by Marc Schulman
Since the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt American Jews have been strong supporters of the Democratic Party. Jewish support for Democrats has been a mystery to many, since Jewish economic interests are more aligned with the Republican viewpoint. However, with the exception of the Orthodox, American Jews tend to have liberal social values, which are more in tune with the Democratic Party.
Jews have primarily voted for Democratic candidates since the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1914. The continued Jewish support for Democrats over the last thirty years has been perplexing. During this time, Jews have become one of the wealthiest segments of the American population. While their increased fortune should have resulted in their greater support for the Republican Party, it did not.
Jews voted overwhelmingly for Franklin D. Roosevelt starting from his first Presidential election. Jewish support for Roosevelt can be understood in terms of Jewish self-interest. Roosevelt's liberal economic programs reflected the needs and interests of the largely immigrant Jewish community. His strong internationalist position and his inimical position to the rise of Hitler in Europe found overwhelming support in the Jewish community, concerned with the plight of the relatives they left behind in Europe. By the 1950's Roosevelt was long gone. However, Jews were rapidly advancing to middle class and often beyond. Yet, the Jewish vote remained overwhelmingly Democratic. In a year when a very popular Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, won the presidential election by a landslide, Jews retained their steadfast loyalty to the Democratic Party. This Jewish vote was perceived by some to be against their own self-interest. According to scholars, here began the "paradox of the Jewish vote". Scholars asked: Why do Jews continue to vote for Democratic candidates, while others with similar backgrounds and economic standing repeatedly vote for the Republican Party?
There has been no clear answer to this question. In some regards, the situation is particularly confusing, taking into account the fact that for the last 20 years (or more), Republican candidates (with the exception of the first President Bush) have all been perceived as more supportive of Israel than many of their Democratic counterparts. There have been a number of explanations posited over the years attempting to explain Jewish voting patterns. The first explanation cites the importance of social welfare in Jewish tradition. According to this theory, values of social welfare are so entrenched in the Jewish psyche, that Jews, whatever their economic standing, identify more closely with the social welfare positions of the Democratic Party. A second theory suggests that Jews, as opposed to other groups, more stringently maintain their family traditions. In this case, the tradition is voting for Democratic candidates.
In recent years, an argument can be made that the social conservative positions of most Republican candidates have been just too conservative for most Jews. This premise also explains the increased support religious Jews (who are more culturally conservative and often have greater connection to Israel) have given to the Republican Party. However, I believe another factor is at work determining Jewish voting in America. There is a sense among American Jews that the Republican Party is the party of exclusion. While Republican candidates are not anti-Semitic, the Republican Party has the veneer of being a party of anti-Semites. Furthermore, Jews consider the strict separation of State and religion sacrosanct. Separation of Church and State is a founding value that has made America different from any other country. It is separation of Church and State that has limited anti-Semitism to the fringes. The Republican position over the past two decades has been to decry that separation. In some cases Republican candidates have claimed the very idea of that separation is a misinterpretation of the Constitution. To Jews, separation of Church and State has been the major barrier against anti-Semitism in America. Therefore, the Republican party's more recent assault on that separation, combined with the earlier perception of Republicans as being "exclusionary, country club members", has made it difficult for Jews to support the Republican Party.