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Political Ignorance and Blaming "the Jews" for the Economic Crisis:

Political scientists Neil Malhotra and Yotam Margalit have an article describing survey data showing that some 25% of [non-Jewish] Americans believe that "the Jews" deserve at least "a moderate amount" or "a great deal" of blame for the current economic crisis. Some 32% of self-identified Democrats and 18% of Republicans take that view. Similar results were obtained in a recent survey of opinion in several European nations.

I. Blaming the Jews as a Consequence of Rational Political Ignorance.

These figures are shocking, but not as surprising as they might seem. Previous surveys show that large percentages of the public endorse a variety of ridiculous conspiracy theories about political and economic events. As I explained in the post linked in the previous sentence, such beliefs are in large part the result of widespread "rational ignorance" about politics. Because any one vote has only an infinitesmal chance of affecting electoral outcomes, there is little incentive to spend time acquiring political information in order to become a better-informed voter; consequently, most citizens know very little about politics and public policy.

People who are ignorant about politics are more likely to endorse crude or simplistic explanations for political events. "The Jews did it" is a much simpler explanation for the financial crisis than a variety of complex policy errors that most voters don't know about and might not understand it if they did. Unfortunately, Malhotra and Margalit don't provide data correlating general political ignorance with belief in an anti-Semitic explanation for the crisis. However, they do note that blaming the Jews is inversely correlated with education; only 18% of respondents with bachelor's degrees blame the Jews at least a "moderate amount." By contrast, that view is held by 27% of respondents with lesser educational attainment. Obviously, education is highly correlated with political knowledge.

II. Blaming the Jews as a Form of "Rational Irrationality."

Simple ignorance is not, of course, the sole explanation for widespread belief in anti-Semitic explanations of the financial crisis. Also relevant is the fact that most people are highly biased in their evaluation of whatever political information they do know"rational irrationality." Thus, a person with preexisting anti-Semitic prejudices (perhaps a belief tha Jews have excessive influence over banking and finance) is likely to interpret whatever she hears about the financial crisis in light of those biases. A 2007 ADL survey conducted before the current crisis found that 18% of American gentiles believe that Jews have "too much control/influence on Wall Street" and 20% think that they have "too much power in the business world." These figures are comparable to the 25% who today blame the crisis in large part on the Jews, and suggest that many of those who blame the Jews do so in part because of preexisting anti-Semitic biases. Obviously, such biases are reinforced by simple ignorance. The less you know about economics and public policy, the less likely you are to be aware of more sophisticated explanations of the crisis, and the more likely you are to fall back on crude prejudices in trying to understand it.

III. Does it Matter?

Many readers probably assume that the answer to this question is obvious. If large numbers of people blame the Jews for the financial crisis, there might be an anti-Semitic backlash or even violence against Jews. In the US, however, there has been very little such backlash so far and anti-Semitism is largely absent from mainstream political discourse.

The more subtle and perhaps more important effect of these attitudes is in their impact on public opinion about how to respond to the crisis. If you believe that the crisis was in large part caused by the misdeeds of "the Jews," that is likely to affect your evaluation of how to respond to it. Malhotra and Margalit present some preliminary data suggesting such effects, finding that survey respondents reminded of Bernie Madoff's Jewishness are more likely to oppose corporate tax cuts to "create jobs" as a potential remedy for the recession. That finding, however, is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg of possible interactions between belief in anti-Semitic explanations for the crisis and beliefs about appropriate remedies.

Obviously, public opinion is not the only determinant of government policy. But it often does have a substantial impact. To the extent that opinion is significantly influenced by ridiculous conspiracy theories (anti-Semitic or otherwise), that impact is unlikely to be positive.

UPDATE: I should note that the survey results cited by Malhotra and Margalit count only gentiles, and did not include Jewish respondents. This has little effect on the data, since Jews are less than 2% of the American population. But it is perhaps worth pointing out.

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