Commentary Magazine

Are American Jews Still Liberal?

American Politics has been steadily taking a more conservative turn. Have American Jews been carried along, or have they remained largely fixed in their liberal cast?

Certainly there is no shortage of evidence showing that Jews have retained all their traditional allegiances. The most telling indicator, from exit polls in national elections, is that they continue to vote in overwhelming numbers for the Democratic party. In the eight most recent congressional elections, according to a New York Times analysis, an average of 74 percent of Jewish voters pulled the lever for Democratic candidates. (The corresponding figure for the electorate at large was 53 percent.) The disparity was even more pronounced in the watershed November 1994 congressional elections that for the first time in decades brought both houses of Congress under Republican control.

To be sure, the voting picture is somewhat more diffuse than this. In every presidential election since 1972, the Democratic party has consistently received the support of well over half of Jewish voters, but within that range the numbers have fluctuated, depending on particular candidates and particular issues. In recent years, moreover, observers have detected signs of movement within certain Jewish subgroups—the religiously observant tend to vote Republican in higher numbers than do secular Jews, for example, and the same goes for younger Jews as opposed to older Jews. Still, these are only minor variations on a major theme.

Yet what Jews have been doing at the ballot box is itself only part of a story that has been growing more complex. Specifically, when we look not at Jewish voting behavior but at Jewish opinion, a more nuanced picture begins to manifest itself. One dramatic recent instance of this is a 1995 study of Jews living in Northern California, one of the most politically liberal regions in the United States. The respondents to this survey, which was commissioned by the local Jewish Community Relations Council, were a random sampling of 900 men and women who contribute to the Jewish Federation of San Francisco and its affiliated branches. What the survey reveals is the existence of a split within American Jewry—so far partial and tentative, but perhaps indicative of things to come.



The San Francisco-area survey asked respondents to characterize their own political orientation. Unremarkably enough, a mere 10 percent described themselves as “conservative,” while 41 percent chose “liberal,” and the remaining 43 percent opted for “moderate.” It is the last-named who turn out to be the most interesting. Whereas both liberals and conservatives express opinions largely in correspondence with their political self-designations, on at least some issues the moderates hold views that place them far more deeply in the conservative than in the liberal camp.

Consider, for example, attitudes toward the size of government, an issue that serves as something of a polarizing compass on the Left Right scale of American politics. Predictably, only 24 percent of liberals in the San Francisco survey express a preference for reducing the size of government, as opposed to 88 percent of conservatives. But the moderates, it turns out, are solidly on the conservative side, with 72 percent in favor of scaling back government.

The same pattern appears with respect to crime. Concerning “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” laws for repeat felons, fewer than half the liberals are in favor, as against 92 percent of conservatives—and approximately three-quarters of the moderates. Even where conservatives and moderates diverge, as they do on the death penalty, more moderates side with the conservatives than with the liberals. This means that on most law-and-order issues, the majority of Jews usually end up on the conservative side.

Similar findings emerge in other areas. A majority of respondents agree, for example, that affirmative action “has gone too far” and are opposed to “preferential treatment” (although, like most Americans, they support “outreach” programs). When it comes to such contested issues as welfare reform and environmental protection (the latter especially sensitive in California), there is no such majority, but the conservative position still wins hefty minorities of 30 to 40 percent.



Of course that is far from the whole picture. In fact, on another and arguably more salient set of social issues the pattern is dramatically reversed. These are the issues traditionally perceived as affecting the security and the status of American Jews, and they include anti-Semitism, immigration, church-state relations, and the question of Christian domination. Here, liberals, moderates, and even conservatives are remarkably close.

For example, 69 percent of liberals and 68 percent of moderates in the San Francisco-area survey believe that anti-Semitism remains a serious problem in the United States; what is more, 60 percent of conservatives concur. When it comes to illegal immigration, a larger difference exists between liberals and conservatives, but the moderates lean toward the liberal position. Although a voucher program that provided government assistance to private religious schools would help many Jewish parents enroll their children in Jewish schools, among moderates and liberals approximately four-fifths oppose such government aid, as do approximately half of even the self-styled conservatives. On these issues, in short, the tendency is to fall heavily on the liberal side.

Particularly striking is that about nine-tenths of liberals, three-quarters of moderates, and two-thirds of conservatives in the survey express alarm over the role of evangelical Christians in politics. Much of the intensity of Jewish opinion on this issue undoubtedly stems from fear of anti-Semitism, a fear that persists despite the fact that it rests partly on a fallacy. Although Jews have regularly rated Christian fundamentalists as the American group most inimical to them, in one of the most comprehensive studies of recent years1 no discernible difference on the standard index of anti-Semitic beliefs was noted between fundamentalists and other Christians (or, for that matter, between Democrats and Republicans). But Jews are also actuated by the publicized remarks of some fundamentalist leaders and the political figures who cater to them (such as Patrick J. Buchanan, who recently commented to the Christian Coalition that “we have God’s own word on how America can be healed again”). Even nonsecular Jews tend to see such remarks through the prism of their security-based concerns about sectarianism and “Christianization.”

Such concerns are mirrored as well in the high percentages of Jews registering “pro-choice” attitudes. In the San Francisco-area study, over 90 percent voiced approval of the proposition that “Women should be able to have abortions without restriction,” with little difference among liberals, moderates, and conservatives. (Oddly, the survey included no question about homosexuality.) A generally permissive attitude toward sexual matters undoubtedly accounts for some of this overwhelming result, but it would be a mistake to underrate the part played by concern about attempts on the part of Christian fundamentalists to impose a religious cast on American society and government policies.



If, then, the question is why Jews vote Democratic, the active and visible presence of Christian fundamentalists within the Republican party is surely one factor. Nor is it the only one. Lurking behind the particular objections Jews may have to this or that aspect of the conservative program is the history of the Republican party itself. In the first half of this century, the party was resolutely nativist and anti-immigrant. Then, as Nazi Germany threatened the peace and security of the world, the party held fast to its isolationist stance, which at the margins was not untainted by anti-Semitism. The American Jewish electorate appears to have a long memory for such things.

Over time, perhaps, this may change, in response not only to the vast transformations that have taken place among Republicans in the intervening decades but also to the increasingly visible rift between the Democratic party’s redistributionist inclinations and the interests of the Jews as one of America’s most affluent and successful groups. For the moment, though, security issues—rightly or wrongly perceived—still seem to prevail for many Jews over pocketbook interests; the more affluent respondents in the San Francisco-area survey do not differ significantly in their attitudes from the less affluent.

And so, if the past is any guide, there will continue to be much truth in the notion that if you scratch an American Jew, you will find a Democratic voter. The complicating news today is that if you scratch somewhat deeper, you will not always find a liberal.


1 The study, conducted for the Anti-Defamation League by the polling firm of Marttila & Kiley, was published in November 1992.

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