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A Warning to Jewish Democrats: The Time to Fight for Your Party Is Now

The GOP has already lost its soul to its most radical elements. Will the Dems, like Britain’s Labour, now do the same?

James Kirchick
January 09, 2017
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison speaks as Sen. Bernie Sanders looks on during a rally on jobs December 7, 2016 at Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC.Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison speaks as Sen. Bernie Sanders looks on during a rally on jobs December 7, 2016 at Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC.Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

In less than a year, the Republican Party—whose presidential candidates I have supported since 2004—has transformed itself into an ugly, snarling, bigoted faction beyond recognition. By nominating Donald Trump for president and working toward his successful election, the party’s leaders and voters made themselves complicit in not only the greatest Russian espionage operation since the Rosenbergs pilfered nuclear secrets but the egotistical psychodrama of an authoritarian race-baiting man-child. In retrospect, the signs that the Republican Party might one day be hijacked by such a dangerous figure were clear, John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate—and the GOP base’s enthusiastic embrace of her resentful stupidity—offering the prime example. I spoke early and often, in this space and elsewhere, about the threat Trump posed to the republic and the free world, but to no avail.

Now that Trump and his enablers have effectively taken over the GOP, it is the Democratic Party’s future that’s at stake. Democrats must understand that being in opposition doesn’t mean that their responsibility is simply to fight the administration without paying attention to the condition of their own party. That, indeed, was the mistake Republicans made throughout the Obama years by giving free reign to the most irresponsible and reactionary voices, which is how they, and we, ended up with Trump.

Jewish Democrats, in particular, have a job to do in their party, just as #NeverTrump Republicans had a job to do in theirs. For the danger to American Jewish voters is now manifesting itself in both parties—and Jewish Democrats need to face up to that fact right now, or else there won’t be a party in this country that refuses a prominent place to bigots. If Jewish Democrats think their party will be a welcoming place for them, (never mind electable at the national level), with a former associate of the Nation of Islam as its chairman, they’re meshuggah. That Keith Ellison is even a serious candidate for the top DNC post is part of a broader trend of hostility to the Jewish State and Jewish concerns initiated by the outgoing administration. The White House’s decision last month to abstain on a United Nations Security Council resolution denying any Jewish connection to the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, followed by John Kerry’s endless speech blaming Israel for his own failures while throwing around words like “apartheid,” were not accidents. The resolution was approved and shepherded by the White House. The occupant of the White House is Barack Obama, who will continue to live in Washington and retain a great deal of influence over Democrats. After their surprise loss, the Clintons are gone for good. They’re kaput. Those are facts.

A war is already brewing for the soul of the Democratic Party. On one side are many of its Jewish voters and donors. On the other side are hard-left activists and agitators who make a very public point of wanting those people purged. Some of these agitators, like Bernie Sanders, are not even Democrats yet strangely expect, and are offered, deference from the very party leaders and influencers whom Sanders and his acolytes want to expel in their “revolution.” I would encourage Democrats concerned about the future of their party to read a recent New Yorker article about a podcast produced by a group of anti-capitalist Brooklyn Twitter personalities that has become quite popular among young, politically conscious millennials. Christening themselves the “Dirtbag Left,” the hosts of Chapo Trap House epitomize last year’s “Bernie Bro” phenomenon in that they are aggressively masculine-to-the-point-of-misogynistic leftists whose politics mix the nihilistic gonzo sensibility of Hunter S. Thompson with the narcissistic machismo of Andreas Baader. Good luck with that.

It is an article of faith among this crew that Sanders would have handily defeated Trump had Democrats abjured the counsel of their perfidious “neoliberal” donor overlords and nominated a 74-year-old socialist for the presidency. This bit of retrospective insanity is driving the push for Ellison’s chairmanship of the party, and it betrays the penchant for half-baked fantasizing so common on the regressive left. If there’s one thing it ought to have learned from this most recent presidential election, it’s that a country that just elected a xenophobic demagogue over Hillary Clinton would not have preferred a radical leftist. For in the battle of left-wing versus right-wing populism, (which is what a Trump-Sanders election would have essentially boiled down to), the latter will always win. When, in history, has it not?

The emotions upon which right-wing populism draws—national identity, peoplehood, culture, tradition—are more visceral than the class-based interest aroused by the left-wing variant. All the more so in a white-majority country rapidly becoming minority-majority.

Beholden as they are to the Marxist conviction of inevitable class struggle, however, progressives persist in their claim that the reason why working class whites no longer vote for left-wing parties in the numbers they used to is because of false consciousness. What’s the Matter with Kansas is that Kansans don’t vote the way What’s the Matter With Kansas? author Thomas Frank and denizens of the Chapo Trap House think they should. Frank has returned with yet another hectoring screed against “neoliberalism,” Listen Liberal, which once more faults Clintonian Third Way politics and calls upon Democrats to embrace their inner McGovernites. The solution to working-class people voting against their economic interests, Frank believes, is to pull the Democratic Party even further to the left.

It never seems to cross the mind of progressive commentators that white working-class people consciously vote against the party promising greater social spending and higher taxes on the rich because other issues—immigration, abortion, Making America Great Again—matter more to them than their marginal tax rates or public services. But if there’s anyone who should understand the validity of voting against one’s own economic interests, it should be cosmopolitan, upper-middle-class liberal elites, the usual purveyors of these myopic screeds about the self-harming ignorance of those toiling below. After all, they regularly vote against their narrow economic interests by choosing to support a party and policies that will raise their taxes. Is what’s good for the white, upper-middle-class, leftist goose not good for the white, lower-middle-class, culturally-conservative gander?

There is no objective evidence to suggest that moving the Democratic Party further to the left will help its electoral fortunes. A recent paper published by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government examining voting patterns for populist parties and candidates across the Western world over the past several decades shows that economic class has become a less important factor in determining party preference while cultural issues have risen in influence. A 2012 book by Harvard’s Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, based on interviews with hundreds of Tea Party activists, argues that the driving force behind the movement was cultural resentment, not economics—a conclusion that is ever more convincing in light of Trump’s victory as a big-government race-baiter.

Responding to this phenomenon doesn’t mean that liberals need to start adopting the positions of right-wing populists. But it also doesn’t mean aping Trump’s demagoguery with a left-wing sheen, as dirtbag leftists would have it. The danger for Democrats is that they’ll go the way of Britain’s Labour Party, whose example should be a sobering one for Jewish Democrats, no matter which one of those identifiers they value most. The seizure of that once-great vehicle for working-class aspirations by Islamist-sympathizing, IRA-supporting, America-hating Trotskyists was partly procedural, in that rule changes instituted prior to the party’s 2015 leadership contest allowing anyone who paid £3 to participate opened the door to a throng of hard-left activists. They, in turn, catapulted radical backbencher Jeremy Corbyn to the top. Yet that singular focus on Labour’s internal bureaucracy obscures the failure of its leaders and members to confront a deeper, more systemic problem: the creeping advance within the party of Third-Worldist fellow travelers for militant Islam and all other sorts of illiberal anti-Western movements, a danger Nick Cohen presciently warned about a decade ago in his book What’s Left?

If you want to understand how quickly such a radical shift in a party’s ideological composition can occur, consider that, in 2009, 57 percent of Republicans expressed positive views about free trade. Today, after a year of Trump’s incessant anti-trade demagoguery, 68 percent believe it’s a bad thing. In the 2012 presidential election, the Republican nominee correctly labeled Russia our “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” Today’s incoming Republican president wants to make Moscow our close ally, and the vast majority of Republicans appear willing to go along with this dishonorable blunder and strategic disaster.

The moral of the story is that putting their heads in the sand didn’t work for moderate members of the Labour Party or anti-authoritarian Republicans, and it won’t work for Democrats. Obama was a historic president, a witty man, and a good writer. But anyone who looks at his legacy abroad must acknowledge that it has been an unmitigated disaster. Obama’s main foreign policy—partnering with Iran’s repressive and vile theocracy—has led to the deaths of 500,000 people in Syria and a migrant crisis threatening to destroy one of America’s greatest post-World War II achievements—the modern European project. It also, incidentally, has been terrible for Israel. None of that was defensible. It was a catastrophe, and the endless denial of that reality by the White House and its echo chambers, and by well-meaning team players, played a part in electing Donald Trump.

The latest round of White House-led grandstanding on Israel has a concrete purpose, which has nothing to do with the future of the Middle East that Obama has torched. It’s about mainstreaming the campus haters who have turned BDS into a way of boycotting Jewish students and professors on their own campuses. There may be biological Jews like George Soros and Max Blumenthal who will feel comfortable in the Democratic Party that some of its present-day leaders are attempting to engineer. But the majority of American Jews won’t. Nor, of course, will they feel comfortable in Steve Bannon’s volkisch GOP. So fight for your homes while you still have them. Stop pretending that everything will be OK. Take it from me, a homeless former Jewish Republican voter: It won’t be OK.


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James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.