No matter who wins on Tuesday, commentators will likely sift through the exit polling and declare that, in at least one respect, President Bush failed. Early this year some Republicans boasted that Bush would realign Jewish American politics -- ending the community's 80-year love affair with the Democratic Party. In recent weeks, however, with polls showing most Jews planning to vote for John Kerry, the brash predictions have stopped. Jewish Democrats are poised to declare victory, to announce that Bush's overtures have come to naught.
But that won't be true. Because while President Bush hasn't realigned the Jewish vote, he has done something even more intriguing: He has ended it.
The term "Jewish vote" implies a shared political perspective that binds Jews more to one another than to gentiles. In this sense, there has not been an "Episcopalian vote" or a "Catholic vote" for a long time. In the 1950s Christian denominations meant something at the polling booth. Catholics and Southern Baptists generally voted Democratic. Episcopalians and other main-line Protestants, especially in the North, voted Republican. But starting in the 1970s, religious denomination began to matter less -- and religious intensity to matter more and more. Catholics who went to Mass every week started voting more like Episcopalians who went to church every week than like Catholics who didn't. During the culture wars of the 1990s, the trend accelerated. This spring a study by the University of Akron's John Green for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found "that religious traditionalists, whether Evangelical, Mainline Protestant or Catholic, hold similar positions on issue after issue, and that modernists of all these various traditions are similarly like-minded." With the critical exception of African Americans -- whose religiousness has not generally inclined them toward the GOP -- traditionalist Christians voted Republican while modernist Christians voted Democratic.
Jews, however, were different. As late as 2000, Al Gore and his Orthodox running mate, Joe Lieberman, didn't just win most of the Jewish vote, they won a large majority among Orthodox Jews -- the "traditionalists" whom sociologists might have expected to join their Christian counterparts. But it now appears that, like Jimmy Carter, who won the votes of his fellow evangelicals in 1976, Lieberman simply delayed his community's migration into the Republican Party. This year, for probably the first time, Orthodox Jews will vote like "traditionalist" Christians. Conservative, Reform and non-affiliated Jews, on the other hand, will vote like secular, or "modernist," Christians. And the Jewish vote, in a meaningful sense, will cease to exist.
George W. Bush deserves much of the credit. Some commentators speculated that his strong support for Ariel Sharon would win over Jewish voters. Actually, it has divided them. Orthodox Jews are far more likely to vote on Israel than other Jews. According to a recent American Jewish Committee survey, 74 percent of Orthodox Jews feel "very close" to Israel, compared with only 31 percent of Jews overall. And Orthodox Jews are also more likely to oppose dismantling settlements, which puts them more in sync with Bush and Sharon's hard-line policies.
If Bush's Israel policy has attracted Orthodox Jews, his domestic agenda has alienated their non-Orthodox counterparts. In particular, Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated Jews express a clear antipathy toward the agenda of the Christian Right. According to the American Jewish Committee, roughly three-quarters of them oppose government aid to religious schools. But among Orthodox Jews, who are far more likely to send their children to such schools, and who often feel considerable financial strain as a result, the sentiment is almost exactly the reverse. Two-thirds of the Orthodox support government funding of religious education. When Republican Sens. Norm Coleman and Rick Santorum traveled to Borough Park in Brooklyn during the Republican National Convention to meet with a select group of Orthodox rabbis, school vouchers was among the top issues on the agenda. Gay marriage also pits Orthodox Jews against their more secular counterparts. As Binyamin Jolkovsky, editor and publisher of JewishWorldReview.com, recently told the Jewish Week newspaper, "There are two distinct Jewish communities right now, the general Jewish community and the Orthodox. Our value systems are so different."
Don't expect this to have a dramatic impact at the polls. Orthodox Jews make up less than 10 percent of the American Jewish population, so even though they will probably vote overwhelmingly for President Bush, he will still overwhelmingly lose the Jewish vote as a whole. But beyond Nov. 2, the Orthodox migration into the Republican Party is part of a larger transformation: Religion is eclipsing ethnicity as a force in American politics. To be an Irish Catholic or a German Lutheran used to have real political meaning. Today those patchwork divisions, which stretch back more than a century, are fading. Increasingly, America, or at least white America, has just two political cultures: religious and secular. And next week Jews -- who have held out longer than their Christian brethren -- will finally choose sides.
The writer is editor of the New Republic. He writes a monthly column for The Post.