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  • The Rot at our Roots: Can Xenophobia Erode the Foundations of Democracy?
  • Audrey Stienon (bio)
Review of Sasha Polakow-Suransky, Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Threat to Western Democracy (New York: Nation Books, 2017).

Faith in the imperviousness of Western democracies is often elevated to the point of becoming national myth, even though political philosophers from Plato to James Madison have warned for centuries that democracies can contain the seeds of their own undoing. Modern liberal democracies, in particular, are designed to balance the representation of the will of the majority through elections with the protection of the rights of minorities through written laws, and they become especially vulnerable when they seek to empower the former to the detriment of the latter.

In his newly published book, Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Threat to Western Democracy, former New York Times opinion editor and Open Society Foundations fellow Sasha Polakow-Suransky argues that the greatest threat to modern liberal democracies is an internal one that stems from current political debates about immigration. Although he falls short of painting a vivid picture of what countries would look like if they implemented the anti-immigrant policies he warns about, Polakow-Suransky clearly shows how anti-immigrant movements are shaping public discussions of issues far beyond those directly related to immigration policy, and thus makes a compelling case that these movements are an often-overlooked force that could fundamentally transform democratic societies.

Polakow-Suransky distinguishes himself from the plethora of authors currently conducting post-mortems on traditional party politics1 by arguing that that the political turmoil we see today is due to an inherent weakness of democratic systems which is being strained as societies grapple with internal [End Page 97] change from migration. His conclusion is that populist anti-immigrant backlash is the defining force that threatens to push democracies in Europe and elsewhere over the edge, at which point they will abandon their commitments to promoting equality and preserving human rights, and thus cease to exist structurally as we know them.

The book focuses primarily on the case of the European response to its refugee crisis—looking in particular at the rise of far-right parties such as the Danish People’s Party, Dutch Party for Freedom, and French National Front. Despite this focus on European politics, Polakow-Suransky also goes to great lengths to demonstrate that this issue is more than just a European problem, and that, as such, must be addressed in democracies around the world. Notably, he brings readers to South Africa to show how the oftentimes violent backlash against migrants and refugees arriving from elsewhere in Africa is based on the same nostalgia, resentment, and fear of change that drive far-right parties in Europe.

Through interviews with an array of people shaping the immigration discussion in these countries—including political leaders, activists, authors, philosophers, immigrants, and anti-immigrant party supporters—as well as discussion of arguments found in decades of newspaper articles, novels, cartoons, and political speeches, Polakow-Suransky guides the reader through the culture, rhetoric and debates surrounding the rise of anti-immigrant political movements and parties. While giving a lot of space for others to voice their opinions, he also contextualizes comments, pointing out the fallacies and inconsistencies in arguments as he sees them—noting, for example, the similarities between the criticisms held against Muslims today and the stereotypes that underpinned anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence in the first half of the 20th century. Ultimately, Polakow-Suransky provides a nuanced understanding of the concerns of those debating how to respond to increased immigration around the world. This is crucial for a book which touches on such varied topics as European secularism and French laïcité, the limits of free speech, conflicts between minority groups, and Muslim radicalization and terrorism, all of which are extremely sensitive due to how intimately linked they are to how people—immigrants and natives alike—build their identities as citizens of a common society.

The greatest strength of this book is in describing the ways in which anti-immigration movements are gaining power and...


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pp. 97-100
Launched on MUSE
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