The Political Behavior of American Jews
A Public Choice Approach to Israel-influenced Voting
The paper analyzes the voting incentives created by the relationship between American Jews and American-Israeli foreign relations.
At the founding of the Jewish State in 1948, the United States recognized the establishment of a Zionist state through a press release from President Truman on March 14, 1948 (U.S. Recognition of the State of Israel). The two main political parties in the United States— the Democrats and Republicans—have both since maintained consistent political, economic, and military support for Israel. This support has come to be viewed by American Jewish voters, most of whom desire support for Israel, as a public good provided by the United States Government. This public good has direct ramifications on voter incentives. However, despite bipartisan support for foreign aid to Israel, American Jews have remained consistently liberal. While social scientists have offered various theories of why American Jews became and remain Democratic, a cogent explanation can be offered through the lens of public choice economics. Indeed, Jewish liberalism demonstrates a political anomaly that can be explained through the framework of voter incentives.
Before explaining the impact of pro-Israel policy on Jewish voting, it is necessary to identify some additional factors that evidence how Jewish voting behavior remains a political anomaly. American Jews, despite job and social discrimination, have become the highest per capita income of any religious group in the United States (Wright, Ethnic Group Pressures in Foreign Policy, 1982, 1655-1660). While affluence in America generally tends to correlate with Republican affiliation, this trend does not hold true for American Jews (Cohen, American Jewish Liberalism, 405-430). Steven Cohen and Charles Liebman, in their research, also noted that more religious Jews tend to be less liberal, inclining religious Jews toward conservatism. They identify only a few issues on which Jews assert themselves as decidedly liberal: political identity as liberal, church-state separation, social codes, and domestic spending. Cohen and Liebman’s research illustrated that aside from pro-Israel policies, Jews have additional incentives to shift to the Republican party, yet they have remained consistently Democratic. On the other hand, Jews have higher education levels, which correlate with liberalism, compared to the general populace provides a common explanation of Jewish liberalism. Thus, while Jews demonstrate anomalous behavior, they also demonstrate typical associations that explain Jewish liberalism.
While many incentives influence Jewish political behavior, a single-issue factor that unites Jews remains the support of Israel from the United States government. Professor Lawrence Fuchs defined American Jews as an “ethno-religious group,” which forms attitudes on social and political policy that align group interests with national interests (Fuchs, The Political Behavior of American Jews, 1980). American Jews, as “partisans of Israel,” were thus instrumental in having the United States recognize the state of Israel (Fuchs, 1980). As Professor Steven Bayme noted, the pro-Israel consensus in the American Jewish community has been maintained remarkably well over the past sixty plus years, with the two primary oppositional sources, classical Reform and Satmar Hasidism, remaining largely uninfluential (Bayme, American Jewry and the State of Israel, 2008). To court the Jewish vote, Democrats and Republicans have functioned as “entrepreneurs selling policies for votes” — the policy, in this case, being bilateral economic assistance for Israel (Downs, An Economic Theory of Political Action in a Democracy, 1957). If we assume that American Jewish citizens behave as expected utility maximizers, Jewish voters gain extra expected utility from electing the more pro-Israel candidate, aligning with the Jewish voters’ preference for a pro-Israel public good. The gain to the Jewish voter would be defined as the preferred more pro-Israel candidate (Ferejohn & Fiorina, The Paradox of not Voting, 1974). Indeed, due to American Jewish attachment to Israel, there is a rational reason to vote; by voting for a more pro-Israel candidate in the political market, the Jewish voter ensures a higher quality public good that suits the Jewish voter’s preference for a more robust pro-Israel political platform.
An initial investigation must depict the nature of the collective good thus described. As the natural monopoly on tax spending and military power, the government provides public goods to citizens. The United States government, having such a monopoly, becomes the sole provider of military and economic support to Israel for American citizens. Israel first received U.S. government assistance in the form of a $100 million loan from the Export-Import Bank in 1949 and aid remained modest for the next two decades (Sharp, Federation of American Scientists, 2016). After several consecutive Arab-Israeli wars, US aid to Israel increased dramatically, with Israel becoming the largest recipient of US aid in 1974. Middle East Specialist Jeremy Sharp reported that Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of US aid since World War II, receiving $124 billion of bilateral assistance in non-inflation adjusted terms (2016). An additional State Department directive this year has pledged $38 billion over the next ten years to Israel. The majority of this assistance has come in the form of Military aid, which has led to a qualitative military edge for the Israeli military, developing anti-rocket technologies such as the Iron Dome, Arrow I and II, and David’s Sling. The United States has also provided economic aid to Israel in the form of emergency aid packages during times of recession. Aid from the United States has thus allowed Israel to transition from a fledgling nation-state to a modern industrialized nation. (Sharp, Federation of American Scientists, 2016). While the United States government is not the sole supplier of aid to Israel, it functions as a monopoly within the US political market as a government supplier of aid. Jewish voters thus form preferences and expected utility functions based upon the differing levels of aid provided by the US government, a monopolistic supplier.
To further analyze the impact of US foreign policy toward Israel on Jewish voting patterns, it is necessary to examine the historical political alignment of Jews, from Jeffersonian Republicans to Democrats to Republicans, prior to the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state. While Jewish political equality did not emerge directly out of the American revolution, Jews achieved political equality in the five states they were most numerous in, and the growing movement in revolutionary America for the separation of church and state worked to the Jewish community’s advantage (Fuchs, 1980, p. 24). The first instance of Jewish political alignment began with a Jewish attachment to the Jeffersonian Republicans; in the 1830s, Jackson and the new Democratic party gained the Jewish devotion Jefferson and Madison had maintained (Fuchs, 1980, p. 29). By 1840, a large majority of American Jewry, around 15,000 at the time, joined Martin Van Buren’s coalition, buoyed by Van Buren’s protection of Jews in Egypt (Fuchs, 1980, p. 30). With the immigration of as many as 100,000 German Jews to the United States between 1848 and the beginning of the Civil War, Jewish political alignment shifted, splitting support between Democrats and the Whigs (Fuchs, 1980, p. 33). By 1860, Jews in the North, particularly German-Jews, welcomed the new Republican Party, as many Rabbis and Jews opposed slavery (Fuchs, 1980, p. 35).
In the four decades after the Civil War, Jews were widely divided with a slight major party preference for the Republican Party (Fuchs, 1980, p. 50). With the exception of Woodrow Wilson’s Jewish majority in 1916, Jews continued to lean Republican in presidential elections from 1900 to 1928 even with an influx of nearly two million Jewish immigrants fleeing anti-Semitism and poverty in Europe (Fuchs, 1980, p. 51). However, the 1920s showed a growing trend of Jewish support for the Democratic party, more rapid in certain cities but generally solidified by the Jewish commitment to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 (Fuchs, 1980, p. 71). For example, in Boston’s Ward 14, a heavily Jewish area, 78 percent of enrolled voters were Republican in 1928, while only 14 percent of voters were Republican in 1952 (Fuchs, 1980, p. 72). The proportion of Jews who voted for the Democratic Party peaked at 90 percent for FDR in the 1940s (Rebhun, 2016, p. 141). To maintain Jewish support, the Democratic Party committed itself to fighting fascist anti-Semitism in Europe and to ensuring the military and economic security of the State of Israel (Schnall, 1987, p. 77). In all Presidential elections since 1932, 60 to 90 percent of American Jews voted for the Democratic candidate. (Rebhun, 2016, p. 141). While Jewish-American Democratic support has been in decline since the late 1960s, the Jewish vote has remained solidly within the Democratic camp (Rebhun, 2016, p. 143). Additionally, the Jewish vote declined in Republican support between 1980 and 2000 but has since risen from 2000 to 2016 (Kent, 2016).
As evidenced by the above historical charting of Jewish political alignment, the Jewish community has shifted in partisan alignment multiple times in American history. Why then have Jews maintained their allegiance to the Democratic Party since 1932? While many factors are involved in addressing this question, a key factor absent in other eras of American history is the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the consequent United States’ support of Israel. The median voter theorem becomes especially relevant in addressing the Jewish-Democratic alliance. Anthony Downs observed that voters can cut the cost of information by comparing ideologies rather than policies — the lack of information thus engendering a demand for ideologies in the electorate (1957, p. 142). Downs reasons that stable government in a two-party democracy requires a distribution of voters approximating a normal curve in which both parties resemble each other closely (1957, p. 143). In terms of US-Israeli foreign policy, Democrats and Republicans resemble each other closely in that they have both maintained military and economic aid for Israel. According to the Median Voter Theorem, with both parties exhibiting similar ideologies of a pro-Israel consensus, one would expect the distribution to resemble a normal curve, but this has not been the case. Surprisingly, Democratic and Republican Israeli policy has had more in common than not; yet, a normal curve does not represent the Jewish vote.
In the election of 1948, both party candidates were committed to Zionism, with both parties adopting pro-Israel positions in their national platforms (Fuchs, 1980, p. 81). Truman’s election allowed the Democratic party to yield pro-Israel results, beginning with Truman’s recognition of Israel, the $100 million loan from the Export-Import Bank in 1949, and the Tripartite Declaration of 1950 (Sharp, 2016, p. 36). Lawrence Fuchs identified 1952 as a key moment in the political market for the Jewish vote, in which despite being as “well paid, fed, and educated as the most successful Republican denomination groups” Jews continued to vote for Democrats (1980, p. 99). Eisenhower’s term, however, allowed for product differentiation in the political market; Jews could now compare the quality of the collective good provided by the United States government, economic and political aid to Israel, under two different political parties. Indeed, while several factors, as Lawrence Fuchs noted, contributed to Jewish loyalty to the Democratic party, the Eisenhower Administration's policy toward Israel hurt Republican chances with Jewish voters; Zionist rallies were held in October of 1954 protesting the Eisenhower Administration’s policy towards Israel (Fuchs, 1980, p. 117). Fuchs indicated that Zionist leaders criticized the Eisenhower Administration's decision to ship arms to “feudal Arab leaders” while holding back on Israeli military aid (Fuchs, 1980, p. 117). The Suez Canal, in which the United States strengthened its bond with Egypt and forced military Israeli withdrawal, provided another demonstration of Eisenhower’s lukewarm position toward Israel (“Suez Crisis, 1956,” n.d.). Weak Republican support for Israel did not shift Jewish political alignment to its benefit; American Jews thus exhibited a lopsided preference for Democratic US-Israeli policy during the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy, with around 80 percent voting for Kennedy and 18 percent voting for Nixon — a major shift from the 1956 election in which 60 percent voted for Stevenson while 40 percent voted for Eisenhower (Weisberg, 2012, p. 217).
Post-1948, several Republican administrations have seen fluctuations in their capturing of the Jewish vote. Professor Theodore Wright, writing in 1982, noted that in recent years Republicans had sought to “outbid the Democrats” in their promises to the Zionist state. Indeed, the election of Ronald Reagan demonstrated a partisan shift in the political market in reaction to the Israel policies of the Democratic Carter Administration. Professor Weisberg cited data showing that many Jews felt Carter was too hard on Israel and consequently 39 percent voted for Reagan and 45 percent voted for Carter (Weisberg, 2012, p. 228). This represented a major shift in the partisan distribution of Jewish voters, nearly approaching Downs’s normal distribution curve. However, despite Reagan’s policies being more pro-Israel than Carter’s, the Democratic party regained the Jewish vote in the 1984 presidential election, with 67 percent voting for Walter Mondale and 31 percent voting for Ronald Reagan (Weisberg, 2012, p. 228). Professor Weisberg notes that while Republicans saw a boost in their attainment of the Jewish vote in the 1970s and 1980s, it was followed by subsequent loss of the Jewish vote in the 1990s and 2000s (Weisberg, 2012, 232). However, another interesting data point occurred in 2012. The highly-publicized testiness of Obama’s relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and “dissatisfaction with Obama’s Middle East policy” during his first term boosted the Jewish Republican vote by 9 percentage points, from 21 percent for McCain to 30 percent for Romney (Rebhun, 2016, p. 144). The Republican resurgence was squashed in the 2016 election, falling to 24 percent for Trump despite visible strain in the Obama-era US-Israeli diplomatic relations. These various historical examples indicate that shifts in the partisan alignment of the Jewish vote occur in accordance with a greater expected utility of Republican Israeli policy after a strain in Democratic-Israel relations.
Nonetheless, while Jewish voters demonstrate small shifts in political alignment, they often return to a high percentage of votes for the Democratic presidential candidate. This is a noteworthy behavior; if Republicans have proven to Jewish voters that they can successfully compete with Democrats with their pro-Israel policies, why have more Jews not shifted to the Republican party? Arye Hillman accounted for such a phenomenon by considering the expressive-voting hypothesis, which posits that certain people vote “to obtain the expressive utility from confirming identity” to themselves or a group rather than to decisively sway an election (2011, p. 250). Because American Jews have historically aligned with the Democratic Party, Hillman assumed that Jews, with exceptions, rationally vote for Democrats, though it is against their self-interest, in order to gain the expressive utility associated with expressing group identity (2011, p. 256). Hillman offered a variety of historical examples from Podhoretz’s book Why Are Jews Liberals?. In the 1960’s election, he noted that Kennedy’s father was openly anti-semitic, yet Kennedy secured 82% of the Jewish vote (Hillman, 2011, p. 254). In 1972, he cited that the Democrat McGovern received two-thirds of the Jewish vote despite McGovern favoring racially-based quotas in education that would have been disadvantageous to Jews and be inimical to the state of Israel (Hillman, 2011, p. 254). Additionally, in 2008, 78 percent of Jews voted for Obama despite Obama having “anti-Israel associations” and a record that showed less concern for Israel than his Republican opponent (Hillman, 2011, p. 255). There are obviously limits to how much Jewish identity impacts voting decision and how much Jewish identity is tied to Israel. However, despite its assumptions about Jewish identity, Hillman’s evidence provides a theoretically relevant public choice explanation of why Jews may rationally vote for Democrats despite competitive pro-Israel policies from the Republican Party.
Rather than functioning as a singular issue which ultimately sways the Jewish voter, the Jewish preference for a robust pro-Israel policy represents a unique and influential indicator within the multifaceted preferences of the Jewish voter.
By examining historical presidential voting data, specific instances when Jewish voters could have voted according to a pro-Israel preference based upon the partisan performance of the previous administration can be identified. While this analysis has been largely driven by market outcomes – Jews evaluating their voting decisions based off of the Israeli policy of the current administration – it highlights the impact of information on voting patterns. If a Jewish voter is provided with more information, via four years of governance by a certain party, about the perceived ideology of either political party, they will adjust their preferences according to this new information. While Downs notes there are costs to acquiring such information, the marginal return, or the increase in utility from making an improved decision concerning partisan Israeli-relations ideology, would presumably exceed the marginal cost of acquiring such information for Jewish voters who decide to vote.
However, while it is important to analyze the behavior of Jews as an ethnic group, there exist differences within the Jewish community which should also be examined. Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz and Lawrence Sternberg researched the influence of the centralized institutions of the American Jewish community on political cohesion and division amongst Jews (2000, p. 23). The researchers amalgamated data proving that the political activists within major Jewish institutions in the United States, such as the Jewish Community Relations Council and the organized Federation system, display differences in measures of ideology, partisanship, political and social attitudes, and policy preferences than most synagogue members and donors and are decisively more liberal (2000, p. 40). Their research demonstrated that the participants in the most centralized set of Jewish institutions display political preferences “within a fairly narrow range, denoting political cohesion” (2000, p. 44). Kotler-Berkowitz and Sternberg’s research also showed that while Jews tend to lean liberal, the degree of cohesion within the American Jewish community should not be assumed to be absolute. For example, political division among American Jews, despite the overall liberalism of Jewish institutions, allows for the opportunity of Republican competition in the markets, specifically in the more traditional Jewish communities. Republicans have particularly thrived among Orthodox Jews, who are the most Republican in their voting (Weisberg, 2012, p. 225).
Eytan Gilboa traced the historical arc of Jewish support for Israel and the complicated relationship between Jews and specific Israeli policy preferences. Beginning in 1948, he notes that 90 percent of American Jews supported the establishment of Israel and the decision of President Truman to recognize the State of Israel (Gilboa, 1986, p. 113). According to public surveys from 1957 to 1983, Jews remained highly favorable toward Israel, with all but one of the pro-Israel results ranking above 90 percent (Gilboa, 1986, p. 113). Gilboa’s research also notes that all surveys of American Jews in his research show overwhelming support for US aid to Israel — around 91 to 96 percent from 1971 to 1985 (Gilboa, 1986, p. 117). However, Gilboa also investigated public opinion surveys that show a less unified American Jewish community from 1967 to 1982 concerning positions and policies in the Arab-Israeli conflict (Gilboa, 1986, p. 121). Surveys between 1980 and 1984 further evidence a split Jewish opinion on the question of a Palestinian state (Gilboa, 1986, p. 123). The conclusion of Gilboa’s paper highlights the remarkable stability of Jewish support for economic and military aid for Israel despite diverging foreign policy positions of American Jewry. Gilboa’s data and conclusions highlight an interesting complication of the Jewish political market; American Jews, while supporting aid, may not uniformly support the same policy results. The complex interactions between Zionism, ethno-religious political behavior, and political support for Israel highlights the lack of information politicians acquire about the Jewish community and also provides evidence of why US aid for Israel has been sustained for so long.
An additional complication is that the Jewish voting is not the only group incentivizing pro-Israel policy. In fact, since 1989, Israel’s favorability among general Americans has vacillated between 45 percent and 79 percent (Saad, 2016). Republicans have additional political incentives to support Israel that may influence the Jewish vote. Evangelical Christians, who number about 75 million in the United States, have become “increasingly mobilized” in support of Israel (Waxman, 2010, p. 15). Since the Second Intifada, which began in 2000, the Christian Right has become increasingly influential in the Republican political market. According to Professor Murray Friedman, the Christian Right, while showing strong support for Israel, disincentivized Jews from joining the Republican party out of fear that the Christian Right has become “too influential” in the GOP (2003, p. 436). The influence of the Christian Right on Republican foreign policy highlights that while Republicans compete with Democrats for the Jewish vote with pro-Israel policy, they also compete for the vote of the Christian Right through pro-Israel policy. Additionally, the bedrock of evangelical support for Israel has shifted incentives for Jews to vote as single-issue voters; support for Israel remains ensured for by the prominent support for pro-Israel candidates on the Right vying for the support of evangelists, allowing Jewish voters flexibility to vote for Democrats who may not be as pro-Israel as the Republican candidate. In recognizing that pro-Israel policy has not yielded strong Jewish electoral results, Republicans have continued to maintain pro-Israel policy because the Christian Right has incentivized them to do so.
Thus, while the political market for the Jewish vote remains influenced by a multitude of factors, the widespread preference among Jewish voters for a pro-Israel collective good shifts incentives in the political market. How Jews collectively vote remains complex, and the historical Jewish alignment with the Democratic Party despite competitive pro-Israel policy from the Republican Party highlights this complexity. It seems likely that two trends will continue based on the political incentive structures described in this paper: Jews will continue to predominantly align with the Democratic Party and both Democrats and Republicans will continue to offer competitive pro-Israel ideologies. The public choice approach to Jewish political behavior thus offers insight into why these trends continue by examining the incentives that shape how Jews vote and how politicians respond in turn.
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