Thursday, March 18, 2004

We all breathe the same air

The electoral politics of Malaysia sheds light on those of the US.

Through an affirmative-action program that has been government policy for more than 30 years, UMNO gives Malays special access to jobs, businesses and school places, and protects their culture and faith. The goal is to ensure Malays don't lag behind the other races, but the policy has also been a proven vote-getter among the Malay population during elections. (Not surprisingly, the policy is much less popular among the Indian and Chinese minorities. But with no credible Chinese or Indian opposition parties to turn to and with only a small minority able to swallow the prospect of voting for rigidly Islamist PAS, Malaysia's ethnic minorities have voted with increasing unanimity for the ruling National Front.)
The dilemma for Chinese and Indian voters in Malaysia is analogous to the dilemma facing American Muslim voters, at least with regard to Israel. Muslim, and even some European, commentators see the fingerprints of a Jewish conspiracy in American support of Israel. The notion of a shadowy cabal subverting democracy dovetails nicely into a gripping black-and-white, good-and-evil narrative of moral absolutes that corroborates European anti-Americanism and Muslim anti-Jewish sentiment. However, American support of Israel is a textbook example of electoral politics working exactly as intended.
Many would ask why the Jewish vote is so important—Jews comprise less than 2 percent of the country's population. But their significance comes from three key factors:

First of all, Jews tend to vote in larger numbers than other ethnic groups. Secondly, their concentration in urban areas in high-population states means their votes help determine the allocation of large numbers of Electoral College votes. And finally, they don't limit their political activism to Election Day; Jews have been among the most generous supporters of political campaigns, especially those of Democratic candidates.
The point bears repeating, "[Jewish] concentration in urban areas in high-population states means their votes help determine the allocation of large numbers of Electoral College votes." In only one state with a population greater than 10,000,000 is the Jewish percentage of the population less than 1%. In that state, Texas, and many of the rest of the so-called red states, fundamentalist Christians, who tend to be pro-Israel, are well represented. Because of American Jews' largely liberal sympathies, Republicans compete with Democrats for Jewish voters, especially in the liberally-inclined, high-population blue states, through vocal, strident and unwavering support for Israel.
"What am I supposed to do in November?" she asked. "Bush has been so good for Israel, and that's so important to me."

"So, what's the problem?" I asked, even though I knew exactly what her problem was. I hear it every day.

"I'm a lifelong Democrat," she said. "How can I vote for Bush?" She is gratified by Bush's support for Israel in the post-9/11 era, and she believes he's right to pursue the war on terror. But she disagrees with just about every plank of his domestic agenda, and she can't conceive of casting a vote that might mean further weakening the separation of church and state or an end to Roe v. Wade.
Muslim immigration to the US has been concentrated in the last three decades. Less than one-third of of the 6.2 million-strong American Jewish population are immigrants or the children of immigrants whereas probably only about 36% of the estimated 3 million to 9 million American Muslims are US-born. Being born in the US entitles one to US citizenship and therefore eligibility to vote. Immigrants to the US obtain citizenship through the naturalization process, which takes time. However, some immigrants don't even bother to apply. In contrast to Muslims, the bulk of Jewish immigration to the US took place before the First World War. A longstanding electorally significant Jewish presence in the US, coupled with traditionally high levels of both political activism and voter turnout, accounts for the American Jewish population's ability to "punch above its weight."

Larger numbers of Jewish voters than Muslim voters in high-population states coupled with fundamentalist Christian support for Israel creates a very powerful incentive for American elected officials to side with the Israelis rather than the Palestinians.

There's no conspiracy, just democracy. The same could be said of European governments, whose sympathy for the Palestinians is explained by the larger number of Muslim voters there.

A shadowy cabal of Jews conspiring in some dimly lit, smoke-filled room? No.

The animating spirit of the Inquisition and the Holocaust rearing its ugly head yet again? Not really.

Pandering to voters? Hells, yeah.

Update: Linked to a New York Times article on a proposal to grant voting rights to legal immigrant non-citizens in New York City elections


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