I was in the library the other day and saw a new book, Why are Jews Liberals?, by O.G. neoconservative Norman Podhoretz. This is right up my alley, research-wise, and so I took a look. I don’t think Podhoretz’s book will match the sales of Thomas Frank’s similar record of frustration, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”–there are very few writers out there who can match Frank’s skill with the perceptive quip–but this new book has something to offer, if nothing else by presenting the view of an influential battler in the world of political ideas.
Podhoretz’s argument (here’s a quick summary) goes as follows. Jews in America vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, even though you’d expect from their income levels that Jews would lean Republican. Expanding this, Podhoretz gives three reasons why Jews should vote for Republicans:
1. The economy. Economic growth (which Podhoretz associates with conservative, business-friendly economic policies) is good in itself and also leads to a culture of affluence in which economically-successful minorities such as Jews are respected rather than resented.
2. Social issues. Socially conservative attitudes are more consistent with the Old Testament values of Judaism.
3. Israel. In recent decades, Podhoretz argues, the Republican Party and its allies in the conservative Christian evangelical movement have been more supportive of Israel than have the Democratic Party and its allies on the left.
Why are these three arguments not enough to convince a majority of Jews to go over to the dark side (as the recalcitrant majority of American Jews might say)? Podhoretz invokes the idea of false consciousness; in his words, “for [most American Jews], liberalism has become more than a political outlook. It has for all practical purposes superseded Judaism and become a religion in its own right.”
Thomas Frank thinks low-to-moderate-income Kansans should (almost) all be voting for Democrats; Norman Podhoretz thinks moderate-to-upper-income Jews should (almost) all be voting Republican.
A problem with Podhoretz’s argument is it proves too much. Why are Jews Democrats? Why is anyone a Democrat? Once you accept that conservative economic policies are good for growth, you’d think just about everyone would lean Republican on economic issues. In this sense, the argument in What’s the Matter with Kansas is more coherent: Thomas Frank can argue that Republican policies help the rich and hurt the poor (thus motivating a wealth gradient in how people vote, or how they should vote), but Podhoretz is not about to argue that, hey, Jews are financially successful so they should support the party of the rich. Instead, he goes for the larger freedom-and-opportunity pitch, which puts him in the uncomfortable position of basically arguing that, not just Jews, but everyone should be Republican. From this perspective, the answer is painfully clear: just as many Kansans disagree with Thomas Frank about what policies will be best for the national economy, similarly do many Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and others disagree with Norman Podhoretz about what are the policies that best promote economic freedom and opportunity.
Point #2 is social issues. I don’t know that much needs to be said here. Jews hold on average more socially liberal views than the average American, and I imagine this was true 50 and 100 years ago, as well. (To resolve this one, I guess we’d have to decide what counted as “social” issues back in 1909.) As Podhoretz himself notes, most Jews are not biblical literalists, and so the relevance of commandments and laws against adultery, homosexuality, etc., don’t seem so relevant. One might do better to turn the question around and ask why it is that so many Christians–who are not in general bound by Old Testament laws–have such strong socially conservative views.
Point #3 is Israel. I don’t want to get into this one at all–foreign policy is not my area of expertise. Perhaps it would suffice to say that experts as well as ordinary voters differ on what forms of U.S. engagement in the Middle East would be best.
My goal in making these points is not to shoot down any arguments–as Podhoretz notes, most Jews vote for Democrats, so he already realizes that many of the potential readers of his book disagree with him–but rather to locate his thinking into the larger context of popular and academic studies of American voters.
One might ask, why focus Jews at all? Why should we care about a voting bloc that represents only 2% of the population (and even if Jews turn out at a 50% higher rate than others, that would still be only 3% of the voters), most of whom are in non-battleground states such as New York, California, and New Jersey? Even in Florida, Jews are less than 4% of the population. I think a lot of this has to be about campaign contributions and news media influence. But, if so, the relevant questions have to do with intensity of opinions among elite Jews rather than aggregates. In that sense, Podhoretz’s book is a relevant document because of his connection to financial and media elites. (I don’t mean that in a conspiratorial sense; rather, it’s a measure of Podhoretz’s success as a writer and editor.)
A mirror image to Jews are Mormons, another formerly-persecuted, now prosperous religion, representing 2% of population, living largely in non-battleground states, offering $ more than votes to the party they support, which in this case is overwhelmingly the Republicans. Here’s the story from 2008:
And here are some data from earlier elections. In Red State, Blue State we focus mostly on Catholics, Protestant (born-again and otherwise), and the non-religious, because these are the largest groups, and in our book we focus more on mass attitudes than on campaign contributions and media influence.
So what is my answer to Podhoretz’s question: Why are Jews liberals? I don’t really know how to answer the question of whether liberalism has become a “religion in its own right,” but one approach would be to compare Jews to other upper-income voters in urban-dominated states–people who, on average, have economically moderate and socially liberal views. It could also be interesting to compare to Mormons and other socially-marginalized ethnic and religious groups. Finally, there are national surveys that ask people what they consider are the most important issues determining their votes. To learn much about Jews in America, you can pool lots of surveys, or take some poll that oversamples Jews. I expect the information is out there and has been written up somewhere (maybe even Podhoretz refers to it in his book).
In the meantime, “Why are Jews Liberals?” can join “What’s the Matter with Kansas” in the False Consciousness shelf of your local bookstore or library. I imagine there must be many other books of this sort but I can’t think of them right now.