A recent article by David Frum of The Atlantic titled “Democrats Are Falling Into the Ilhan Omar Trap” argues that President Trump is making Representative Omar into the face of the party as the 2020 election approaches. Trump’s broad network on social media has allowed his recent tweet attacking Omar for referencing 9/11 as an event in which “some people did some things” to receive millions of views around the country. This is not the only time Omar has ran into criticism for controversial comments. Many Republicans and Democrats have called Omar out for blatant anti-Semitism on Twitter and for her connections with Louis Farrakhan, the leader of Nation of Islam. Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic establishment in the House of Representatives found their party in disarray after Omar’s rookie mistakes earlier this year. Pelosi’s remedy was but a mere House resolution that condemned hate and bigotry, blanketing the issue of anti-Semitism in the American political sphere. However, in response to the recent 9/11 comment, many members of the Democratic leadership are standing beside Omar in her understatement of the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history. The breakdown of the Democratic party because of identity politics has damaged their accountability to the American people. By calling out Republicans because of their critical comments against Omar instead of standing with them, Democrats are only covering up the real issues within their broken party: a fragmentation of identities and a rise in extremist rhetoric.
The modern Democratic Party is the party of identity politics, which suggests that it plays on the racial divisions within the country in order to be seen as a haven for minorities. However, broad coalitions of different minority groups can have the effect of mixing groups with opposing visions under the same electoral tent. Since the New Deal Coalition was formed, Jews in America have overwhelmingly supported the Democratic party. The rise of anti-Semitism on the Left and the continuation of stereotypes that Jews are enemies of the world or hoarders of great amounts of money are putting the New Deal Coalition at a crossroads. Many of the anti-Semitic comments on the Left are coming out of the mouths(or from tweets) of Muslims including Representative Omar and extremist Louis Farrakhan. For example, in 2018 Farrakhan claimed, “Satanic Jews have infected the whole world with poison and deceit,” and in 2015 claimed that Israelis had “key roles in the 9/11 attacks” and “had foreknowledge of the attacks”1.Obviously, the tensions in the Middle East have led to a worsening of tensions between Israel and its majority-Muslim neighboring countries. The historical, ideological, and ethnic tensions between conservative Muslims and Jews may prove to be a sticking point as the Democratic party hopes to broaden their base with more Muslim support.
It’s likely that when tensions are high among two minority groups, their social identities will drive their opinions of the opposing side. As the population of Muslim Americans increases, it will be important to observe how conservative Muslim families interact with Jewish communities. Robert Putnam addresses two major theories of social interaction between people of different ethnic or racial backgrounds in “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century”, which are conflict theory and contact theory. Putnam finds that “contact theory is alluring but…empirical studies have tended instead to support the so-called conflict theory, which suggests that…diversity fosters out-group distrust and in-group solidarity.” Conflict theory can be a short-term obstacle for a society trying to establish a more diverse grounding that is inclusive and open-minded. In today’s context, white nationalism is the most obvious threat to trust between different ethnic or racial groups, but it is the recent issues of anti-Semitism within the Democratic Party that are damaging its own reputation as a haven for minority ethnic groups. When conflict theory prevails, comments such as the ones Representative Omar has made recently will only further antagonize the Jewish communities in the United States.
Although much attention is placed on the extremist rhetoric used on the Alt-Right, that does not mean the left is immune to its own forms of extreme rhetoric. As Amy Gutmann points out in “The Lures and Dangers of Extremist Rhetoric,” the “troubling tendency to polarize is by no means reserved for the Right or the Republican Party.” Representative Omar’s comments are only further polarizing Americans and forcing one side to defend anti-Semitic comments and ditch accountability. In America, whether the focus is one the Left or the Right, no representative should have a free pass to express anti-Semitic views. Furthermore, as Gutmann finds, extremist rhetoric “shuts down constructive conversation that offers relevant evidence” and “denigrates and degrades rather than respects those who beg to differ.” Omar’s comments openly connect Jews to stereotypes of wealth and greed, while Farrakhan’s comments consider supporters of Zionism to be contributors of a far-fetched conspiracy to run the world’s governments. The anti-Semitic comments show a lack of rational debate of ideas along with the use of paranoia tactics and stereotypes to de-legitimize Jews.
Trump’s misleading claim that there is “Jexodus”2 occurring in the Democratic Party may seem like a constructed movement to steal the Jewish electorate from the New Deal Coalition, but the issues arising out of this “movement” should be taken seriously. In a healthy democracy, values of mutual respect and tolerance are necessary for any sort of compromise or effective public policy to be made. Any society that allows extremist rhetoric to erode coalitions of groups in society and antagonize ethnic communities opens society up to fragmentation rather than cohesion. Bridging the gap between people from different backgrounds and perspectives is the focus of what Amy Gutmann calls the “economy of moral disagreement,” which serves as a guiding tool that allows citizens to defend their values while still valuing mutual respect to opposing sides. Anti-Semitism erodes the moral disagreement among rational citizens in a healthy, flourishing democracy. Not only does anti-Semitism highlight uncomfortable stereotypes against Jews, but it also antagonizes subsets of society and is a type of demagoguery that is uncalled for in a civil society. The Democratic Party must take a moral stand against anti-Semitism and demagoguery in its own rank-and-file members and find a path that will reverse fragmentation and allow for what Amy Gutmann calls, a “morally engaged pluralist society.”
Photo by Lorie Shaull, “Ilhan Omar 01”, Creative Commons Zero License.