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How The Political Behavior Of Black And Jewish Americans Became Their Cultural Identity


In May, presidential candidate Joe Biden was forced to apologize after saying in an interview to African Americans who might think of voting for Trump: “You ain’t black.” Biden was criticized for presuming to tell black voters how they are allowed to think, as well as clumsily pandering.

Yet many share the sentiment Biden expressed. No American ethnic group votes so overwhelmingly partisan as African Americans, with 80 percent or more of black voters identifying with the Democratic Party since the 1960s.

In their new book, Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior, which appeared three months before Biden’s comment, professors Ismail K. White and Cheryl N. Laird observe that “support for the Democratic Party has become closely linked to black identity—so much so that black Americans have come to see black support for the Democratic Party as just something that ‘black people do.’”

Indeed, Democratic Party loyalty among blacks is so strong that it overcomes other factors that usually tilt identification toward the GOP, such as higher economic status, religious faith, and political ideology itself. For instance, around a third of black Americans today identify as politically conservative, and surveys show increasing numbers of blacks who oppose, for example, racial preferences and government wealth redistribution programs.

Yet in one representative 2012 survey cited by White and Laird, 82 percent of self-identified black conservatives considered themselves Democrats, fractionally more than even the percentage (81 percent) of white liberals who did, and in comparison with just 48 percent of conservative Hispanics and 19 percent of conservative whites.

Explanations for this sociologically anomalous behavior tend to emphasize some form of rational self-interest. It is often held, for instance, that black identification with the Democratic Party is a natural result of the Civil Rights era and landmark legislation passed under a Democrat president in the 1960s. However, White and Laird note the black shift to the Democratic Party actually “predates the civil rights gains of the 1960s.” Moreover, this partisanship has persisted even as “black Americans have grown more politically and economically diverse,” making a more than half-century-old loyalty a less than convincing explanation for contemporary group behavior.

The “linked fate” explanation developed by political scientist Michael Dawson in the 1990s attempts to square the partisanship of black Americans with individual self-interest by maintaining that blacks see their individual prospects as tied to the success of the race as a whole, a success best guaranteed by the politicians and policies of the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, White and Laird do not find in their research a strong empirical correlation between “linked fate” beliefs and party identification.

Political Boundaries

I am not a social scientist. I also find it challenging to see rational choice as an obvious explanation for anyone’s political behavior these days. Certainly, politics has taken on for many Americans the force of an identity, a tribal affiliation, in some cases even a kind of religion with accompanying ritual practices.

What I find most intriguing about Steadfast Democrats and, as we will see, why I think it is a book with relevance for observers of Jewish political behavior, is that the authors recognize that politics can become a key component of group identity. It is not that black political solidarity has not historically had crucial benefits for black Americans but that, whether or not those benefits still exist or are cost-effective today, they have become associated over time with black identity itself.

White and Laird’s book uses social science data to begin to understand how the boundaries of that identity are protected and those who violate those boundaries sanctioned. As they put it: “identifying with and voting for the Democratic Party and its candidates have come to be understood by most black Americans as in-group expected behaviors that individual blacks perform in anticipation of social rewards for compliance and sanctions for defection. Enforcement comes through social ties and black institutions.” They name this dynamic “racialized social constraint.”

Such intersections of black political and ethnic identity are familiar; indeed, they have become part of the standard repertoire of sketch comedy and popular culture. White and Laird find that majorities of “black Americans report not only that they are regularly solicited by friends and family to support the Democratic Party but also that they are concerned about the social consequences of friends and family finding out if they were to choose not to support the Democratic Party and its candidates.”

In a 2014 poll the authors created, nearly half of all black Barack Obama voters said that their friends and family would have given them a hard time had they voted for Mitt Romney, while only 20 percent said that neither their friends nor their family would have cared. Percentages for white Obama voters were the reverse of this: half said that neither their friends nor family would have cared, and only 20 percent would have expected repercussions from both friends and family.

More striking are White and Laird’s experiments contrasting black political responses when interviewed by black versus non-black interviewers. They found that, in the presence of black interviewers, black respondents significantly overreported voting for the Democrat candidate, as well as their voting rates in general.

But the most important trend the authors discovered was the suppression of black conservatism, both in the presence of a black interviewer and in black social contexts in general. For instance, when interviewed by a non-black interviewer, political ideology is a key predictor of Democratic Party identification, with black conservatives far less likely to identify as Democrats than black liberals, as one would expect.

This factor all but disappeared in White and Laird’s experiments in the presence of a black interviewer. While only a minority of black respondents supported Republican politicians and policies no matter what, the variations linked to the identity of the interviewer are striking, making black conservative responses “indistinguishable from those of black liberals.” As White and Laird summarize, “racialized social constraint works primarily through its ability to prevent blacks who hold conservative ideological beliefs from identifying as anything other than Democrats.”

Some of this will sound familiar to observers of American Jewish political behavior. Here is the cue to repeat sociologist Milton Himmelfarb’s now offensive-sounding, but statistically sound quip from the 1970s that “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” Although Steadfast Democrats mentions Jews but once in passing, they are second only to blacks in the extent to which they similarly defy factors that would in most cases tilt their political identification away from the Democratic Party.

Nor is Jewish support for the Democratic Party only a matter of the vote (around 80 percent since the 1990s). Studies show that three-fourths of the total political donations given by Jews typically go to the Democratic Party – an estimated 95 percent of donations went to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign! – while Jewish political activists are four times as likely to be Democrats as Republicans. As in the case of black Americans, this linkage has long been a popular culture trope.

Also, as with blacks, explanations for Jewish political behavior are plentiful if not terribly convincing. Liberal Jews are frequently wont to cite religious tradition to explain their politics, as in the catchphrase “tikkun olam” (about which I have written). Some Jewish progressives do engage seriously with Jewish tradition as they articulate their social justice politics, yet many invocations of religious tradition by Jewish liberals tend to be misinformed and opportunistic. Survey after survey shows that greater Jewish religious observance correlates with less, not more identification with the Democratic Party and liberal politics.

Parallels to the “linked fate” argument have also been made in the case of American Jewish party identification, sometimes connected with the historical argument that Jews over the last two centuries have naturally gravitated toward liberal rather than conservative parties as being more supportive of full Jewish participation in civic and social life. There is some truth to this, but it fails to explain either Jewish identification with the Democratic Party today or why Jews in other western countries today do not have the same loyalty to their liberal and left-wing parties as American Jews do for the Democrats.

Political Behavior as Cultural Identity

The precise mechanisms by which a mainstream American Jewish political identity is maintained and defended have received little scholarly attention. However, a number of studies have observed, in ways parallel to what White and Laird report, what we’ll call a “Judaized social constraint” operating in American Jewish communities, with, for instance, greater levels of informal Jewish social networks (i.e., having Jewish friends and living in households with other Jews) correlating with greater levels of Democratic Party identification.

Two recent books do emphasize, in different ways, the extent to which mainstream American Jewish political behavior works as a cultural identity. In The Foundations of American Jewish Liberalism, the political scientist Kenneth D. Wald sees this behavior as reflecting a specifically American Jewish political culture that he traces back to the early days of the republic.

In Wald’s explanation, the key factor is the classical liberal separation of church and state afforded by the American political system, and an ongoing recognition by American Jews that they owe it their ability to participate and thrive in the United States. Wald therefore selects a series of episodes from the long history of Jews in America that demonstrate this commitment to church-state separation, and combines it with more recent survey data to suggest a continuity of American Jewish concern for this secular regime and commitment to the Democratic Party as its guarantor.

The result is a narrative that will be very reassuring to Jewish Democrats, as it maintains that their party preference is rational, deeply American, Jewishly traditional (at least in the American context), and threatened only by the “right” enemies: Christian conservatives, Republicans, and orthodox Jews.

In contrast to Wald, the political scientist Herbert F. Weisberg in The Politics of American Jews is less insistent on a single, 200-year narrative of American Jewish liberalism. While there is much in common between the two books, Weisberg makes his central claim more concretely: “most Jews have incorporated being Democratic into their social identity as Jews, making their party identification unusually resistant to change.”

While Wald’s conception of American Jewish politics is highly static, Weisberg’s study, though more focused on contemporary survey data than history, nevertheless offers a more varied and vivid account of how mainstream American Jewish political identity came into being as a product of historical circumstance, community values, minority consciousness, and perceptions of group and individual self-interest.

This interpretive rigidity of Wald’s book becomes more evident as its chronicle nears the current moment. The book’s final pages, which treat the 2016 election, identify closely with the liberal Jewish mindset he analyzes and present Trump as a particularly dangerous enemy of liberal tolerance, rather than its occasional or unpredictable defender in our strange political landscape.

To reinforce his thesis about the dangers of the Republican Party, Wald quotes extensively from several Jewish center-right pundits who joined the “Never Trump” movement in 2016, although he cautions—or perhaps boasts: “I am not privy to the intricacies of politics on the Jewish right.” This is odd to hear coming from a political scientist writing on Jewish politics, although it does remind us that some groups have made politics even more a part of their cultural identity than have blacks or Jews. University professors, for instance.

While Wald primarily emphasizes self-interest as the determining factor in American Jewish political behavior, Weisberg, like White and Laird in their book on black political behavior, focuses not only on group values and group interests but also on the social identities these produce. I would go further, arguing that such politicized identities can take on a life of their own, to the extent that some American Jews use values and interests as post hoc justifications for their social identities as liberal Democrats. In such cases, we might want tools afforded not only by political science and history, but by cultural analysis as well.

Let me give an example. Leading up to and during the Obama administration, the lobbying group AIPAC strongly indicated that preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear capability was its top policy aim. Nevertheless, much of the rank and file membership as well as the leadership of AIPAC enthusiastically supported President Obama, even though his faculty lounge and community activist background made his greater openness toward the Iranian regime quite predictable. I attended a large AIPAC dinner during Obama’s first term in which the keynote speaker assured the audience that the president would be very good for Israel. The speaker’s name was Peter Beinart.

AIPAC pushed back only belatedly and ineffectively on the administration’s 2015 Iran Deal, even as the administration accused its Jewish critics of dual loyalty. A last-minute attempt to oppose the Iran Deal by having thousands of AIPAC supporters come to Washington, D.C. and meet with their Democratic lawmakers not only failed to yield positive results, but failed spectacularly. The Iran Deal passed; moreover, AIPAC subsequently refused to sanction or withdraw support from any of the lawmakers who had brought about, by AIPAC’s own criteria, the most dangerously anti-Israel American policy shift in our lifetime.

Wald does not mention this episode, but would presumably explain it with reference to a Jewish perception that Obama would defend equal Jewish participation in American society, and that America’s and Israel’s interest in keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear strike capability was outweighed for the Jewish members of AIPAC by the danger to church-state separation posed by Israel’s evangelical supporters. Weisberg, who does treat the episode, considers that AIPAC’s apparent failure may involve a longer-term strategy, but that it certainly reflects complicated divisions within the American Jewish community regarding Israel, which he analyzes in some detail in his book.

Either way, if we view AIPAC as a lobbying group, we might be inclined to think it singularly incompetent. Yet what if AIPAC is not primarily a lobbying organization, but a cultural one? Suppose that membership in it and attendance at its galas are not really intended to bring about policy results, but to enact symbolically, as ritual and spectacle, a desired but increasingly uncertain equilibrium between Jewish concern for Israel and loyalty to the Democratic Party.

Seen in this way, the last-minute convergence on D.C. was not an attempt to change votes—social media showed the participants festive and self-congratulatory despite their lack of success—but was instead a pageant, a kind of ritual theater. While it was not successful in lobbying, as a performance of American Jewish liberal culture it was very successful, as evidenced by the enthusiasm of its participants and their likely participation in the overwhelming Jewish support for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. True, such performances are expensive—AIPAC’s annual budget is in the millions of dollars—but who can put a price on Jewish identity?

Waiting for Realignment

Neither Wald nor Weisberg believe a partisan realignment among American Jews is likely. For Wald, “the contemporary politics of American Jewry has continued to flow from the values and practices developed during the founding of the American Jewish community.”

Weisberg highlights what he sees as the subcategories of the Jewish electorate most likely to shift toward Republican candidates under the right circumstances (Orthodox, Jews from the FSU, Israeli Americans, libertarians, etc.), but still judges that “waiting for the Jews to realign politically may be as endless as waiting for Godot.”

This makes sense. An identity as deeply political as that of mainstream American Jewry is not going to change its political behavior without becoming unrecognizable to itself, and certainly not without having new frameworks of meaning and behavior to replace the older ones.

There is much now in our field of vision—contemporary populism, the racial identity politics of the Democratic Party since Obama, and cultural shifts within and without the Jewish community—that will undoubtedly affect that mainstream. We may ask what will happen, for instance, as the contemporary left rejects the classical liberalism Wald describes in favor of racial dispensations that have Jews making atonement for their white privilege.

Such shifts are not purely external to the liberal Jewish community, but have become widespread in the synagogues, supplemental schools, and summer camps of mainstream American Judaism. These shifts will no doubt become more pronounced as younger Jews, influenced by left-wing activist networks and products of the K-12 and college institutions that have been hostile to classical liberalism for several generations now, move into leadership positions.

Yet those Jews who defect from the Democratic Party will not constitute a political realignment on the part of the mainstream, because by doing so they will thereby be Jews with an identity different from that mainstream. Politics, as a Jewish activist once said, is downstream from culture.

Returning to White and Laird, they see the future as likely to erode the level of Democratic Party loyalty among black Americans as a result of the weakening social force of black institutions and the increase of social integration. They observe that digital social spaces (e.g., Black Twitter) may reproduce to some extent the sort of sanctioning force of those traditional social relations, but note as well that such virtual spaces also “offer black conservatives a means of expanding their social networks.”

They also express a concern worth attending to, that “if whites’ level of racialized social constraint both within and outside the South reaches anything approximating that of blacks, greater polarization and heightened racial conflict in America will take hold more broadly.” I disagree this is the polarization we are seeing in the Trump era, and would argue that, if anything, Trump is functioning as a scrambler of the politics of racialized social constraint, which becomes a concern for Democrats and white elites more broadly. But time will tell.

Meanwhile, they end by imagining the plight of a black conservative in the voting booth this November. He considers casting his vote for a Republican and then possibly having to admit doing so to his friends and family. Given the “social rewards of conformity,” they write, “supporting the Democratic candidate is almost certainly the least costly option.”

The fate of American democracy may ride on that “almost.”