In this week’s Jewish Press front-page essay, Uri Kaufman takes a look at the seemingly unbreakable bond between American Jewry and the Democratic Party. It’s something that’s been pondered, discussed, debated, and written about for decades, and still the question remains: Why are Jews wedded to the Democrats, years after it stopped making any economic or political sense for them to remain in the marriage?
There really is no single answer. The most commonly heard explanation, one routinely offered up in “analysis” pieces by lazy journalists and High Holiday sermons by Reform rabbis, is that the liberalism espoused by the likes of a Barack Obama or a Barbara Boxer comes straight from Jewish tradition – that if Moses were alive today, he’d be a dues-paying members of the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way and the National Organization for Women.
Such nonsense is belied by the fact that the more Orthodox a particular Jewish neighborhood or community, the more likely it is to vote for Republican candidates. Conversely, areas with a heavy concentration of secular and assimilated Jews vote almost without exception for liberal Democrats. If the explanation cited above held any water, the opposite would be true.
Another line of reasoning one encounters is that Jews gravitated to the Democratic Party because it best served their interests. But surprising as it might seem from our vantage point, the Jews who came to the U.S. prior to the great waves of immigration from Eastern Europe tended to look askance at the Democratic Party, which was identified in the popular mind with Tammany-style political bossism, support for slavery, and an agrarian populism that often seemed indistinguishable from the rawest anti-Semitism.
That attitude changed with the arrival of the Eastern European Jews who crowded into the big cities at the turn of the century and quickly learned that their very livelihoods were dependent on the good will of those Tammany-like political machines, which were inevitably Democratic and invariably corrupt.
Although the dominance of the big city bosses was an inescapable fact of life for the new Jewish immigrants, the pressure to vote the party line was felt most keenly in local elections. When it came to presidential politics, Jews were far less wary of voting their conscience.
In 1916, for example, Republican candidate Charles Evan Hughes received 45 percent of the Jewish vote, and four years later Republican Warren Harding actually won a plurality among Jews – 43 percent as opposed to 19 percent for Democrat James Cox and 38 percent for Socialist Eugene V. Debs.
That last figure – nearly 4 in 10 Jews voting for the Socialist candidate – tells a story in itself, one not to be ignored when seeking to understand Jewish voting habits. Many of the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe came to America with a passionate belief in one form or another of socialism, and those Jews tended to vote for third party left-wing candidates when offered the choice. Though their candidates were, with the exception of some local races in immigrant neighborhoods, roundly unsuccessful, Jewish socialists and communists left a seemingly indelible stamp on the collective political identity of American Jews.
It was in 1928 that Democratic presidential candidates first began polling big numbers among American Jews, as New York governor Al Smith, a Roman Catholic of immigrant stock, captured 72 percent of the Jewish vote. Despite his overwhelming Jewish support, and the equally strong backing of fellow Catholics, Smith carried only eight states against Republican Herbert Hoover and failed to win his home state of New York.
The nascent trend of lopsided Jewish support for Democratic presidential candidates solidified four years later when another New York governor, Franklin Roosevelt, won the votes of better than 8 in 10 American Jews. Roosevelt, whom Jews idolized more than any other politician before or since, went on to win 85 percent of the Jewish vote in 1936 and 90 percent in 1940 and 1944.
And so it has remained, with Democratic candidates routinely winning landslide support among Jewish voters in elections on all levels – municipal, state and federal. The relatively rare exceptions only prove the rule – a John Lindsay, for example, who captured the hearts and minds of liberal New York Jews because, though a Republican, he was more of a liberal than many Democrats, or a Rudy Giuliani, who drew large majorities of the Jewish vote because even New York liberals were sick and tired of the blight and crime that reached their culmination in the Dinkins years.
If anyone has a thoughtful – and preferably original – explanation for Jewish voting habits, please drop the Monitor a line.
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org