We Americans aren’t who we thought we were. That’s why our presidential contest, like the rest of our politics, is so incoherent. We argue about jobs, immigration, abortion and guns. But those aren’t really what’s at stake. In reality we’re fighting over the nature of American society, and our problem is that we’ve become a nation of tribes. We know it, but we act, each of us, as though we’re above it. As though our neighbors are savages, but we ourselves are high-minded Athenians. Alas, we’re all tribesmen.
Our tribes are amalgamated into two great confederations, rather like the old Iroquois federation. Each side debates internally over issues, but unites around group loyalty. Each side thinks it represents the best of the nation and only the other side is a band of hunter-gatherers. It would be comical if it weren’t so tragic.
Now it’s reached crisis level. And if it’s a crisis for America, it’s a double-bind for American Jews. Jews are a tribe among the tribes, but we’ve planted our feet in both camps. It’s an untenable position. It’s tearing us apart as a community. And it could get worse.
For the past half-century, Republicans have been the party of white people. Democrats — who haven’t won a majority of whites since 1964, and only twice broke 45% — have become the party of minorities, bohemians, rebels and dreamers. Each party knows it about the other, but denies it in itself.
Democrats see Republicans as people who believe that we’re not all the same, that difference is an innate human trait and that we should value solidarity with those who are like us. Republicans see Democrats as people who believe that everyone is basically the same under the skin, that we’re all free to construct our identity and that we shouldn’t favor those who seem most like us on the surface. These contrasting ways of understanding difference go a long way toward explaining why so many white voters are lining up behind Donald Trump. It also explains a lot about voting habits among Jews.
Two presidential polls came out over Labor Day weekend that help illustrate this. Alas, both were presented to the public and swallowed by the press in misleading terms. The headlines were false. But the content was important.
One was a major poll on the current state of the race. The other was a smaller operation probing Florida’s Jewish voters.
The national poll was by CNN. Coming out Tuesday morning after Labor Day, it reported that Trump had overtaken Hillary Clinton by 2 points. In fact, though, this supposed Trump surge was manufactured. CNN used a different math from previous polls, counting likely voters — an older, whiter, more Republican group — where its earlier polls counted registered voters. Switching metrics distorted the comparisons between polls, creating the false impression that Clinton is trailing. Trump is gaining, but he’s not there yet.
Still, there’s valuable information in the CNN poll. For our purposes, the key findings are the identities of the subgroups that moved heavily toward Trump during August. There are three main ones: self-identified Republicans (rose from 78% to 90%), Independents (33% to 40% — and they’re 80% white) and whites with no college degree, the pollsters’ surrogate for working-class whites (53% to 68%). The leader may be flawed, but the tribe is gathering around him.
Our other poll, of Florida Jews, was released August 26 by GBA Strategies, a Democratic polling firm. The big news was that Clinton was leading Trump by about 3-to-1 among Florida’s Jews, 66%–23%. In a pivotal swing state where Jews are more than 3% of the population — and, being older, perhaps 5% of the electorate — that lopsided result could swing the state and maybe the Electoral College.
But that wasn’t enough. Democrats called the Jewish poll “historically bad” for Republicans. That’s questionable. If it holds and reflects national results, Clinton’s 66% will be one of lowest showings of any Democrat among Jewish voters since the 1920s. Only Jimmy Carter in 1980, George McGovern in 1972 and Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956 fared worse. True, Florida Jews tend to be a hair more conservative than Jews nationwide. But if the Florida poll shows anything, Clinton isn’t doing well among Jews.
The other important Florida finding was that Orthodox Jews’ voting is exactly the reverse of their non-Orthodox brethren: Trump leads 66%–22%. Now, that’s historic. The 2013 Pew survey had found Orthodox Jews nationwide leaning 57% Republican. The Florida poll suggests that proportion growing. With non-Orthodox Jews continuing to trend overwhelming liberal and Democratic, the rift within the Jewish community is growing perilously wide. And as Orthodox Jews’ birthrate makes them an ever-larger proportion of the Jewish community, the liberal tradition so many Jews value may be headed for the history books. Orthodox Jews are just 6% of the Florida community. Take them out of the mix and Clinton leads among non-Orthodox Florida Jews by 70% to 21%. That’s still low by historic Jewish Democratic standards.
If my reading of the cultural difference between the tribes is correct, the Republican Party is the natural home for Orthodox Jews. It goes way beyond Israel. Belief in innate difference and tribal solidarity has deep roots in Orthodoxy.
By that token, non-Orthodox Jews belong in the Democratic Party. The idea that we’re all the same under the skin is Jewish Americanism’s foundational doctrine. But as the parties polarize and Democrats become more committed to minorities and dissenters, the place of Israel — and, increasingly, of Jews — becomes strained.
Democrats talk about their commitment to wages and workers, but in a crunch those issues nearly always take a back seat to race and gender. And the bulk of the working class — the white working class, currently 44% of the electorate — has responded by going to the other side.
The last time a Democratic presidential candidate won more than half the white vote was 1964. With a few exceptions, it’s hovered between 32% and 44% ever since. Past Republican candidates pretended to care about something besides race. But as the white proportion of the electorate has dropped steadily, from 89% in 1976 to 70% now, the mask has fallen off. It’s all tribal.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @JJ_Goldberg
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).