A pall hangs over the American debate about equality. It is becoming difficult for people to speak their minds. College campuses, of all places, are filled with silences, and the discussions that do occur are often awkward and truncated. Racial minorities and women fear being told they are unworthy; white males fear being dismissed as racist, sexist, or”if they are straight”homophobic.

My concern here is not with that larger issue, but with a more limited (but at least equally controversial) subset of it: Is the egalitarian ideal”one person should count as one and no more than one”good for Jewish political influence?

Polls and election results reveal that Jews are overwhelmingly on the left politically and thus leaders in the fight for equality. Jews constitute a substantial part of the leadership of left-liberal organizations devoted to the reduction of power differentials between rich and poor, black and white, men and women, gay and straight. Is it possible, I ask, in seeking to bring this hitherto subterranean question up for discussion, that this extraordinary political effort is likely to have the effect, whether intended or not, of diminishing Jewish political influence?

Jews have many interests, of course, that stand apart from their Jewishness. That is not in question here. Rather, by “Jewish political influence,” I mean the ability of Jews both to defend the specifically Jewish interests they now have”such as support for Israel”and to maintain the politically relevant resources they would need to defend other such interests in the future. It could be argued that Jews no longer have interests that would (or should) set them apart from other Americans. But Jewish history, I think, suggests that such optimism is unwarranted, even in America. The vast majority of Jews believe there are and will continue to be issues of special importance to Jews. Jews also undoubtedly feel more secure knowing they have a reservoir of influence to draw upon should the need arise. This being so, it is worthwhile assessing the resources that have led to political influence for American Jews and asking how these would fare under current egalitarian proposals.

Compared to the general population with whom they both ally themselves and compete for power, Jews may briefly be described as tiny in proportion to the whole, concentrated in big industrial states with large numbers of electoral votes, highly educated, richer than average, far more willing to use money for political purposes, well-organized as a community, and, comparatively speaking again, immensely participatory.

Jews make up roughly 2.5 percent of the total population of the United States. Only two states”New Jersey and New York”are more than 5 percent Jewish, with New York highest at about 10 percent. The Jewish share of the population has been dropping for a long time”it stood as high as an estimated 3.6 percent in 1930. Given current trends, to the extent that Jewish influence depends on population, it can be described as very low and declining.

But population figures, of course, do not tell the whole story of political or cultural influence. A major offsetting factor for Jews has been their very high level of formal education, which has led to statistical overrepresentation in leadership roles in the arts, professions, mass media, and elsewhere. In some of these key areas”most notably, perhaps, the professoriate”Jewish influence may be expected to diminish as egalitarian schemes in the form of affirmative action programs proliferate. (Jewish male influence, at least; Jewish women will presumably benefit.)

Jews have also exercised influence beyond what their numbers alone would suggest in various aspects of political life. That influence too threatens to diminish in the wake of a number of egalitarian measures instituted in recent years. The story here begins with developments in the Democratic Party”the overwhelming majority of politically active Jews being Democrats rather than Republicans.

Following the disastrously divisive presidential nominating struggle in 1968, the Democrats accepted the McGovern Commission reforms requiring that specific proportions of delegates to the national convention be women, youth, and people of color. One result was a dramatic drop in the proportion of Jewish male delegates.

The same set of reforms also led to such a proliferation of primaries that they have become the main, indeed the overwhelming, mechanism for selecting presidential candidates. The justification for such heavy reliance on primaries is again egalitarian, the assumption being that “one person, one vote” is the only legitimate principle for nomination as well as election to public office.

Further, the Democratic party now has rules providing a form of proportional representation in primaries; candidates who receive above a certain minimum of the vote receive a proportional share of the delegates to which a state or district within a state is entitled. The point for Jews is in the consequences of the principle: proportional representation dilutes the value of population groups disproportionately represented in populous competitive states. Why campaign in or pay particular attention to the interests of voters in states like California, New York, and Illinois”where Jews have disproportionate influence”when under proportional representation the gain or loss in delegates is likely to be minuscule?

Again, the point for Jews is clear: Jewish voters are small in number, and any scheme that counts one as one and no more means that Jewish influence will be limited to the 2.5 percent of the population they represent.

Nor does the story end here. In 1988, the primary system for presidential nomination was extended to a regional primary called “Super Tuesday.” The logic behind the regional primary has already produced a call (based once more on equality) for a national primary. Why should voters in one region, or several regions, exercise disproportionate influence? Why not combine simplicity with fairness by holding a national primary?

And why should the principle involved be restricted to primaries? What about general elections? What about the inegalitarian electoral college? Surely, among people who will accept no principle other than one person, one vote, the electoral college can only be seen as an unfortunate anomaly. Only direct election of the President can satisfy the criterion of one person, one vote.

And, once again, that would be bad for Jewish political influence. Not for Jews alone, of course: direct election of the President would also be bad for blacks and other strategically placed minorities. But direct election would not be as bad for blacks because they are much larger (11.7 percent compared to 2.5 percent) and, therefore, more worth appealing to if numbers are all that matter. Blacks also have a much higher birth rate than Jews.

The egalitarian principle in politics extends beyond voting to finances. Proponents of campaign finance reform insist that unequal access to financial resources constitutes unfairness. Existing and proposed reforms call variously for mandated floors and ceilings in campaign spending, the principle in all cases being to reduce the influence of private interests in politics and to make election contests more equal. (Opponents of restrictions on spending point out that, given the enormous natural advantages held by incumbents, a limit on spending might well constitute an incumbents’ protection act.)

Because Jews have higher incomes than average and contribute more of what they have to political purposes, Jewish influence would decline were campaign finance reforms put into effect. True, Jews could still contribute their labor to candidates, but those who could not or prefer not to spend surplus time on politics would witness a significant decline in influence.

Radical egalitarians insist that equalizing spending on elections is only a first, and rather minor, step toward what should be the true end of the campaign for equality: equalization”or as close to it as practicable”in the distribution of income. And here again, naturally, Jews would be comparative losers. If Jewish income were reduced, support for Jewish community concerns”education, Israel, politics”would necessarily decline.

The pattern of all this is unmistakably clear. Making up for small numbers through education, knowledge, income, effort, location, and unity has been the secret of Jewish political success. Jews are not the all-powerful group that conspiracy-minded zealots imagine, but they have wielded influence beyond their numbers. And the egalitarian impulse currently at work in various segments of society would have the effect of limiting that influence.

To which one response might be. So what? After all, it could be said, Jewish influence should not be seen, or maintained, as a good in itself. At least a measure of it might be sacrificed for the general good. Being Jewish involves more than religious or ethnic identification. Being Jewish is not simply about means to any end that Jews might decide to embrace, but about the choice of ends themselves. The Jewish ethical tradition, it could be argued, has from scriptural to modern times emphasized support for the weaker elements in society: it has, that is to say, been egalitarian. For not a few Jews, the very meaning of Jewishness involves a striving for egalitarian justice. To be a Jew is to be, in that sense, a person of the left, a seeker after equality of condition.

There is no reason, to be sure, for Jews to view every issue as necessarily imbued with Jewish interests. Or to see the question of Jewish influence as an all-or-nothing affair. Caught between a desire to maintain Jewish influence and egalitarian impulses, Jews might well seek some of each. In most if not all of the areas surveyed here, there is middle ground to be found between pure egalitarianism and maximization of Jewish influence.

The larger philosophical question involves the definition of justice. The desirability or not of maintaining existing Jewish political and cultural influence comes down to differences of political vision. If social justice requires relatively equal possession of resources, then Jews ought to welcome a diminution of their current influence in order to achieve a more egalitarian society. But if one’s vision of equality focuses not on equality of results but on an equality of opportunity that might well produce unequal results”and that is, of course, the more venerable and established idea of equality in America”then disproportionate Jewish influence loses its prima facie problematic character.

In recent years, Jews have been decertified as a “deprived minority.” No doubt this judgment reflects the view that in terms of command over resources, including political influence, Jews have become established. But is it true now, and will it remain true, that Jews, who constitute so tiny a proportion of the American people, will no longer need or want influence beyond their numbers? And should we at least want to consider the possibility that what is good for the Jews might also be good for society as a whole?

I do not argue that Jewish influence must he maintained as a good in itself. I am saying that it ought not to be taken for granted or heedlessly given away without understanding the costs that its sacrifice might involve now and in the future.

Aaron Wildavsky is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.