Why (Native-Born American) Jews Are Liberal:

Norman Podhoretz's recent book Why Are Jews Liberals? argues that Jews are overwhelmingly liberal because they have become secular and have turned to political liberalism as a substitute for religion. This Wall Street Journal Podhoretz op ed summarizes his argument.

Podhoretz rejects claims that Jews are liberal because this is required by Jewish religious values; as he points out, the most religious Jews are often the least liberal. He also denies (correctly in my view) that political liberalism advances the self-interest of American Jews, and also notes that in recent decades the right has generally been more supportive of Israel than the left.

While Podhoretz effectively criticizes alternative explanations for Jewish liberalism, his own theory is equally unpersuasive. A key flaw is that it lacks comparative perspective. Jews in other English-speaking democracies, including Britain, Australia, and (more recently) Canada, often either support right of center parties or at least split their vote between right and left in roughly the same proportions as the gentile population. Margaret Thatcher represented a London district with a large Jewish population, and routinely won the nationwide Jewish vote in her three electoral victories.Some of the conservative politicians supported by British and Australian Jews were more moderate than their US Republican counterparts. But that certainly wasn't true of Thatcher, among others. Australian, British, and Canadian Jews are, on average, roughly as secular as American ones. So it isn't necessarily true that secular Jews trend towards the political left as part of their search for an alternative to religion.

Right here in the United States, Podhoretz's analysis ignores the political leanings of Russian immigrant Jews, who constitute up to 12% of the total US Jewish population, are overwhelmingly secular (far more so than native-born Jews), and just as overwhelmingly Republican. The Russian Jewish case also undercuts Podhoretz's theory.

Once one recognizes that lopsided adherence to liberalism is not a universal trait of secular Jews but is largely confined to native-born American ones, Podhoretz's theory collapses. If it were true, British and Australian Jews should be just as left-wing as American ones, and Russian immigrant Jews should be even more liberal than their native-born counterparts.

What then explains the liberalism of native-born American Jews? A key factor that Podhoretz mistakenly downplays is the association between American conservatism and the Christian religious right. That is the main difference between American conservatism and right of center political movements in other English-speaking democracies, which have comparatively weaker Religious Right connections. Most secular American Jews dislike and fear the Religious Right, which they suspect of anti-Semitism and of seeking to impose Christianity as a quasi-official religion. I think such fears are overblown, but not totally off-base. It also does not help that some prominent Religious Right leaders - such as Pat Robertson - continue to flirt with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Podhoretz may be correct in claiming that the Religious Right ultimately poses only a minor threat to American Jews, and is certainly right to point out that many religious conservatives are strongly pro-Israel and have broken with their churches' anti-Semitic past. However, secular Jews' distaste for the Religious Right is a matter of clashing cultural values, not just calculations about threats to specific Jewish interests. Many secular Jews simply don't want to support a political movement that they associate with a group whose values seem alien and threatening. Ironically, Podhoretz's own book inadvertently confirms the importance of the Religious Right as a cause of American Jewish liberalism. He recounts various incidents when he tried to persuade Jewish audiences to vote for the Republicans on the basis of their economic and foreign policy stances, but was met with the response that Jews cannot possibly vote for the Republicans because they support school prayer. On Podhoretz's own account, even many of those Jews who sympathize with Republican positions on economic or foreign policy issues are repelled by the Religious Right factor.

The Religious Right explanation for the liberalism of native-born American Jews also helps explain why Russian immigrant Jews are different. While the latter tend to be highly secular, they have little experience with or knowledge of the US Religious Right and don't tend to focus on them as a crucial historic and cultural enemy. The main recent oppressor of Russian Jews was, of course, the officially atheistic Soviet government.

I am certainly not suggesting that American Jews would be overwhelmingly conservative or Republican if it were not for the Religious Right. But they would be much less overwhelmingly liberal than they are today.

UPDATE: I should note that in my view the Religious Right factor is what explains the overwhelming dominance of liberalism among American Jews today. It does not explain their support for the Democratic Party in earlier periods (e.g. - from the 1930s to the 1950s), when the political situation was very different and Jews themselves were much poorer then they became later. Many other groups were overwhelmingly Democratic at the high point of the New Deal coalition (e.g. - Catholics, "white ethnics," etc.) but became far less so as they became more affluent and the political landscape changed. Strikingly, the Jews did not change similarly, and I believe that the Religious Right factor is a crucial reason why they didn't.


Where American Jewish Opinon Differs from the National Average:

In my previous post, I argued that American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal primarily because of their opposition to the religious right. In 2005, the American Jewish Committee published Jewish Distinctiveness in America, a massive study of the ways in which Jewish political opinion (among other variables) differs from the national average. It turns out that Jews don't differ very much from gentiles on economic policy and government spending issues. But they are vastly more liberal on "social issues" such as abortion, sexual morality, and the role of religion in public life. Table 65 on pg. 269 in the AJC summarizes the extent to which Jewish opinion differs from the national average on a variety of issues (e.g. - if the difference is 5 points, that means that if the national average is 50% support for a given view, the Jewish average is either 45% or 55%). On a variety of questions relating to government spending and taxes, Jews diverge from the national mean by an averageof approximately 7 percent. The difference on "social welfare" policy questions is even smaller (a 4.4% average). And on some of these issues, Jews are actually a bit more conservative than the national average rather than more liberal. For example, only 38% of Jews support government efforts to "reduce income differences," compared to a national average of 43% (Table 42.A), and 70% of Jews believe that their income taxes are too high (compared to 64% of non-Jews). Most strikingly, only 41% of Jews (compared to 52% of gentiles) believe that the government spends "too little" on Social Security, despite the fact that a much higher percentage of Jews than gentiles are senior citizens (Table 38L).

There are, of course, some economic and social welfare issues where Jews are more liberal than the national average (e.g. - education and health care spending), but the differences are relatively small. Moreover, Jewish-gentile differences over economic and social welfare issues have actually narrowed slightly over the last 30 years, as Jews have grown a bit more conservative on these matters (Table 66). The average Jew is hardly a thoroughgoing free market advocate; but his or her views on economic issues are not much different from those of the average gentile.

In sum, if conservatives and the Republican Party were primarily focused on economic and size of government issues [i.e. - if those where the main issues where they differed from the Democrats], they might attract almost as much support from Jews as among gentiles.

By contrast, there are huge gaps between Jewish opinion and the national average on social issues (also from Table 65). In each case, Jews are much more liberal than gentiles (there are virtually no social issue questions where Jewish opinion differs from gentiles in a more conservative direction):

Abortion: 29%

Sexual Morality: 21%

Suicide: 18%

Civil liberties: 13%

Each of these totals averages data from several different questions in the relevant issue area. Some of the results on individual questions are also striking. For example 77% of Jews favor legalized abortion on demand, compared to only 40% of non-Jews (Table 12.G). Similarly, only 18% of Jews believe that homosexual sex is "always wrong" compared to a national average of 59% (Table 16.C). The data also shows that 84% of Jews approve of the Supreme Court's rulings forbidding government-sanctioned prayer in public schools, compared to only 38% of non-Jews (Table 9.C).

Overall, the areas where Jewish opinion differs greatly from the national average are overwhelmingly social issues emphasized by the religious right. As I argued in my last post, it is likely that more Jews would be willing to identify as conservative and/or vote Republican if conservatism and the Republican Party were not so closely identified with right-wing stances on social issues.

The data in the AJC study is derived from General Social Survey questions conducted from 1991 to 2002. I highly doubt that the distribution of Jewish-gentile gap has radically altered over the last few years, but I can't rule out that possibility without analyzing more recent GSS data (which I don't have time to do right now). However, if anyone has done such an analysis, I would be happy to link to it.

For now though, the AJC data strongly support my view that the overwhelming liberalism of American Jews is largely driven by differences with the religious right over social issues. A related factor, of course, is a cultural distaste for the religious right that leads many secular Jews to fear and dislike them over and above the specific details of the disagreements between the two groups.

UPDATE: Some commenters on this and the previous post misinterpret my point, thinking that I am arguing that it would be good political strategy for the Republican Party to give up its ties to the religious right in order to attract more Jewish votes. While I would love to see a more libertarian Republican Party, there is a big difference between my personal preferences and what would be politically wise. There are many more Religious Right voters (perhaps 15-20% of the population) than Jewish ones (about 2%), out there. Alienating the Religious Right in order to increase the party's Jewish vote by 10-20% would be poor strategy. Moreover, Jewish voters are concentrated in states like New York and Massachusetts that would be overwhelmingly Democratic even if the Jews were more evenly divided between the two parties. Even if the percentage of New York Jews who vote Republican doubled, the state would still be heavily blue.

Thus, I don't at all suggest that it would be good political strategy for the Republicans to break with the Religious Right to the extent necessary to attract significantly more Jews. To the contrary, it would probably be a net political loss for them to do so. A more modest downplaying of social conservatism could be politically advantageous, in so far as it might attract more non-Jewish middle class suburbanites without antagonizing the religious right too much. But such incremental moves are unlikely to to make much of a difference with Jews because the latter are so strongly liberal on social issues.

UPDATE #2: Some other commenters misinterpret me as suggesting that Jews have adopted liberal stances on social issues merely because the Religious Right adopts conservative ones. That isn't my argument at all. Rather, I suggest that most Jews strongly dislike the Religious Right because the two groups differ greatly on social issues, as well as because of the massive cultural differences between the two. And they associate conservatism and the Republican Party with the Religious Right. As a result, even many Jews who hold conservative views on economic and foreign policy issues are unwilling to think of themselves as conservatives or to vote Republican, because doing so means supporting a group associated with the Religious Right. The Religious Right did not, in my view, cause Jews to hold liberal views on social issues. But it does explain why so few identify as conservative overall or vote Republican, despite the fact that Jewish and gentile views on many other issues don't differ very much.


American Jews, Liberalism, and the Democratic Party:

I may make a more detailed contribution to the debate soon, but for now I wanted to point out that Norman Podhoretz and others are conflating two separate issues: the first is why American Jews are generally more liberal than are other Americans, and the second is why American Jews are so attached to the Democratic Party, especially in presidential elections, such that even Jews who are moderate to moderately conservative are presumptive Democratic voters.

On the former issue, one obvious reason is that Jews tend to be much more secular than Americans as a whole, and that religious Jews tend not to be inclined to want to impose "Jewish values" on other Americans. But it's also true, and not widely appreciated, that on economic issues, at least, Jews have become much more conservative over time. Ilya has pointed out that American Jews are right in the mainstream on economic issues. This is a great change from the past. Very few American Jews were to the right of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. About 1/3 of Jews in the 1930s were Socialists (including my maternal grandfather). You would be hard-pressed to find one-tenth that percentage today. A persistent myth is that most American Jewish immigrants were very religious, and only adopted radical politics when exposed to American working conditions. In fact, the most religiously committed Jews tended to stay in Europe, where they had a vast communal infrastructure. (My paternal grandfather's cousin's very religious family came to the U.S., and then, to their great misfortune, left the triefe medinah because of the lack of religiosity they found and returned home. There was one survivor.) A significant percentage of immigrants to the U.S. were young rebels who wanted to escape communal strictures. They brought their generally radical socialist politics with them.

On the issue of party identification, Ilya is clearly right that Jews fear/despise the Christian right, and that is a good part of the reason Jews are loyal to national Democratic candidates (local candidates like Rudy Giuliani have received a majority of Jewish votes). But I was surprised he didn't bring up political ignorance. In my experience, and I'm quite certain the data would back this up, American Jews tend to substantially overestimate anti-Semitism among evangelical Christians (who in fact are not any more anti-Semitic than the average, and are more likely to be philo-Semitic), even more substantially overestimate the (in fact very small) percentage of evangelicals who support Israel to hasten the end of days at which time Israel and the Jews will be destroyed. The vast majority of evangelicals who support Israel do so for other reasons.

Meanwhile, Jews substantially underestimate the level of anti-Semitism among core Democratic constituencies (among the most anti-Semitic groups in the country are African Americans, Latinos, Arab Americans, and high school dropouts, though I should add that most members of those groups are not anti-Semitic), and the hostility to Israel shown by various left-wing groups with influence in Democratic politics.

UPDATE: I should add that I'm a strong adherent to the theory that party identification among people who are not highly ideological or very interested in politics (most people, including most Jews) is at least as much a matter of cultural identification--which party represents people like me, is accepting of people like me, has active members who I'd feel comfortable socializing with, and the like--as policy-related. If Jews tend to think that the Republican Party is full of anti-Semites and the Democratic Party is not, they will tend to identify with the Democrats. Israel comes in as a cultural marker, as Jews tend to associate hostility to Israel with hostility to Jews, which is, in fact, a correlation backed up by studies showing that there is a significant correlation.


Political Ignorance and Jewish Perceptions of Conservatives and the Religious Right:

In a recent post, co-blogger David Bernstein rightly chides for omitting political ignorance from my post on Jewish perceptions of the religious right. David suggests that Jews may overestimate the prevalence of anti-Semitism among Christian conservatives, and that this may account for part of their distaste for them.

The survey data support David's conjecture. This 2005 American Jewish Committee survey shows that American Jews, on average, view "Evangelical Protestants" as more anti-Semitic than any other group, with the exception of Muslims. 28% of Jewish respondents in the AJC survey thought that "many" or "most" evangelicals are anti-Semitic, and an additional 44% thought that "some" are. Only 23% answered "very few" or "none." By contrast, 19% thought that "many" or "most" African-Americans are anti-Semitic, 15% thought that of Catholics, and only 7% of Hispanics. In reality, ADL surveys show that anti-Semitism among evangelicals is comparable to the national average, and National Election study data show that evangelicals, on average, view Jews slightly more favorably than do other gentiles (though the difference is not statistically significant). By contrast, anti-Semitism among African-Americans and Hispanics is significantly higher than the national average (though a majority of both groups is not anti-Semitic, and among Hispanics the divergence from the national average is largely a result of anti-Semitism among Hispanics born in Latin America, where anti-Semitism is more common than in the US).

Obviously, evangelical Protestants and the religious right are not identical. But there is a high overlap between the two groups, and negative attitudes towards one are likely to be correlated with hostility to the other. If anything, I would bet that the AJC study would have recorded a higher perceived level of anti-Semitism if they had asked Jews their opinions about the "religious right."

As I have argued in my academic work, political ignorance is both rational and widespread. So we should not be surprised that that many Jews might be ignorant about the true prevalence of anti-Semitism among Christian conservatives. Political ignorance is not a specifically Jewish pathology. Rather, it cuts across ethnic, religious and political lines. Surveys of evangelicals and conservatives reveal all kinds of political ignorance among these groups as well.

An interesting question is whether Jews would be less hostile to the religious right and conservatism more generally if they had a more accurate perception of the prevalence of anti-Semitism in those quarters. Some of the hostility might disappear, but not as much as we might think. Even if Jews did not perceive Christian conservatives as more anti-Semitic than they really are, there would still be vast cultural and ideological differences between the two groups that would lead many Jews to be hostile to a political movement closely associated with the religious right. Moreover, some of the Jewish overestimation of evangelical anti-Semitism might actually be a result of the antagonism between the two groups rather than a cause. Many studies show that people tend to devalue or ignore any information that makes their political adversaries look good, while overvaluing anything that looks bad. Some Jews might accept exaggerated claims of anti-Semitism among Christian conservatives in part because they already dislike them for other reasons. Similarly, people tend to reject information that makes their political allies look bad. That may help explain why liberal Jews might underestimate the relatively high rate of anti-Semitism among key Democratic constituencies such as African-Americans, foreign-born Hispanics, people with very low levels of education, and the poor (though it is important to note yet again that the majority of each of these groups is not anti-Semitic).

A second way in which ignorance might affect Jewish perceptions of conservatives and the religious right is that Jews may overestimate the extent to which these groups want to establish Christianity as a quasi-official religion, persecute religious minorities, ban the teaching of evolution, and so on. While some Christian conservatives seek to make the US an officially "Christian nation" and otherwise subordinate minority faiths, many others have far more limited objectives, such as legalizing government-sponsored religious displays, permitting voluntary prayer sponsored by public schools, and so on. Even the more moderate version of the Christian conservative agenda is at odds with the social liberalism of most Jews (and my own views as well). But understanding the true nature of the mainstream religious right agenda might lead some Jews to be more willing to ally with conservatives on economic and foreign policy where a large minority of Jews might agree with them. However, it's hard to say how important this factor is without looking at actual survey data on Jewish perceptions of the religious right political agenda.

In sum, I think a more accurate understanding of the religious right would lead only to a modest reduction in Jewish distaste for them. But it might cause some Jews who agree with conservatives on economic and foreign policy issues to be more willing to ally with them in spite of a continuing dislike of the religious right element of the conservative political coalition. It's unthinkable for many Jews to even consider allying with a group perceived as a bunch of troglodyte anti-Semites who want to make Christianity the official religion. An alliance of convenience with people who are not anti-Semitic theocrats, but merely (from secular Jews' point of view) badly mistaken about various social issues, is less inconceivable.

UPDATE: It is perhaps worth noting that the AJC survey linked above does show that Jews perceive a comparatively high degree of antii-Semitism among African-Americans, with 73% answering that at least "some" African-Americans are anti-Semitic, very similar to the 72% who said the same of "Evangelical Protestants." Only 24% stated that "very few" or no blacks are anti-Semitic (23% said the same of evangelicals). However, a much larger percentage of Jews (28%) believe that "many" or "most" evangelicals are anti-Semitic than say the same of blacks (19%).