Jeffersonian Jews vs. Jacksonian Jews: Revisiting Jewish Political Behavior in the 21st Century

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

One finds today two competing political images reflecting different images of America. The 19th century contest between Thomas Jefferson’s universal prescription for America and that of Andrew Jackson’s populism, with its focus on making America “great again” is being recreated in the 21st century. As deeply ideological and partisan, Jews are being drawn to one of these two definitions of America.

Donald Trump’s rise to political prominence is most certainly tied to the populism exhibited in Andrew Jackson’s vision for America, as it can be found in the political campaigns of William Jennings Bryan (1896) and Teddy Roosevelt (1912). Contrastingly, Barack Obama’s Presidency symbolized a globalist perspective, one that more appropriately could be linked with Thomas Jefferson’s view of what America ought to become.

Populism is partially tied to the distrust of leaders and governing institutions. In the 2016 election, it reflected a rejection of the Democratic Party’s universal orientation in favor of a nationalist agenda.

We are reminded that the Jeffersonian camp’s liberalism is aligned with a fundamental belief in the engines of government, a commitment to social progress and global engagement. These progressive ideas have for a number of decades resonated with a significant cohort of Jewish voters in this country.

Contrastingly, the Republican orientation of limited government, a focus on national security, a commitment to individual liberties, and a belief in Constitutionalism appeals to a segment of Jewish Americans as well.

Certain aspects of these competing ideologies have attracted specific Jewish constituencies.

Jews often see their politics through five key lenses: a world view, namely the role of America in the world; identity politics, how does one’s sense of being a Jew inform or define their political outlook; what is their perspective on the role of government in a society; where does religion fit into the social construct (religion and society); and finally, what is one’s moral outlook, how do Jews understand the place of morality within the political frame.

Themes Jeffersonian Jews Jacksonian Jews
World View America ought to use the resources of the international community in advancing its strategic interests. America has core interests that need to be defended and advanced.
Identity Politics Jewish interests are aligned with certain universal causes and global concerns. Israel’s welfare must be seen in the context of America’s larger interests on the international stage. Jews seek to insure Israel’s security and as a strategic partner of the United States.
Role of Government Finding congruence with the liberal political tradition, Jeffersonian Jews are seeking to employ government in the advancement of human rights and as the promoter of social activism. Joining the Republican perspective, that government ought to have a focused and limited agenda, Jacksonian Jews support a defined role for the state.
Religion and Society The wall of separation between church and state protects this democracy from any one religion or religious ideas from dominating and influencing the political culture. Religion ought to be seen as core asset and value. Religious ideas and practices ought to be encouraged within the public square.
Moral Outlook The society should welcome and celebrate alternative ideas, divergent social and cultural expressions. The social order ought to be maintained for the welfare of citizens. Behaviors and practices that violate the social norms of the culture should be rejected. Constitutionalism ought to define the limits of government activism.

The political behaviors and beliefs associated with these two definitions of American democracy may provide some clearer insights into the competing viewpoints found among American Jews. As Jews move into the fifth generation of their Americanism, they are increasingly taking on the characteristics and values that more appropriately reflect the mainstream ideas reflected in these different definitions on American political identity. If in the past, this community was bound up with a more parochial political ideology, then as part of their acculturation into 21st century culture, Jews have been rapidly taking on the attributes of the larger social order.

We therefore ought not to be surprised by a growing divergence of Jewish political practice that reflects less on the historic interests of identity-politics that once defined the “Jewish vote” and currently promotes a more generic view of this nation’s diverse and changing political culture.

Steven Windmueller Ph.D., on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future.