Anik Joshi: Israel, the NRA and the danger of partisanship

Monday, March 11, 2019 - 1:37pm

Right now, many Republicans reflexively oppose any Democratic proposal or idea and the inverse is true as well. This is because of something called “negative partisanship.” Politico Magazine defines this as when “the parties hang together mainly out of sheer hatred of the other team, rather than a shared sense of purpose.” Through this lens, a lot of things make more sense; I’d like to use it to look at an example of negative partisanship through the National Rifle Association and how a similar phenomenon is possible with Israel.

Today, the NRA is overwhelmingly associated with the Republican Party. Whether it be with immigration, President Donald Trump or many other issues, the NRA is more tied to the right than ever. In fact, the current president of the NRA is a former Reagan administration official who ran for Senate as a Republican in 1994. Moreover, most of the money the NRA spends is on Republicans and most of the candidates it endorses are Republicans.

In fact, in 2016, the NRA spent 99 percent of its campaign contributions on Republicans. The strong ties to the right have seemingly paid off — it has a direct line to the president it helped put in office. However, it is worth noting that this has come at a substantial cost.

In 1992 — just 26 years ago — Democrats got 37 percent of NRA funds. The NRA used to also endorse (and fund) a lot more liberal Democrats. Once upon a time, Michigan’s foremost leading light of liberalism, John Dingell, regularly got an A+ rating from the NRA. Today, the best-known progressives abhor the NRA and presidential candidates who used to be cozy with it have all but declared war on it. Former President Barack Obama was no dear friend of the NRA, but he was certainly not as much of an enemy as today’s Democratic presidential candidates are.

Similarly, today more than ever before, support of Israel has become a partisan issue. Traditionally, Israel enjoyed strong cross-party, cross-ideology support — but that has started to change. Per the Pew Research Center, “79% of Republicans say they sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians, compared with just 27% of Democrats.” Further in the poll it says that “(n)early three times as many Republicans (52%) as Democrats (18%) have favorable impressions of Israel’s leader (Benjamin Netanyahu).”

This divide is bigger than it has been in years and part of the reason might stem from the strong embrace of Trump by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has welcomed Trump in a public way, going so far as to include Trump on billboards in his re-election campaign, and Trump has more than returned the embrace — one demonstration of this was moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Before this, Netanyahu had worked to strengthen his ties to conservatives. At the invitation of then House Speaker John Boehner, he spoke against the Iran nuclear deal to a joint session of Congress. Netanyahu also appointed Ron Dermer, a former assistant to Republican pollster Frank Luntz, as his ambassador to the United States.

Doing all of this has massively strengthened ties with the right — but this lunch wasn’t free. This is similar to the NRA because in both cases, the group chose to move right and when the NRA did so, it had a cost. It no longer had Democratic supporters in the halls of Congress and, consequently, their favored policy positions no longer had Democratic votes. As of now, the NRA and the Democrats may as well be the Hatfields and McCoys.

More of this has to do with negative partisanship more than anything else — the NRA became Republicans, Democrats don’t like Republicans, ipso facto Democrats don’t like the NRA. If Netanyahu continues his personal rightward drift, there is no reason that this could not happen for Israel as well. Already, record numbers of liberals sympathize with the Palestinians over Israel and I believe that the more support for Netanyahu is viewed as a proxy for support for Trump, the less support for both Netanyahu and Israel there will be.

The NRA’s actions over the past 30 years are a good guide of how to make half the country reflexively disagree with you because of association with other principles over which there is disagreement. If the NRA stayed about guns and never fought the culture war, they would still enjoy the broad support they once did. However, they made a choice to embrace the right. Similarly, Netanyahu going out of his way to embrace Trump (and arguably equate support for Trump with support for Israel) will lead to Israel’s favorability falling further on the left thanks to negative partisanship.

This happening would be a tragedy. We depend on the Israelis and they depend on us — they have been an important ally and friend since their founding, and they will hopefully remain one in the future. However, this is not possible if Israel becomes associated with the right instead of with American national interests.

Anik Joshi can be reached at anikj@umich.edu.