The Arab Vote
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Scott McConnell in Taki's Top Drawer / NY Press

Scott McConnell's NY Press Columns (archive)


December 13, 2000

James Zogby was on a roll. It was a rainy Sunday night in Bridgeview, a tough suburb on Chicago's city line, cold for early fall. The Bears had lost again, and the streets were empty. But the small basement of a Muslim elementary school was buzzing. Five hundred were packed into the Arab American Institute's candidates' forum, men in coats and ties, women in headscarves, kids.

They had come to hear local candidates and representatives of the presidential campaigns: Nader, Buchanan and Bush. (I represented Pat; no one showed up for Gore.) Halfway through, the group broke for prayer. The men and women separated, while the non-Muslims hovered on the side near the snacks and literature.

Zogby, a founder and president of the AAI, had the audience in his palm. He told of what he used to hear from local politicians in Dearborn, MI, 20 years ago, when Arab immigration began to accelerate. "They're ruining our darn good way of life," he said, mimicking the flat upper-Midwest accent as skillfully as a professional comic. But now, he noted, while they might feel the same way, they behave differently. They've given us the key to the city (he uses an Arabic term), and City Hall shuts down for Muslim holidays. They've learned to respect the power of our votes.

Other "community" speakers follow. Many tell tales of victimization, of prejudice encountered in jobs, with the police, the courts–the standard fare of contemporary identity politics.

But some formulations are striking, beautiful in the reach of their ambition. A young man, a University of Chicago grad student, injects ever so gently his thoughts about the dismal state of the Muslim nations, their stagnant economies, their corrupt and undemocratic governments. In America, he says, we can become a beacon, a force to regenerate the entire Muslim world. Nothing here about the melting pot or the difficult but joyous challenge of becoming American, but grand nonetheless.

The AAI held similar forums in Michigan, in Ohio, in New Jersey, in northern Virginia. In the Washington suburbs, the crowd was wealthier. Diplomats and second-generation immigrants mingled with yuppies with business cards. Instead of prayer, there is a moment of silence for those slain in the Jerusalem intifada, and a cash bar was open before dinner. I was touched when a young software consultant sought me out after my presentation to say that the American bombing of Serbia–done ostensibly to assist the Muslim Albanians–revolted him as much as the endless war against Iraq.

New Muslim immigrants and third-generation Arab-Americans alike are horrified by Israel's riot-control tactics; hungry for an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital; against the murderous sanctions on Iraq; and livid about the "secret evidence" provisions of American law that have led to the imprisonment without trial of several Muslim activists.

Muslim organizations claim six million faithful in the U.S., the same number as Jews; about a third are African-American converts. There are more than three million Arabs, the majority Christian. Because many are new immigrants, their vote doesn't yet match their numbers. But the number of Arab-Americans has increased by 75 percent since the last census. This year in New York, pro-Palestinian demonstrations equaled pro-Israel rallies in size. In 10 years, some politicians who stayed away will show up as well.

The data are not conclusive, but it appears that Arabs and Muslims (different but overlapping categories) were the only new "ethnic" groups to lean Republican in the last election. Despite his full-court press for Hispanic votes, George W. Bush's 31 percent rate nationally with them was lower than Ronald Reagan's; and in California, no better than former Gov. Pete Wilson's. Bush also lost with Asian-Americans, and was crushed by traditionally liberal blacks (9-1) and Jews (4-1).

But an AAI poll of Arab voters showed Bush carrying the Arab vote by 46 to 38 percent over Gore; Nader (of Lebanese descent) garnered 13 percent. And in a broader if unscientific survey of 1774 Muslim voters done by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Bush won 72 percent.

Latino immigration now provides America's largest stream of new "ethnic" voters; if it continues at current rates with no modification in the admission criteria, the GOP will gradually fade toward permanent lesser-party status, rather like it has in New York City.

By the same token, growth in Arab and Muslim numbers and political participation is likely to erode Israel's unique status in the U.S. Congress. In this election, for the first time, both news organizations and some politicians acknowledged that there's an Arab side to consider and voters to please. A generation from now, Washington may be no more concerned with its "special relationship" with the Jewish state than France is.

Followers of the New York intellectual battles will appreciate an irony here. Maintaining high rates of immigration, so obviously contrary to the GOP's political self-interest, has had no sturdier backers than the neoconservatives who began flocking into the Republican Party in the 1980s. Great swatches of neocon guru Norman Podhoretz's last book My Love Affair with America consist of polemics against WASP immigration reformers past and present; leading neoconservatives have lobbied fiercely beyond the scenes to banish immigration reform arguments from conservative magazines and newspapers. Usually they have succeeded, and their victories have turned the GOP into a high-immigration party.

Perhaps this shall be history's judgment on that celebrated band that emerged from places like the Trotskyist Alcove No. 1 at City College (Irving Kristol's old hangout) and went on to become the most influential faction of the postwar era: that they brought about the demise of both the Republican Party and American support for Israel.

December 14, 2000

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