An intriguing question, raised with increasing frequency during the presidency of Barack Obama and addressed in depth by a 2009 symposium* timed to coincide with the publication of Why Are Jews Liberals?, by Norman Podhoretz. Several of the contributors focused upon the history of Jewish affiliations with the political left in Europe – after all, Marx himself (the ultimate leftist), like Trotsky and many other high-profile communists, was born a Jew, and the Nazis rationalized their war against the Jews by claiming that most Jews were communists. The merits of that approach are debatable, but what seems beyond dispute is that most Jews, then or now, would rather be thought democrats, progressives, leftists, socialists, or communists than nazis – if those were the only options. (The term “liberal” is avoided here, as it can reasonably be claimed by both progressives and conservatives.) Here is a different perspective.
Most of the ideological markers that separate Democrats from Republicans in 2013 America were put into place during the 1980 Presidential-election contest, mostly as a result of Ronald Reagan’s unusually ideological campaign, in which he imprinted the Republican Party with a conservative stamp that is still very much present – if not necessarily dominant – today. On the other hand, the pattern of America’s Jews voting for Democrats had been put into place long before the 1980 campaign and was not ended by that campaign. Let us go way back in time.
The Republican Presidential candidate received 45% of the Jewish vote in 1916, 43% in 1920, 27% in 1924, and 28% in 1928. In other words, prior to the Great Depression, Jews tended to vote for Democrats – though not by overwhelming margins. But Jews favored Franklin D. Roosevelt in the seminal 1932 election by a whopping 82% to 18% – and have tended to vote for Democrats ever since. **
The appeal of FDR in ’32, for the Jews, was the same as it was for other voters: FDR was an attractive and credible candidate; he promised an activist government that would act aggressively to end the Depression; and he was not the incumbent – a key factor, given that we were 3 years into the Great Depression. Not only that, FDR pretty much wrote the book on what has become the Democrats’ permanent strategy of appealing to organized labor and pandering to America’s needy, its minorities (especially blacks and Jews), and others who may see themselves as “have-nots.” Like President Barack Obama, FDR was a master in the strategy of class warfare in their supposed behalf. Like Obama, FDR strove to be attractive to the “underdog,” and of course the Jews have been history’s permanent scapegoat. Except for those factors, FDR’s agenda for 1932 was scarcely distinguishable from that of his opponent, the incumbent President Herbert Hoover. Indeed, modern economic conservatives have presented a strong case that Hoover was as much of a governmental activist – and Keynesian – as the 1932 version of FDR.
After FDR’s victory over Hoover in ’32, the Jews – like everyone else – had 20 years to be marinated in FDR’s evolving philosophy, as the Republican Party did not return to the White House until the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. In the 1940, 1944, and 1948 elections, only 10% of the Jewish vote went to the Republican candidate. During the Democrats’ 20-year reign, the most influential Republican was Sen. Robert A. Taft, a politician of limited popular appeal who rejected the increasingly Keynesian fiscal and monetary policies of FDR and Truman and strongly opposed their interventionist foreign policy – kind of an early version of Rand Paul.
But when the widely-popular Eisenhower finally ended the Democrats’ run, he broke the isolationist mold and re-set the Republican Party in the internationalist direction that it has pursued ever since, and he established fiscal and monetary policies that occupied a middle ground between FDR’s Keynesian model and Taft’s economic philosophy. After so substantial a pivot, it came as no surprise that in the 1960 election to pick Ike’s successor, the two candidates, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, were distinguishable more by their differences in appearance, personality, and style than by any differences in fiscal, monetary, or foreign policy. Yet those superficial differences proved to be remarkably significant to the Jews, who gave Nixon only 18% of their votes, just 4 years after they had given Eisenhower a robust 40% of the Jewish vote in the 1956 election!
To illustrate the near-interchangeability of platforms between the two parties circa 1960, here is a quote from a speech by one of the two 1960 candidates: “Surely the lesson of the last decade is that budget deficits are not caused by wild-eyed spenders, but by slow economic growth and periodic recessions, and any new recession would break all deficit records. In short, it is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low. And the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now.” Guess what: the conservative candidate who delivered this homage to Milton Friedman was the Democrat, JFK! (The full text of the Kennedy speech, which was his address to the Economic Club of New York on December 14, 1962, can be found on YouTube or numerous other sources. It is hard to imagine that any sentient Jew could have heard the Kennedy address and associated JFK with the economic policies of FDR.) How about foreign policy? Another surprise: it was the internationalist Democrat, JFK, who made the fateful decision to escalate America’s presence in Viet Nam and, in effect, initiate the Viet Nam War – and it was the Republican, Nixon, who ultimately pulled our troops out of that war. The role of government? Consider JFK’s most famous public pronouncement on this topic: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” One can easily imagine an Obama version: “Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what your country can do for you.”
It was not just that Kennedy was a closet conservative and an internationalist; his opponent in 1960, Nixon, was a closet progressive and non-interventionist. Compare the words and actions of JFK to the performance by Nixon after Nixon eventually became President in 1968. Consider: (i) Nixon’s infamous Executive Order 11615, which withdrew the US from the Bretton Woods international agreement by suspending the convertibility of the dollar into gold, froze wages and prices for 90 days, and imposed an import surcharge of 10 percent, thereby turning the US’s free-market economy into a state-controlled economy while setting the stage for currency manipulations, trade wars, and inflationary monetary-policies; and (ii) Nixon’s decision to withdraw the US from the Viet Nam War at precisely the time when, in the view of most conservative analysts (and many US military leaders) the US could have achieved a decisive victory had it chosen to stay the course.
The point is, by the time of the 1960 Presidential-election campaign, the ideological legacy of FDR had faded to the point where there were few clear lines of differentiation between America’s two main political parties on either economic policy or foreign policy. There was quite a bit of discussion in 1960 over social policies and attitudes toward the have-nots and underdogs (and a lot of commentary about Nixon’s sweaty brow during a TV debate), but Kennedy, the Democrats’ candidate, ran to Nixon’s “right” (as that term is understood in 2013 America) on most matters of fiscal policy, monetary policy, and foreign policy. Alas, the 1960 election, like virtually every other Presidential election beginning with 1932, was primarily about personality, not policy. Nevertheless, the effect of its outcome – and of the subsequent assassination of JFK – was to re-establish the emotional link between America’s Jews and the party of FDR, a link that had been briefly weakened by Ike but was firmly re-established by JFK.
What has all of this to do with the Jews? Plenty. It tells you that the Jews moved en masse to become Democrats at the time of – and probably because of – the Great Depression, which struck at a time when most of America’s Jewish population was still struggling to achieve assimilation into America and its culture following their (or their ancestors’) mass migration to the US from Western and Eastern Europe. FDR and the Democrats appealed to the Jews by promising to end the Depression and proclaiming sympathy and empathy for the underdogs and the un-assimilated – and with full awareness of the Jews’ classic role as history’s un-assimilated underdogs. On the other hand, things had changed dramatically by 1960: we were no longer in a depression, we were no longer at war, the Jews (and most everyone else) were doing pretty well, and the ideological issues that are of greatest concern to the 2013 American voter (fiscal policy, monetary policy, and the proper role of government) were of little concern to the 1960 American voter. It is not much of a stretch to infer that a Jew voting for Kennedy in 1960 might well have been voting for JFK because he liked the man and preferred the candidate who was more conservative on economic matters and more in favor of a strong military and an interventionist foreign policy.
After the assassination of JFK, he was succeeded by a truly leftist politician (LBJ), and soon the even more-leftist Robert Kennedy and Ted Kennedy managed to leverage the popularity of JFK to advance a party agenda far to the left of that of their late brother. By 1972, the radical Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern had completed the conversion of the Democrats’ policy book into the hardcore neo-leftist agenda that has now come to full fruition with President Obama, and little of JFK’s 1960 agenda remained, other than the marketing program to persuade voters that only the Democrats cared about minorities, the needy, and other underdogs. It is hard to believe JFK would ever have embraced the hard-core, central-planning, statist agenda of the 2013 Democrats, of which the centerpiece is ObamaCare and the foundation is Keynesian fiscal and monetary policies, unlimited deficit-spending on social issues, re-distributionist tax policies, and vanishing international presence and influence.
The real curiosity is that, while the centrist party of JFK has become the hard-left party of Obama, MOST JEWS HAVE HARDLY NOTICED. The families and progeny of Jews whose affiliation with the Democrats was built or cemented by JFK, appear to be living in a time warp, imagining that their political party remains the party of the revered JFK even though it does not, and even though the hated Republicans may have become the closest available thing to the political platform that originally motivated them or their ancestors to vote for Kennedy. By the time Ronald Reagan ran for President in 1980, the Jewish population of the US had attained so thorough a cultural and social identification with the Democrats that they were paying little attention to what had become of the ideology of their party. It is true that Reagan attracted 39% of the Jewish vote in 1980, which was second only to the 40% achieved by Eisenhower in 1956, but the declining percentages of Jewish votes for Reagan in 1984 and for Bush 41 in 1988 and 1992 suggest that the 1980 figures reflect a rejection of the ineffectual Jimmy Carter rather than an indication that the Jews had shaken-off their historical influences and begun to consider that their contemporary interests on matters of the economy and national security (including the plight of the State of Israel) might be better served by the contemporary Republican Party.
The irony in all of this is that America’s Jews, despite a general reputation for superiority in left-brain-dominant undertakings (e.g., Einstein), have voted, like the rest of us, as though voting were a right-brain function (e.g., like a bunch of Heifetzes): they have voted with their emotions. They have voted overwhelmingly for the two most popular Democrats of the last 100 years – FDR (the radical leftist) and JFK (the centrist) – and have given their biggest Republican vote for the two most popular Republicans – Ike (the centrist) and Reagan (the conservative). Yes, the Jews still lean left, but they will occasionally help elect a popular Republican and they are lately showing further signs of becoming weaned from the Democrats. Heck, they gave even an unpopular, stuffy, and patrician Republican – Romney – 30% of their votes in 2012.