Schlepping toward the Ballot Box?

by Guest Contributor Matthew Egan

*Warning: Explicit Language*


(Sarah Silverman’s video for the Great Schlep)

There’s a thing you might have heard about, The Great Schlep.

Behind it is an organization called Jews Vote. Looking at their bios at Jewsvote.org, they look like pretty great guys. One’s the son of a partisan. There’s a video with Sarah Silverman (see above). If you’ve heard of the project, it was probably from a link to the video.

I like Sarah Silverman.

Sometimes, she fails at what she’s trying to do, and sometimes I think that she needs to put a little more thought into it, but mostly I think a lot of the criticism she gets in undeserved. She does obnoxious, self-absorbed characters you’re not supposed to like. I can understand that it can be hard to get into, but the joke is consistently about herself. On her most infamous joke, I agree with Kate Rigg. The character Silverman portrays doesn’t understand that the word ‘chink’ is still racist even in the context is ‘I love chinks,’ but I don’t think it would be a joke unless both Silverman and the audience both understood otherwise. She wouldn’t have written it if it weren’t about that juxtaposition. I say that mostly to point out that I’ll give Silverman more room than most Racialicious readers would.

However, I have a bit of a problem with her video for The Great Schlep. Not with the goals of getting people to vote for Obama or visit their grandparents. Please, do vote for Obama. And visit your grandparents. I can tell you most Jews are soundly behind those goals. Looking at my own family, my grandfather certainly would have voted for Obama. My grandmother, who said a few racist things in her day, I think would have voted for Obama. My mother and uncle (both in their 60s) will be voting for Obama. I asked my aunt about the campaing, and she started ranting about Palin. And the elderly Jews I know here in New York will all be voting for Obama.

But, when the Silverman video is offered for a general (not exclusively Jewish) audience, which I’ve certainly seen a lot, I feel a need to interrogate it further. As Jackie Mason (who’s rarely the voice of sanity) pointed out, you shouldn’t really threaten to withhold your love from your grandparents to force them to vote the way you want, but to me that’s Sarah being Silverman. She also puts up an image of a large nose to illustrate the word “Jew.” But when she says the Jewish grandparents won’t vote for Barack Obama because he has a scary name that sounds Muslim, that strikes me as more genuine. Isn’t that the point of the entire Great Schlep project? If that’s not the motivation, then why the video at all? And though I don’t think the Jewish nose is meant to racialize Jews, is it perhaps meant to remind us of antisemitism? Well, according to Jewsvote.org:

Everyone knows that Jews vote. By some estimates, 80% of Jews are registered to vote. Among registered voters, Jews tend to vote at twice the rate of the typical voter. In certain swing states, Jewish votes can make a significant difference between victory and defeat.

In presidential elections, when choosing between a more progressive candidate and a more conservative candidate, Jews overwhelmingly choose the more progressive candidate. Between 1924 and 2004, Jews have given their vote to the more progressive candidates at an average rate of 76 percent. In fact, none of the more conservative candidates has ever mustered more than 40 percent of the Jewish vote, while more than half received less than 20 percent. But do Jews really make a significant difference between victory and defeat?

Given this history, why is Barack Obama hovering at 60 percent of the Jewish vote, according to three separate polls? Is this all the product of a highly effective rumor campaign, spread through Jewish networks often by well-meaning individuals concerned that they information they received was true? Or is there something more?

I think that confirms me suspicions that this well-meaning project is based on some distorted ideas.

It seems born under duress. There’s been, as usual, a lot of focus on the Jewish vote during this campaign season. Some terrible, some merely bad. I’ve asked a few people about it, and I’ve been disappointed to hear that some people actually think Jews will vote for McCain. It seems the project aims to prove that Jews will vote for Obama, but it’s like when someone says Obama isn’t a Muslim – I don’t want the conversation ending there.

Some of those facts from Jewsvote are, to the best of my knowledge, reasonable. I don’t know how much more likely Jews are to vote, but I think we do, for various reasons, tend to participate in civic duties like voting in high numbers. And there are many more Jews in Florida than Omaha (though I have no idea what other swing states they might be thinking of). But have Jews ever made the difference between victory and defeat. Jewish votes don’t count less than anyone else’s (butterfly ballots excepted, though an information campaign can’t do anything about that), but I think that’s pushing things a little too far.

There is, of course, a long history of antisemitism that imagines Jews as controlling the countries in which we live. Recently, when SNL did a skit depicting George Soros as “owner” of the Democratic party that pissed a lot of people off. (That image with the flags is genuine Nazi propaganda.) Or, to quote from a more rabid antisemite:

Throughout the centuries, Jewish bankers bought for themselves some real reputations of backers and financers of wars [2] and even one communist revolution [3]. Though rich Jews had been happily financing wars using their assets, Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States, found a far more sophisticated way to finance the wars perpetrated by his ideological brothers Libby and Wolfowitz.

When I’ve talked to people who try to convince me that Jews really do have outsized power, they often point to Florida’s Jews. It’s not a careful study of Florida politics, but the “every stereotype has a grain of truth” school of logic. It ignores the rest of Florida and the rest of the nation. Even though Jews might be especially likely to vote, and we might be concentrated in just a few places, there still just aren’t that many of us, only about 6 million Jews total in the US. Further, Jewish citizens of America are treated as a special interest group rather than as Americans. Jewish voting is not seen as an exercise in democracy, but as a lever of Jewish control.

It’s also true, as Jewsvote notes, that we tend toward left/liberal politics, so Democrats since FDR have been able to rely on the Jewish vote. (Of course, if our vote is so reliable, it’s hard to imagine how we ‘swing’ any vote.) And it is true that Obama’s support among Jews this year is less than Democrats could count on in the past. But when Hillary Clinton was still in the race, she wasn’t doing too much better. Polls pitting each candidate against McCain showed that 61% of Jewish voters would vote for Obama while Clinton could have counted on 66%.

So instead of asking what is it about Obama that makes Jews less likely to vote for him, it seems that we ought to ask what it is about McCain that makes Jews more likely to vote for him.

That seems obvious to me. It’s the same reason so many Republicans threatened to abstain from voting if McCain was the nominee: he’s not from the evangelical wing of the Republican party. His conservatism is mainly about economic matters. While that doesn’t mesh well with what most Jews consider to be Jewish values, it’s nowhere near as scary as the evangelical dogwhistles of Bush’s campaigning. McCain is from a school of individual liberty conservatism that’s completely at odds with the fundamentalist and evangelical segments of the right-wing. Though Palin is trying especially hard to undermine that trust, there are real reasons most Jews don’t view McCain the same way we view other Republicans. In fact, during the time when the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bills were a hot topic, most Americans had a similar view of McCain.

So let’s something straight. I haven’t seen any indication that elderly Jews are less likely to vote for Obama than elderly non-Jews. I can believe that elderly people of every racial and ethnic group might be less likely to vote for Obama.

Unsurprisingly, there exist elderly Jews, but why focus on Jews?