Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter made headlines last week when he formally changed parties and gave Democrats a possible filibuster-proof majority. The increase of the number of Senate Democrats to the magic 60 (assuming Al Franken of Minnesota wins the legal battle over his senate seat) is no small thing. It will mean a great deal for President Barack Obama, Congressional Democrats and indeed the rest of the country. But of all the commentary on Senator Specter’s political shift, I was most affected by Avi Zenilman in The New Yorker. Zenilman ended his opinion piece (Three Quick Thoughts on Specter’s Defection, 04/28/2009) by pointing out that, with Specter gone from the GOP, “Eric Cantor is the last Jewish Republican in Congress.”

The remark served more as a light-hearted conclusion to Zenilman’s piece than any real talking point. But upon further consideration, I realized the true significance of that detail. First, it highlights the fact that a large majority of American Jews vote Democrat. If Congressman Cantor of Florida is the last Republican out of the 45 Jews in Congress, 98 percent are Democrats or liberal Independents. In addition, over 75 percent of Jews voted for Barack Obama in 2008.

Seeing those inordinate numbers makes me wonder exactly why this trend is so prevalent. Some scholars point to the emphasis on peace and human rights within Jewish thought, while others offer an analysis of immigrant history and urban proximity. Still others look at Jewish involvement in the labor movement. All of the above are contributing reasons, to be sure.

Yet, while each of the aforementioned points are relevant, the most timely reason why Jews don’t tend to vote Republican is simply that the GOP has become the myopic party of rural America and the Christian religious right. Having spent one or two millennia on the periphery of Christian society, it’s unsurprising that American Jews generally feel uncomfortable voting for a party that defies the mainstream and considers the United States a Christian nation.

But Jewish distaste for the GOP is only one example of for the overall nearsightedness of the party. Apart from repelling religious minorities, the Republicans have similarly pushed away virtually all racial minority groups, gays, women and independents. Republican leaders have been preoccupied for too long with pandering to evangelists and so-called “real Americans,” promoting impossible standards for what it means to be an American that they’ve failed to reach. It shouldn’t surprise the GOP that they’re losing elections, considering how vastly they have diminshed their own support base. If Republicans want to regain power, they’ll have to become more moderate and accepting of all sorts of groups.

If Obama is successful in the next few years, Democrats will stay in power and push a center-left agenda that will keep America socially competitive with the rest of the world during the ensuing political era. But if the Democrats fail to impress and the Republicans have an opportunity for a comeback, they’ll have to return as a hugely different party than they were even four years ago. Perhaps they’ll be less xenophobic, perhaps they’ll be in favor of granting full reproductive rights to women, or perhaps they’ll even see homosexuals as normal human beings.

But in 2010, if Republicans do not clean up their act, it is probable that they will suffer even more losses. Things are so bad for the Grand Old Party that they lost a historical member even during a non-election year. Talk about negative momentum. But in a way, this survival of the fittest is the sort of capitalistic idea Republicans are supposed to like. Democrats are making more profits, so to speak, because there’s more of a demand for what they have to offer. So now it’s the Republicans’ chance to change their business model and steal some of the Democrats’ business. If they can’t, then they will have to quietly exit the market, saying goodbye to their comeback.

But they’d probably ask for a bailout before that happened.

Matthew Green can be reached at greenmat@umich.edu.

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