Tyler Cowen on the Political Attitudes of Russian Jewish Immigrants

In this post, Tyler Cowen asks why Russian Jewish immigrants tend to overwhelmingly support the GOP rather than the Democrats. The reasons are actually no mystery. As I have previously explained here and here, Russian Jews are hawkish on foreign policy and their experience with communism leads them to be suspicious of domestic policies that seem socialistic. Also, they dislike the Democratic Party because it was relatively dovish during the Cold War. Immigrants from other communist countries, such as the Cubans and Vietnamese, tend to be Republican for much the same reasons. So Russian Jews are not unusual in this regard. They only seem so by comparison with native-born American Jews, who are overwhelmingly liberal Democrats.

Tyler asks why Russian Jews tend to be opposed to affirmative action and gay marriage. But the vast majority of all white Americans are opposed to affirmative action (64% in this 2009 poll). So Russian immigrant attitudes on this issue are not surprising. They only seem so by comparison with native-born American Jews, who are the only white ethnic group that tends to support affirmative action.

As for gay rights, Russian Jews are indeed far more opposed to them, on average, than native-born whites. The reason, unfortunately, is probably simple homophobia. Anti-gay prejudice is widespread in Russia, with 74% of Russians endorsing the view that gays and lesbians are “morally dissolute or mentally defective persons,” according to a 2010 poll. At least in my experience, Russian Jews are no exception to this general tendency, though younger, more assimilated immigrants are less likely to be anti-gay than those who were older when they arrived. Homophobia aside, most Russian Jews are not socially conservative generally. For example, the vast majority are secular and pro-choice.

Tyler is probably wrong to suggest that Russian Jews’ anti-gay attitudes are part of a general willingness to “affiliate with the American brand of Christianity found in the Republican Party” because “[r]elated strains of thought have been prevalent in Russia for a long time.” The Russian Orthodox Church has little in common with conservative American Protestantism, though both tend to be anti-gay. In any event, most Russian Jews feel little affinity for the Orthodox Church because it has a long history of anti-Semitism and (more recently) collaboration with Communism and Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism.

It is probably the case, however, that Russian Jews have less fear of the religious right than native-born American Jews. In recent Russian history, unlike in the US, the main fomenters of anti-Semitism have been communists and secular Russian nationalists. Russian Jews are therefore less likely to see conservative Christians as natural political enemies, even if the two groups have little in common in terms of their religious and social attitudes.