End of the Affair?
American Jews have been a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party for the better part of seven decades, constituting, along with black voters, the Party's most reliable and unshakeable constituency. This affinity is not confined merely to voting patterns. Most of the major Jewish organizations, charities, advocacy groups, and the myriad other forms of institutional communal Jewish life in America are, in one manner or another, tied fundamentally to the Democratic Party and to established American Liberalism. This phenomenon has, with some exceptions, gone largely unquestioned. It is considered to be simply assumed, as if it were a natural phenomenon, that Jews will continue to vote Democratic and embrace liberal positions. As the saying goes: "Jews live like WASPs and vote like Puerto Ricans". Few think this will change anytime soon.
Of course, there is now a strong and thriving group of Jews active in the conservative movement and in Republican politics. The neo-conservative revolution contained several Jews as its primary figures (although, contrary to Leftwing propaganda, not all the neo-conservatives were Jews, nor are all Jews neo-conservatives) and many prominent conservative voices today belong to Jews, including Bush Administration Press Secretery Ari Fleischer, speechwriter David Frum, National Review Editor-in-Chief Jonah Goldberg, and of course, the famous (or infamous, in Leftist circles) Norman Podhoretz, who has opined that the Jewish identification with the Democratic Party is nothing short of "suicidal".
It is well known, however, that the strong Jewish presence in the conservative movement has not translated into any mass exodus of Jews to Republican ranks, nor do the majority of American Jews embrace conservative principals. In the last presidential election, Al Gore received something along the lines of 80-90% of the Jewish vote. His predecessor, Bill Clinton, won an even higher percentage. Only the black vote is more monolithic in its partisanship.
But, of course, we now live in a different world, one defined not by the domestic discontents of the '90s but by an existential War on Terror which not only threatens the United States but also the Jewish State of Israel. Many observers, myself included, believe a major political realignment may be in the offing, and that President Bush's resolute response to terror and refusal to compromise the alliance with Israel even in the face of European and Arab pressure may result in the defection of millions of Jewish voters to the Right for the first time in the 20th century.
In many ways, the question of whether or not such a shift will occur misses the point. The important question is not whether Jews ought to abandon the Democratic Party but whether there is an overriding reason for Jews to remain loyal to it. Political affiliations ought not to be made out of purely negative reasons (although, not being naive, I understand that they often are). Is there something fundamental in the ideology or history of the Democratic Party which demands the allegiance of America's Jews?
Liberal Jewish pundits often argue this point in the affirmative. They point out that the Democrat's liberal economic agenda and staunch defense of minority rights and equal treatment under the law reflect both Jewish interests and essential Jewish values. They point to Jewish laws and traditions relating to the rights of minorities ("the stranger among you"), communal responsibility for the poor, and the utopianic pronunciations of the prophets to argue that liberal values are, in all essential points, Jewish values, many of them inspired by Jewish scripture. This, they claim, demands that Jews who identify with and embrace the values of their faith must, by definition, indentify also with liberalism and with its practical political incarnation: the Democratic Party.
This argument resonates as well with Jewish historical experience. Most Jews see the Republican Party and conservatism in general as a defense of established interests. For most of Jewish history, the relationship of the Jews to established interests was tenuous at best. As a result, conservative forces tend to be identified in the Jewish mind with reactionary anti-semitism. American Jews, being a tiny minority, are quick to identify themselves with the victims of anti-semitism and to see themselves as potentially discriminated against and oppressed. They see liberalism, with its doctrines of tolerance and equality, as a bulwark against the possibility of anti-semitic outbreak and institutionalization in the United States. This plays directly into their mistrust of the Christian Right, which they see as a reactionary force seeking to formally institutionalize Christianity as the state religion of the United States. The fear that this will inevitably lead to coercion, discrimination, and, finally, violence, is one which grips the American Jewish community to a near-irrational extent, and often is more than enough to keep the Jewish community solidly in the Democratic camp, which they regard as safely agnostic, and not a threat to Jewish religious life.
A cursory examination of this argument, however, reveals several very serious flaws. Firstly, it is obvious to anyone who has studied Jewish history that Judaism itself has strongly conservative tendancies of its own. Indeed, it stands to reason that a civilization which has managed to preserve itself and its traditions for 5,000 years in highly adverse circumstances must have a fairly strong conservative streak. Judaism, while it does require charity for the poor, does not require that charity to be coerced through the state. It advises tolerance for outsiders, but also demands strong communal identification. It endorses individual responsibility, the rule of law, and the recognition of an absolute right and wrong. All of these principles are inherently conservative, and fly in the face of the relativism which has become inextricably a part of modern Liberalism.
It is pointless to deny, of course, that there are strongly liberal (and even radically Utopian) aspects to Judaism as well. But this does nothing to support the argument of Jewish liberals that Judaism is fundamentally liberal. In fact, it does the exact opposite. Judaism, an ancient and vast civilization, embraces all manner of values and beliefs, some conservative, even reactionary, others highly liberal and antinomian. To posit the argument that the essence of Judaism dovetails precisely with the platform of the Democratic Party is to oversimplify one of the world's great faiths to the point of ludicrousness.
If liberalism is not a reflection of Jewish values but merely a political creed which Jews are free to evaluate on their own terms, it is worthwhile to then ask where liberalism stands in relation to issues of importance to the American Jewish community.
The issue most commonly identified with Jews and Jewish issues at the moment is, of course, the Arab war against Israel and the commensurate rise in anti-semitism in Europe and the Arab world which that war has occasioned in recent years. Most Jews assume that the Democratic Party and Liberalism in general share their affection and support for Israel and do not see this as a serious barrier to their continued identification with the Party. This belief is not entirely justified.
While a great many liberal Democrats do support Israel, it is no secret that the Left wing of the Democratic Party - and the world in general - has become consistently pro-Arab and anti-Zionist over the last thirty years. This phenomenon has now reached the point where the self-identification of the Left with Arab intentions and policy has become nearly total and absolute. The "anti-war movement" which sprang up in opposition to American military action in Afghanistan and Iraq and against American interests in general and was incontestably the product of the political Left, shocked many with its violent condemnation of Israel, condemnation which quite often degenerated into blatantly racist rhetoric. The sight of Leftists marching in the streets carrying signs comparing Ariel Sharon to a vampire and accusing him of drinking the blood of infants horrified a great many Jewish Leftists, who recognized immediately the resurrection of the Blood Libel, which had precipitated so much anti-Jewish violence in the Christian nations of Europe.
Even more disheartening to many liberal Jews was the response of the anti-war cadres to the rising anti-Semitism in their movement. For the most part, they simply denied its existence. In rare moments of candor, they acknowledged the fact but simply claimed such rhetoric was justified given the extent of Israeli (or American) malfeasance. Most telling was the spectacle of Jewish Leftist and self-appointed rabbi Michael Lerner, who was summarily marginalized and purged from the anti-war ranks for the crime of mildly criticizing some of the movement's anti-Jewish rhetoric.
Of course, the growing anti-Jewish tendencies of the Left do not axiomatically indict the Democratic Party itself, and a great many American Jews draw a strong distinction between the Party to which they belong and its radical fringe, claiming, and rightfully so, that the latter does not necessarily define the former.
It is a mistake, however, to assume that these forces are benign, or that they lack political power. George McGovern's reforms to the Democratic Party's nominating process, which give disproportionate power and leverage to the Party's Left wing (and, by remarkable coincidence, resulted in the nomination of none other than George McGovern), are still very much in place, and no Democratic candidate can gain the nomination or the enthusiasm of the Democratic ranks without deferring to the Party's extreme Left.
One can see the results of this unequal distribution of power in the candidacy of Howard Dean, who has achieved early and unexpected prominence by playing to the Party’s anti-war Left wing. Mr. Dean's recent statements on Israel are perhaps surprising to rank and file Jewish Democrats, but ought not to be surprising to anyone who has examined the numerous websites of Dean supporters and noted their violent animosity towards Israel and openly enthusiastic support of Arab terrorism. That many Jewish voters have convinced themselves that Dean and his faction of the Democratic Party are suitably pro-Israel is an indication that willful self-delusion, rather than ideological fealty, may be the major factor in keeping a great many Jews in the Democratic ranks. Clearly, there is a sickness at work in the Democratic Party, and I believe it is spreading. It does Jewish Democrats no good to simply ignore this fact.
But Jews are not enjoined by their ethnic or religious identity to make Israel their issue of primary concern, so it behooves us to examine the Democratic stance on some other issues, unrelated to foreign policy, and their effect on Jewish interests.
Most prominent is the issue of affirmative action. Most supporters tend to see affirmative action as having a positive effect, i.e. adding more people of a certain ethnic group to the mix. Few note that it also has a negative effect, excluding those not included under the rubric of the program. If there is a limited number of jobs, and a certain number must be given to members of a certain ethnic group, it is inevitable that members of other ethnic groups will find their numbers limited. It is simply a fact that this aspect of affirmative action is highly detrimental to Jews and Jewish interests. For instance, in the realm of college admissions. Due to the combination of minority quotas and requirements relating to geographic distribution of students, most major colleges and universities now have a de facto limit on the number of Jewish students that may attend their universities (this applies to Asian students as well). The fact that this policy echoes almost exactly the old gentlemen's agreements which also limited the number of Jews who could attend elite schools is too often lost on liberal Jewish observers. This is not to mention the fact that the extreme forms of affirmative action often advocated by the Democrats, distributing jobs or privileges in direct accordance to the percentage of a certain group in the population, would have disastrous consequences for Jews. Given that Jews make up no more than 1-2% of the country's population, the results of such a policy would constitute nothing less than apartheid. Affirmative action, in effect, punishes Jews for achieving success in American society without the help of the state or the liberal establishment.
It is known to every thinking observer of American politics that the Democratic Party, with its ideological investment in race-based politics and its reliance on the black vote, is never going to take a firm stand against affirmative action or even limit its spread. That the Party which Jews identify so intensely with their own interests takes positions so inimical to them ought to be a major factor in assessing Jewish political loyalties.
The Democratic stance on economic issues is also significant here. Jewish Americans, while not uniformly so, are a highly creative and successful minority group. The Democratic economic stance, advocating higher taxes, more state control and regulation (in the case of health care, the total takeover of a quarter of the country's economy by the government), an expanded welfare state and other forms of socialistic centralization is, quite simply, highly detrimental to the economic interests of Jewish voters. Jews do not need the welfare state and have no overriding reason to support it that is not purely ideological. As I have already noted, there is nothing specifically Jewish that advocates a redistributionist economic system, and Jewish voters should give serious thought as to whether they seriously desire their hard-earned dollars to be taken from them and given to people who did not, after all, earn them.
So the question seems to be not whether Jews will bolt en masse to the Democratic Party but, rather, why Jews continue to vote for a Party so inimical to their own interests and beliefs. The answer, it seems to me, is largely cultural. As much as we like to deny it, most people vote the same way their fathers and grandfathers did and Jews have been voting consistently Democratic for at least three generations. These patterns only change under seismic political shifts. It may be that 9/11, the War on Terror, and the inevitable approaching collapse of the Democratic Party into the arms of its extreme Left may constitute such a shift, but this outcome is by no means certain. If a defection does occur, it will likely be the work of young Jewish voters like myself, who are less invested in the political prejudices of our forefathers and more inclined to assess the situation objectively. Where we will go is, I think, one of the great unanswered questions of the upcoming election.