This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Origins of "Demography is Destiny" Revealed

A couple of weeks ago I posed the question about who originated the popular notion that "demography is destiny." I am very grateful to my SDSU colleague Shoshana Grossbard who immediately contacted Olivier Thévenon and François Héran at INED in Paris. Dr. Héran had, in fact, already looked into this question and had the probable answer. It is very likely that the term was first used--or certainly first popularized--in the 1970 book "The Real Majority," by Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg (New York: Coward-McCann). The book was about electoral politics and the role played by the changing demographics of the US. Chapter 4 is titled "Demography is Destiny--Unyoung, Unpoor, and Unblack," while Chapter 5 is titled "Middle-Aged, Middle Class White." The title of Chapter 4 was very politically incorrect and apparently received a lot of comment at the time. Of considerable interest given the current political climate in the US is the review of the book at the time by Ruth Silva, a political scientist at Penn State:
If The Real Majority has a thesis, it is that the American electorate is centerist, so that victory lies with the party or candidate of the center--the only extreme that is attractive to a real majority of the electorate is the extreme center. In short, The Real Majority is "must" reading for Kevin Phillips, Barry Goldwater, "Lemming Left" Democrats, "Lemming Right" Republicans, and every thoughtful citizen. (Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol 395, May 1971)
Richard Scammon had been Director of the US Census Bureau from 1961 to 1965, having been appointed by President Kennedy and then serving under President Johnson after Kennedy's assassination. Wattenberg was a speechwriter for President Johnson, although he became politically more conservative over time, cutting his teeth demographically by famously challenging Paul Ehrlich about the Population Bomb on some of Ehrlich's many visits to the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Mara Hvistendahl recounts those stories in her book "Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men" (New York: Perseus, 2012).

As I suspected, there is simply no evidence that Auguste Comte ever said anything even remotely close to "demography is destiny," whereas we know for certain that Scammon and Wattenberg used it several times. Furthermore, there is no sign of the phrase having been in circulation prior to the publication of their book, whereas it has gained enough currency since then that most people, including me until the email from Dr. Héran, had no clue about its origins.

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