When I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, the city probably had more Native Americans than Black people. I was aware of the Civil Rights Movement from broadcasts of angry white police raining down truncheons on peaceful Black demonstrators, but a family vacation to Kansas City, sometime in the 1960s, was the first time I came face to face with large numbers of Black people.
As an inquisitive boy, I naturally asked my father what I thought was a simple question: Why do so many white people hate Black people? There was no such prejudice evident in my home and I couldn’t understand where it came from.
My father paused for a few moments while formulating an answer. He admitted he didn’t know why there was so much racial bigotry among white people. But, he told me with a conviction later reinforced by social surveys, those who hated Black people usually hated Jews, too.
As a Jew, a child of Holocaust survivors, and grandchild of Holocaust victims, that was all I needed to know to determine where I stood in politics. I felt a kinship with Black people based on our common discrimination and knew that I inherited a responsibility to support racial justice.
This sensibility was not tied to partisanship at the time. My father was a Republican, largely because of business issues, but held decidedly un-Republican views about such things as national health insurance and public transportation. He supported both because they were business-friendly policies to keep workers healthy and enable them to get to their jobs. Following an almost ironclad law of political science that young children inherit partisanship from their parents, I was a Republican as late as the 1964 election, when Barry Goldwater was the GOP presidential nominee. I was the only Republican among my Jewish friends.
I only realized years later that my social identity as a Jew led me in time to reject the GOP and embrace the Democratic Party. My liberalism flowered, even while I attended a conservative state university. As Southern segregationists began to flee the Democratic Party in the 1970s, I felt more and more at home in my party. Even when I realized the imperfections in my simple syllogism about Jews and Black people — discovering Jews who hated blacks and blacks who trafficked in antisemitism — my political sympathies remained on the left.
In social scientific terms, I developed a positive valence toward Democrats and liberals that connected with my identity as a Jew, and I also developed a feeling of kinship to fellow Jews. Just as political science theories would predict, the two lines of attraction generated the third side of a triangle, linking my personal attachment to Jews with my good feelings toward liberal politics and the Democratic party. As experimental research demonstrates, social identity enhances positive attitudes to an in-group and often promotes negative feelings toward competing groups. In my case, identifying as a Jew and a Democrat stimulated an adverse reaction to the GOP.
I only realized years later that my social identity as a Jew led me in time to reject the GOP and embrace the Democratic Party. My liberalism flowered, even while I attended a conservative state university.
Although directed at different objects, social identity is central to explaining the political behavior of American Jews today. In Foundations of American Jewish Liberalism, winner of the 2019 National Jewish Book Award in American Jewish Studies, I try to solve three puzzles: Why are Jews, an affluent group who should theoretically be attracted to Republican economic policies, still so disproportionately attached to the Democratic Party? Why are American Jews the only diaspora community that is still predominantly on the left side of its country’s political spectrum? Finally, why does the liberalism/Democratic attachment of Jews, strong as it is, sometimes waver and then recover?
To make a complicated argument simple, I argue that American Jews are liberals because they are American Jews. That is, they live in a society that does not define citizenship officially in terms of race or ethnicity. Their political system, in sharp distinction to many countries where Jews live, tends to uphold the principle that the state should neither confer benefits nor costs based on traits like race, religion, or national origin. This perception of a secular state based on equal treatment without regard to extraneous traits is the essence of classical liberalism. It has been, I argue, the foundation of the American Jewish political culture since the founding of the United States in the late 18th century.
American Jews were liberals before they became Democrats. Their “conversion” to the party, which began almost a century ago in the late 1920s, was driven largely by economic concerns stimulated by the Great Depression. So why does this belief in classical liberalism manifest itself today as support for the Democratic Party?
The tumult of the 1960s and 1970s weakened Democratic partisanship among Jews, as it did for the other components of what was known as the New Deal Coalition: trade unionists, Roman Catholics, blue collar workers, and white Southerners. For many Jews at the time, even those committed to equal opportunity, the Democrats’ commitment to Affirmative Action appeared to violate traditional liberal principles, by apportioning government benefits and burdens based on race.
Unlike the other four groups, which remained permanently estranged, Jews returned in large numbers to the Democratic Party in the mid- to late-1980s. They gave its presidential nominees an average of eighty percent of their two-party vote in the five elections between 1992 and 2008.
The pro-Democratic surge among Jews in the late 1980s had multiple causes, but it developed as Jews identified a new and more potent threat to the secular state of classic liberalism. The mobilization of politically conservative Christians by evangelical groups, like Moral Majority and Christian Coalition, struck them as dangerous to Jewish interests and norms.
Many Evangelical Protestants pushed policies to promote organized prayer in public schools, to make tax-supported grants to faith-based social services with missionary aims, and to oppose abortion and gay marriage on theological grounds. Jews considered these initiatives contrary to the principle that the state should be neutral in all matters of religious faith. The perceived dangers grew more ominous when Evangelicals became the core of the contemporary Republican Party and, in turn, the GOP became the instrument to achieve their aims. The new base prompted leading Republicans to resuscitate the long-dormant concept of the United States as a Christian nation.
The Jewish reaction follows a script laid out by social identity theory, developing (or reinforcing) cognitive ties between the components of self — Jewish group membership — and support for a political party which Jews saw as a reliable guarantor of a secular state from threats by politicized evangelical Protestants and their Republican allies. Anyone who observes the policies of President Trump, surrounded by a coterie of Evangelical pastors who promote a Christian nation platform, will not be surprised that Jews remain firmly planted around the liberal/Democratic pole of the partisan spectrum.
Of course, not all Jews develop this type of social identity nor its political coloration. Most Jews who immigrated as adults from the former Soviet Union after 1989 and the Orthodox sub-communities have largely aligned with the GOP. The former are driven mostly by admiration for Ronald Reagan’s role in ending communism in Russia, the latter by a mix of hawkish pro-Israel sentiments and conservative social values. But these remain relatively small factors and the children of the post-1989 Russian emigration have increasingly come to resemble their American-born coreligionists in political matters.
When he wrote that politics is about “who hates who,” Kevin Phillips may have spoken too broadly, but the nub of the idea is sound: political choices are driven, in part, by negative feelings to groups that are believed to threaten the interests or values of the groups with which we identify personally. In the case of Jews, the drift to Republicanism in the 1970s and early 1980s was arrested and reversed by the emergence of a newly empowered group who challenged the enduring American Jewish political culture rooted in classical liberalism.
Kenneth D. Wald is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science and the Samuel Shorstein Professor Emeritus of American Jewish Culture and Society at the University of Florida. His books include Religion and Politics in the United States (8th ed.) and The Politics of Cultural Differences: Social Change and Voter Mobilization Strategies in the Post-New Deal Period. He is currently working on a memoir about the impact of the Holocaust on three generations of his family.