Moving Right

Published January 17, 2003, issue of January 17, 2003.
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It was, perhaps, inevitable. American Jews, known worldwide for their indomitable liberalism, have begun moving to the right. That’s the finding of a new survey appearing on our front page, conducted by Steven M. Cohen, the dean of American Jewish opinion research.

The shift is only in its incipient stages, reflected mainly in declining Democratic partisan attachment among younger Jews. Jewish neoconservatives have been predicting for three decades, usually around election time, that their community is about to move into the GOP column, and it still hasn’t happened. Most Jews, even the younger ones, still consider themselves Democrats. But Cohen’s survey, which was sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Florence G. Heller/JCCA Research Center, shows a clear tectonic shift to the right. Those under 35 are more than twice as likely as their parents to consider themselves Republicans. A majority of young Jews approve of President Bush’s overall performance, while most of their elders demur. The shift is a slow one — a matter of generations, not of election cycles — but it is clear-cut.

Also significant, the survey is the first of its kind to show a rise in conservatism at upper income levels. Jews have been known for generations for their tendency to vote against their economic interests — to “earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans,” in Milton Himmelfarb’s memorable quip. Well, they’re finally beginning, at least at the upper reaches, to vote like Episcopalians.

The wealth gap ought to grab the attention not only of sociologists and Democratic fundraisers, but Jewish organizational leaders. They’ve been worried for years about the low regard in which they are held by ordinary Jews. It might have something to do with the fact that, as several studies have shown, they’re run by boards whose members have a median income of $200,000. As our survey shows, those folks are simply out of step.

The survey’s larger message, however, is to Democrats and liberals scrambling to regroup after the reverses of the last two years. Jews have been an essential element in Democratic and liberal coalitions at least since Franklin Roosevelt’s time, if not since Thomas Jefferson’s. Though few in numbers, Jews are a community characterized by prodigious energy, intellect and generosity. They’ve led historic battles, for civil rights, immigration reform and more. If they ultimately switch sides, more will be lost than a few electoral votes.

Some of the shift reflects what could be inexorable cultural and demographic processes. Two decades ago, Cohen detected a “bell curve” in Jewish liberalism: Jews’ political views become more liberal as their religious practice becomes more liberal. But among the least observant, that’s reversed. The most assimilated Jews are sharply more conservative. That shouldn’t be surprising; as Jews become more acculturated, they behave more like their neighbors — politically as well as culturally. With acculturation increasing over time, that effect is growing.

But there’s another challenge that concerns all liberals. Jews, especially the younger ones, have come to view themselves as part of the comfortable American majority. It’s harder for them to see liberal struggles for minority rights as their own business. The great exception is women, who see conservative attacks on reproductive rights as a personal threat. That explains the yawning gender gap, both among Jews in Cohen’s survey and in the larger population. But it’s not enough to build a new majority coalition.

Democrats have been on the defensive for a generation, struggling to find their footing while yielding one stronghold after another. If they’re not reaching the next generation of Jews, it’s merely symptomatic of a larger failure. Liberals haven’t convinced the broad mass of Americans that their vision of a fair and just society is in the majority’s interest. Over the last generation, a new breed of liberalism has grown up, focused more on the rights of minorities than the interests of majorities. Indeed, some of the best-known versions specialize in challenging the values of the majority culture. As a spiritual calling, that’s admirable. As a political strategy, it’s been disastrous.

Liberals won’t recapture the high ground until they can unite around a vision that speaks to America’s working majority — not as its critic but as its champion.

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