Are We Moving to the Right?

A historical look at the trends of conservative Jewish voters.

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In one of the funnier--but more absurd--appeals for the Jewish vote in 2008, the trash-talking comedienne Sarah Silverman recorded a video for TheGreatSchlep.com, a website urging young Jews to lobby their grandparents in Florida to vote for Barack Obama.

In her direct, conversational style Silverman riffed: "And I know you're saying, like, 'Oh my god, Sarah, I can't believe you're saying this. Jews are the most liberal, scrappy, civil rights-y people there are.' Yes, that's true, but you're forgetting a whole large group of Jews that are not that way, and they go by several aliases: nana, papa, zayde, bubbie, plain old grandma and grandpa." 

As more than a million viewers watched the video on YouTube, and as moralists lamented the crass ethnic appeal, political analysts questioned the central assumption. While Jewish voting studies are unreliable, considering the statistically insignificant number of Jews in most samples polling the American population, most anaylses suggest that zayde and bubbie vote Democratic far more reliably than their grandchildren.

Jews as New Deal Democrats

Although Jews generally voted Republican from the Civil War through the Great Depression, most Jews became loyal Democrats thanks to Franklin Roosevelt and his sweeping reforms. For decades thereafter, many Jews and non-Jews considered American Judaism and American liberalism mutually reinforcing ideologies.

Even today, the Urban Dictionary, the web's street-savvy guide to slang, defines Jewish Republicans as people "who considers themselves to be Jewish but [are] ignorant of Jewish values, common sense, and/or the platforms, actions and reputations of the two major American political parties."

These days the Urban Dictionary definition is anachronistic. Since the 1980s, the number of Jewish Republicans has grown significantly. They are a minority in the Jewish community, which remains overwhelmingly Democratic, but Jewish Republicans are no longer merely an anomaly or a punch line.

The Neoconservative Backlash

Like so much of American politics today, the Jewish Republicans are the product of the Reagan Revolution--and a reaction to the 1960s' politics and culture. While many Jews, from the radical political activist Abbie Hoffman to the feminist Betty Friedan, helped shape the 1960s, other Jews helped forge the backlash.

Most prominently, the "neoconservatives" were a loose collection of disproportionately--but not exclusively--Jewish intellectuals who moved right with the country. Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Ben Wattenberg, and Gertrude Himmelfarb, among others, recoiled from the New Left's politics and sensibilities. Street crime, Black Power, Affirmative Action, hippie libertinism, radical anti-Americanism, and a perceived appeasement of Soviet Communism alienated these thinkers from the Left, as did the spread of liberal anti-Zionism.

Just as their Jewish identities once reinforced their liberalism, they abandoned the Democrats and supported Reagan as Americans and as Jews. 

These "neocons," as they were known, struck a particular chord in the 1980 election, when a surprising 38% of the Jewish community voted for the Republican candidate Ronald Reagan. The incumbent Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, often seemed  insensitive to Jewish concerns, despite successfully negotiating the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty at Camp David.

Nevertheless, the much-predicted Jewish voting realignment never occurred. In Reagan's 1984 reelection, Jews joined with African-Americans as one of the few groups still voting majority Democratic during a Republican landslide. Even as many Jews prospered during the great booms from 1980 through 2008, Milton Himmelfarb's classic if ethnically reductionist truism from the 1970s still held: Jews earned like Episcopalians, but voted like Puerto Ricans.

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Gil Troy

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington DC. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.