Jews Are Still Liberal

Eric Alterman examines why American Jewish conservatives continually yet wrongly surmise that Jews are moving to the right.

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Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) listens to Israel's President Shimon Peres, not seen, during a 2008 meeting in Jerusalem. Obama's election roused questions among conservative Jews about why Jews tend to vote for liberal candidates and whether that trend will continue in 2012.
  (AP/Baz Ratner)
Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) listens to Israel's President Shimon Peres, not seen, during a 2008 meeting in Jerusalem. Obama's election roused questions among conservative Jews about why Jews tend to vote for liberal candidates and whether that trend will continue in 2012.   (AP/Baz Ratner)

The fact that since the New Deal, Jews have “earned like Episcopalians” and “voted like Puerto Ricans” has long been a source of anger and confusion to American Jewish conservatives. But these conservatives are a hopeful bunch. No matter how discouraging the evidence appears to be, their hope springs eternal that their profound minority status is about to end.

It’s been going on now for nearly half a century. Back in 1967 regular Commentary magazine contributor Milton Himmelfarb asked the question, “Are Jews Still Liberals?” “Yes” was his regretful reply. Next came Himmelfarb’s brother-in-law, Irving Kristol—in the wake of former President Richard Nixon’s landslide re-election over George McGovern—who again predicted in April 1973 a move to the right in Jewish politics. “This is not a temporary phenomenon,” Kristol said. “Jewish politics in the decades to come are going to be very different from what Jewish politics have been in the past century and a half.” Then Himmelfarb returned in 1981—after former President Jimmy Carter only received about two-thirds of the Jewish vote against President-elect Ronald Reagan—with the hopeful inquiry, “Are Jews Becoming Republican?” Again the answer was not so much.

It went on like this year after year. The predictions came, but the results never did. In 2008, former Commentary editor-in-chief Norman Podhoretz got a bit huffy about the whole thing, demanding to know in book-length form, “Why Are Jews Liberals?” The onset of the Obama administration has inspired a veritable flood of such articles, and not only by hopeful conservatives. The New York Times’s Charles M. Blow has tried and failed to make the case that Jews would become more conservative at least twice before giving up.

Even so, despite all the competition, by far the funniest entry into this particular sweepstakes has to be conservative commentator Michael Medved’s contribution to The Daily Beast, in which he argues that Jews might turn out to be surprisingly conservative this year because—wait for it—they love Mormons.

Medved’s musings—it’s really too much to call them an actual argument—begin as follows: The fact that Mormonism makes a candidate “less popular among evangelical Christians almost certainly makes him or her more popular among American Jews.” Really? My guess is that evangelicals do not enjoy stepping in dog droppings or having birds relieve themselves in their hair. Does that make dog and bird poop more popular among American Jews? The implication that Jews will reflexively approve of something because evangelicals disapprove of it is stupid, insulting, and has no basis in any available evidence.

Undeterred, Medved then explains that, “Academic analysis of the intersection of religion and politics suggests that Jews maintain a distinctly—and surprisingly—favorable view of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Oddly, he does not cite any of the data available in any of these analyses, and I can testify that in my 52 years, both as a Jew and an academic, not one other Jew has ever mentioned to me a “favorable” view of Mormonism—which, by the way, does not allow anyone with an ounce of African American blood to join their ranks and continues to refuse to allow women to serve in high church offices. (And I have certainly never heard of the allegedly “frequent” incidence of Jews and Mormons spending their time “laugh[ing] together at [Jews’] common use of the word ‘gentiles’ to describe the multitudes outside our minority religious communities.”)

The only academic study to which Medved does refer is actually just a Wall Street Journal op-ed article by professors David E. Campbell of Notre Dame and Robert D. Putnam of Harvard, describing their study focusing on public attitudes toward different religious groups. The aforementioned Jewish affection for Mormons, they say, exists only in relation to everybody else who likes Mormons pretty much less than any other religious group, excluding perhaps only atheists.

But again, we get no numbers, no data. Instead we get Medved’s complaint:

Jewish participants gave evangelicals an even lower rating than they gave to Muslims. For those who like to think of Jews as savvy and insightful about our self-interest, it’s tough to explain why we offer less approval to a faith community that overwhelmingly wants to support us than we do to a religious tradition that has spawned tens of millions of angry adherents who say openly that they want to kill us.

The same might have been said of Christianity itself not so long ago.

But as Ed Kilgore notes in The Washington Monthly, despite all these predictions the Jewish vote has been reasonably stable for decades now, and it remains as liberal as any American ethnic group, save blacks, with a Democratic advantage that typically trends from 2-to-1 to 3-to-1. In the 2010 midterm election—a historic Republican landslide—Jews stuck with Democrats by a 66 percent to 31 percent margin.

One reason that so many of these conservatives fail to understand the nature of the Jewish vote is that they mistakenly connect it to a hardline conservative policy regarding Israel, which is not widely shared among actual American Jews. In fact, a recent in-depth survey of American Jews, conducted by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute in Washington found that only 4 percent of poll respondents listed Israel as the most important issue for them in the upcoming election, with another 5 percent ranking it second.

According to the institute’s data, the “core values” of self-identified American Jews are as follows:

[N]early half (46 percent) of American Jews cite a commitment to social equality, twice as many as cite support for Israel (20 percent) or religious observance (17 percent). Fewer than 1-in-10 say that a sense of cultural heritage and tradition (6 percent) or a general set of values (3 percent) are most important to their Jewish identity.

And as for their “issue priorities”:

  • Fifty-one percent report the economy would be the most important issue to their vote.
  • Fifteen percent cite the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and about 1 in 10 report that health care and the federal deficit (10 percent and 7 percent, respectively) are the most important issues to their vote this year.
  • Other issues that fall at the bottom of the priority list are national security (4 percent), Israel (4 percent), Iran (2 percent), the environment (1 percent) immigration (1 percent), same-sex marriage (1 percent), and abortion (1 percent).

Conservatives, it turns out, have very little to offer most American Jews today, even less than in the past. Regarding key social and cultural issues, conservatives’ beliefs regarding reproductive rights, immigration, or equal rights for gay and transgender people are all anathema to most Jews; so too is their desire to tear down the wall that America’s founders purposely constructed between politics and official religion.

Economically speaking we see the same story. According to the data:

81 percent of respondents supported the Buffett Rule for increasing taxes on millionaires. Nearly three-fourths agreed with the statement that the American economic system "unfairly favors the wealthy." A majority of those with household incomes over $125,000 a year said they’d be willing to pay more taxes to support programs for the poor.

And according to previous surveys, most Jews do not even support a hard-line conservative policy vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinians. In 2010 the pro-peace, pro-Israel group J Street conducted a poll and found that 71 percent of American Jews who were questioned supported the United States “exerting pressure” on all parties in the Palestinian conflict, including Israel. A clear majority also supported the belief that an American administration should publicly disagree with the Israeli government when it felt it had a different view.

The best question to ask about Jews and politics is: Why is this question so important to so many people? Jews make up a tiny percentage of the American population—barely 2 percent—and are not significantly concentrated in any one location to swing even a single state’s electoral votes. Of course Jews are prodigious fundraisers and contributors to political campaigns. And conspiracy theories notwithstanding, they are also quite healthily represented in the media.

My guess is that the neoconservatives and others who continue to peddle this nonsensical “Are Jews becoming conservative?” line are probably smart enough to know how silly it is. What they are really seeking is a media narrative that gives cover to those Jewish conservatives who fund candidates and organizations with policies that are fundamentally rejected by the vast number of American Jews. If they do their job well enough, they can even get liberal Jews to fund such candidates and organizations to work against their own values and policy preferences.

Well, it’s a free country. They can keep trying.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His newest book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.

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Eric Alterman

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