The New York Times on the Politics of Russian Immigrants

The New York Times has an interesting article on the political attitudes of New York City’s Russian immigrant community. Unlike most New Yorkers and especially most New York Jews (the Russian immigrant community is overwhelmingly Jewish), they tend to support the GOP over the Democrats:

To many Russian and Ukrainian immigrants, the cornucopia in the shops along Brighton Beach Avenue — pyramids of oranges, heaps of Kirby cucumbers, bushels of tomatoes with their vines still attached and a variety of fish, sausages and pastries — seems like an exuberant rebuke of the meager produce that was available to them when they lived in the Soviet Union.

This contrast helps explain a striking political anomaly: immigrants from the former Soviet Union are far more apt to vote for Republicans than are most New Yorkers, who often drink in Democratic Party allegiance with their mothers’ milk and are four times as likely to register as Democrats than as Republicans….

One reason these voters tend to support Republicans is that they see them as more ardent warriors against the kind of big-government, business-stifling programs that soured their lives in the Soviet Union. Their conservative stances on issues like taxes and Israel seem to outweigh their more liberal views on social issues like abortion.

Tatiana Varzar came to the United States in 1979, at age 21, from the Ukrainian seaport of Odessa. She worked as a manicurist and then opened a small restaurant on the boardwalk that grew into Tatiana Restaurant, a spacious magnet for foodies who like a whiff of salt air and a sea view with their pirogen…..

“I am what I am because of capitalism,” Ms. Varzar said, “and Republicans are more capitalistic.”

Obviously, this article is not the first to point out the stark contrast between Russian Jewish political attitudes and those of most native-born Jews. I blogged about the phenomenon here, here, and here, including links to previous commentary on the issue by others.

The Times article does, however, provide a good summary of the major reasons why Russian Jewish voters support the GOP: a combination of a preference for free markets and a relatively hawkish foreign policy. The Times is also correct to point out that Russian Jewish immigrants tend to vote for the GOP despite the fact that most of them are socially liberal (they tend to be highly secular, pro-choice, and generally left of center on most social issues, with the important exception of gay rights, where many immigrants brought with them the homophobia that is rampant in Russia itself). For most Russian immigrants, social issues are not as salient as economics and foreign policy. In many of these respects, as the Times notes, Russian immigrants’ political preferences are similar to those of immigrants from other communist and former communist nations, such as Cuba and Vietnam.

Obviously, as with voters from other groups, Russian immigrants’ attitudes are affected by political ignorance. Many may be unaware of the massive extent to which the GOP has sometimes deviated from support for free markets, especially in the Bush years. At least in my experience, many of them also overestimate the dovishness of the Democratic Party (though I hasten to add that I haven’t seen scientific polling data on this). That said, there is little doubt that, at least in New York – which has one of the most economically liberal Democratic parties in the nation – the GOP is significantly less economically statist than the Democrats.

Because New York is so overwhelmingly Democratic, the GOP leanings of Russian voters make little difference in statewide elections. They do, however, as the Times points out, sometimes make the difference in local and congressional races, which are more closely contested.

For now, the political clout of the Russian Jewish community is severely limited by its small numbers and by its concentration in areas (Boston, New York, Silicon Valley) that are overwhelmingly Democratic. Most Russian immigrants also lack the wealth and political connections that are more common among native-born Jews (though there are some striking exceptions, such as Google founder Sergey Brin). However, as Russian Jews continue to grow as a proportion of the total Jewish population and continue to increase their income and influence, they could have an effect on internal Jewish community politics. There are now some 700,000 Russian Jewish immigrants in the US, about 12% of the total Jewish population. And that percentage may well grow, if only because Russian immigration is continuing (though at a reduced rate), while the native-born Jewish population has a low birth rate.

Russian Jews have also begun to have an impact in the academic and intellectual worlds. Harvard economist Andrei Shleifer and the VC’s own Eugene Volokh are among the best known of a growing contingent of Russian Jewish immigrant academics who have had a significant impact on their fields. In sharp contrast to most other academics, Russian immigrant scholars in the humanities and social sciences are overwhelmingly conservative or libertarian (more commonly the latter), perhaps to an even greater extent than the community as a whole.

UPDATE: I suppose I should add that I do not mean to suggest that most Russian Jewish immigrants are consistent economic libertarians. Very few voters are rigorously consistent adherents to any ideology, and Russian Jews are no exception. They are, however, on average more sympathetic to free markets than the average voter – especially in liberal areas such as New York City.

UPDATE #2: Neither the article nor I distinguish rigorously between former Soviet Jews from Ukraine and those from Russia, although obviously these are now two different countries, and Ukrainian nationalists are not fond of Russia. Most Ukrainian Jewish immigrants are Russian-speakers and identify far more with Russian language and culture than Ukrainian. However, it’s worth noting that non-Jewish Ukrainian immigrants (like my wife’s mother’s family) who arrived since the rise of communism also tend towards the political right.