In democracies, minority groups will often embrace one political party and cling to that attachment irrespective of changing political circumstances. This seems especially true of minorities that have experienced discrimination, marginalization, and other forms of abuse.
In America, the groups that have been most closely attached to the Democrat Party for virtually the last century are African Americans and Jews. Even consideration in the abstract of the wisdom of being predictably committed to one party would suggest likely more negative than positive consequences – for example, being taken for granted by that party while given up on and not pursued by the other – and experience has borne that out.
This would seem to be most obvious with regard to the African American experience. Consider, for example, the Democrats’ decades-long lock on control of most of America’s big cities, many with African American majorities, and the record of public education in those cities.
Little weighs as heavily on impoverished children’s potential for extricating themselves from their difficult circumstances and shaping a better future for themselves than the quality of the education they receive in their elementary and secondary schools. But the African American populations in our large urban centers have consistently been very poorly served by their schools and lag significantly behind national averages in command of basic skills.
Those in charge of the relevant cities point to lesser per student spending on their schools due to lesser tax subsidies as compared to the subsidies provided in other jurisdictions. Another argument is that the difficult family circumstances these cities’ impoverished children often face undercut the children’s ability to make full use of the educational opportunities available to them in their public schools.
Both factors are indeed at play in shaping the school experience of inner city children from low income families. But the history of charter schools over the past almost three decades undercuts claims that these factors render better educational outcomes out of reach. Charter schools are public schools that operate independently under public charter with greater autonomy but with increased performance expectations. They are open to students on the basis simply of application or, if oversubscribed, on the basis of lottery. The general history of such schools has been mixed but overall positive, and, as the Harvard School of Education reported in the summer of 2017, “…low income students, especially black and Hispanic, tend to benefit from charter schools most…” And, in inner cities, such schools are serving children with basically the same social disadvantages as their peers and are doing so with per capita budgets no greater than those of the public schools.
Not only have major cities failed to improve their schools, but their political leaders – like New York mayor Bill De Blasio, who shouted out at a campaign rally in July that he “hates” charter schools – have often worked to undercut and obstruct charter school alternatives for their constituents. They have done so even as tens of thousands of African American families, desperate for a better future for their children, have sought admission to charter schools. The politicians have taken this course to serve the interests of their backers such as teachers’ unions and others opposed to charter schools. They have chosen political expediency over the welfare of their cities’ children.
And yet one would be hard-pressed to find African American voters in these cities shifting their support away from the Democrat politicians who control their cities and their schools. Their attachment to the party is so ingrained that their cities’ politicians know they will pay no price for ignoring African American children’s interests in favor of, for example, those of union contributors.
One can come up with potential logical explanations for how the commitment to the Democrat Party, by both African Americans and American Jews, first evolved. Why it is so steadfastly embraced even when circumstances would suggest the wisdom of a more flexible approach to party preferences, an approach responsive to political changes, is the more germane question. Part of the answer is that groups that have been subjected to biased, abusive, marginalizing treatment are inclined to categorical thinking about what will make their situation better. That is, they tend to think in absolute terms about one set of choices being right and the other wrong. This inclination is driven largely by the wish to believe that making such sharp distinctions and choosing the “right” alternative will assure escape from past abuses. That wish, and the frame of mind it engenders, work against a more nuanced response to political developments.
The potency of this dynamic among American Jews, and its role in the American Jewish embrace of the Democrat Party, have been elucidated by polls of American Jews regarding anti-Semitism in America. Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset and co-author Earl Raab, writing in the 1990’s, noted that such polls showed the overwhelming majority of American Jews believing anti-Semitism to be more rife among American conservatives than liberals, even though actual surveys of American opinion regarding Jews have not supported this assumption. The false belief, largely reflecting a wish that reality could be so simply defined, figures in American Jews’ allegiance to the Democrats, their routinely voting for Democrat candidates in numbers exceeding seventy percent.
The cost to Jews for this blind allegiance was illustrated in the Democrat leadership’s response when anti-Semitic tropes were spewed by a newly elected Democrat congresswoman, Ilhan Omar. Rather than forthrightly condemn her for her anti-Semitic comments, the Party leadership, eager to appease a Progressive wing more than tolerant of anti-Jewish voices, sponsored a meaningless condemnation of all sorts of bigotry. Its refusal to offer a simple, straightforward rebuke of the congresswoman’s anti-Semitism reflected a bowing to the sensibilities of that Progressive wing over those of their Jewish loyalists and an expectation that the cost of not appeasing the former would be greater than the cost of betraying the latter. And they were no doubt right in their calculations.
A similar calculation was reflected in the Party’s response to Israel’s decision not to allow Omar and another newly elected congresswoman, Rashida Tlaib, to enter the country. House Majority leader Steny Hoyer, who had just returned from leading a delegation of other newly elected Democrats to Israel and assuring that nation of Democrat support, condemned Israel’s action as “outrageous.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi similarly condemned it. They suggested it was somehow an unprecedented move by a democratic ally. But the United States has repeatedly blocked figures from other democracies from entering the country, including an Israeli member of the Knesset. And, aside from anti-Semitic statements, Omar and Tlaib have endorsed the anti-Semitic BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) movement whose goal, as articulated by its founder and many of its leaders, is Israel’s annihilation. Tlaib has also advocated Israel’s destruction more directly. Is Israel really obliged to admit people who openly declare they want to see the nation destroyed?
Both Hoyer and Pelosi have been strong supporters of Israel and neither can be construed as in any way anti-Jewish. Both are well aware of the history of Israel and the falsehoods in Omar and Tlaib’s glosses on that history. That they would come to the defense of the congresswomen and not support Israel in its right to deny them entry reflected a political calculation. It reflected once again the conviction that it was politically more important to propitiate the anti-Israel circles in the so-called Progressive wing of the Party than to worry about the Jews; that confronting the former would have more negative consequences for the Party than disregarding the latter. And, again, they were no doubt right in this calculation. There has been and will be no counter-push from Jews making the point that the Party cannot automatically assume Jewish allegiance no matter what action it takes against Jewish interests. While such pushback might not change the Party’s ultimate course, it would at least force some deeper reflection, some consideration of possible cost, before Jewish interests were ignored. But no such Jewish response will likely occur.
The two episodes above may seem of limited weight when compared to, say, the issue of schools in the nation’s major cities and the Party’s betrayal of African American children. But the episodes are reflective of a much broader problem.
The American institution most associated with anti-Semitism today is American academia. On the nation’s campuses, dominated by the Left, faculties have widely joined in the bigoted demonization of Israel and its American supporters, have backed the BDS movement and have penalized Jewish students and others who seek to defend Israel. College and university administrators, while typically resisting cooperation in boycotts, have also typically done little to counter campus anti-Israel and anti-Jewish bigotry. The actors in this institutional anti-Semitism are overwhelmingly Democrat supporters, and the Party, once more prioritizing propitiating supporters over challenging anti-Semitism in its midst, has been essentially silent on the bigotry of the campuses. And once more there has been very little American Jewish pushback.
The ethos of the campuses, and the lack of Democrat response, is a threat to American Jews in other ways as well. Basic American principles, principles that have figured prominently in making the Jewish experience in America so much more benign overall than the Jewish experience elsewhere, have in recent years come under attack. That attack has been primarily from the Left, starting again largely on the campuses. What is more fundamental to American Jewish well-being than the First Amendment and freedom of speech, or than the principal embodied in Martin Luther King’s vision of a more fully realized adherence to judging people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin? Yet both are under incessant attack in the leftist-dominated academy, where a supposed “right” to protection from distressing ideas trumps freedom of speech and where group identity trumps individual identity. (Martin Luther King would likely be harassed and pushed off campuses today for his ideas just as pro-Israel speakers are.) And this illiberal ideology is spreading from our colleges and universities to other bastions of the Left. Yet the Democrat Party has responded virtually not at all to this challenge to basic freedoms and basic principles coming overwhelmingly from its supporters. And Jews have done essentially nothing to call the Party to account.
There is little evidence to suggest that the great majority of either African Americans or Jews is prepared to reassess its longstanding blind loyalty to the Democrat Party. The ongoing refusal to do so in the face of inimical Democrat policies will likely exact an ever-increasing price from both groups.
Kenneth Levin is a psychiatrist and historian and author of The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People under Siege.”