Why are Jews So Liberal? Pt. 23,196

In Politico, history professor Josh Zeitz (ahem) has a piece titled “No, Jews Aren’t Defecting to the GOP”. Of Nixon’s failed attempt in 1972 to peel away Jewish voters from the Democratic Party:

It didn’t work. The following month, McGovern won roughly two-thirds of the Jewish vote, according to exit polls. To be sure, the results suggested a sharp drop-off from the high levels of support—80 percent and more—that FDR (1932, 1936, 1940, 1944), Harry Truman (1948), JFK (1960), LBJ (1964) and Hubert Humphrey (1968) had enjoyed among American Jews, but they were on par with Jewish support for Adlai Stevenson (1952, 1956), Jimmy Carter (1976), Walter Mondale (1984), and Michael Dukakis (1988). In a year when McGovern carried just 31 percent of the white vote, Jews—a small but important portion of “white ethnic” America—stood out as an anomaly…

Writing in the social and political context of the 1960s, the essayist Milton Himmelfarb once famously observed, “Jews earn like Episcopalians, and vote like Puerto Ricans.”

There’s a small victory in Zeitz at least acknowledging that Jews are, very disproportionally, liberal:

The question is not so much why American Jewish support for Democrats dips from 80 percent to 60 percent in certain election cycles. Instead, the question is: Why are American Jews still white America’s most liberal voting bloc, well over a century since most of their immigrant ancestors set shore on Ellis Island?

Between 1880 and 1940, the number of Jews living in the United States grew from roughly 250,000 to over 4 million, but in proportional terms, Jews never comprised more than four percent of the population. Despite their relatively small numbers, Jews played an outsized role in the 20th century American political culture.

Social scientists agree that American Jews have been an unusually loyal, if small, segment of the liberal coalition since the 1930s, and indeed, there is a wealth of data in support of this observation. In the turbulent political atmosphere of the post-World War II era, Jewish liberalism manifested itself in a tolerance of political dissent, strong support of social welfare measures, faith in internationalism, and a commitment to dismantling legal and social barriers based on race, religion or ethnicity.

As an ethnic group, only blacks vote more consistently Democrat.

Where things get interesting is when Zeitz speculates on the deeper cause of such outsized liberalism and radicalism:

What historians don’t agree on are the causes of American Jewish liberalism. By one account, Jews have long venerated such qualities as learning, non-asceticism and charity, which translate in contemporary terms to liberalism…

Others have traced the roots of Jewish liberalism to the French Revolution, which aligned Jewish destiny with the forces of liberalism by granting Jews full rights associated with citizenship. Others, still, argue that Eastern European Jews who immigrated to the United States imported a distinct brand of East European radicalism—one mostly unrelated to Western liberalism—and that the radical politics of the working-class, largely impoverished immigrant ghetto transmuted over several generations into a moderate, liberal outlook. Still others have claimed that Jewish liberalism in its post-war context was largely a matter of self-interest, particularly as it pertained to campaigns against discrimination and prejudice.

As an example:

Regardless, Jewish culture in the years leading up to the Great Depression was rife with socialist and radical politics. Boasting a circulation of almost 150,000, the socialist newspaper, Forverts (Jewish Daily Forward), was the largest foreign-language daily in the country and captured almost 40 percent of the Yiddish print market. Edited by the skilled journalist Abraham Cahan the Forverts helped to school countless immigrants in the maze of American customs and habits while also encouraging their continued devotion to trade unionism and socialism. In effect, it made good Americans of good socialists. Aiding in this process were organizations like the Arbeiter Ring (Workman’s Circle), a fraternal society that claimed 60,000 members by 1918 and drew a large portion of its membership from former Bundists (Jewish socialists from Eastern Europe), and the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (JPFO), a liberal-left group whose membership still stood as high as 50,000 in 1950.

The result?

Growing up in this context, the sons and daughters of Jewish immigrants were raised on a diet of unionism, socialism and radicalism

In the absence of a strong socialist alternative, the bulk of first and second generation Jews began turning in the 1920s and 1930s to the Democratic Party, which, under the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt, incorporated a range of liberal welfare measures into its political agenda. Because he ushered in the modern American welfare state, but also for his unshakable opposition to worldwide fascism, Jews living in the Depression era claimed Roosevelt as their political icon. As one New Yorker later recalled of his childhood years in Brooklyn, voting was “easy because everyone was for Roosevelt. The question is, were you a Communist or were you not, a socialist or not. … Everybody of that milieu, I’d say, certainly talked about it and flirted with it one way or another.”

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