President Obama takes the stage to speak at the 71st General Assembly of the Union for Reform Judaism at National Harbor in Maryland on Dec. 16, 2011. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In a recent interview, Rep. Steve King of Iowa said:

I don’t understand how Jews in America can be Democrats first and Jewish second and support Israel along the line of just following their president.

Steve King has questions.  We have answers.

I turned to the political scientist Kenneth Wald, who is the distinguished professor of political science and Samuel R. “Bud” Shorstein Professor of American Jewish Culture & Society at the University of Florida. He is also the author of the newly published article “The Choosing People: The Puzzling Politics of American Jewry.” He graciously responded to some questions via e-mail.  Below is a lightly edited version:

Q: The title of your article refers to the “puzzling politics of American Jewry.”  So what is puzzling about their politics?

In their voting behavior, political identity and attitudes, American Jews are disproportionately clustered on the liberal/Democratic side of the political spectrum. The pattern has held more or less steady since the late 1920s. But we expect most affluent people to favor the party of the right. As a group, even allowing for individual differences, American Jews rank at or near the top on most measures of social class — education, income, occupational prestige and such. That makes their commitment to the Democratic party and liberal values puzzling.


Q: Your argument discounts explanations that depend on the distinctive aspects of Judaism.  For example, you say that it’s not that Jewish values promote liberalism, or that liberals have historically been more accepting of Jews, or that Jews tend to make common cause with other socially marginalized groups on the left, like blacks.  What’s wrong with those explanations?

I criticize what I call “Judaic” theories that emphasize Jewish values, Jewish historical experience, and minority consciousness as the cause of this liberal/Democratic skew among American Jews. I don’t mean to deny that one can interpret Judaism as intrinsically left-liberal or read the historical record to conclude that liberals have historically been supportive of Jewish aspirations, or that having been a stigmatized minority may engender Jewish empathy with other oppressed groups.

But these explanations don’t help us explain political differences among Jews across countries or over time. American Jews share a religious tradition, historical inheritance, and minority status with most Jewish communities around the globe — and yet only Jews in the United States are concentrated on the left. Jews outside the U.S. are sometimes centrist, sometimes rightist, and occasionally indistinct from the general population, but never as tightly clustered on the left as American Jews.

And if, as these theories presuppose, liberalism is intrinsic in the Jewish experience, how can we explain short-term fluctuations in American Jewish political behavior? Judaic theories are universal and static, so they cannot account for American Jewish political exceptionalism nor the oscillations in American Jewish voting patterns.

Q: Your explanation centers on something different: the desire of Jews to defend the separation of religious identity and membership in the state. Where does this desire come from?

My account of American Jewish political behavior emphasizes the uniqueness of the American context. The U.S. Constitution follows a classic liberal model in separating citizenship and religion. Rather than rooting citizenship in blood or religion, the American system eliminates ethnic particularity as a condition for full membership in the political community.

This arrangement resonates powerfully with American Jews for practical reasons — it gives them a chance to participate as equals in a way they had not experienced elsewhere — and it differs radically from their historical experience as, at best, a “tolerated” minority whose status often changed on the whims of rulers.

American Jewish communities in the late 18th centuries celebrated the Constitution’s prohibition on religious tests in Article VI as their Magna Carta. Despite the passage of centuries, they have remained deeply attached to the idea of a secular state, believing that it accounts for their integration in what some have described as the “Kingdom of Kindness.”

Q: How does this account help us explain why Jews tend to vote for Democrats, and why that tendency is sometimes stronger or weaker?

Most Jews embrace the classic liberal regime of religion and state in the U.S. and typically support candidates that they perceive as most committed to it. Since the New Deal at least, the Democrats have been that party, but the pattern has occasionally been disrupted. For example, under the influence of identity politics in the late 1960s, Democrats favored policies that seemed to some American Jews to violate the classic liberal idea by granting legal privileges and benefits on the basis of race and gender. In reaction, the Democratic vote share among Jews dropped significantly and oscillated in the 1970s and 1980s.

When, however, the Republican party reached out to white Protestant evangelicals, who eventually came to constitute the party’s base, Jews reacted negatively because they perceived a threat to the liberal regime. Evangelicals, with their “God talk,” insistence on a “Christian America,” and general willingness to deny fundamental liberties to some minorities on religious grounds, struck many American Jews as a fundamental danger to core values of the polity. Accordingly, Jewish support for Democratic presidential nominees rose from roughly two-thirds to three-fourths in the 1990s and thereafter.

Even the glaring exception, the Republican-oriented Orthodox Jewish community, manifests similar dynamics. Less concerned with integrating in the manner of most American Jews, some of the Orthodox support Republican candidates who promise policies like tuition tax credits that might facilitate communal integrity. The point is that Jews strategically adapt their political behavior in response to the agendas and rhetoric of the political parties.

Q:  Anything you want to add for Steve King’s benefit?

Representative King seems to assume that most American Jews are diehard Likudniks, when the evidence runs decidedly in the opposite direction. In fact, much of the estrangement of American Jews from the current Israeli government is rooted in concerns over the growing ethnic and religious nationalism of the right-wing bloc so evident in the Likud’s recent campaign against Israel’s Arab citizens.

For all their commitment to Israel, many American Jews (and Israelis) have long objected to the role of the Israeli state in “establishing” Orthodox Judaism by providing it with generous public funding and quasi-legal authority in matters of personal status. Many activists in the American Jewish diaspora have called on Israel to embrace the classic liberal model, promoting and funding efforts that advance such values as tolerance, democracy and religious pluralism. That really underscores the tenacity of classic liberalism in the political calculus of most American Jews.