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Three Contemporary Political Ideas That Are Important to America’s Jews

The rise of national conservatism, the return to populist politics, and the presence of Christian Nationalism are political ideas that are challenging traditional beliefs and practices. How do they affect America’s Jews?
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March 6, 2024
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The rise of national conservatism, the return to populist politics, and the presence of Christian Nationalism represent a set of political ideas that are challenging traditional beliefs and practices. Each of these movements will be significant to the 2024 election. Accordingly, it becomes important to understand the impetus and development of these ideas, in addition to how they are shaping this year’s campaign and the policy positions of particular candidates, as well as how they are attracting the attention of prospective voters. More directly, how do these three political tools impact America’s Jews?

What is National Conservatism?

“National Conservatism” represents a set of beliefs that serves as central ideological themes for various political parties, candidates and even national policies across the globe. It differs from traditional conservative political thought in a variety of ways. The seeds of this philosophy have been emerging over the past 50 years, but its actual impact is only now being experienced.

The argument that undergirds this movement is linked to its supporters’ belief that many liberal societies are in decline and that the evolution of this alternative political approach seeks to reverse these negative trends. At its base, national conservatism is about the preservation of certain core social values. If we see liberal societies, for example, promoting church-state separation, multiculturalism, and DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), by contrast, what we observe with national conservatist regimes involves a commitment to the public role of religion, the promotion of family values, and specific attention to monoculturalism. Where liberal governments are advancing immigration, internationalism and multilateralism, one can find policy positions supported by national conservatives designed to restrict immigration and to foster a foreign policy built around isolationism, militarism and unilateralism.

Some of the current manifestations of this political philosophy are represented by governing parties today in Hungary, India, Russia and even Israel. Around the world there are various political parties that embrace national conservativism. Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign messaging draws from these ideas as well. As a result, the former president’s views on NATO, immigration and culture are extracted from the national conservative playbook. National conservatism is now a part of the American political story.

One of the leading architects of this new ideology is Dr. Yoram Hazony, an Israeli American whose books “The Virtue of Nationalism” and “Conservatism: A Rediscovery” have had a profound influence on Western political thought and practice.

Another ideological godfather is Patrick Deneen, a Professor of Political Science at Notre Dame. Deneen argues that to achieve “common good conservatism” a society must “radically overthrow the liberal ideology of progress” and replace of the current elite structure with a “better aristocracy” brought about by “muscular populism.” In advancing the “common good Deneen seeks to promote the unity between the state and church. He argues that liberal elites have failed in being responsive to the social and economic concerns of the public  and as a result are only serving their self-interests. In building his case, Deneen charges liberal regimes with failing to preserve limited government and to maximize the political representation of the populace.

As a number of these ideas run counter to democratic liberal perspectives, many Jewish voters and some Jewish organizations have pushed back against this movement and its various political spokespersons. In turn, sectors of the Orthodox Jewish community and some mainstream Jewish conservatives have embraced national conservatism, believing that its ideas reflect their political and cultural values.

Unpacking “Populism”

Populism has a long history within American politics and culture. President Andrew Jackson in many ways employed “populist” ideas to further his Presidential agenda in the 1830s. The “Populist Party” was formed in the 1890s, allowing William Jennings Bryan to build a movement of disaffected voters to mobilize around his 1896 presidential campaign. Indeed, populist ideas and personalities would continue to be present throughout the 20th century, and such figures as Huey Long, George Wallace and Ross Perot sought to play off such notions in their respective presidential campaigns. Trump’s 2024 campaign employs a number of these populist elements.

Populism has a long history within American politics and culture.

Some of the core features of populism, posted below, are best described by Dan Misch:

  • A particular focus on the homogeneous nature of the population.
  • Populists communicate directly to the masses bypassing media and other venues to address their concerns.
  • While expressing a call for unity, its leaders condemn their political opponents.
  • Populists tend to simplify politics, while challenging traditional democratic practices.
  • In seeking to explain why the masses are struggling, populists attack the elites for their economic power and control.
  • Populism opposes large business and financial interests.
  • At times, populist politicians employ conspiratorial ideas and seek to promote alternative realities.

With both populism and national conservatism there are strains of antisemitic beliefs and behaviors, and we can identify various political actors who have employed anti-Jewish messaging as part of their campaign strategy.

The Impact of Christian Nationalism

The author and pastor Matthew McCullough defines Christian nationalism as “an understanding of American identity and significance held by Christians wherein the nation is a central actor in the world-historical purposes of the Christian God.”

Its adherents hold that the United States is meant to be a Christian nation and seek to “take back” America for God. This ideology, aligned with the more radical Christian Identity movement, supports the presence of Christian symbols in the public square, promotes the idea that Christmas ought to be observed as a national holiday and that nativity scenes should be broadly exhibited, and endorses prayer in public settings including schools. Author Bradley Onishi has described this theologically infused political ideology as a “national renewal project that envisions a pure American body that is heterosexual, white, native-born, that speaks English as a first language, and that is thoroughly patriarchal.”

Former President Trump recently promised “to use a second term to defend Christian values against those on the Left who ‘want to tear down crosses where they can and cover them up with social justice flags.’”

Reflections

As we move into the 2024 election, these ideas are likely to be significant factors. No doubt, some of the messaging we will see during this campaign season will reflect these respective movements. Unpacking these ideas reminds us that candidates and their handlers construct campaigns employing specific themes to which they believe their core constituencies will be particularly responsive.


Dr. Steven Windmueller is an Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his webpage, www.thewindreport.com.

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