Are We Moving to the Right?

A historical look at the trends of conservative Jewish voters.

Print this page Print this page

In one of the funnier--but more absurd--appeals for the Jewish vote in 2008, the trash-talking comedienne Sarah Silverman recorded a video for TheGreatSchlep.com, a website urging young Jews to lobby their grandparents in Florida to vote for Barack Obama.

In her direct, conversational style Silverman riffed: "And I know you're saying, like, 'Oh my god, Sarah, I can't believe you're saying this. Jews are the most liberal, scrappy, civil rights-y people there are.' Yes, that's true, but you're forgetting a whole large group of Jews that are not that way, and they go by several aliases: nana, papa, zayde, bubbie, plain old grandma and grandpa." 

As more than a million viewers watched the video on YouTube, and as moralists lamented the crass ethnic appeal, political analysts questioned the central assumption. While Jewish voting studies are unreliable, considering the statistically insignificant number of Jews in most samples polling the American population, most anaylses suggest that zayde and bubbie vote Democratic far more reliably than their grandchildren.

Jews as New Deal Democrats

Although Jews generally voted Republican from the Civil War through the Great Depression, most Jews became loyal Democrats thanks to Franklin Roosevelt and his sweeping reforms. For decades thereafter, many Jews and non-Jews considered American Judaism and American liberalism mutually reinforcing ideologies.

Even today, the Urban Dictionary, the web's street-savvy guide to slang, defines Jewish Republicans as people "who considers themselves to be Jewish but [are] ignorant of Jewish values, common sense, and/or the platforms, actions and reputations of the two major American political parties."

These days the Urban Dictionary definition is anachronistic. Since the 1980s, the number of Jewish Republicans has grown significantly. They are a minority in the Jewish community, which remains overwhelmingly Democratic, but Jewish Republicans are no longer merely an anomaly or a punch line.

The Neoconservative Backlash

Like so much of American politics today, the Jewish Republicans are the product of the Reagan Revolution--and a reaction to the 1960s' politics and culture. While many Jews, from the radical political activist Abbie Hoffman to the feminist Betty Friedan, helped shape the 1960s, other Jews helped forge the backlash.

Most prominently, the "neoconservatives" were a loose collection of disproportionately--but not exclusively--Jewish intellectuals who moved right with the country. Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Ben Wattenberg, and Gertrude Himmelfarb, among others, recoiled from the New Left's politics and sensibilities. Street crime, Black Power, Affirmative Action, hippie libertinism, radical anti-Americanism, and a perceived appeasement of Soviet Communism alienated these thinkers from the Left, as did the spread of liberal anti-Zionism.

Just as their Jewish identities once reinforced their liberalism, they abandoned the Democrats and supported Reagan as Americans and as Jews. 

These "neocons," as they were known, struck a particular chord in the 1980 election, when a surprising 38% of the Jewish community voted for the Republican candidate Ronald Reagan. The incumbent Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, often seemed  insensitive to Jewish concerns, despite successfully negotiating the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty at Camp David.

Nevertheless, the much-predicted Jewish voting realignment never occurred. In Reagan's 1984 reelection, Jews joined with African-Americans as one of the few groups still voting majority Democratic during a Republican landslide. Even as many Jews prospered during the great booms from 1980 through 2008, Milton Himmelfarb's classic if ethnically reductionist truism from the 1970s still held: Jews earned like Episcopalians, but voted like Puerto Ricans.

Jews still remain liberal -- with some exceptions

Since Reagan's presidency, the Jewish vote has remained overwhelmingly Democratic, and Jews have remained far more liberal than other Americans. The nonpartisan American Jewish Committee's 2008 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion showed 44% of respondents placing themselves left of center on the political scale, 24% right of center and 30% calling themselves middle of the road. More dramatically, 56% of Jews surveyed called themselves Democrats, 17% called themselves Republicans and 25% were independent.

Still, unlike in the 1960s, there are many prominent Jewish Republicans and, as in 2008, the Jewish vote has appeared to be in play more frequently. Contrary to Sarah Silverman's stereotype, older Jews have remained reliably Democratic--although many more Jews supported Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries.

A growing percentage of intermarriage has also altered voting patterns. Younger Jews with intermarried parents, or those who intermarry, have proven to be more independent and less reliability Democratic. This might reflect the 18 to 34 set's aversion to party loyalty in general  It also may be that in growing up with a diluted American Jewish identity, these youngsters ended up drifting from the traditional liberal mindset of Jewish voters. As Steve Windmuller has written, Jews with one non-Jewish parent tend to vote Republican more often than other Jews.

2004 election leads to questions about Jewish Divide

The more dramatic surge in Republican voting among Jews has come from the Orthodox community.  Although surveys estimate the percentage of Orthodox Jews hovering between 10 and 20 % of American Jewry, the Orthodox community, unsurprisingly tends to be more united, more pro-Israel and more focused on Jewish concerns. In the 2004 election battle, George W. Bush won 25% of the Jewish vote. Close analysis of the vote uncovered a disturbing polarization within the Jewish community.

Jews who were more traditional and more pro-Israel were starting to vote Republican rather consistently. At the same time, the growing majority of secular Jews remained committed to the Democratic Party. Paralleling the often-overplayed "Red State" versus "Blue State" phenomenon, it seemed that we could start talking about "Red Jews" and "Blue Jews"--not in geographical terms but in ideological terms.

The 2008 election continued this pattern. John McCain has a long record of enthusiastic, effective support for Israel. But in the campaign against Barack Obama, McCain's support among Jews only peaked at 31% --and was as low as 22 % in the October 2008 Gallup Poll. McCain's most vocal Jewish supporters tended to be more unwavering in their support of Israeli policy, and his broadest range of support was in traditional communities.

Many of Obama's most prominent Jewish supporters, including Dennis Ross and Daniel Kurtzer, championed Israeli policies that took a softer line with the Palestinians. And quite a number of statements by Jews supporting Obama mentioned Obama's pro-choice position, especially after John McCain chose Sarah Palin as a running mate. 

When the stock market crashed, Jews joined most Americans in focusing their concern on the economy, rather than foreign policy concerns about Israel, Iran, and Iraq. In the 2008 election, as in the 1992 election, Americans focused most on "The economy, stupid," And many Jews supported Obama's proposed reforms.

Still, the common worry about the economy did not hide the growing polarization within the community. A wide range of opinions is natural in a community as diverse and disputatious as the Jewish community. But if voting patterns continue to reinforce the growing gap between traditional and non-traditional Jews, it will be harder to maintain the civility and common sense of purpose the community needs to thrive.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Gil Troy

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington DC. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.