Last week, alert readers recall, we talked about the “silencing of the liberal American Jew,” the narrowing of the range of acceptable discussion in much of organized Jewish life. I hope you’ve all come prepared to continue our discussion this week. Pencils out, please.
Our primary theme wasn’t the suppression of unpopular minority voices, however sexy that topic sounds. Rather, we studied the suppression of the majority by a determined minority. Suppressing a minority isn’t pretty, but suppressing the majority is really ugly. In the case of Jewish community, we argued, its “main representative bodies” no longer speak out as they once did on the moral issues of social and economic justice that most Jews care about. They’re stymied by vehement conservative minorities.
This week, we’ll broaden our lens a bit and look at wider national trends that mirror the Jewish dilemma. Here the issue isn’t suppression of a majority, but something different: congressional gridlock and government paralysis, leaving us with a growing sense of helplessness in the face of fiscal and other crises.
The cause, it’s usually said, is polarization of the parties and the electorate. But even-handedness is misleading. Despite all the media chatter about the two parties moving toward their extremes, there’s mounting evidence that the radicalization is mostly on one side — the right.
We’re talking about hard, statistical evidence. It’s compiled by conservative as well as liberal researchers. For example, the center-right National Journal reported in its annual congressional Vote Ratings for 2011, released in February 2012, that for “the second year in a row, but only the third time in the 30 years that National Journal has published these ratings, no Senate Democrat compiled a voting record to the right of any Senate Republican, and no Republican came down on the left of any Senate Democrat.” The report didn’t pin blame, but the numbers spoke for themselves. Each lawmaker’s voting record for the year was computed on a 100-point conservative-liberal scale. The meeting point was around 52 on the conservative side. That is, the most conservative Democrats were more conservative than liberal, and the most liberal Republicans were to the right of that. Picturing the ratings like a football field, the midpoint was on the Republicans’ 48 yard line. The numbers for 2010 were even starker: Four Democrats were solidly conservative and the most liberal Republicans didn’t get past their own 40 yard line. The midpoint was on the Republicans’ 41 yard line.
Similar results appear in a study of voters released June 4 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The study tracked voters’ changing responses over a quarter-century on 48 different values questions, from abortion to the environment to government help for the needy. The report says self-described Democrats have moved to the left and Republicans have moved to the right. Looking at the numbers, though, the Democrats’ shifts are generally slight and occasionally rightward, while the Republicans’ overall shift is astronomical and uniformly rightward.
The most talked-about new political book this spring is the just released “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.” Co-written by political scholars Norman Ornstein of the staunchly conservative American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of the liberal Brookings Institution, it is essentially a searing indictment of the Republican Party’s drift to the extreme right, which it claims is the main cause of our national dilemma.
The duo laid out their essential thesis in an April 27 Washington Post op-ed essay titled “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem.” Here’s the bottom line:
“The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
“When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.”
The shift began during the Reagan years, but went into high gear with Newt Gingrich’s election as speaker of the House in 1995. That was the year that the GOP became the Party of No. In the Jewish community, it was the year that Republicans on the boards of major Jewish organizations stopped agreeing to be outvoted. After conceding for decades that they couldn’t win majority votes on policy questions, they began insisting that the community simply back away from public policy involvement.
Before concluding, let’s explain what we mean by Jewish representative bodies. After all, there are some pretty liberal Jewish groups out there, and they’re hardly sitting silent.
Some important Jewish organizations work tirelessly on the national scene to advance the liberal values most Jews share. The biggest and best known are the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the National Council of Jewish Women. A glance at their respective websites (www.rac.org and www.ncjw.org) shows the broad range of issues they work for, from abortion rights and gay and lesbian rights to child welfare, health care and education reform, along with a few you probably hadn’t thought of, like prison reform.
What’s missing? Just this: the broad coalition of organizations that used to be seen as speaking for the overall Jewish community, as distinct from a particular segment, faction or denomination. Image aside, Jewish organizations aren’t just a jumble of initials. They fall into distinct categories: religious denominations, fraternal leagues, social service agencies, ideological advocacy groups and more.
A handful, though, have been seen historically as speaking for all American Jews. The most important are the federations of Jewish charities and the so-called defense agencies — mainly the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. These groups matter because the Jewish community matters in the mind of modern America, and in the mind of America these groups speak for the Jews.
For nearly a century, particularly after World War II, these groups spoke out consistently for the needy and the excluded. Sometimes they fought just for Jews, and sometimes they fought in alliance with other minorities to amplify their voices. They continued into the post-Vietnam era, because it was good for Jews and good for America, and it was what Jews wanted. And then they mostly stopped.
I say “mostly” because they haven’t all stopped cold. There are important things to be said about a few, notably the Anti-Defamation League. But that’s a longer discussion for another day. Stay tuned.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).