American Jews: Diehard Conservatives
They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
Talleyrand meant the Bourbon loyalists, a byword ever since for diehard conservativism. A diehard is “a person who obstinately refuses to abandon old theories or policies, one who resists change,” or alternatively “an extreme conservative.” Because diehards can be of the Left as well as the Right, in the Soviet Union unreconstructed Marxist-Leninists are called conservatives.
In the United States the 1988 presidential voting showed what diehard conservatives American Jews are. Times have changed and America has changed. Most whites once voted for Democratic presidential candidates but have long since changed to voting for Republicans. Irish Americans used to joke that their babies were baptized into the Catholic Church and the Democratic party, but no longer. Practically alone among white voters, American Jews have changed hardly at all. Only in 1980 did they fail to give the Democratic candidate a substantial majority, and then it was John Anderson’s independent candidacy that caused them to give Carter a mere plurality. Clinging more than most to old attachments and habits, American Jews may fairly be called more conservative than most.
The voters gave the Republican George Bush 53 percent and the Democrat Michael Dukakis 46 percent. Of Jewish voters—about 4 percent of the total though only 2.5 percent of the population—four different exit polls gave four different large majorities to Dukakis, ranging from CBS’s 65 percent to CNN’s 74 percent.
Disagreeing about exact percentages, the polls nevertheless agreed that Jews voted for Dukakis by a landslide. As ABC’s Jewish results lie midway between CBS’s and CNN’s extremes, the figures below are either copied or derived from ABC’s tables unless labeled otherwise.
Jews were not the only group to give a majority of their vote to Dukakis.
|Unemployed (3% of total)||65%|
|Union household (10%)||64%|
|No health insurance (6%)||58%|
|Factory workers (6%)||55%|
|Working mothers (17%)||50% (Bush 49%)|
No others gave Dukakis as much of their vote as blacks: 88 percent.
|Blacks (8% of total)||88%|
|All whites (88%)||41%|
|Non-Jewish whites (84%)||40%|
The Jews’ 69 percent was more than Dukakis got from any other group defined by religion.
|Jewish (4% of total)||69%|
|No religion (8%)||63%|
|No religion, white (6%)||61%|
|Catholic, white (24%)||47%|
|Non-Catholic Christian (55%)||37%|
|Non-Catholic Christian, white (48%)||31%|
|Born-again Christian (15%)||25%|
|Born-again Christian, white (12%)||18%|
At least in voting, the rightist Orthodox resemble not their fellow Jews but born-again Christians. After the election, the New York Jewish Community Relations Council published a report containing this information:
These Jews had earlier given lopsided majorities to Ronald Reagan.
3. Ethnic origin
ABC’s 23,000+ respondents included 155 who checked “Greek” in answer to the question, “Which category best describes most of your ancestors?” If the 155 are representative, Mr. Dukakis will not be pleased. They gave their fellow Greek only 55 percent of their vote.
Hispanics too gave less than Jews did to Dukakis. In 1984, ABC’s Hispanics had given less than Jews did to Walter Mondale.
|Hispanic (3% of total)||66%|
|Polish and other Slavic (7%)||54%|
|Catholic Irish (5%)||50%|
|English, Scottish, Welsh (28%)||35%|
|Protestant Irish (4%)||34%|
Once again women voted Democratic more than men.
The Dukakis vote of Jewish women exceeded that of non-Jewish women more than the Dukakis vote of Jewish men exceeded that of non-Jewish men, and the Dukakis vote of Jewish women exceeded that of Jewish men more than the Dukakis vote of non-Jewish women exceeded that of non-Jewish men. Voters who described themselves as strong feminists gave Dukakis 72 percent—less than Jewish women did.
I am not sure what it means that among non-Jewish voters 52 percent were women and 48 percent were men, while among Jewish voters it was the other way around: 52 percent men to 48 percent women. When something like that happened in 1980 I speculated (“Are Jews Becoming Republican?” COMMENTARY, August 1981) that some Jewish women, unwilling to vote for Carter or Anderson and incapable of voting for a Republican, may have solved their problem by sitting out the election.
Asked whether they were liberal, conservative, or “somewhere in between,” more non-Jews called themselves conservative than in-between, and more called themselves in-between than liberal. Jews were their mirror image.
If liberal meant voting for Dukakis and conservative meant not voting for him, then non-Jewish liberals were less liberal than Jewish liberals, and Jewish conservatives less conservative than non-Jewish conservatives.
The average Jewish voter was forty-four years old and the average non-Jewish voter forty.
|60 and over||17%||17%||22%|
A graph of non-Jewish Dukakis voting by age would show a fairly level line, within a range of only 5 points. A Jewish graph line would be climbing and jagged, with fully 20 points of difference between voters in their thirties and voters in the age group immediately below, the upper twenties.
|60 and over||48%||47%||72%|
Among both Jews and non-Jews, voters in the second half of their twenties were the least pro-Dukakis. Among Jews the runners-up were even younger, under twenty-five.
Studies of college freshmen have found Jewish young men and women somewhat to the Right of their older brothers and sisters. Does this mean that they will continue to be to the Right of the Jewish norm? It may mean only that they have not yet been fully acculturated or socialized into the American Jewish community. More liberal voting may come later, much like joining a congregation when the children reach school age.
The answers to a question about household income before taxes showed Jews’ average income to be higher than others’. That is due mostly to higher age and more years of education.
|$50,000 and over||22%||21%||46%|
(Not all respondents answered every question; 4 percent of non-Jews and 3 percent of Jews did not answer the question about income.)
|$50,000 and over||38%||35%||69%|
A graph line of the non-Jewish vote for Dukakis would drop steadily, from a high in the poorest bracket to a low in the richest. A graph line of the Jewish vote for Dukakis would zigzag, with $50,000 and over, for example, higher than $40,000-49,999. Among non-Jews, only voters with income of less than $10,000 gave Dukakis a majority, and that was smaller than the Dukakis majority of any Jewish income group. The difference between Jewish and non-Jewish voting was greatest for income of $50,000 and over—34 points.
As a group, Jewish voters had more years of schooling than others. Almost two-thirds were college graduates, more than a third had done graduate work, and fewer than a fifth had never started college.
|Less than high-school graduate||7%||7%||3%|
We do not need exit polls to know that there is a relation between income and education. People with more education than others tend to make more money than others, and people with more money can afford more education for their children. With one exception, a graph line of non-Jewish voting by education would look like a line of voting by income, the poorest and least-educated voting most for Dukakis and least for Bush, and the richest and most-educated vice versa.
|Less than high-school graduate||60%||60%||44%|
The exception is that the non-Jewish Dukakis vote, having dropped, bracket after bracket, until it reached a low with the college graduates, then rose to tie postgraduates with high-school graduates. This is an example of the J-curve, so called from the upward hook at the end. A graph line of Jewish voting by education would look more like a U-curve.
Some would explain the higher Dukakis vote of postgraduates as due to a “liberalizing” effect of higher education, but the explanation has certain weaknesses. First, correlation is notoriously not the same as cause. Second, “liberal (izing)” in the mouth of a social scientist today can have a somewhat different meaning from what it had for either Jefferson or Marx. A colleague of the late Robert Lekachman could eulogize him for having “brought a liberal, left-wing, Marxist point of view to economics.”
As for “higher education,” it has always been understood to include college as well as graduate school. But the college graduates here, Jews and non-Jews alike, are not conspicuously more liberal in their voting than anyone else.
Finally, there is the chicken-and-egg difficulty. Which comes first? Does graduate school—or professional school—make people “liberal,” or do liberals like to go to graduate school? Friedrich von Hayek once said that his conservative students became bankers and his radical students became professors.
The table shows that 3 percent of Jewish voters did not graduate from high school and that, exceptionally, they gave Dukakis less than half of their votes. This means only that of the 848 Jews caught in ABC’s net, 27 checked “some high school or less”; and that of these, 12 also checked “Dukakis.” The sample is too small.
Give or take a few percentage points, the Jewish exit-poll figures in 1988 could just as well be from 1984, when it was Mondale the Jews flocked to, or 1976, when it was Carter, or even 1972, when it was McGovern. Nothing would seem to have been new in 1988.
But of course something was new—Jesse Jackson, or rather not the man himself but the size and weight of him. In 1980 he stood behind President Carter as Carter acknowledged defeat. In 1984 he had grown powerful enough to keep the Democratic convention from considering a resolution against anti-Semitism. In 1988 his zealots were more than a quarter of the delegates at the Democratic convention, and he and they set its tone and dominated its imagery.
On election day 1988 it was almost certain that Dukakis would lose and almost equally certain that he would then join earlier defeated Democratic candidates who no longer counted, including the former President. Most certain of all was that in 1992 Jackson, and the Jackson phenomenon, would be bigger and weightier than ever—if, that is, the Democratic party were not taught a lesson in the meantime.
During the primaries every candidate for the Democratic nomination had attacked every other candidate—except Jackson. The partisans of every candidate had criticized and ridiculed every other candidate—except Jackson. When the Jewish mayor of New York said that a Jew would have to be crazy to vote for Jackson, every Democrat who spoke up spoke up to denounce not Jackson the anti-Semite (or at least the loyal friend of the leading anti-Semitic demagogue) but his lone critic.
For the good of the Democratic party itself, as of its values and goals, it was necessary that the party should be made to pay a high price for its subservience to an anti-Semite (or loyal friend of the leading anti-Semitic demagogue). And it was necessary for Jews to teach the party that lesson by withdrawing, if only this once, their traditional support. When the lesson was learned they could return. And if not, not.
Now assume that by a fluke Dukakis actually did win. While Jackson would not be in the White House, his powerful influence surely would be. Even if Dukakis wanted to refuse Jackson the right to name some key officials and to veto others—in State and Defense—could he refuse it, politically? Jackson would be able to block American support for Israel.
So the Jews went and voted as if Jackson did not exist.
It is not that they were unaware of him. In the spring of 1984 and the spring of 1988 Steven M. Cohen surveyed Jewish opinion for the American Jewish Committee. One question, with an unfortunate change in wording, was about Jackson.
|1984: “Do you think Jesse Jackson is anti-Semitic?”||75%||18%||8%|
|1988: “Is Jesse Jackson anti-Semitic?”||56%||33%||11%|
The 3-point difference between the “no” answers of 1984 and 1988 is probably nothing more than a happenstance of polling. How much of the 19-point fall-off in the “yes” answers is due to a real change and how much to the change in wording, we cannot tell. Yet even in 1988 more than half still said that Jackson was an anti-Semite and only one in nine denied it.
Some people mistrust “not sure” answers. This is what the table would look like if we took into account only “yes” and “no.”
|1984: “Do you think J. J. is anti-Semitic?”||90%||10%|
|1988: “Is J. J. anti-Semitic?”||84%||16%|
The brightest and best kept assuring the Jews that whatever might have been true in the past, Jackson was now a fine fellow, guaranteed to grow ever finer. (“For he himself has said it,/ And it’s greatly to his credit.”) Norman Mailer had an op-ed piece in the New York Times on April 18 titled “Jackson Is a Friend of Life’s Victims.” Its boldface summary was “He may well turn out to be ‘good for the Jews.’”
Jews nevertheless kept believing that Jackson was not good for the Jews. On April 15 they had seen 20/20 or on April 17 they had read about it in a Reuters dispatch:
In a television interview that his presidential campaign said was intended to mend fences with Jews, . . . Mr. Jackson said that Mr. [Louis] Farrakhan had no involvement in his campaign and that there were no public dealings between the two of them. But when pressed about why he had not broken openly with him, Mr. Jackson said, “It’s not necessary.”
Some fence mending!
Three months later, still well before the election, Jews could read about some horrors in Jackson’s home base of Chicago, where Steve Cokely, a stooge of Farrakhan’s on the mayor’s payroll, had made a speech about “doctors, especially Jewish doctors, who inject AIDS into blacks.”1 When Jews protested, Farrakhan said that that was because “the truth hurts.” Jackson again decided that it wasn’t necessary to repudiate Farrakhan or his anti-Semitism. He said that he had “spoken out against anti-Semitism” in Skokie, where neo-Nazis had defaced a synagogue with swastikas. (White anti-Semites yes, Farrakhan no.) The reporters’ questions seemed to annoy him. “I don’t see anyone holding press conferences condemning Koch,” he said. In other words: if you ask me to condemn the anti-Semite, then in all fairness you should condemn the anti-anti-Semite.
Because in Democratic primaries Jews are such a high proportion of white voters, and especially of liberals, the contrast between Jews and others is understated in the following figures, taken from the New York Times, June 9 and 13, 1988:
|All primaries||California||New Jersey|
Non-Jewish liberals saw no impediment to voting for Jackson more than for Dukakis, and for once Jews did not go along with them. (In California one of every seven Jews voting in the Democratic primary did vote for Jackson.)
The bad news is how the Jews in Cohen’s 1988 survey, mostly convinced that Jackson was an anti-Semite, nevertheless answered another question: “If Jesse Jackson is the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, which of the major parties will you probably vote for in the 1988 presidential election?”
|Rep.||Dem.||Don’t know||Won’t vote|
|Will probably vote||44%||25%||30%||2%|
Fewer than half said they would vote against a Democratic vice-presidential candidate whom most held to be an anti-Semite! A quarter said that they would probably vote Democratic anyway. A third said either that they did not know how they would vote then, or that they would confront the danger by not voting.
Ignoring the “don’t know” and “won’t vote” percentages, we get this:
|Will probably vote||64%||36%|
All that education must have addled their faculties.
Those who do not remember World War II and the preceding years find it hard to understand what American Jews did—or, as the accusation goes—did not do to help the Jews of Europe. Why was the protest not louder, why was the pressure on Washington so feeble? The questions, and above all the spirit in which they are often asked, can smack a bit of anachronism and self-righteousness. America then was not what America is now, nor were American Jews then what they are now. Now protest of any kind is immeasurably easier than then, anti-Semitism—at least until recently—more shamefaced and on the defensive, and Jews stronger and more self-confident. That is what I have occasionally told young researchers.
Forty or fifty years from now, what explanation is a puzzled young researcher likely to hear when he asks about Jesse Jackson and the Jews in the final years of the 20th century?
One can imagine how the puzzlement would be phrased:
Looking back, Jews can agree on the big changes after the war: Israel and the discrediting of anti-Semitism. Particularly in the United States anti-Semitism became almost taboo, in public life if not entirely in private life. Even non-anti-Semitism was no longer good enough. Historians had found that in Weimar Germany it was not only anti-Semites who voted Nazi. Non-anti-Semites could vote Nazi too, because for them Nazi anti-Semitism was not a weighty enough reason to avoid voting for a party they thought was right about the really important issues. Only anti-anti-Semites could be depended on not to vote Nazi, however attractive the Nazis’ positions might otherwise be. The moral for America was that public life here had to be anti-anti-Semitic.
Racism also became taboo. In the 20’s the Ku Klux Klan was a power in the land, controlling entire legislatures. In 1980, in San Diego, when a Democratic primary nominated a KKK big shot to run for Congress, the state Democratic party urged all Democrats to vote for the Republican. The Democratic leaders would no doubt also have advised Democrats not to vote for a Democratic nominee who, though possibly not himself a card-carrying KKK-er, had a history of close personal ties to a kleagle, which the candidate said ‘it’s not necessary’ to break.
Why wasn’t Jackson given the same treatment? Why didn’t the Jews insist? Didn’t they realize that the Democratic party’s coddling of Jackson amounted to regression from anti-anti-Semitism to non-anti-Semitism? They voted as if Jackson had not happened, and they kept giving the same hugely disproportionate share of the Democratic party’s $100,000 contributions. In effect, weren’t they ratifying the substitution of non-anti-Semitism for anti-anti-Semitism?
I will not be here forty or fifty years from now, unhappy at having such questions asked of me. I would be unhappy now if someone were to ask them of me. I think I still know American Jews. I used to think I understood them as well. Now I am not so sure.
The calculus is simple. You are a Jewish voter who on the question of abortion, say, loves “freedom of choice” and detests “right to life.” But since these engage the convictions and passions of every voter, the 4 percent of votes cast by Jews will hardly determine which of the two, and which of the two candidates with opposing views on abortion, will carry the day.
That is not how it is with anti-anti-Semitism vs. non-anti-Semitism. In principle that too should be the concern of all; in fact it is the concern of Jews. Jews can do much more about it than about abortion. A Jewish vote cast to deal with non-anti-Semitism vs. anti-anti-Semitism would therefore be vastly more effective than one cast to deal with abortion. That would be the normally Democratic vote transferred to the Republicans in order to show the Democratic party how much its passage from anti-anti-Semitism to non-anti-Semitism cost it by the defection of traditional supporters, and how much it stood to gain from a return to anti-anti-Semitism.
Simple as the calculus is, it was too much for the educated Jews of America. Though non-Jewish voters did not have that in mind, to some degree they did for the Jews what Jews were too besotted to do for themselves. Some Democratic post-mortems have not overlooked the wariness of white voters generally about Jackson’s power. The singular accomplishment of the Jews is that such post-mortems cannot also list fewer votes by Jewish voters and less money from Jewish contributors.
Rabbi Hamnuna the younger introduced into the Yom Kippur liturgy Rava’s prayer for remission of sins “but not through grievous affliction.” When American Jews throw off the yoke of habit, may it not be through grievous affliction.
1 See Joseph Epstein's article, “Racial Perversity in Chicago,” COMMENTARY, December 1988.