TCS Daily


Question Authority?

By Michael Rosen - April 29, 2005 12:00 AM

Last Saturday Night, Jews around the world ushered in the eight-day-long holiday of Passover, which celebrates the exodus of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. The prevailing theme is freedom: the escape from an enslaving regime, the beginning of communal autonomy, and the emergence of a Jewish people.

But an equally compelling theme is that of asking questions: of challenging the status quo, of standing up to authority, and of speaking truth to power. These are deeply held values in Judaism and, lately, have become the animating force in the Republican Party.

To start with, the most famous section of the Passover seder -- the lengthy ceremonial meal during which Jews traditionally retell the exodus story -- are the so-called "Four Questions." In addition, we are instructed to stud the seder table with all kinds of exotic props -- lamb shankbones, parsley sprigs, bowls of salt water -- in order that "the children will ask questions." Families and friends spend endless hours discussing and debating the various aspects of the Passover story and its contemporary lessons. And, of course, the exodus itself would have been impossible had the Israelites lacked the courage to stand up to their Egyptian taskmasters and demand their freedom.

Questioning authority is, more generally, an entrenched Jewish tradition. From the forefathers through Moses and the later prophets to the rabbis of the Talmud, Jewish leaders have not shied away from challenging God Himself. The Talmud -- the preeminent compendium of Jewish law -- is a book of questions and debate; indeed, the Socratic Method could just as easily be called the Talmudic Method.

As the old joke goes,

        Q: Why do Jews always answer a question with another question?

        A: What, you've got a problem with that?

This obsession with questions has informed Jewish political leanings as well. Curiously, while through much of the 20th century the hallmark of the Democratic Party was its opposition to the status quo, and while the Jewish community flocked overwhelmingly toward the Democrats, in recent years the Party of Jackson has in many ways become the party of the status quo while the Republicans wear the mantle of the questioners. Along with this sea change in the perception of the parties, many Jews are gravitating toward the GOP.

The Democratic Party restored its place in American politics with the election of FDR and the creation of the New Deal -- an energetic leader and movement committed to replacing a calcified, depressed American economy and society with a vibrant new vision. Through the Civil Rights Movement and the Sixties in general, liberal Democrats, for better or for worse, consistently questioned authority, even minting a bumper sticker bearing this slogan.

But beginning in the 1980's with the election of Ronald Reagan, then into the "Republican Revolution" of the mid-1990's, and now most completely in the presidency of George W. Bush, the tables have turned dramatically in realms foreign and domestic. The GOP has become the insurgent party, challenging conventional wisdom and taking a hatchet to received truths.

Most prominently, President Bush's forward strategy of freedom, particularly in the Arab-Muslim world, represents an aggressive challenge to the foreign policy establishment, both at home and abroad. Critics on the left, and some on the far-right, have consistently invoked stability as the sine qua non of a functioning international society and have regularly argued that Arabs do not yearn for democracy and its trappings. But Bush and his allies in the Congress have refused to accept the sacrifice of political liberty and economic freedom on the altar of stability.

The president's policy, as outlined in his intensely idealistic second inaugural address, has proven relentlessly destabilizing, but thus far to good effect. To be sure, it's far too premature to declare victory, but unprecedented elections and the formation of an inclusive government in Iraq; the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, where millions have rallied to the cause of independence and freedom; municipal elections in Saudi Arabia; opposition candidates on the Egyptian ballot; and even free and relatively open elections among the Palestinians all attest to the wisdom of questioning authority -- both at the micro level, in each of these examples of Arabs and Muslims clamoring to be free, and at the macro level, in the Bush doctrine.

Another dominant paradigm the GOP is subverting -- as a related bumper sticker goes -- is the United Nations. Besmirched by the scandals of the Oil-for-Food program, rape and abuse in the Congo, and impotence in confronting the Sudanese genocide, the UN has seen better days. But those, like John Bolton, who would reform it, and others, like Paul Wolfowitz, who seek to bolster other international organizations like the World Bank, have encountered massive opposition from liberal Democrats. The viability or usefulness of the UN, as presently constructed, remains one of the great commonplaces of the status quo, although Republicans are slowly making inroads challenging it.

On the domestic front as well, the GOP has invited liberal sacred cows to the slaughterhouse. President Bush has had the temerity to propose shoring up Social Security -- the Democratic innovation of the 1930s that now epitomizes the status quo. For daring to suggest that Americans should control their individual retirements and financial destinies, the president has been pilloried by the Democrats. The response has far exceeded constructive criticism. Indeed, to date, no prominent Congressional Democrat has presented any serious counter-proposal.

The same goes for the orthodox pieties of the academy, where recent studies have revealed a laughable paucity of conservative voices on campus faculties. Of course, this has long been the case in American universities but the liberal academic status quo has hardened in recent decades to the point where Israel is constantly demonized and certain topics -- such as the possibility of innate gender differences -- remain sharply off-limits. Merely presuming to question, as Congress has begun to do, the monolithic nature of Middle Eastern studies faculties, for instance, has occasioned furious resistance.

Republicans have led the charge in other areas such as class action reform, school choice, tax reform, and even environmental protection. Conservative blogs have thrived, challenging, in their own terminology, the "mainstream media."

And in one final realm has the GOP's recent turn toward questioning and debate borne fruit -- the Republican Party itself. Controlling the White House, both houses of Congress, (arguably) the Supreme Court, and a majority of governorships has left the party in a vulnerable position: enjoying such broad influence that internal squabbles have inevitably arisen. Many pundits have pointed to a conservative "crack-up." Yet intra-party dissent can also be seen as a sign of health: as a big tent, the Party of Lincoln contains variegated factions, each with its own perspective, learning from one another. In a poignant column, David Brooks explains that debate can only strengthen the party.

Perhaps this recent trend explains why Jewish support for the GOP has begun to tick upward. From a low of 11% for the first President Bush in 1992, to 15% for Bob Dole in 1996, to 19% for George W. Bush in 2000, Jews in 2004 gave President Bush around 25% of their vote. There are many reasons that the Jewish community has inched toward the GOP, including steadfast Republican backing of Israel and strong GOP stands against European anti-Semitism. But at least a portion of Jewish support derives from the Republicans' new status as the questioners. And if nothing else, this hypothesis should stimulate yet more debate during the Passover seder.

Michael M. Rosen is a TCS contributor and an attorney. This article is adapted from introductory remarks he made last week on behalf of the San Diego chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition at a lecture by Hugh Hewitt.

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