Reprinted with permission from an essay entitled “The Politics of Minority Consciousness: The Historical Voting Behavior of American Jews,” which appeared in Jews in American Politics (Rowman & Littlefield), edited by L. Sandy Maisel and Ira N. Forman.
A Brief Summary
• From the 1790s through the 1820s, the small Jewish community of the United States supported mostly Jeffersonian Democrats.
• In the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s the majority of a community that was swelling with German immigrants probably gave its allegiance to the Jacksonian Democrats.
• From the Civil War to the Free Silver campaign of 1896, many northern Jews switched their allegiance tothe new Republican Party, while southern Jews, and many of the newer immigrants (especially in New York), voted Democratic.
• During the period of massive Eastern European Jewish immigration, 1890 to 1930, the Jewish vote was split between the two major parties and the Socialists.
• Since 1930, the Jewish community has been a solidly Democratic constituency at the national and state levels of government.
This is a much more complicated picture than just saying that Jews have always been Democrats or that Jews have always been liberal. In fact, “Democrat” and “liberal” have not always been synonymous in American history.
So what do these voting patterns imply?
First, the same issues that non-Jewish voters responded to often swayed Jewish voters. The sectional divisions that characterized American politics from the Civil War until the end of the century also divided Midwestern Jewish Republicans from southern Jewish Democrats. In the same way, the wealthy Jews of New York who had financed the Democratic Party in the age of Tilden and Cleveland were quick to abandon the national Democratic Party when it took up the standard of inflationary Free Silver, just as Wall Street abandoned the Democrats of 1896.
Nonetheless, the often distinctive partisan voting pattern of Jewish voters (as compared to their non-Jewish neighbors of similar socioeconomic backgrounds) leads one to speculate as to the particular motivation of this one ethnoreligious group. Obviously no single factor explains 200 years of Jewish voting behavior, but a number of distinct patterns emerge.
For 200 years, the issue of church-state separation and strict limits on the degree to which government should involve itself in moral matters have generated great support from American Jewish voters. Similarly, for 200 years, one of the two major political parties has usually been more willing for government to legislate on “moral” questions, and one major party has been more libertarian in this regard. The impulse to accept a more puritanical role for government was, until the last part of the 20th century, more pronounced in New England and in areas of the nation settled by New Englanders.
In post-revolutionary America, the Democratic-Republicans were on the side of church-state separation, and the Federalists were more likely to support church establishment, blue laws, and religious tests for voting. In the Jacksonian era, the Whigs, rather than the Democrats, were more likely to push for blue laws and were more sympathetic to the temperance movement. In post-Civil War America, the GOP was dominant in New England and the Upper Midwest, and Republicans, too, adopted the Whig’s worldview.
In many cities at the turn of the century, it was the WASP, mugwump, clean-government types (often Republicans) who opposed ethnic-dominated machines. On the issue of municipal reform, they could appeal to Jewish voters. But when these same reformers pushed for enforcement of Sunday closings, they lost their Jewish immigrant constituency.
In the 20th century, this pattern continued, despite the fact that Democrats abandoned their libertarian impulses with regard to government’s support for the social welfare state. Prayer in school was supported at midcentury by Democrats in the South as well as by the majority of Republicans. However, by the end of the century, the Christian Right had made school prayer an almost exclusively Republican issue. Moreover, late 20th-century Republican opposition to such issues as abortion rights also made Jewish support for the party problematic.
Looking Out for Other Jews
A second thread throughout American history is Jewish concern over the fate of their co-religionists abroad. Neither Democrats, nor Whigs, nor Republicans were consistently on the right side of this issue. In antebellum America, Jews both rewarded the Democrats for Van Buren’s protest of the Damascus blood libel [in which several Syrian Jews were tortured in 1840 following accusations that they ritually slaughtered a monk] and punished Buchanan’s Democrats for the president’s refusal to criticize the pope in the Mortara affair [when papal police in 1858 kidnapped a Jewish boy who had been baptized by a household servant].
Post-Civil War Republican presidents won praise from Jews for criticizing Romanian or czarist anti-Semitism. But when President Taft opposed an attempt to abrogate a discriminatory Russian trade treaty, he paid a price in Jewish votes during his reelection campaign.
In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt’s increasing antagonism toward Hitler’s Germany created a loud uproar among isolationists in both parties. Yet, the lasting impression among American Jews was the contrast between Democratic antifascism and clear internationalism and Republican intransigent isolationism.
Support for or criticism of Israel has, of course, influenced Jewish voters. Truman’s quick recognition of the Jewish state brought benefits to the Democrats in 1948. Eisenhower seemed not to have been hurt by his pressure on the Israelis in the 1956 Suez crisis, but the same cannot be said for Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980 or Republican George H. W. Bush in 1992.
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.
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.
However, throughout most decades, Democrats seemed the most welcoming of political institutions for Jews. Jeffersonian Democrats opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts and welcomed Jews into their institutions, such as Tammany Hall. Jacksonian Democrats welcomed the Irish, the Germans, and the German Jews, while prejudice against immigrants within the Whig Party often plagued more tolerant Whigs, such as New York’s Governor Seward. Upstate New York Republican legislators refused for years to pass legislation protecting Jews from discriminatory practices at resorts and hotels, but the Tammany-dominated Democratic Party passed such legislation as soon as it took control of the New York state legislature in 1913.
Democrat Woodrow Wilson vetoed restrictions on immigration. Republican Warren Harding signed into law legislation all but ending Eastern European immigration. Democrats Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt appointed many more Jews to prominent federal office than their GOP predecessors. By the 1960s, the Democrats were the party of civil rights, and that policy matched the prevailing sentiments within the Jewish community.
The Jewish historian Arthur Hertzberg has written profoundly of the peculiarly secular, nonreligious nature of American Jewish culture throughout American history. This secularism, he claims, combined with a stubborn loyalty to Jewish outsider status, has worked to shape the Jewish community’s political behavior–most often, but not always, pushing the community into the Democratic Party coalition.
Perhaps the recent trend toward increased religious observance and an ethnic pride among the segment of Jewry that is least likely to assimilate will change this political dynamic–at the same time lessening the support for church-state separation and lessening the need to cling to the party of the “outs.” But until such change or some other unforeseen dramatic change manifests itself, American Jewry will remain an integral part of the Democratic Party coalition.