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Most of the concepts and theories advanced to explain vote choice, political ideology and issue positions are based on typical cases or observed general patterns across population groups. The standard explanatory categories of social class, regionalism, political generations, gender and other socio-demographic factors are prime examples here, as are the variables of assimilation and communalism and such specialized concepts as 'sociotropic' and 'egocentric' voting.(1) There is also a growing body of theory which highlights group-specific variables, and, in particular, the effect of religion on political orientation. Much research, for example, has focused on the relationship between doctrinal religious beliefs and political conservatism.(2) More recently, the political impacts of religious imagery,(3) foundational religious beliefs of individuals (as against church doctrine)(4) and of the various resources - organizational, cognitive, emotional - provided by religious membership have also been studied.(5) Yet, there remain some ethno-religious groups whose political attitudes and behaviour seem genuinely anomalous against the usual store of general and particular explanatory variables. These groups represent especially important sites of inquiry, for they hold the prospect of developing new theoretical insights.
One such group is American Jews, whose pronounced political liberalism is, perhaps, the most oft-cited example of anomalous group political behaviour in American politics. The anomaly applies at a number of levels. First, Jews are consistently found to be the most liberal white ethno-religious group in the United States.(6) Secondly, their liberalism is also remarkably consistent in that it registers across voting behaviour, party and ideological identification, and most civil rights, civil liberties, state welfare and foreign policy issues. Thirdly, and perhaps most puzzling of all, it has survived their dramatic upward social mobility in the post-war period, contradicting the rule in American politics that groups become more conservative as they become affluent.(7) To be sure, Democratic voting among Jews today does not match that of the New Deal era, and even over the past few decades, Jewish voting behaviour has displayed some rightward drift in given elections. Yet, as a group, Jews still endorse the Democratic party around 20 percentage points above most other Americans.(8) As has been observed, typically the 'only other population groups to vote Democratic by such a large margin [are] blacks, the poor, and the unemployed'.(9)
The liberal Democratic orientation of Jews is important beyond being a potentially instructive anomaly. Although Jews represent a tiny percentage of the American population (between 2 and 3 per cent), their voting proclivity can sometimes have a decisive influence.(10) This is because they are residentially concentrated in key states of the electoral college (for example, 26 per cent of the electorate in New York, 12 per cent in Florida and in New Jersey, 10 per cent in California), and are considered to have a comparatively high voter turnout rate.(11) So it was that, in 1976, some 80 per cent of Jews in New York supported Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford, giving the Democrat the state and with it the White House.(12)
A considerable literature has, not surprisingly, been devoted to researching and explaining the liberalism of American Jews. My concern, in this article, is with its theoretical component. There are three striking points about this aspect:(1) despite the apparently anomalous character of American Jewish liberalism, many of the theories rely on general approaches to explain it;(2) most theories on American Jewish liberalism are advanced uncritically;(3) a number of the theories are also received uncritically; they are cited in general discussions of American political behaviour, and one or two, based on marginality or minority status, have attained something of the status of conventional wisdom.
My contention is that none of the existing theories of American Jewish liberalism can withstand scrutiny. Indeed, I will argue that virtually all end up addressing the wrong question: why American Jews may be liberal, instead of why American Jews are disproportionately liberal compared to comparable ethno-religious and socio-economic groups. The aim of this article, then, is to assess the validity of theoretical work on American Jewish liberalism and to suggest some principles of analysis by which a more compelling explanation of the relationship between liberalism and American Jews might be developed.
The bulk of my discussion will treat what may be called the standard theories of American Jewish liberalism, each of which emphasizes a particular dimension of analysis: cultural, political or social. I begin, however, by considering a more recent approach, emphasizing socio-economic factors associated with 'new class' status. Such factors, I argue, can at best be considered ancillary variables. That is, at most, they appear to enhance an already disproportionate commitment among American Jews to liberal politics; at the very least, they help explain variance among Jews in the degree of their liberalism.
Three standard kinds of theories of American Jewish liberalism may be identified, and will be discussed in turn: Judaic value theories, which link Jewish liberalism to religious and cultural aspects of Judaism; political theories, which explain Jewish liberalism in terms of the political forces acting upon Jews and of Jews acting in their political interests; and sociological theories, which stress either status inconsistency, marginality or minority status as the essential factor spurting Jews towards liberalism. Whereas the Judaic values thesis looks to factors internal to Jewish tradition, political and sociological theories all attribute Jewish liberal politics in some way to dynamics generated by the place of Jews among non-Jews. My remarks, here, will focus on specific aspects of the individual theories. But a recurring theme is that the theoretical literature on American Jewish liberalism is insufficiently comparative. The liberalism of American Jews presents a theoretical problem only by comparison: a widely shared set of liberal commitments (civil rights; civil liberties; state welfare; certain foreign policy positions; and, in general, Democratic voting) is more strongly upheld by a certain group (American Jews) than by comparable (socio-economic and ethno-religious) groups. Explanatory propositions on Jewish liberalism are often advanced, however, either in isolation of analysis of comparable groups or short of the critical comparisons.
Much theoretical work on American Jewish liberalism, as on other social phenomena, proceeds as if the mere noting of an anomaly facing a given theory were fatal for it. Developments in the history and philosophy of science suggest that anomalies are integral, though, not only to the process of theorizing but to the structure of theories themselves.(13) In this analysis, I am interested less in the fact that anomalies can be found facing a given theory than in what they imply about the relative power of the theory in question. Where a theory has special strengths, these too shall be noted. Finally, the article suggests how this evaluation may contribute towards theory-building. In particular, I outline three principles of analysis that an adequate theory of American Jewish liberalism would need to incorporate, and suggest some hypotheses and directions for further research.
'NEW CLASS' THESIS
The 'new class' argument emerges out of studies conducted in the 1970s reporting the declining impact of social class (as traditionally conceived), religion and party identification, and the corresponding importance of issue conflicts in determining political behaviour in the United States.(14) These developments are associated with more fundamental changes in the structure of social cleavages. The dramatic expansion of higher education and economic prosperity in the post-war period transformed the working class - once interested in issues like unemployment, wages and New Deal-type welfare programmes - into a new 'owning' middle class, supportive of the old bourgeois values of economic growth, material acquisition, and law and order. At the same time, on this view, the old 'business' middle class was transformed into a large professional and managerial sector, interested in postmaterialist issues like the environment, disarmament and sexual liberation. Such contentions have been taken to suggest obvious implications for the analysis of American Jewish liberalism.(15) Since, in the pre-war period, Jews were predominantly impoverished (Eastern European) immigrants or the children of such immigrants, it is no surprise that they should have strongly backed New Deal liberal programmes. And since, in the post-war period, American Jews have risen virtually en masse into the upper-middle class, and are now disproportionately recipients of higher education and concentrated in the professional sector, it is no surprise that they should differentially support the neo-liberal agenda characteristic of the 'new intellectual class'.
Both parts of this interpretation fail to reckon with crucial aspects of the profile of American Jewish liberalism. First, Jews supported New Deal liberalism and its spokesmen to an extent well beyond that of most other immigrant groups and Americans at large. Only the Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants, each group predominantly Catholic, approximated or exceeded Jews (depending on the city) in their support of the Democratic party, and then only until the mid-1930s.(16) Moreover, the exceptional Jewish support for liberal programmes does not appear to be connected to extraordinary economic hardship.(17) As Whitfield observes, although 'other Americans were as impoverished, as devastated by the Great Depression, as the Jews were ... no other group has clung so tenaciously to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party', granting Roosevelt no less than 90 per cent of their vote in the 1940 and 1944 elections.(18) By comparison, approximately 70 per cent of black Americans and around 40 per cent of white non-southern Protestants voted for Roosevelt in these elections, while the overall Catholic vote for Roosevelt declined from 85-90 per cent in 1932 and 80 per cent in 1936, to 73 per cent in the 1940 and 1944 elections.(19)
Secondly, the 'new class' argument fails to reckon with findings that Jews at any given socio-economic level, and in the intellectual professions themselves, are generally more liberal than their non-Jewish counterparts.(20) When socio-economic variables are controlled, Jews are still found to be significantly more liberal, in their voting preferences and across many policy issues, than most other Americans.(21) In short, while the interaction effect of education and high income appears especially to promote a liberal posture among American Jews,(22) it does not exhaust the disproportion in this posture. As such, 'new class' factors may best be said to enhance an already disproportionate Jewish relationship to liberal politics.
What the 'new class' thesis may help explain are political differences emerging among Jews. Beginning in the late 1960s, high status Jews tended to be stronger liberals (and Democratic supporters) than Jews of lower socio-economic standing, inverting the traditional pattern.(23) If researchers like Ladd are correct, such an inversion parallels developments in the American electorate at large.(24) Be this as it may, 'new class' status associated with 'electoral inversion' is evidently not enough to explain the disproportion in the American Jewish commitment to liberalism.
Fuchs's well-known formulation of this approach singles out three Jewish values as being especially encouraging of a liberal political orientation: 'Zedekah', often translated as charity but more accurately designated social justice, because of its obvious concern for every individual's welfare; 'Torah', or education and the respect for learning, because it prizes intellectual independence and a rational approach to dealing with everyday affairs (social planning); and 'non-asceticism', as Jews are enjoined to accept life's pleasures and to act in this world rather than wait for the world-to-come. 'These three values, taken together or regarded separately, have helped to guide Jewish political behavior in recent decades along what in the discourse of our times would be called "liberal lines".(25)
As has often been noted, such arguments linking Jewish liberalism to Jewish religious values appear obviously open to question. First, Judaism is not singularly 'liberal' but also 'conservative' in its manifold affirmations, and so there remains to be explained what presses Jews to notice and emphasize the liberal aspects of Judaism.(26) Secondly, while Fuchs draws on wide-ranging interpretative and empirically based sources in isolating 'Torah', 'Zedekah', and 'non-asceticism' as three important and distinctively Jewish value-emphases, he offers little independent evidence to show that they promote a liberal political orientation. Thirdly, the Judaic values thesis faces an apparent anomaly in that religiously observant Jews tend to be less politically liberal than non-observant Jews.(27)
Critics have been too quick in thinking these points flatly refute the Judaic values argument.(28) Observant Jews still tend, after all, to be markedly more liberal, across various indices, than practising Christians, suggesting some possible impact of Jewish religion or culture on Jewish liberalism.(29) Fuchs may not have identified the operative values, or how Judaism affects political liberalism may be more complex than his value schema allows. What the points levelled against Fuchs's Judaic values thesis do show is that they require resolving theoretically, which the thesis, as formulated, fails to do.(30)
Political theories of Jewish liberalism divide between those that stress modem European history and anti-Semitism, and those that emphasize the force of a range of contingent Jewish political interests.
The so-called 'historical' variant is systematically propounded by Cohn, and has subsequently been advanced by a number of scholars.(31) Cohn argues that the predominant liberalism of American Jews is related to the emancipation of Jews in modern Europe. With the French Revolution those forces advocating that citizenship be based on nationality and no longer on religious affiliation constituted the political left. They were the Democrats, Liberals, Radicals, and sometimes the Protestants, and in arguing for secularized citizenship they were perforce arguing for the right of entry of Jews into society. Opposing civil equality were the Conservatives, Monarchists, 'clericals', and Catholics. For them the state had to be wedded to Christianity; for them there was no admitting the Jews. Given, then, this alignment of forces, 'Jews had no alternative but to side with those of the left'.(32)
Cohn posits that these historical associations between Jews and liberalism and radicalism were preserved by Jewish immigrants to America and reinforced there. Bringing socialism with them from the Old World, many among the mass East European immigration were confirmed in this attachment by the spiritual comfort that a radical faith could bring to a new arena of Jewish-Christian divisions. To similar effect, events abroad such as the Tsar's hostility to Jews effectively reminded Jews where their interests lay on the left-right axis. By the 1930s, however, the socio-economic upward mobility of Jews had begun to dissipate working-class radicalism into milder liberalism. When Roosevelt announced his New Deal, it introduced the kind of 'welfare' politics that gave bearings to the Jews' 'fixation on the left-right spectrum'.(33) These factors, along with certain international events like Nazism, fused to produce the liberal political allegiance of American Jews.
The plausibility of the historical hypothesis depends crucially upon its account of Jewish politics in Western and Central Europe in the late eighteenth and nineteenth …