Unpacking Political Liberalism: The Jewish Engagement with the Democratic Party

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Democratic Logo(This is a second article as part of a series that Dr. Windmueller is preparing on Jews and American politics; the initial story, Jewish Political Conservatism: The Emergence of Republican Jews, appeared on these pages on November 24, 2015.)

So, why are Jews primarily “liberal”? This may represent one of the most fascinating and complex questions discussed among political scientists and sociologists, just as it is debated within the Jewish community. By all social science measures, Jews ought to be politically conservative. Based on the voting practices of other ethnic and religious groupings that share similar economic and social standing with the Jewish community, this would suggest a very different political outcome. By such criteria Jewish political behavior ought to naturally fold into the ranks of the GOP. Yet, since the early decades of the 20th century, one finds a reasonably consistent pattern being exhibited by Jewish voters, demonstrating a steadfast loyalty to the Democratic Party.

For Jewish political conservatives this issue has dominated much of their discourse in seeking both to understand this phenomenon and to create the case for why it is in the interests of American Jewry to rethink their political allegiances and priorities.

Contrastingly, a large percentage of American Jews have helped to both frame the progressive agenda in this nation and to support candidates who embrace the policy positions of the Democratic Party. Certainly, over the decades a significant and impressive group of American Jews have held public office, endorsed progressive causes, and engaged in advocacy work on behalf of social change and liberal political interests.

Types of Jewish Democrats:

Indeed, there are many types or “shades” of Jewish political liberalism. Not all Jewish liberals hold to the same core political ideas or values. One need only examine the ideological elements comprising the Democratic Party to realize the diversity of perspectives and interests.

There are specific categories of Jewish Democrats, for example “Red Diaper Baby” members, whose lineage and politics are aligned with their family’s socialist/communist backgrounds. Another Democratic prototype includes the “Blue State Voter,” comprised of urban Jewish liberals who exhibit a high degree of educational attainment and economic prowess and have a long connection to socially progressive causes. As with their Republican counterparts, “Jewish Loyalists” possess deep family connections to the Democratic Party covering generations of political engagement. A fifth sector might best be described as “Scoop Jackson Democrats,” who like their Republican counterparts, are hawkish on defense and security questions and can best be described as social moderates on domestic policy.

Unpacking Jewish Liberalism:

Over the decades numerous writers have sought to give definition to Jewish political liberalism. Writing in the 1980’s Steven Cohen would conclude:[1]

Some reasons theorized for liberalism among Jews include: education has a disproportionately liberalizing effect on Jews, the fact that relatively fewer Jews are religious, and even for those who are religiosity is less associated with conservatism, self interest in terms of anti Semitism, separation of church and state, and general tolerance for non-conformist behavior perhaps inspired by a sense of marginality. It concludes that Jewish liberalism is deeply tied to a sense of being a minority and not quite belonging lies at the heart of American Jewish identity.

Political scientist Kenneth Wald has constructed yet another framework for assessing Jewish political liberalism:[2]

I contend that Jews are attracted to the classical liberal polity of the United States because they believe that its disregard of religion as a basis for citizenship/legal status has permitted them – more wholeheartedly and consistently than elsewhere – to participate fully in society. Following a calculus of self-interest that is not primarily economic, they vote and choose political allies on the basis of who most strongly defends – and who attacks – the liberal nature of the political system.

Because the American “regime” of religion and state is not immutable, neither are American Jews’ political preferences. They move against the left when it appears to threaten this regime but move to the left if the liberal polity is endangered by the right. This approach appears to explain why Jews don’t vote their economic self-interest in the manner of other groups (self interest is defined by different criteria), why they differ politically from their counterparts elsewhere (who do not live in liberal polities), and why this behavior is not static but responds to the behavior of left and right toward the core values of the regime.

The ingredients associated with the question of the Jewish attachment to liberalism can be found in an array of theories and suppositions. Some six theoretical explanations of Jewish liberalism are introduced here:

  • Jewish Historical Experience: Scholars have suggested that since Jews often lived under arbitrary systems of rule, they as victims came to understand the need to protect themselves and other minorities from the abuse of power. As political outsiders “Jews are predominantly liberal because we are still mindful of being outsiders, even when we are insiders, and because we have a tradition that …reminds us that we should not oppress anyone and must remember that we were once oppressed.”[3]
  • Social Connections: The density of participation and engagement on the part of Jews with liberal institutions outside of the Jewish community has served to inform and shape their internal political behavior.
  • Radical Chic: Through their career choices, cultural values, educational experiences, and social ideas, Jews would be exposed to the principles of liberalism. The influence of “parental politics” and the “the role of regional concentration” (Blue-State culture) maybe among the social forces that have given expression to Jewish liberal politics. Their politics would be seen as an extension of their socio-economic orientation and would represent as well a socially accepted form of political participation.
  • Jewish Religious Values: The exposure to such core religious ideals as “Tikkun Olam” and “Tzedakah” served to frame the political identity of Jews.
  1. Among various Jewish writers and activists, Rabbi David Saperstein and Albert Vorspan, leaders of the social justice initiatives within the Reform Movement for many decades have advocated that social issues ought to be examined through a Jewish lens. Jewish tradition, they would argue, can inform and challenge Jews to act in a manner that serves the collective interest of the United States. Toward that end, they would pose the question: what do Jewish values teach us about these issues?
  2. Minorities act out of self-interest, and this notion would be affirmed by Saperstein and Vorspan, as they would contend that a just and equitable social order is inherently a benefit to the Jewish people.
  • Universal Ethic: This theory contends that liberalism serves as the great unifying force among peoples, minimizing religious, cultural, and social differences. Through this view of society, with its emphasis on the values of internationalism and universalism, it is possible to see human progress as continuous. Broad social values are considered integral to advancing Jewish political interests. Jews could align their political orientation with their religious beliefs, allowing them to construct a continuum between their personal and religious convictions and the broader social enterprise.
  • American Exceptionalism: The uniqueness of the American experience for Jews with its constitutional guarantees, its embodiment of diversity has fostered a different political environment. In turn, their political behavior would reflect not a conservative orientation as seen elsewhere in Jewish history.[4]

Historical Context:

As the new wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century assumed a level of involvement and acculturation with their “new homeland,” they began to explore their own political identity. American Jews caught up in the growth of the trade union movement began to address the “progressive” agenda including the rights of labor, along with issues related to how cities ought to be governed. It would be the Depression, however, that would formalize the community’s special relationship with the Democratic Party.

We are reminded that the seeds of Jewish progressivism are aligned with the arrival of these new immigrants who were often found to be active in various socialist and labor causes. Jewish newspapers, such as The Forward and Morgen Freiheit were the ideological voices providing support for an array of progressive political causes. Jewish organizations exposing left-wing positions, including the Arbeter Ring and the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order, played an important role in Jewish communal life during these early decades of the 20th century.

The last Republican presidential candidate to win a plurality of the Jewish vote was Warren Harding in 1920 (when Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs took an estimated 38 percent to Harding’s 43 percent and Democrat James Cox’s 19 percent). Between 1928 and 1948, Democrats Al Smith, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman won at least 75 percent of the Jewish vote, at times garnering as much as 90 percent of the Jewish vote.

Throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, many American Jews would become involved in an array of social causes, promoting such issues as workers rights, civil rights, woman’s rights, gay rights, freedom of religion, anti-war movements, and various other progressive causes. Jews would come to symbolize the liberal political agenda through their role in shaping the New Deal, their endorsement of liberal internationalism and the UN experiment, their engagement with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and their articulation of a pluralistic democracy that would bring together their Jewish and American values.

Meanwhile, during the decades of the 1960’s and 1970’s the community would see a resurgence in ethnic identity, prompting a renewal of interest on the part of younger Jews to study Yiddish culture, Jewish socialist thought and Zionist political ideologies and to embrace such internal priorities as the fight for Soviet Jewry.

As historian Marc Dollinger would frame it:

… American Jews did not abandon liberalism after 1975. Most resisted conservatism and redefined their liberal beliefs to mesh with a new political mindset gaining popularity among leftist activists. Cultural nationalism … celebrated the distinctive contributions of ethnic minorities to American life. … Jews directed their impressive political potential toward their own communal interests.

As some Jews would turn inward in order to redefine Jewish communal priorities and politics, others would join an array of public progressive causes (civil rights) and political activities including the anti-war movement.[5]

The Jewish Left:

Jews would construct an array of organizational instruments designed to articulate their political passions. Breira (1972-1977) would emerge as a critical voice on Israeli policy matters; between 1980–1992 the New Jewish Agenda functioned as a “Jewish voice among progressives and a progressive voice among Jews.” In 2008, J Street was formed as an “advocacy group based in the United States whose stated aim is to promote American leadership to end the Arab-Israel and Israel-Palestinian conflicts peacefully and diplomatically.”

Rabbi Michael Lerner’s efforts to create Tikkun Magazine (1986) would offer a Jewish progressive political message as a counter-point to the more conservative, Commentary Magazine. The creation of Heeb Magazine (2001) was seen as an effort “to reach an underserved Jewish progressive market around the country.”

Jewish Political Organizing:

As political organizing took on additional impetus during the 1980’s and beyond, the National Jewish Democratic Council (1990) would be formed in order to articulate the case for Jewish Democrats in Washington and across the nation.[6] During the 1980’s more than 75 PAC’s were formed by the Jewish community, reflective of both Democratic and Republican interests principally on behalf of Israel.[7] The impact and importance of such organizing efforts has faded as campaign options have changed as a result of legislation and court challenges including Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (2010).[8]

Financial Clout of Jews to the Party:

Just as was noted on the Republican side, the financial support on the part of Jewish contributors to Democratic candidates has been significant and consistent. Jeffrey Katzenberg and Irwin Jacobs are identified as President Obama’s two leading funders to his 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

“The precise extent to which Jews fill the Democratic Party’s war chest in each campaign is unknown because the Federal Election Commission does not require donors to disclose their religion. But informed estimates abound. Jews account for 50% to 60% of the total campaign monies that Democrats receive, according to political writers at various newspapers, among them The Washington Post and The Jerusalem Post. The Washington bureau chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a venerable international news agency supported by the world’s leading Jewish donors, believes that the figure could reach 67%.

These estimates roughly jibe with those of many academics who have written on the subject. As one example, Prof. Steven Windmueller, author of Jewish Polity and American Civil Society, believes that Jewish donors have accounted for up to 45% of Democratic funding. As another, Henry Feinstein, also an authoritative historian of Jewish-American politics, puts the number at over 60% in his book, Jewish Power in America. These estimates, which vary in part because they refer to different election cycles, stem from numerous sources, including scuttlebutt from Democratic Party fundraisers, from scrutiny of the publicly disclosed names of donors, and from marketers of lists of Jewish donors.”[9]

The Jewish Vote: A Contemporary Perspective

During the period of the mid-to-late 1960’s Jewish voting patterns appeared to transition away from the Democratic Party, dropping from a 3-1 to a 2-1 ratio. The low point would take place in 1980, when Jews abandoned Jimmy Carter in significant numbers, with many voting for the independent candidate John Anderson, while others defected to the Republican nominee, Ronald Reagan.

As the Republican Party became more closely identified with Evangelical Christianity, Jews would return in significant numbers to the Democratic Party. This pattern was most evident in the 1984 and 1988 elections as Jews overwhelmingly supported Democratic presidential candidates. In 1992 Bill Clinton secured 80 per­cent of the “Jewish Vote” and 78 percent of their votes in 1996. Similarly, in the 2000 Presidential campaign, Al Gore would receive 79 percent of the Jewish vote. Barack Obama would receive 77% of the community’s vote in 2008 and 69% during the 2012 election.[10]
This pattern of loyalty to the Democratic Party has been evident in congressional elections as well. According to exit polls, since 1980 two-thirds to three-quarters of Jewish Americans supported Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives.

As referenced earlier, Jewish Americans do not exhibit the same political tendencies as other demographically equivalent groups. For instance, political observers might expect Jewish Americans to become more conservative in their beliefs and voting preferences as succeeding generations attain higher levels of affluence and education. In fact, Jewish Americans are among the most highly educated, professional, and affluent members within the population, yet their voting record more accurately reflects what Milton Himmelfarb of the American Jewish Committee observed, “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.”[11] In the Pew Study[12], 58 percent of America’s Jews have a college degree, compared to 22 percent of non-Jews. Twenty-eight percent describe themselves as professionals, compared to 10 percent of non-Jews. Thirty-seven percent of Jews earn over $85,000 in contrast to 13 percent of non-Jews.

In comparing Jewish American voters to their non-Jewish counterparts with the same socioeconomic status, Jews are seen as distinctively more “Democratic.” White, college educated, urban, middle-aged non-Jews, as we would expect, are not nearly so Democratic in their party self-identification nor in their voting behavior as are Jewish Americans. As the exit poll data show, 39 percent of comparable non-Jews identify as Democrats, compared to 60 percent of Jews.[13]

During the course of this last decade, the Jewish vote in support of Democratic Party candidates has averaged between 76-80%.[14]

Jews as Political Actors:

In examining the American Jewish Committee’s Survey of Jewish Opinion Leaders (2013), one can understand the framework of Jewish political engagement:[15]

Where would you place yourself on this scale (percentages)?
Liberal 26
Lean Liberal 21
Moderate, Middle of the Road 35
Conservative 12
Lean Conservative 8
In politics today, do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat or an Independent?
Republican 15
Democrat 52
Independent 32

Changing Political Loyalties:

Much has been written over the past several decades concerning if and when the Jewish vote might change. Voting patterns are deeply embedded, and the idea of a major political shift would require a number of factors to be aligned to significantly alter existing behavior. Political change of this magnitude evolves and normally does not happen in one election cycle.

Jews as Democrats:

Despite the longstanding debate over why Jews vote Democratic and the question as to which political party best serves the interests of the Jewish community, the political reality remains that Jews are an integral part of the Democratic Party.

For Dollinger the ultimate goal of Jewish liberalism involves social inclusion within the greater society. To achieve this outcome in a new political environment, “Jewish leaders will have to reconsider many of their assumptions about American life and acculturate to a more diverse political culture.”[16]

There are challenges that the Democratic Party faces as it seeks to retain its deep connections with Jewish voters. Most recently, elements within the party’s left wing have opposed its pro-Israel platform and certain of its policy positions in connection with U.S.-Israel relationship. As larger numbers of minority and new voters enter the party, there is less of a connection within this cohort to traditional Jewish political interests or in necessarily preserving the traditional coalition partners within the Democratic Party. Younger Jews are demonstrating a higher degree of political independence opting in more significant numbers to register as “independent” voters.

Yet, despite these concerns, four key factors seem to affirm the Jewish connection to the Democratic Party:

  • Longstanding historic ties by Jewish voters to the policies and players within the Democratic Party.
  • A deeply held conviction on the part of many that the values of Judaism are expressed in the positions and policies articulated by the Democratic Party.
  • An alignment of shared interests and political priorities between many Jewish organizations and Democrats.
  • The active involvement of Jewish funders in support of Democratic Party candidates and causes.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. You can read his complete set of writings at www.thewindreport.com.

[1] The Dimensions of American Jewish Liberalism Related Publications. Related by Author. Attitudes of American Jews Toward Israel and Israelis; The 1983 National Survey of American Jews and Jewish Communal Leaders
[2] http://www.thearda.com/rrh/papers/guidingpapers/Wald.pdf
[3] http://forward.com/culture/153882/why-are-american-jews-so-liberal/#ixzz3sps220RL
[4] https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1P3-1937733621/jews-in-the-psyche-of-america
[5] Marc Dollinger, Quest for Inclusion, Jews and Liberalism in Modern America, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000) page 219
[6] http://www.njdc.org
[7] http://jcpa.org/article/jewish-pacs-a-new-force-in-jewish-political-action/
[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizens_United_v._FEC
[9] http://business.financialpost.com/fp-comment/lawrence-solomon-obama-jewish-financier
[10] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/07/jewish-voter-exit-polls_n_2084008.html
[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milton_Himmelfarb
[12] http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/
[13] http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-democrats/
[14] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/US-Israel/jewvote.html
[15] http://www.ajc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=7oJILSPwFfJSG&b=8479755&ct=13376311#sthash.69e31lcA.dpuf
[16] Dollinger, pages 226-227