Jeremy Shere: If you’re an American Jew, chances are you're going to vote for Joe Biden in the upcoming presidential election. Because since the 1930s, the overwhelming majority of Jews in the United States — around 70% — have consistently favored the Democrats over the Republicans.
Now, depending on who you are, this might seem like the most natural thing in the world. “Of course Jews vote for Democrats,” you might say. But historically, Americans who've achieved the social status and high levels of income and education similar to Jews have tended to vote Republican. So the fact that such a convincing majority of Jews are in the Democratic camp is something of a mystery.
In this episode, we explore that mystery, by taking a look at the history of Jewish political affiliation in the United States, why Jews have become reliable Democratic supporters, and why it matters.
Jewish engagement with American politics began in the earliest days of the United States, even before the constitution was ratified.
Kenneth Wald: American Jews recognized that they were in a situation unlike that of any other Jewish community in history.
Jeremy Shere: This is Kenneth Wald, a professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. What was unique about the fledgling United States, he says, was that the Constitution didn't base citizenship on religion.
Kenneth Wald: This was the first place where Jews were granted citizenship on a par with everybody else, and that was quite revolutionary. But even more so, the Constitution itself was distinct in that it created a secular state. And by secular, I don't mean a state that was hostile to religion — I mean a state which simply did not incorporate religion in its official identity.
Jeremy Shere: Everywhere else Jews had lived, their religion had marked them as outsiders. In Europe, where the Catholic Church held sway, Jews were sometimes tolerated as tax collectors and money lenders, and therefore necessary to make the economy work. But just as often, they were persecuted as Christ-killers, forced to live in ghettos, or expelled, as happened in England in 1290 and in Catholic Spain in 1492. Jews living in Muslim lands were generally treated less harshly, and in certain cases, as in Muslim Spain, rose to positions of prominence, but Muslim rulers never granted Jews full rights as equal citizens. That happened only in America.
Kenneth Wald: So Jews found something here that they'd never seen before. They had citizenship rights, which meant their rights were inherent. They would not depend on toleration as they did elsewhere. And they had no political disabilities at the national level.
Jeremy Shere: And so, as Wald says, Jews fell in love with the American system, a system premised on the revolutionary notion that all men were created equal.
Kenneth Wald: And they also, in time, developed a political culture that started from the recognition of the importance of the Constitution and that their political priority was always to defend the system, which gave them rights, both religious and civil, that they didn't enjoy to the same degree anywhere else.
Jeremy Shere: For a long time in US history, Jews were not bound to any particular political party. Instead, they supported candidates and parties that most strongly advocated the protection of individual rights and the separation of religion and government. And when that separation seemed threatened, Jews spoke out. For example, in the late 19th century, governors of some states proclaimed that celebrating the holiday of Thanksgiving meant worshiping at church. Beth Wenger, a professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that American Jews openly opposed this proclamation.
Beth Wenger: You would have rabbis, communal spokespeople, coming out and publicly objecting to this: “This is not the way to observe this American holiday. This should be kept apart from any particular religious affiliation, because it belongs to all of us.”
Jeremy Shere: Generally speaking, until the 1930s, American Jews continued to vote for whomever they thought had their best interests at heart.
Kenneth Wald: It's not surprising that Jews reacted to each party system based on how they felt it treated Jews. And if one party had a reputation as being more supportive of Jewish interests, Jews would tend to flock there.
Jeremy Shere: There were also periods, especially before the 1920s, when Jews were politically divided by class. For example, most German Jews who'd come to the United States in the mid-19th century and quickly became established in the professions, tended to side with the Republican party, which at the time was more liberal than the Democratic party.
Kenneth Wald: People forget that the Democratic party was, for many years, the party of the South, the party of slaveholders, and Republicans were generally more progressive in that period of time. Indeed, I would argue that was the case up until the late 1920s and early ’30s.
Jeremy Shere: But Jewish support for Republicans was not monolithic. Depending on where Jews lived, they voted for candidates whose policies appeared to be good for Jews.
Beth Wenger: So Jews voted across the political spectrum, and sometimes not consistently. So you might vote one party for governor, because you liked that governor, and you might vote for another party for mayor. Jews voted Socialist, they voted Democratic, they voted Republican. It began to shift in certain population centers before the ’30s.
Jeremy Shere: A major turning point in American Jewish political affiliation came with the nomination of Al Smith as the Democratic candidate for president in 1928.
Kenneth Wald: Smith had been governor of New York. And if you ever heard a recording of Al Smith, he did not sound like a high-status, mainline Protestant.
[clip of Al Smith speech]
He sounded like the Irish Catholic kid from the streets of New York who he was. And in general, he helped make the Democratic party more open to other immigrants with similar cultures.
Jeremy Shere: The late 1920s was the height of Prohibition, a policy championed by many of the mainline Protestants who ran the Republican party. But Smith came out of a saloon culture, and, like many of the immigrants who came to the United States after the Civil War, including Jews, he was not hostile to alcohol.
And as Wald notes, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who were generally poor and lived in tenement slums, also liked that Smith had many Jewish advisors who promoted programs to help those in need.
Kenneth Wald: The Eastern European Jews who came over later, a sizable portion were working class, factory workers, industrial workers and the like, and they were in real economic distress. And the Democrats seemed to believe that it was the job of the state, the government, to address that distress, to remedy it. And Smith really was the first one who did that. And almost immediately, Jews began to shift in a Democratic direction.
Jeremy Shere: The shift continued and intensified in the 1930s, with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Many American Jews were active on the Socialist left, and Roosevelt's New Deal programs aimed at helping the working class and the poor attracted not only Democrats, but also Socialists.
[clip from New Deal promo]
Beth Wenger: The American Labor Party endorsed Roosevelt and, in time, came to function almost as if it were an arm of the Democratic party in some ways. And it led many Socialists to the Roosevelt vote, to the point where the Forverts, the Socialist paper, endorsed Roosevelt, which would have been unheard of, for the socialist paper to endorse the Democratic candidate.
Jeremy Shere: Jews supported Roosevelt in large numbers and more generally became staunch supporters of the Democratic party. A Yiddish joke popular at the time captured the overwhelming Jewish support for FDR.
Beth Wenger: The only part you have to understand is the word velt means, in Yiddish and German, “world.”
So the “joke” is “Di Yidn habn drei veltn, the Jews have three worlds: di velt, this world; yene velt, the world to come; un Roosevelt.”
Jeremy Shere: Wald notes that even though the Democrats were still the party of segregation, Jews were willing to overlook that dark detail, especially since they came to see the Republicans as increasingly hostile to Jewish concerns and interests.
Support for Democrats remained strong throughout the next several decades, but began to soften during the late 1960s. As we covered in the episode on Black-Jewish relations from Season Two, at least some American Jewish leaders supported Great Society programs such as affirmative action, or at least saw them as an opportunity to focus on specifically Jewish interests, such as establishing Jewish day schools. But as Wald notes, overall, American Jews were split roughly 50-50 on affirmative action and other programs that afforded special entitlements to groups based on race and other designations.
Kenneth Wald: Jews did so because they, as classical liberals supported equality of opportunity, and they saw affirmative action as a different kind of equality by results, which seemed to them to violate, again, the principles of classic liberalism.
Jeremy Shere: Unease with Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs didn't turn Jews away from the Democratic party in large numbers, but it did weaken the coalition, including Jews and white Catholics that so staunchly supported FDR’s New Deal legislation and had remained loyal to the Democrats ever since.
Kenneth Wald: Many people active in labor unions moved away from the Democratic party, white southerners who still had been in the party moved away from the Democratic party, and Jews, in a sense, were part of that shift.
But at the same time, it's important, when we talk about Jews moving away from the Democratic party, to note that in most of the elections in that period, at the national level, Jews still voted two-to-one Democratic over Republican.
Jeremy Shere: By the mid 1970s, a solid majority of American Jews still supported Democrats over Republicans, but that support was not as overwhelming as it had been.
In the late ’70s, some Jewish Republicans, who came to be known as neoconservatives, tried to woo American Jews to the Republican party.
Kenneth Wald: It was composed of mostly Jewish intellectuals who, as they said, had been “mugged by reality.” That is, these were people who'd been liberals. Indeed, some of them, like Irving Kristol, who was a godfather of this movement, had been a Communist when he went to City University of New York in the ’20s. They looked at what had happened to the civil rights movement and to the apparent support for the Vietnamese communists among many of the young, and they just didn't like what they saw.
[clip of Irving Kristol]
Jeremy Shere: Kristol and other neoconservatives argued that the Republicans promoted economic policies that would benefit Jews, who, by the late ’70s and early ’80s, had long been members of the middle and upper middle class in the United States.
Kenneth Wald: And also they argued that the Republicans were more supportive of the military and the use of the military, which would be helpful to the State of Israel. So they made a very strong argument that Jews should be voting Republican.
Jeremy Shere: But the neoconservative movement never succeeded in convincing anything close to a majority of American Jews to switch teams and join the Republican side. Whatever pull the neoconservative argument had was effectively dashed by the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, which cost the Republicans control of the House and Senate in the 1974 elections.
The Republicans cast about for a way to regain power and they found it in the writing of conservative journalist Kevin Phillips.
Kenneth Wald: Phillips was a gifted journalist who also understood numbers and pointed out that there were two constituencies that the Republican party hadn't really addressed that could be brought into an alliance.
Jeremy Shere: One was conservative Roman Catholics, who Phillips felt were uncomfortable with the more socially liberal Democratic agenda.
Kenneth Wald: The other constituency was white, Southern evangelicals. These were Protestants who, again, had continued to vote Democratic mostly, certainly in state and local elections, but had clearly shown signs of unhappiness with the national party’s embrace of civil rights.
Jeremy Shere: The influx of these new party loyalists changed the nature of the Republican party, particularly because evangelicals were openly religious and argued that the United States was fundamentally a Judeo-Christian nation.
Kenneth Wald: Clearly the “Christian” was a lot more important than the “Judeo” component. And they indicated that they wanted to change the Supreme Court, which in their view had been hostile to religion during the ’60s and ’70s. And they wanted to allow a greater voice for religion in public policy and even encourage the state to allocate resources to religious groups, not to forbid them from receiving them.
Jeremy Shere: Evangelicals strongly supported Israel, but many Jews were alarmed by their influence in the Republican party, and by a history of anti-Semitism among some evangelical leaders.
Kenneth Wald: So Jews became gradually more and more concerned about this, and their classic liberalism really emerged again, because they saw the American regime of religion and state threatened. The Republican party, again, wanted to take steps, under the influence of evangelicals, that to Jews seemed to fundamentally threaten their status as full citizens with rights under the constitution in a secular state.
Jeremy Shere: And so American Jews returned to the voting patterns common in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.
Kenneth Wald: That is, went from being two-to-one Democratic to being three- or in some cases four-to-one, largely in reaction to the mobilization of evangelical Protestants.
Jeremy Shere: Back in the 1950s, Jewish essayist Milton Himmelfarb remarked that "Jews earn like Episcopalians, but vote like Puerto Ricans." He meant that Jews had the social characteristics, education, and high income of American Episcopalians, who overwhelmingly voted for Republicans, but like Puerto Ricans, who at the time were generally less wealthy and less well-educated Jews, voted for Democrats.
Himmelfarb's wry observation is just as true today as it was in the 1950s, and the phenomenon remains just as mysterious. Americans with income and education levels similar to Jews’ tend to have conservative values and vote Republican, but as they have since the 1930s, most Jews today continue to support the Democrats. Theories abound as to why.
Norman Podhoretz, who was editor of Commentary magazine when it transitioned from a mostly Democratic to a mostly conservative publication, suggested that Jews supported Democrats because they had the delusion that Democrats had Jews’ best interests at heart. Others speculate that the Jewish allegiance to the Democrats is somehow inherent in Jewish values, but Wenger, for one, sees little evidence to support that claim.
Beth Wenger: “Jewish values” is a slippery term. You can't tie it back to the Bible. I'm always amazed when, especially, Jewish students in my classes will come in and say, “Judaism teaches democracy.” And I'l say, “How is that so?” Judaism, if you're talking about the Torah, is a theocracy, it's not a democracy. And yes, you could pick out things — you should let your fields lie fallow, the sabbatical year — but you can also find slavery and all sorts of things that are hardly democratic.
Jeremy Shere: The Jewish values argument is further undermined by the fact that Jews in other countries are not reliably on the left. For example, French Jews are by and large centrist, British Jews tend to be center-right and Australian Jews are firmly on the right, all of which suggests that it's the American system, rather than so-called Jewish values, that account for American Jews’ devotion to the Democrats.
As Wald notes, other countries where Jews live are not liberal democracies in the classic sense. That is, they don't separate religion from the national ethos. As a result, Jews in those countries don't, as a matter of course, seek to get rid of a religious definition of the state; they just want to be treated equally. But American Jews are different.
Kenneth Wald: I come back to the argument that American Jews are liberal Democrats because they are American Jews. And that means they value, above all else, maintaining their status as citizens with equal rights in a secular state. Because that position has become identified with the Democrats, and because the Republican party has been perceived as wanting to lower the wall of separation between religion and state, Jews have remained anchored within the Democratic party right up until today.
Jeremy Shere: You probably won't be surprised to hear that the majority of Americans Jews did not support Donald Trump in 2016, despite Trump's Jewish grandchildren and his promises to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and to pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, both of which some American Jews supported.
Jews voted roughly three-to-one for Hillary Clinton. Even prominent Jewish conservatives, such as William Kristol, the late Charles Krauthammer, and New York Times columnist Bret Stephens did not support Trump. In fact, they were at the vanguard of the Never Trump movement. As Wald notes, Trump's language about illegal immigrants from Mexico and his initial hesitancy to reject the support of white supremacist figures, such as David Duke, gave Jews serious pause.
Kenneth Wald: It may start with Latinos and Hispanics, but if you're engaging in that kind of ethnocentric behavior, history has taught Jews that they're not far behind.
Jeremy Shere: According to Wald, Jews also felt threatened by the people Trump surrounded himself with, in particular Steve Bannon, who at the time was Trump's campaign manager and had, as the director of the conservative website Breitbart, given a platform to the alt-right and to open racists and antisemites such as Richard Spencer.
Today, according to the Jewish Electorate Institute, in the upcoming election, around 75% of Jews plan to vote for Joe Biden, which, given Jewish support for Democrats since the 1930s, is not surprising. But given the partisan rancor of the past four years, for many voters, especially Democrats, this is not just another election.
And Jews are no exception. In Wenger's view, the white supremacist march in Charlottesville in 2017, with its chants of “Jews will not replace us,” as well as the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, make the upcoming election one of special significance for Jews and their feelings about their place in America.
Beth Wenger: I think it's brought out certain fears among Jews that they thought were behind them, in ways that, if you've read The Plot Against America, Phillip Roth's work, it's a little frightening. And I think it's brought out a consciousness of Jews in really new and — I will say as an historian —interesting ways that we're going to be disentangling for quite a long time.
Beth S. Wenger
Jeremy Shere, PhD
Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD
Producers: Avishay Artsy and Erin Phillips