Why are Jews still wedded to the Democratic party, years after it stopped making any economic or political sense for them to remain in the marriage? It’s a question one hears often from bewildered non-Jews and Republican Jews (Democratic Jews – i.e. the vast majority of American Jews – seem oblivious to the question, let alone any possible answer).
The truth is, there is no singular answer. The most commonly heard explanation, one routinely offered up in “analysis” pieces by lazy journalists and High Holiday sermons by ignorant Reform rabbis, is that the liberalism espoused by the likes of a Teddy Kennedy or a Barbra Streisand comes straight from Jewish tradition – in other words, if Moses and King David and Maimonides were alive today, they’d all be 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 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 rather frequently is that Jews gravitated to the Democratic party because the party best served their interests. Since that answer is not nearly as off the wall as the fist, let’s take a little swing down memory lane and see what we can find.
Surprising though it may 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 invariably Democratic and invariably corrupt.
Jobs and basic amenities were used as barter to purchase party loyalty, and bribery was the order of the day – the late New York senator Jacob Javits told the story of how his father loved Election Day because the saloon keepers would pay $2 (double a day’s wages at the time) to anyone who promised to vote Democratic.
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, a story 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, the Jewish socialists and communists left a seemingly indelible stamp on the collective political identity of American Jews.
Most Jews, though, whether out of political moderation or fear of wasting their vote on a long shot, cast their ballots for either Democrats or Republicans. And though the Republicans lost a significant number of votes in 1924 to the third party candidacy of Progressive Robert La Follette, it wasn’t until the election of 1928 that the relationship between Jews and the Democratic party became the inseparable bond that still exists nearly 75 years later.
(Continued Next Week)
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org