September 19, 2019

Jews Need New Allies in Shaping Political Future

The Nov. 6 elections were a battle between soccer moms and NASCAR dads. 

These are the voters who represent the two opposing forces in American politics in the early 21st century, two groups of our fellow citizens whose cultural, ideological and philosophical leanings now define the front lines of the nation’s partisan warfare. Both labels are caricatures of complex and multifaceted segments of the electorate, but such glib and overly generalized stereotypes can help us understand how America’s civic discourse has become so polarized and broken.

The term “soccer mom” became popular in the early 1990s, when smart Democrats like Bill Clinton and Dianne Feinstein realized that they could convince economically upscale and socially moderate suburbanites who had historically voted Republican to cross party lines to support their candidacies. More women made this switch than men, and married voters tended to lean toward the GOP more than their single counterparts. As a result, the image of an economically successful woman driving her children to after-school activities led to the creation of the characterization “soccer mom” to describe this emerging voter bloc

Not to be outdone, equally smart GOP leaders like Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush identified another voting cohort that could be convinced to prioritize social and “value-based” issues over their economic interests. Among these working-class and blue-collar voters, attending stock-car races was a more common recreational pursuit than children’s soccer. And because more of them were men than women, the term “NASCAR dad” was born.

There are also plenty of soccer dads and NASCAR moms who made the pilgrimage from one party to the other. But the gender gap that has characterized American politics for most of the modern era intensifies when voting decisions are made on social and cultural issues rather than economic matters. As a result, the growing difference in the way working-class men and college-educated women prioritize their political thinking has been the driving force behind the increased polarization of the electorate.

For most of the 20th century, the most reliable indicator of partisan voting behavior was income. Economically successful voters tended to be more fiscally conservative and therefore supported Republican candidates in large numbers. Working class Americans were understandably more redistributionist in their economic outlook and more likely to support Democrats. (Jewish voters have been a notable exception to these partisan leanings; more on this later.)

But over those years, cultural attitudes played a significant role in voting behavior as well. The Cold War, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Vietnam, Watergate, Roe vs. Wade, and the September 11 terrorist attacks, just to name a few seminal events, drove large numbers of voters to reconsider the primacy of economic issues in deciding their party allegiances. Similarly, issues such as crime and abortion rights, and more recently stark divides over immigration, climate change and same-sex marriage, have had a similar impact. 

These trends began long before Clinton and Bush, but the accelerated efforts of the two parties to capitalize on these shifts reached an inflection point in the early years of this century. In the 2004 presidential election, income was supplanted as the most effective way of predicting a voter’s loyalties by religiosity — the frequency with which an individual attended religious services.

This was a seismic shift for all sorts of reasons. The first was mobility: Many voters might aspire to greater economic success (or worry about suffering economic reversals) and could adjust their political thinking based on these eventualities; but very few of us can imagine a circumstance that would lead us to reconsider our beliefs on whether abortion should or should not be legally permissible. This change has led to a greater resistance to compromise and collaboration. It’s one thing to split the difference on a disagreement over tax rates or government spending, but it’s a lot more difficult to find common ground between those with opposite opinions on whether two people of the same gender should be able to marry. 

“The idea of voters de-emphasizing their own economic interest in favor of social issues when casting their ballots is a puzzle that much of the political community is still working to understand. “

As a result, the partisan battle lines have hardened. The increasing sophistication of gerrymandering, the growing likelihood that residents in a mobile society will choose ideologically comfortable communities in which to live, and the advances in communications technology that protect us from information and opinion that challenges our pre-existing world view all conspire to drive us even further into our respective political comfort zones. But the most impactful driving force behind this transformation may have been the emergence of social and cultural matters as the litmus tests of American politics..

The 2018 midterm election marked the emergence of another demographic divide: education. For most of modern history, an individual’s level of economic success has been based on their level of educational achievement. And for most of modern political history this meant that college-educated voters tended to prefer Republican candidates. (Jewish Americans were an exception on this front as well.) 

While Barack Obama won college-educated voters by a narrow margin in 2008 and Hillary Clinton won the same group by a slightly larger margin in 2016, the “college gap” exploded in this year’s election. Voters with a college degree supported Democratic congressional candidates by a 20-point margin. More than three-quarters of Republican House members now represent districts where the population of voters with a college diploma is below the national average.

When gender and education levels are combined, the gap becomes a chasm. The difference between how white female college graduates voted last week as opposed to white men without college degrees is an extraordinary 54-point margin. To provide some context, this is larger than the split between white and Latino voters.

This dichotomy is a challenge for both parties. When Republicans lose all those college-educated women, they lose the suburbs — and they lose the House. But if Democrats cannot make more inroads with working-class voters, they will continue to come up short in the red states that they would have needed to retake the Senate this year — and perhaps to win an electoral majority in 2020. 

In eminent historian Thomas Frank’s book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America” (published in 2004), he worries that Republicans have deceived blue-collar Kansans — and their like-minded colleagues in other states — into voting against their own economic interests by distracting them into a conversation about traditional values and cultural concerns. Frank seems to be saying that economic policy should be more important to voters than social and cultural questions, which had been the case for many years until about the time he wrote this book.

For many people, that’s still true. But as we discussed earlier, there are now even more voters — in both parties — who don’t necessarily base their votes solely on jobs and taxes. The only difference is the side of the fight they’ve chosen. It’s hard to argue that a wealthy pro-choice Democrat is any less of a values voter than a pro-life construction worker who votes Republican. 

Perhaps Frank’s book would benefit from a sequel. We could call it: “What’s the Matter With Beverly Hills?” or “What’s the Matter With Santa Monica?” The answer is that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with these economically successful and socially progressive voters, no more than there is anything inappropriate about blue-collar residents of Rust Belt states who have also decided that economic issues are not the most important influencers on their vote.

(It is worth noting that the state of Kansas on which Frank focused his attentions elected a Democratic governor and House members last week. Which goes to show that geographic realignment may happen more quickly than cultural change.)

The idea of voters de-emphasizing their own economic interest in favor of social issues when casting their ballots is a puzzle that much of the political community is still working to understand. But for American Jews, this is a familiar dynamic. The late Milton Himmelfarb of the American Jewish Committee once said, “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans,” an observation which would not have attracted so much attention if it weren’t referring to a political circumstance that was then so unusual.

Over the years, though, it now appears as though the rest of the electorate is following the example of Jewish voters. James Carville, Bill Clinton’s iconoclastic strategist, famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid.”.But large numbers of voters are now joining American Jews in rejecting Carville’s premise. The challenge for our community in this new era is to show the same tolerance and respect for those who adhere to other cultural traditions as we hope to receive from them. 

“The challenge for our community in this new era is to show the same tolerance and respect for those who adhere to other cultural traditions as we hope to receive from them.”

To be clear, this does not mean embracing everyone who disagrees with us, especially when they exhibit that disagreement in hateful or even violent ways. The tragedies of Charlottesville and Pittsburgh remind us that the vile animosities against our community know no generational or geographic boundaries.

On the UCLA campus this weekend, from Nov. 16–18, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is scheduled to hold its national gathering. The organization’s members have articulated the ugliest and most repulsive anti-Semitic polemics, providing a timely reminder of the omnipresent challenges that our community must fight to overcome. The fact that a public university is allowing these hatemongers on its campus is an outrage and a perversion of the University of California’s “Principles Against Intolerance,” if not the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

But let us use the SJP menace as a reminder of the necessity for a community that represents only 2 percent of the nation’s population to forge and strengthen relationships with those who agree with us on some matters — but perhaps not all. My friend Aziza Hasan, director of the NewGround organization, which focuses on building relationships between Muslims and Jews, was a featured speaker at the candlelight vigil in Westwood that commemorated the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue. Evangelical and fundamentalist leaders throughout the country voiced similar statements of solidarity in the aftermath of that horrific event. Theirs were the words and actions of friends, even if some of those friends disagree with mainstream American Jewish thinking on questions relating to either settlements or contraceptives.

In such a hyperpartisan U.S. political environment, many in this country’s Jewish community see a more worrisome threat emanating from those who disagree with us on domestic social issues than those who dispute our beliefs on Middle East policy. The advances and successes that American Jews have achieved place much of our community squarely on the side of the suburban soccer parents described in this article’s opening paragraphs. But there are plenty of NASCAR dads and moms who will not only advocate for the safety and security of Israel, but stand with us when we face down the haters of Charlottesville and Pittsburgh. The question is how willing we are to stand with them.

Just as the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not terrorists, equally large numbers of Christian conservatives are not white supremacists. The question is whether the American Jewish community is able to look past important policy differences with many in these communities in order to forge friendships with those who share our beliefs on even more important questions of democratic values and human dignity.

The partisan divisions in American politics run deep and are getting deeper. According to a new Axios poll, increasing numbers of party loyalists on both sides have come to believe that members of the other party are ignorant, spiteful, evil and worse. More than 60 percent of Democrats believe that Republicans are racist, bigoted or sexist. 

But, surely, we should be able to differentiate between what is evil and what is incorrect. 

Those voters who support a candidate different than mine or prefer different Supreme Court justices than I do may be misguided. They may be ill-informed. More likely, they are well-intentioned citizens who simply have a different idea than you or I of how our country can best address its many challenges.

Terms like “evil” are best applied to those who shoot up synagogues and those who mindlessly parrot Nazi battle cries and epithets. If we resist the temptation to devalue that term through overuse, we ensure that calling out true evil will still mean something when we need it to most.

Dan Schnur is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, and UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. He is the founder of the USC-L.A. Times statewide political survey and the former director of the American Jewish Committee’s Los Angeles region.