Eric Cantor was not your typical Jewish Republican, at least as we had come to know them in the past half century.
He was Southern, for one thing, his voice inflected with an accent uncommon in the Northeast and Midwest, from where other Jewish Republicans in Congress once hailed. Cantor’s politics were more strident and unaccommodating, his vision far more constricted than some of his great political forebears: Jacob Javits, Rudy Boschwitz, Warren Rudman, Arlen Specter.
But he could be expected to speak our language, when necessary. Now there’s no Jewish Republican in Congress, and the passing of this era shows why it will be harder than ever for the GOP to attract a critical mass of Jewish voters. The gulf between Jewish sensibility and the new Republican Party may have become too wide to cross.
As David Wasserman, a nonpartisan House political analyst, told The New York Times, Cantor was culturally out of step with a redrawn district that was more rural, more gun-oriented and more conservative. “Part of this plays into his religion,” Wasserman said. “You can’t ignore the elephant in the room.”
Andrew Prokop, writing for Vox, listed seven explanations for Cantor’s defeat. No. 6: He’s Jewish.
We’d like to believe that there’s not anti-Semitism at work here so much as an illustration of how the Republican Party is shifting so far away from its 20th-century roots that Jews who might have expected to find a comfortable home there aren’t even walking up the front steps.
Persistent Jewish liberalism is about more than predictably pulling the Democratic lever every four years, despite the millions of dollars a few wealthy Republicans spend in a futile attempt to change that dynamic. As we learned in the Pew Research Center’s 2013 survey, there is a constellation of behaviors and attitudes that illustrate this value proposition.
Jews are more likely than other Americans to empathize with racial, religious and sexual minorities, and are more likely to believe in a bigger government that provides more services. More than half the survey respondents said that “working for justice and equality” was an essential part of being Jewish. Once some of those were considered Republican values. No more.
Instead, the man who defeated Cantor, David Brat, has written, “The government holds a monopoly on violence.” Think that sort of rhetoric will resonate with Jewish voters?
The GOP’s political transformation is not good for Jews, or for America. A Republican Party that is skeptical of overreaching big government, observant of individual freedoms and that calls upon the communitarian impulses undergirding Jewish values could be an attractive alternative in the electoral arena.
Eric Cantor was never the standard bearer for such a party.
Now he’s not even bringing up the rear.