We belong to groups. The behavior of those groups is largely dictated not by ideology but by demography. To understand how and why, one needs the identity matrix.
Intro: America breaks
Those who know me know I’m a bit obsessed with studying ethnic cleansing. This isn't an idle pursuit; as I’ve argued, ethnic cleansing is integral to the international sovereign order and, beyond that, to human nature and politics itself. And indeed, things seemed to be coming to a head in the United States in advance of last night’s midterm elections. (Which, in a diverse society, is quite often when it happens.) Just in the last fortnight (as of this writing), we have seen racial killings, a synagogue massacre, caravan hysteria, mail bombs sent to opposition leaders and news outlets, and the US President announcing his intention to end birthright citizenship.
Then, last night, the polls came in. Ron DeSantis won. Steve King won. Duncan Hunter won. Ted Cruz won. The Republicans kept the Senate, and, though they lost the House, in many of the most prominent races where their candidate relied on demonization of the other—immigrants, Islam, people of color—they won.
In this toxic milieu, I have been asked how I can simultaneously predict ethnic cleansing in America on the one hand and call for reconciliation and national unity on the other. How can I possibly wish to share a country with a tribe that wishes to purge America of its multitudes?
This is my attempt to answer the question.
The simple answer is that I believe that our group’s choices are not our own. We, at the collective level, are to a great extent prisoners of demographic forces we cannot control, or even—from our own vantage points—fully understand. The behavior of America’s racial, ethnic, and religious groups are largely the product not of their decency but of their distribution.
Groups are unevenly distributed across the land, and they fear other groups—and, given how groups treat each other, this makes sense—and so band together to seek self-determination. But when demography threatens that self-determination, they act defensively against perceived foreign threats. They will do this regardless of the stated beliefs of their individual members. Most people are good, but they’re fearful.
But as an individual person, you may have trouble seeing it, because you are a single point in a multidimensional identity matrix, and you are a complex, independent being who contains multitudes—race, gender, religion, language, and more—and who likely bears no personal animosity towards the other, whoever they may be. But where you are in the matrix matters, in ways you may not even fully grasp. Who you see as a threat is a demographic question.
In order to resolve today’s conflicts, including here in the United States, we must understand how they originate in demographic distribution across multiple dimensions, and then work within the constraints of that distribution to achieve a pacific outcome.
Because I believe this, I find it difficult to blame or hold groups responsible for their worst actions, or the worst actions of their most extreme individual members. While I condemn the actions themselves, I cannot be confident my own group(s) wouldn’t behave the same way in the same situation, and I am very confident that the perpetrating group and its members would behave differently if they were placed in a different situation.
So, to my friends on the left who cannot understand why much of America continues to vote steadfastly for open displays of white supremacy, my answer is: demography is making them believe that they have to.
Here’s my theory for how the identity matrix works. There are three components:
VERTICAL: Your own personal layer cake of different identities
HORIZONTAL: Layered planes on which different groups and their wealth are distributed across the territory
TIME: The population pyramid and the relative ages of groups within a territory
Let’s take each in turn.
1. The Vertical Axis: You
In the matrix, you, the individual, are a column of identities. You have many different identities to which you belong. Think about these, then stack them. Some are lineage-based, in that you inherit them from your parents: race, ethnicity, tribe, country/region of ancestral origin, home city, mother tongue, religion, sect, hair color, eye color, favorite sports team, etc. Others are not lineage-based, such as gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation. (While both types are important, the distinction between the two shall become apparent a bit later.)
Not all of your identities are immutable.
Some can be masked (by passing, eg., if there is no visible physical difference between your group and others).
Some can be changed (by leaving a religion, eg., though doing so can be wrenching).
Some can be expanded (learning a new language, eg., though overcoming the shibboleths of a mother tongue accent can require a generation or two).
Some can be joined (“whiteness” in America does tend to be defined outwards bit by bit).
But some are very difficult to dislodge (particularly racial or ethnic classifications).
Some are important to your life and prospects and even physical safety (ethnicity matters a great deal in the Balkans, for instance)…
while others are irrelevant (sports fandom is intensely tribal but the long-term stakes are fairly low… unless your sports team is tied to your ethnic group in the Balkans, in which case it matters a great deal also).
All of these identities form a part of who you are, but in practice, the one you glom onto in any moment is typically the one that is most salient, usually because it is the one that is most under threat. In that moment, when you are a potential target because you belong to a group, that group is your refuge. That brings us to…
2. The Horizontal Plane: The distribution of your groups across territory
Which identity is the most fearful? This is largely dictated by the second axis in the matrix, the horizontal plane. This is the distribution of groups across territory, with different layers of identity overlaid in patterns like a topographical map. How many of your group exists in a territory relative to other groups, and whether you are diffuse across the landscape or concentrated in a region, and whether your population spills across borders to other lands, and whether your group has disproportionately large or small economic and political power relative to its numbers, determines how your group will behave, and how it will be treated.
Consider: are you American and living in America? Most Americans are concentrated in the United States of America where you live, and far outnumber non-Americans. Are you a racial minority within America? Well, by definition you’re outnumbered, and you’re probably diffuse, though more likely to live in a major urban center and quite possibly segregated into a neighborhood of mostly your group. Are you Muslim? Well, you are part of a vast ummah of nearly two billion, but only a scattered few millions of them live in the United States, and must adjust accordingly. Are you female? You’ll find the distribution is pretty even where you live, as it will be almost everywhere else.
Identity groups band together in self-defense when they feel threatened, and like phalanxes will configure to counter the threat. Once they do this, they are locked in until the threat is removed. There are only three ways to undo the phalanx: withdrawal, total subjugation through ethnic engineering, or switching identity layers so that the group no longer feels threatened.
You can experience this by considering your own identities. By way of example, I am variously American, white, Jewish, male, straight, brown-eyed, of average height, Midwestern and suburban by birth, and monolingual, among others. Most days, none of these are my defining feature: my individuality is. But on 9/11 I was an American foremost, because that was the identity that was threatened. And after Charlottesville or the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, I was Jewish foremost. While I am horrified by attacks in any country or against any religious group, it is difficult for even the most empathetic among us to conjure quite the same primal fear while watching a predator hunt someone else as we get when we are the prey. And animals that are prey form herds.
Think of your identity layers, and see how this has affected your life. You’ll get the picture. But know this: even if you reject this instinct, a great number won’t, and in their multitudes they will form the phalanx anyway, with or without you. And whether you support it or not, your safety is often free-riding on the phalanx. A Serb in the Krajina in 1992 could have been a pro-Yugoslav, liberal, pluralistic democrat, but his ability to live in his home was dependent on the Serb phalanx’s success in keeping the Croats at bay. And when the Serb phalanx collapsed in 1995, this hypothetical liberal, pluralistic democrat Serb fled along with all the other Serbs. Distribution matters.
Understand also, people must often choose between identity layers, because a phalanx is an unwieldy configuration that often can’t operate on many layers and distribution sets at once. A majority of white women, in the 2016 election, aligned with whiteness more than gender. This is why the current president is who he is. Why did they do this? Change. The distribution of gender is fixed in America, but the relative distribution of whiteness is changing. And change is destabilizing. That brings us to…
3. Time: the age structure of your groups
There is a third, final axis to the matrix, which is time. This is represented by the population pyramid, the demographic distribution across generations. Median age, and the median age of each group, determines not just how the distribution is now but where it’s going. A numerically dominant group that is older than other groups won’t stay numerically dominant for long, and will usually react badly to the changing circumstances. Consider American whites: they’re still somewhere between 63% and 73% if the population depending how you count it, but declining (both relatively and, as of last year, absolutely) because they are older and have lower birthrates, and because their numbers are not being buttressed by immigration to the degree that those of other groups are. Time matters in demography. The white backlash in America today is as much against the future projected demography of the country as the present one.
Even if the temporal distribution is comparable between groups—that is, their age structures and birthrates are similar and so no group is growing faster than another—a young distribution is both a harbinger and a force multiplier of domestic instability and makes it more likely that groups will fight as their populations mushroom. With a flat, young population pyramid, most people are under 30 or even under 18, and people have more kids and they have them earlier, so the population grows exponentially, and so the costs to the state of providing jobs and land and opportunity and housing to all these new folks go up, while the costs of recruiting the most frustrated among them into a rebel army goes down. And in a diverse society, it’s always easiest to blame any structural failures to provide opportunity for each new generation on other groups… on them.
But even in a homogenous society, a country’s median age is a startlingly accurate predictor of its level of prosperity, democracy and political stability. If you are so young that your population doubles every 20 years, your demography is unstable regardless of ethnic distribution because rapid population increase will alter your social structures in a host of ways. Today, if your country’s median age is under 20, you’re either a failed state or could quickly become one (think the Sahel, Yemen, DRC, Afghanistan). Low 20s, you’re probably poor and autocratic, and if you had an Arab Spring, it failed (think Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and lots of sub-Saharan Africa). Mid 20s to low 30s, you’re a mid-income country facing turmoil from the rising demands of a nouveau middle class, and you might have elections but if so, the system is fragile (think Turkey, Tunisia, Nicaragua, Peru). Mid 30s to early 40s, you’re hopefully in the OECD and you’re rich and stable (think Western Europe), but if you’re not, you’re a former Eastern Bloc communist state and you’ve sort of missed your window to become rich (think Eastern Europe). Above 45, you’ve got social security problems but you don’t want to take in young immigrants to fix the problem because you’re a bit xenophobic (Italy comes to mind). There are very few exceptions to this trajectory.
This has international repercussions. Because young growing populations are directly correlated with poverty and conflict, there will be large economic and refugee outflows from these places to more wealthy and stable ones, which are almost universally older. That, as we have seen, will affect the identity distribution within those countries and have consequences for their politics as well.
Groups seek security in space and time
Because groups fear other groups, they tend to value self-determination, and are thus tribal and (to the extent possible) territorial. They want their place in the world and don’t want to be ruled by other groups. Given how minorities are consistently treated the world over, this desire is entirely reasonable and its legitimacy, at least, must be respected.
How a group behaves is largely dictated by its historic, current, and projected distribution. There is no Rawlsian veil here. We know where we are. As a general rule, no one wants to be a minority because you are at the mercy of the majoritarian mob who could come for you with torches at any time. Groups try to engineer their circumstances so they are not in a minority status. A university professor I knew once put it to me that the violent breakup of Yugoslavia took place entirely because each group said, “Why should I be a minority in your country when you could be a minority in mine?” Usually, through ethnic engineering, groups succeed in forming homeland states. The stakes are high, because if they don’t succeed, they are usually brutally subjugated. The fates of the Uighurs, Tibetans, Sri Lankan Tamils, Kurds, Assyrians, Biafrans, Ambazonians, and others are instructive.
The specific nature or ideology of the identity is almost irrelevant when compared to the distribution. Appealing, for example, to the Christian charity of America’s white evangelicals to be kind to migrants will fall on deaf ears if those migrants belong to a different group that is in any way demographically significant. This is true even if the migrants are also Christians. This is not because white evangelicals are hypocrites but because they are being collectively driven on by overwhelming, visceral, primordial tribal fear of them and what they might do, and there but for the grace of different demographic distributions go all of us, in one way or another. After all, when they were minorities, Christians were persecuted too. They haven’t forgotten. It’s on the wall of every church.
We know the identity specifics are of secondary importance because even within the same group, different configurations lead to radically different behavior. Jewish-Americans and Armenian-Americans are mostly pluralistic liberal democrats who believe in minority rights, wish to help refugees, and celebrate a diverse nation. Since they themselves are tiny and diffuse minorities, this is natural. Meanwhile, Israelis and Armenians are among the most ferociously territorially nationalistic peoples on earth. Since they are tiny concentrated minorities who fled persecution from all directions to their current homelands, and since they both face violent revisionist claims on their current homelands by demographically larger neighbors, they correctly see their state as the sole refuge available to them. Same people, different configuration. Neither of these responses, by the way, is necessarily wrong; they are natural and rational given the distribution of identity groups across the matrix. But the outcomes for them and their enemies can still be tragic.
The third axis is relevant here. An older concentrated power group will be loathe to welcome even a small number of newcomers who are younger and have higher birth rates because the perceived long-term threat to demographic control of territory. A migrant caravan headed towards the American border is a few thousand people seeking a better life, and they are approaching a nation of 330 million people with nothing but the best of intentions, but to the ethnonationalist American there is no appreciable difference between that caravan and an invading army. Both herald a loss of identitarian territorial control. The reaction will be similar, and it will be unpleasant. This is not racism per se—at least it doesn’t have to be—but rather a tribal reaction dictated by the distribution of groups in the matrix. Until the threat abates or is superseded by another, the phalanx is locked in place.
If a group ends up in a political configuration where they are a minority, they can either try to integrate or leave. But this decision isn’t entirely their own either. It’s dictated by demographic distribution too. In practice, leaving is only possible when a group is concentrated in a region, either successfully like the Eritreans, or semi-successfully like the Kosovar Albanians, or unsuccessfully like the Catalonians. By contrast, a diffuse minority population cannot achieve territorial self-determination, so it must try to work within the system to achieve equal rights. The Roma can’t really seek independence. Neither, at least not after the Great Migration, can African-Americans, even though after centuries of mistreatment such an effort would certainly garner broad sympathy. African-Americans have not anytime recently exceeded four in 10 in any state in the union. (At 37%, Mississippi currently has the highest percentage.) As a result, hypothetical Black America today has no viable geography, and so African-Americans have been compelled to seek political rights within the system, with, to put it mildly, mixed results.
And this is where the difference between lineage-based and non-lineage-based identities becomes manifest. Because gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation are largely fixed in any population across time and space, they are by definition diffuse. As far as we can tell, even with extreme social engineering, the male-female ratio in every human society is always somewhere in the ballpark of 1:1, and somewhere between 5-10% of the population is LGBTQ+. The public behavior and visibility and freedom of these identity groups can be controlled, but the numbers are consistent pretty much everywhere. Even if a zealot deported all gays, very quickly there would be a new crop born into the next generation. But lineage-based identities can be engineered; so if a society deports all its Jews, they’re gone for good. Balkan ethnic groups can Balkanize, but Balkan men and women cannot. Thus, despite systematic discrimination and sometimes shocking denials of basic rights, there has never to my knowledge, anywhere in the world, been a women’s separatist movement. Nor has anyone proposed a territorially independent LGBTQ+ republic. (By the way, autonomy won’t cut it here, which is why college safe spaces don’t solve America’s race and gender problems. Real safe spaces have flags and border controls and, optimally, seats in the United Nations General Assembly.) Lineage-based identities can, and do, partial across the land. Non-lineage-based ones have to learn to live together.
Misalignments between power and demography are destabilizing
The most insidious ethnic security dilemmas often take root when there is a misalignment between wealth/political power and demographic power. This is what Amy Chua calls the “market-dominant minority.” If a minority runs the commanding heights of the economy, as ethnic Chinese have in much of Southeast Asia, and especially if they also control the state, as under Baathist Iraq and Syria, or Apartheid South Africa, or pre-revolutionary Rwanda, each group will see the other as a threat. The minority group may have power and wealth, but they’re heavily outnumbered and they know that if the majority gets political rights, the minority stands to lose everything. These dynamics are extremely difficult to solve. So far in South Africa it has worked out well enough, but this is a singular exception. From Vietnam to Iraq to Rwanda to Algeria, it usually doesn’t end well for the minority group. And even success is conditional; one populist electoral cycle could end the minority group’s safety at any time. If you wonder why Bashar al-Assad instantly chose to level whole cities rather than negotiate with his own people, this is why. His decision was made for him by Syria’s demography.
The minority group is damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If they’re less successful on average, they will face stereotypes and discrimination, and be confined to the margins. But if they fight through this discrimination and succeed to a disproportionate or even equivalent degree, their lot can be even worse, because they become targets. Jews in Europe never threatened to impose a minority regime anywhere, but because they were often economically successful, they were targeted by the majority everywhere they went and consistently subject to deranged populist conspiracy theories that begat hate crimes, pogroms, expulsions, and the Holocaust. Today, the continent has been largely emptied of them.
Of course, if the misalignment goes in the other direction, and the largest group by numbers also has disproportionate economic and political power, this group can—and almost inevitably will—bulldoze all minority groups so effortlessly that it won’t even realize what it is doing. This is why so many American whites fail to see that racial inequality is even an issue in the United States. The country’s structures have disadvantaged people of color so long that American whites don’t even realize the inequalities are there.
At least until now. When the marginalized minority group protests its marginalization, the power group says, “Why are you complaining? Work harder like we do.” But when the marginalized minority group acquires sufficient demographic heft to force its protests to be heard, the power group views them no longer as a nuisance, but as a threat. And they form the phalanx.
Misalignments between people and borders are destabilizing
There’s another kind of misalignment, a horizontal mismatch of territorial borders and people. This causes destabilization in two ways. First, it tends to be the justification for cross-border invasion (think Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland in the name of the Germans who lived there, or the “Greater Serbia” project, or the ongoing Nagorno-Karabkh dispute).
But second, even if the borders are agreed upon, the nature of the society is not. In diverse societies, the rivalries within the polity are often so intense that factions within it will feel greater kinship with foreigners of the same or similar identity group than they do with their own countrymen of different backgrounds. In the Syrian war, the Alawites running the minority government turned to their fellow Shi’a from Lebanon and Iran to help fight the majoritarian uprising, and later their historic ally Russia. The mostly Sunni rebels called in backup in the form of cross border sanctuary, financing, fighters and materiel from various Sunnis in Turkey, the Gulf, and even—in the case of Daesh—disaffected Sunnis in Western countries. Meanwhile, Syrian Kurds sought alliances with Iraqi and Turkish Kurds, and with the United States as well. Diverse countries become proxy wars for homogenous ones.
This is normal. It’s happening in America too. American whites now seem to increasingly prefer white Russians to Americans of color. “Russia is our friend” is not something you would have expected to ever hear from the party of Reagan and Goldwater and Nixon and McCarthy. But here we are.
Misalignments between identity layers are destabilizing
The phalanx doesn’t just respond to threats within its own identity layer—ethnic group vs. ethnic group, holy warrior vs. holy warrior, etc.—but against any threat from any layer in the matrix. It will constantly reorient itself against the biggest threat it sees. And some of the nastiest conflicts transpire when groups are operating on different identity prisms and so don’t just hate each other, but don’t understand each other either.
The most obvious example of this the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, where neither side’s hardliners actually acknowledge that the other side even exists. For their part, Palestinians specifically and Muslims generally often find it difficult to understand how Judaism functions as both a tribe and a religion, and consider its insularity a show of intolerance and arrogance. Jews, meanwhile, often find it difficult to understand why Islam keeps spreading and proselytizing, which from a Jewish perspective is also a show of intolerance and arrogance. The two groups aren’t operating on the same identity layer, and thus misidentify who they are dealing with.
Palestinians thus view their conflict with Israel as a religious war against a racist imperial settler colonial project foisted on them by dastardly Europeans. Israelis see themselves as a tiny, persecuted homeland tribe, no different than Armenians or Estonians, who came to their homeland in spite of the worst efforts those same dastardly Europeans, and who just wish to live in their little corner of the world and not be menaced by the vast, expanding, hostile blob of which the Palestinians are just the tip of the spear, indistinguishable from the rest. Thus, conflict.
(As an aside, Judaism also doesn’t quite fit into America’s racial dynamics, or, indeed, almost anyone else’s identitarian dynamics. It is so ancient that as an identity, it is conceptually misaligned with most of the layers of the matrix, which I suspect is one reason why Judaism so consistently bothers identitarians everywhere.)
The mis-labeling in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is highly typical, especially when territory and citizenship are at stake. Myanmar considers the Rohingya to be Bengalis. The Rohingya do not. Armenians consider Azeris to be Turks. Azeris do not. Serbs consider Kosovar Albanians to be Turks. Kosovar Albanians do not. Russians consider Ukrainians to just be Russians who were tempted by fascism for some reason. Ukrainians feel otherwise. Nobody considers Macedonians to actually be Macedonians. Etc.
Changes in the matrix are destabilizing
Just like a chemistry set, altering the composition of a solution will change its nature. Almost any noticeable change in demography will cause relative power loss for somebody and will be met with resistance from that somebody.
Consider the United States again. America is the world’s oldest democracy and calls itself multiethnic. Frankly, we should be able to handle this stuff if anyone can. But in fact, we were historically not really a multiethnic democracy at all. Until recently, whites have had an unassailable demographic hammerlock on the national political machinery. Now, that is changing, and fast. Whites are voting decisively for one political party, but that party has lost the popular vote in 6 of the last 7 presidential elections. As a result, whites are starting to behave like threatened minority or plurality power groups like the Syrian Alawites or Great Lakes Tutsis or Lebanese Maronites. Losing control of demography, they are abandoning democracy and imposing illiberal structures to maintain their power. And ethnic politics breed big men. The tribe’s standard-bearer can have unlimited scandals and be manifestly unfit for leadership and his constituency will never waver as long as he represents them against their domestic foes. Moreover, supporting the standard-bearer will become a mark of tribal loyalty, so as the tribe forms the phalanx, they will become even more intransigent and difficult to peel off. This dynamic is an almost inevitable outcome of the change in distribution along the third axis to the relative detriment of a loss-averse tribe of humans. The Serbs did the same thing with Milosevic, the Croats with Tudjman, the Turks with the Young Turks. There is nothing unusual or uniquely odious about American white people here. This is a human thing. It is largely out of our control, and individual goodwill makes basically no difference at the collective level. Demographic change is driving this thing as surely as a chemical reaction.
Unfortunately, no one can see the identity matrix for yourself. You have to be told what it is.
And this is why I maintain tremendous empathy for groups, even when their behavior is appalling. They are acting out of identitarian self-defense at the collective level. Their behavior is so dictated by their demographic configuration in the identity matrix that it is honestly difficult for me to hold them wholly responsible for it.
In the identity matrix, most groups instinctively understand their surroundings but only from their own vantage point. No one realizes the threat they pose to others; they only see the threats from the other groups. They don’t see how their own phalanx menaces. They see the phalanx formed by the other group, and decry “identity politics.” This is how the ethnic security dilemma works; each group is fearful, doesn’t understand why the other group is fearful, and so assumes the worst.
American factions, for instance, remain consistently oblivious to how terrifying the lay of the land looks to other groups. Educating them will not help, because their fear comes from numbers, not words, and if they feel the threat of the numbers of the other, even if the intent of the other is in principle benign, they will form the phalanx, and the conversation is over.
There are few more perfect examples of this dynamic than the following incredibly un-self-aware tweet by Tucker Carlson—Tucker Carlson!—in the aftermath of various acts of pre-election violence:
I take this lament as sincere. Carlson doesn’t see white identity politics because of where he stands in the identity matrix. But from his vantage point, he does see everybody else’s identity politics, and he is afraid of them. In this, at least, Carlson is all of us.
This is why the identity matrix is useful. Understanding its dynamics can allow us to recognize the fears of the other, mitigate them, avoid conflict where possible, or at least achieve stable (and hopefully optimal) configurations. It also holds the promise of the one tried-and-true way to peaceably overcome the phalanx: switching identity layers to unite disparate and historically conflictual groups. Virtually all human conflicts are resolvable if demographic distribution is taken as the starting point. If we understand how our positions in the identity matrix dictate our individual and collective actions, we can be more empathetic, more forgiving, and ultimately more peaceful and tolerant.
Outro: America Breaking
With the 2018 election in the books, we must again try to figure out how to operate as Americans, how to stop people from feeling they must vote along straight racial lines to survive, how to stop weaponizing demography. Using the identity matrix, we have the capacity to switch identity layers and emphasize our national unity over our racial, ethnic, and religious differences. Or, we can continue to face off phalanx on phalanx, and perhaps the diminishing power group will strangle the democratic system to survive, or cleanse America into homogeneity… or perhaps America’s minorities will overwhelm the diminishing power group through demographic change. One way or another, we will eventually be reconfigured into something stable.
But of course, given our demography distribution, it remains to be seen whether we Americans will ultimately find that stability within one political entity… or several.