigration only for cynical electoral purposes.
In fact, those who favor more legal immigration have defended it on normative and pragmatic grounds. They’ve argued it’s a requirement of global justice, a recognition of moral duty to the fundamental humanity of outsiders, a solution to long-term U.S. demographic woes, a route to a more prosperous global future, and even a way to make undocumented immigration more manageable.
What’s more, Carlson’s basic premise — that there’s something untoward about wanting to bring more immigrants into one’s political coalition — is unwittingly revealing. Why can’t Democrats both see more immigration as good for the above reasons while also wanting to win them over as voters?
Throughout our history, the polity has expanded and contracted to include more and fewer citizens — immigrants included — in part because political parties saw this as both good for the country and as being in their own interests. That has at times helped our democracy expand.
It’s strange that Carlson presumes the GOP has no chance at winning these particular immigrants. Doesn’t that cut against the interpretation of the 2020 election (in which Latinos shifted Republican) holding that right-wing populism can effect a multiracial, conservative realignment of the working class?
But the deepest deception of all concerns the notion that bringing in immigrants — or legalizing undocumented ones already here — is by definition a threat to the power of the existing citizenry’s voting rights.
Let’s be clear: If our elected representatives, ones chosen by U.S. voters in legitimate elections, decide to allow more immigrants into the country legally, or decide to confer legal status on undocumented ones here, that is an exercise of democracy.
In 2020, Joe Biden and Democratic congressional candidates campaigned on granting citizenship to the undocumented and expanding various forms of legal immigration. Majorities chose this vision of our future, delivering the White House and Congress to Democrats.
If they do deliver on this promise, it won’t represent a threat to our “sovereignty." Instead, the people will have exercised their will through their elected representatives.
Carlson would claim that immigrants getting in illegally and then becoming voters breaches our sovereignty. This raises complex questions. But the bottom line is that the decision to grant all those voters citizenship, out of a view of what’s in the national interest (since mass deportation and leaving them in the shadows are impractical), would nonetheless be a legitimately democratic one.
The reactionary two-step
As Zack Beauchamp writes in a good essay, today’s nationalist right worldview employs a kind of two-step. It speaks in a pro-democracy “idiom” while simultaneously vowing to restore a mythologized democratic past that must be defended against its “enemies,” i.e. all the legitimate U.S. voters who have a different conception of what our democracy should look like.
Wherever you come down on Carlson and the “great replacement” theory, there’s no question that this worldview is radically reactionary. Carlson says in all kinds of ways that local culture across the country is succumbing under a tide of migration, and even that states transformed by immigration have become “unrecognizable.”
But this worldview is also fundamentally anti-democratic to its core. What’s most revealing is Carlson’s underlying presumption that if representatives chosen by U.S. voters allow more outsiders admission to an expanded polity, this cannot be a democratic outcome by definition. The polity must remain restricted to what he and those who agree with him say it must, regardless of what the people actually chose.
This is plainly what Carlson really believes. And so do his populist nationalist fellow travelers: J.D. Vance hailed Carlson’s original claim for challenging “elite dogma,” erasing the reality that in 2020 more U.S. voters chose the conception of the nation and “the people” that they both reject.
What is the basis for the democratic legitimacy of their desire to impose their conception of the nation and “the people” on the rest of us? They simply don’t say.
In his monologue, Carlson declares that on immigration’s impact on democracy, “America badly deserves a national conversation.” Too bad he and his pals are so cagey about what they really believe.