Commentary Magazine


Between Nixon and the New Politics

Although Nathan Glazer (p. 43) is for McGovern and Milton Himmelfarb (p. 48) is against him, they both expect that Jews will give a smaller majority of their vote to the Democratic candidate this year than they have ever given to a Democratic candidate in any recent Presidential election. The normal pattern has been for Jews to give between 80 and 90 per cent of their vote to the Democratic Presidential candidate; this year the figure is widely expected to go below 70 per cent and could even, some say, go below 60. One also hears that a certain number of wealthy Jews who have contributed heavily to Democratic Presidential candidates in the past are either planning to sit this election out or to throw their financial support to Nixon.

Does all this mean that the Jews are beginning to move into the Republican party? I think not—or at least not necessarily. In my opinion, the turn away from McGovern has been caused not by a sudden access of Jewish enthusiasm for Nixon or his party, but by a steadily mounting Jewish uneasiness over McGovern. I think, moreover, that to understand this uneasiness fully, one has to look not only at the two issues of Israel and quotas which Mr. Glazer and Mr. Himmelfarb between them so exhaustively discuss, but also at the character of the “McGovern phenomenon” as a whole. For everything in this discussion depends on whether the forces led by McGovern will retain control of the Democratic party or whether they will indeed prove to be, as many people have predicted, the Gold-waterites of the Left.

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That Richard Nixon inspires dislike among liberals and even hatred is hardly news, and it is hardly necessary to show in detail that in the course of his pre-Presidential career he generally spoke and acted in such a way as to deserve this response. Even as President he has done many things calculated to infuriate liberals. He has unleashed Agnew, he has taken a tough line on civil disobedience and direct-action protest, he has invaded Cambodia, he has intensified the air war in North Vietnam, he has appointed conservatives to the Supreme Court, he has come out against busing.

Yet it is also true that in the course of his career as President he has done more and more to deserve, if not the affection of liberals, then at least a diminution of their dislike. He has proposed a guaranteed annual income, he has instituted wage-and-price controls, he has withdrawn half-a-million men from Vietnam, he has enunciated a foreign-policy doctrine involving a lesser degree of American intervention in international disputes, he has visited Communist China, he has negotiated an arms-limitation treaty with the Soviet Union and possibly also (if such surprising developments as the move toward unification of the two Koreas and the departure of Soviet troops from Egypt are anything more than coincidence) the beginnings of a long-range political settlement. On balance, surely, it makes more sense for Nixon’s old supporters in the conservative camp like William F. Buckley, Jr. and Richard J. Whalen to feel betrayed (which indeed they seem to do) than it does for liberals to go on hating him as much as they seem to do. Nevertheless liberals do go on hating him, less perhaps than they used to but still much more than, on the record, they rationally should.

And if this is the case with liberals in general, it is also the case with Jews, who are still one of the most liberal groups in the country (for even if the most wildly pessimistic forecasts from the Democratic point of view were to prove accurate, it would mean that “only” 60 per cent of Jewish voters were going for McGovern—a higher percentage than he is likely to get from any other group except perhaps the blacks). Jews as liberals share in the general liberal dislike of Nixon, and Jews as Jews, often with an even lesser degree of rationality, dislike him on their own. The Israelis say that Nixon has done more for them than any American President before him, and yet in speaking before Jewish audiences I have repeatedly been asked what I think makes the Nixon administration “anti-Israel.” More Jews have been appointed to powerful positions within the Nixon administration—one has only to mention the names of Henry Kissinger, Arthur Burns, and Herbert Stein—than has probably ever happened before, and yet I have repeatedly been asked by these same Jewish audiences whether the “fact” that there are no Jews in the Nixon administration means that the President is anti-Semitic. For just as blacks seem not to realize that it is under the Nixon administration that the dual school systems of the South have finally been abolished, and that the concept of “affirmative action” has been turned into a means of instituting a quota system mainly in the black behalf, so Jews seem not to realize that the Nixon administration has been friendly in a variety of important ways to them.

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To complicate matters even further, those Jews who worry about quotas and who oppose McGovern because he appears to favor them, seem not to realize that it is under the Nixon administration that quotas have become a threat. But this is only one of many indications that the Jewish uneasiness over McGovern is not to be fully explained with reference to specific issues, any more than the probable loss he will suffer of normally Democratic Jewish votes is to be explained by a newfound Jewish fondness for Nixon. The specific issues are certainly real and the concern over them is certainly genuine, but there is, I believe, something larger and more difficult to define for which they serve as a manageably concrete, though not altogether satisfactory, stand-in. This something is the New Politics.

By the New Politics I mean the insurgency within the Democratic party which came out of the antiwar movement and which, having lost its chance to capture the party in 1968 either through Eugene McCarthy or through Robert Kennedy, found a second chance in the reforms developed by the McGovern Commission and then seized it through the candidacy of McGovern himself. The nature of the New-Politics movement is easy enough to describe in sociological terms. The movement is made up largely of educated, prosperous people, members of the professional and technical intelligentsia and their wives and children, academics and their students: the group, in short, as Michael Novak (p. 52) reminds us, that David T. Bazelon presciently identified as a New Class long before it came to consciousness of itself as a class and as a potential political force. Thus for all the self-gratulatory speeches about the unprecedented “representativeness” of the 1972 Democratic convention, a survey by Haynes Johnson of the Washington Post showed that fully 39 per cent of the delegates—as compared with 4 per cent of the population as a whole—held postgraduate degrees, and that 31 per cent had incomes of more than $25,000 a year, whereas only 5 per cent of the population as a whole is in so high an economic bracket.

But if the sociological character of the New-Politics movement is clear, its political or ideological character has been obscured somewhat in the process of its transformation into the McGovern “populist” movement. Lately the talk has all been of tax reform and the redistribution of wealth, but this was not an issue indigenous to the New Politics or to the “McGovern phenomenon”; it was taken over from George Wallace, and the carelessness with which the McGovern proposals have been thought out is perhaps a sign of the fundamental indifference to such matters which the New-Politics movement until so recently felt. For what this movement really cares about is not the distribution of economic power but the distribution of political power. It wishes to “participate in the decisions that affect our lives” and it wishes to govern, but it has no clear idea of what, in addition to participating and governing, it wishes to do. Consequently it has itself become the issue. Why has the AFL-CIO, which until the nomination of McGovern obsessively kept declaring that its main political priority was the defeat of Nixon, refused to endorse McGovern? Asked this question, George Meany and I. W. Abel and the other anti-McGovern labor leaders fish for unconvincing explanations in McGovern’s voting record, when what is actually bothering them is the hostility of the New Politics toward organized labor (“It isn’t worth the powder it would take to blow it up,” I once heard a leading McGovern strategist say of the labor movement) and the contempt of the New-Politics people for the ordinary workingman and the “racism” and vulgar materialism which allegedly define his character.

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So too with those Jews who are bothered by McGovern. They are bothered in my judgment much more by the general attitudes of the New-Politics movement than by McGovern’s stand on Israel—which, after all, as Nathan Glazer points out, is by now as fervent as any friend of Israel could wish—or by his stand on quotas: after all, the Nixon administration has done more to further quotas by deeds than McGovern could possibly yet have done by words. But the Jews who are bothered by McGovern sense that the movement of which he is presently the head represents the entry into the political mainstream of that widespread antagonism toward the Center and its “middle-class” values which grew into so vivid a presence in American life and culture over the course of the 60’s; and they see in that antagonism not only a denigration of them, of their achievements and their aspirations, but a threat to their future position. This is why a relatively large number of Jews will almost certainly refuse to vote for McGovern, even if—as will surely happen in many instances—they should decide not to vote for Nixon either.

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In other words, if there should be a large-scale defection of Jews from the Democratic ticket this year, it would not necessarily signify the birth of a permanently substantial Jewish Republican vote. If the McGovern candidacy should indeed turn out to be a counterpart of the Goldwater candidacy of 1964, with the electorate severely punishing the Democrats now for challenging the Centrist consensus from the Left as it punished the Republicans then for challenging it from the Right, the Democrats would no doubt do in their catastrophic defeat what the Republicans did after theirs in 1964. They would move once again toward the Center, politely overriding their now discredited and demoralized insurgents in the process (just as Nixon has quietly ignored the protests of the Goldwater Right against many of his foreign and domestic policies), and renewing their appeal to groups like the Jews whose repudiation of the insurgents would have contributed to the size of the defeat.

If, on the other hand, the projections of the McGovern strategists should be vindicated and McGovern, carried along by a new coalition of blacks, youth, and women, should win despite the defection of traditionally Democratic groups like the Jews, there might then very well come about one of those periodic realignments which C. Vann Woodward and other historians tell us is long overdue, with a sizable number of Jews and other former Democrats now turning to the Republican party in the hope of finding or creating a reconstituted Center there. For if America should “come home” to the Democrats under McGovern, many whose home is the Center would no longer be at home with the Democrats.

In either case, we would all know better than anyone knows today where the country is, how it feels, what it wants. In the event of a McGovern victory, even a narrow one, we would know that the McGovernites are right when they say, in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that “disgust with the way things have been recently managed in this country, the recoil against the Establishment, the pessimism about the national future, the desire for unspecified . . . change . . . infect every bloc in the nation.” By contrast, in the event of a catastrophic McGovern defeat, we would know that the anti-McGovern forces, both Republican and Democratic, are right when they say that such feelings are still confined to an ideologically passionate minority (what the Wall Street Journal sometimes calls the “mass intelligentsia” and sometimes the “modernist-academic elite”); that most other people, if they are really infected with disgust, are disgusted not with the “Establishment” in general but precisely with that wing of it dominated by the New Class and the New Politics; and that the great majority of Americans believes the country is already “home,” that the structure of the house is sound, and that what it mainly needs is patching and sprucing up to a greater (if they are liberals) or lesser (if they are conservatives) extent.

If, however, the Democrats under McGovern should neither win nor be decisively defeated—if, that is, Nixon should be re-elected by a very close margin—everything would remain uncertain, unsettled, and bitterly polarized, for the Jews and for everyone else.

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