Reflections on the American Jewish Voter
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
In connection with President Trump’s recent tweets referencing the four Democratic Congressional members, one could identify a wide array of reactions on the part Jewish organizations and prominent Jewish Americans from both political parties. What is propelling such diversity of responses?
The striving to be “American” drives both Jewish Democrats and Republicans to fully embrace their parties’ labels and expectations. The assimilation of Jews into this society can be best demonstrated by their intense engagement with politics that today defines our community. This “full inclusion” is reflected in the desire of Jews to be seen as totally connected to this society. The presence of conservative, liberal, even radical expressions of politics reflect the different frames of how Jews understand and relate to the cultural norms of this society and what it may mean to be “American.” Political identity represents an amalgamation of national ideas with personal levels of comfort and belief. This may help to explain the diversity of viewpoints emminating from Jewish groups and spokespersons in general and more specifically with this week’s political news!
The contemporary voter draws upon an array of political influences and loyalties, just as an individual’s vote may reflect his/her professional interests, religious beliefs, and/or cultural values, voting behavior also demonstrates party loyalty and a commitment to specific policy positions and priorities. So it is with American Jews!
In the mid-19th century, the small Jewish community of that period found a home within the Republican Party, aligning their loyalty to Lincoln and his vision for American unity. With the arrival of new Jews to this nation during the massive immigration era of 1880 to 1920, Jewish political affiliations would be transformed.
In the early decades of the 20th Century, Jews among other minority communities were seen as “outsiders.” Whereas many sought to change this perception by gravitating toward the mainstream, others proudly retained their distinctive ideological and cultural beliefs, seeking to change America through the introduction of their distinctive political passions that included such ideas as anarchism-socialism-communism. Their 19th Century European proclivities would drive their early entry into this nation’s politics.
In the process of their acculturation, minority voters tended to emulate the political patterns of the majority, especially in connection with the social and economic pressures of blending within the middle class. Indeed, the sting of anti-Semitism drove Jews to operate politically as part of the mainstream. Within the context of their American experience, Jews would develop a deeply embedded connection to the Democratic Party, dating back to the early part of the last century. At the same time, a smaller number of American Jews identified as ardent Republicans.
In more recent times, especially beginning during the latter decades of the 20th century, one saw segments of Jews moving into the ranks of the Republican Party, while smaller numbers explored such offerings as the Libertarian and Green Parties.
Political sociologists attribute these party transfers to changing socio-economic interests, realigning of values, and identifying one party over the other as being in line with one’s political interests. Other commentators have suggested that changing patterns of assimilation move voters to reassess how they might realign their “Americanism.”
Similarly, as new Jewish Americans (Iranian, Russian and Israeli) enter the political arena, they would often identify with the social values and political priorities of the GOP, joining as well a new generation of Orthodox Jewish Americans who found common ground with the Republican Party’s message. Within recent years, Millennial Jews have shown a marked interest in being identified as “independent voters,” shifting some of the focus away from the two major parties.
One of the ongoing characteristics of many American voters, especially among established constituencies, such as African Americans, Evangelicals, and Jewish Americans, has been an emphasis on party loyalty and connection. While individual voters from within these constituencies may cast votes outside of their traditional base of political allegiance, there has been a tendency among such groups to retain a level of commitment over time to their respective “home” party.
The fact that Jews are seen as politically-motivated to vote (85% of eligible Jewish voters turn out for elections) and to financially support political causes and candidates (as demonstrated during the 2016 Presidential campaign) has accelerated the interests of both major parties to address Jewish concerns and to engage their supporters. At a time when many Americans have not been politically active, Jewish participation has further contributed to the heightened attention directed to this community.
In more recent decades, as the Israel-American special relationship became an integral part of United States policy and culture, it would encourage Jews in this country to embrace and assert their communal voice in support of the Jewish State. Identity politics, already a core feature to the ethnic/racial character of this nation since the 1960’s, provided a vehicle that permitted Jewish Americans to assert their self-interests around Israel and other communal considerations, such as Soviet Jewry and human rights, and still feel deeply connected to the larger American story.
It is necessary to put into context the Israel issue for Jewish voters. The major misnomer about the Israel-Jewish connection involves the perception that American Jews determine their national voting in connection with a candidate or political party’s stance on Israel. While Israel is emotionally important to a significant number of Jewish Americans, political scientists note that the priorities of voting groups are set around a number of competing and complementary policy issues. The value and place of “Israel” for Jewish voters then competes with other interests.
For example, as Jews represent an older constituency within this society than many other American ethnic or racial groups, health insurance, social security and a set of related medical concerns often appear to be defining features that directly impact current voting patterns. Similarly, Jewish voters are seen as deeply committed to such priorities as education, immigration, national security, and social welfare considerations. For some Jews the judiciary represents an essential and unique American ingredient and as such, their voting interests for national elections reflect their specific attention to questions associated with the composition and political orientation of the Supreme Court. In fact, in most surveys concerning Jewish voting behavior, Israel is often ranked as a lesser priority. In more recent studies, however, anti-Semitism and national security have emerged as higher profile issues. American Jews are also expressing a growing concern about what they perceive to be “the future direction of the country.”
As with other voters, many Jews focus on two levels, self-interest considerations and the broader social values agenda, i.e. general matters pertaining to the welfare of the society and more specific concerns of interest to the Jewish community. Researchers have noted a tendency on the part of many voters to express more readily their pocket-book issues through state and local elections, while reserving federal contests to demonstrate their ideological and social priorities.
In this brief survey, a few ideas concerning “the Jewish vote” have been introduced. In many ways, when describing the attributes of American Jews, one must identify politics as a defining characteristic and behavior. Over the course of the next year, as this nation moves closer to the 2020 elections, there will be a number of assessments offered on the state of the electorate, and more directly on the profile of the Jewish voter.
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writing can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.