The Jewish Vote

Seeking the party of the outs.

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Social Welfare Policies

A third theme is 20th-century Jewish reaction to the social welfare policies of the federal government. In the 19th century, the major parties--Democrats, Re­publicans, Whigs, and Federalists--all supported only a very limited role for the na­tional government in steering the economy and in providing income support, welfare, medical care, and other services for America's citizenry. When this consensus was broken in the 1930s by Roosevelt's New Deal policies, the American Jewish commu­nity was a poor and working-class community, a community that was in most need of government assistance to weather the economic storm.

After World War II, when the community became one of the wealthier subgroups in the population, Jews main­tained their support for the welfare state. Whether this support stemmed from classi­cal rabbinical notions of social justice or from historical memory is beyond the scope of this chapter. Whatever the root cause for these attitudes, the Democratic Party has been the beneficiary over the last 70 years.

Minority Status

The final thread may be the most significant. Throughout the Jewish sojourn in America, the Jews have been a people who have always remained most cognizant of their minority status. Despite the relatively low levels of anti-Semitism in American society, de­spite the elimination of nearly all economic and social barriers against Jews in the late 20th century, Jews have consistently viewed themselves as part of an out-group in American society. In many ways, despite historically high levels of assimilation, Jews are the one white ethnic group least susceptible to assimilation in the larger culture.

At the same time, the Democratic Party has been the party of the "outs" throughout its over-200 years of history. In the early 19th century, this meant that the party supported the then-radical notion that all white males were entitled to political equality--even Irish, German, and Jewish immigrants. In the late 20th century this circle expanded to include women and racial minorities. In contrast, the Federalist, Whig, and later Republican parties have had more significant nativist sentiment within their ranks.

Democratic Party notions of political equality have not always helped with the Jewish vote. Clearly, the long Irish domination of northern urban Democratic Party machinery caused resentment among other immigrant groups, including Jews. Some Jews supported the institution of slavery up to and during the Civil War. But during the conflict, the South's unrepentant support for "the peculiar institution" hurt the Democrats for a gen­eration among the vast majority of American Jews, who had fled Germany after the failures of the democratic revolutions of the 1840s.

Even more recently, Democratic Party identi­fication with some black political leaders (e.g., Reverend Jesse Jackson) who used anti-Semitic rhetoric also damaged the party with some Jewish voters in the 1970s and 1980s.

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Ira N. Forman

Ira N. Forman is the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council and the research director of the Solomon Project.