Regardless of the exact rationale, Jews of the West are politically and ideologically different from those in the rest of the United States.
For more than a century, the American West has held a special place in the hearts and minds of Americans; its allure as a frontier played an outsized role in the American imagination. Today, the Pacific Coast continues to be viewed as a place for reinvention and rediscovery, an incubator for technology and culture. One of the key facets to this Western idea is the notion that Westerners explicitly reject many of the traditions and institutions of the East as too rigid, too out of touch and too backward or inward looking. Many key progressive and liberal ideas have stemmed from this more progressive Western spirit.
Accordingly, the question that needs to be asked is how American Jews fit into this picture. As we find in our analysis of the Pew Research Center’s 2013 survey of Jewish Americans conducted especially for the Jewish Journal, the survey contains a treasure trove of data on Jews’ political dispositions and orientations, and one area in particular that warrants examination is geography. Do Jews actually look politically different in the West compared with the United States’ Jewish population as a whole? The answer is a resounding yes. Although this distinction might not seem particularly apparent as Jewish voting patterns — which often show regional parity — are reported, we demonstrate here that Western Jews are not only far more liberal when compared with the U.S. as a whole, but that there is a distinctive Western Jewish form of liberalism.
Voting Democratic, but that’s not the whole story
In 2012, 69 percent of American Jews voted for President Barack Obama. Although this is a large percentage, it is notably lower when compared with the post-2000 presidential elections, when closer to 80 percent of Jews voted for Democratic candidates. For Americans overall, there are notable regional voting patterns. The West, for instance, has voted consistently for Democratic presidential candidates since 1992, while the South has voted consistently Republican since 1980.
In the case of regional Jewish voting patterns, as we have already noted, there have been few meaningful presidential voting differences since 1992 in terms of electoral choice. Southerners are slightly less supportive of Democrats, but Western Jews are not leading the regional groups in terms of their support for Democrats or Republicans; among American Jews, there is regional electoral convergence. Most notably, if we look at the voting trends among American Jews over time, we find that since 1992, Democratic support across all regions has declined slightly — from the mid-80 percent range in the 1990s to the low-70 percent range by 2012.
The story of Western liberalism becomes far more interesting when we dig deeper. Voting patterns provide an overly simple and skewed view of reality, largely because electoral outcomes do not capture many attitudes or ideals. Rather, they capture a forced choice, often between two extreme and polarized candidates. When Americans are asked to state their party preference, a plurality regularly opt to declare themselves “independent” rather than Democrat or Republican. In fact, close to 60 percent of Americans want a third major political party because they believe Democrats and Republicans do such a poor job representing the American people.
All this being said, as we will now show, the positions in the West are clearly more liberal when compared with the non-West, and Jews are more liberal than Americans generally, and Western Jews are more liberal than Jews elsewhere. True, we see regional convergence in Jews’ voting patterns; but a more nuanced look at measures beyond voting reveal far greater differences in ideology and socio-political attitudes.
Many Jewish Democrats, many Jewish liberals
After we go beyond voting patterns, we find that the often-presumed absolute liberalism among American Jews is not entirely uniform, as more observant Jews certainly lean right of center. Nonetheless, it is unquestionable that Jews are largely liberal and very much Democrats, with those living in the West almost twice as likely to be liberal.
To elaborate, we can start by looking at those who identify as strongly liberal. Of Americans living in the West, only 9 percent are strong liberally, as compared with three times as many — almost 30 percent — among Jews living in the West. Similarly for those outside the West, roughly 5 percent of Americans identify as strongly liberal compared with 16 percent of non-Western Jews.
On particular issues, Jewish liberalism remains far greater than among other Americans, in the West or elsewhere. Two examples come to mind. The first is the issue of whether homosexuality should be accepted by society. Among Jews, the West/non-West division is minor — 85 percent to 82 percent, respectively. Notably, acceptance of homosexuality by Jews is roughly 20 points higher compared with non-Jews in the West and the non-West.
A second example involves social services: “Some people think the government should provide fewer services, even in areas such as health and education, in order to reduce spending. Other people feel that it is important for the government to provide many more services, even if it means an increase in spending.” The two options present clear liberal and conservative views of the role of government. Here, Jews are again more liberal compared with the American populace on the whole. Almost 55 percent of Jews want to see more services and a larger government. Jews’ liberalism on government’s role exceeds non-Jews by about 10 points in the West and 15 points in the non-West, demonstrating that Jews are, once again, more liberal than non-Jews.
As for party identification, Western Jews are far more likely to be Democrats, compared with Jews in the other regions and compared with Americans more generally. In the West, 61 percent of Jews are Democrats, followed by 27 percent independents and 11 percent Republicans. Comparable Pew data from 2013 for all those living in the West show that only 35 percent were Democrats, 44 percent independents and 20 percent Republicans. Although the West in general is more left of center than the rest of the country, the Jews in the West are almost twice as likely to be Democrats compared with non-Jews.
Looking at the East, Midwest and South, we see similar distributions. But for Jews in the non-West, the leftward tilt is not as strong as in the West, with 53 percent of non-Western Jews identifying as Democrats, 31 percent as independents and 14 percent as Republicans. But the relative leftward skew of Jews outside the West is evident when we compare them with all Americans in the non-West: Among them, 42 percent are Independents, with roughly 30 percent each for Democrats and Republicans.
We see a clear story here. When looking at ideology and partisanship, we find that Jews compared with the U.S. as a whole are far more left of center. Moreover, there is a distinct Western Jewish liberalism that is still further to the left when compared with West Coast liberals generally and Jews outside the West.
Jews see more discrimination — against themselves and others
Table 1. Discrimination: percent “Yes, there is a lot of discrimination”
Note: May 2013 Pew Political Survey, Weighted
Given the history of anti-Semitism in the United States, it is no surprise that Jews see forces of discrimination alive and well for all groups. As many as 43 percent of Jews see themselves as facing a lot of discrimination, as compared with only 24 percent who feel that way about Jews among the general public.
Even more notable is that Jews believe Muslims, gays and lesbians, Hispanics and Blacks face considerably more discrimination than they do. The magnitudes are substantial compared with the population as a whole. Table 1 displays the size of these perception differences. Looking at Blacks, for instance, Jews see discrimination as being rampant, while the general population does not. The startling gap between Jews and the general public is about 3-to-1. Moreover, Western Jews are even more likely than Jews elsewhere to perceive a lot of discrimination against particular groups.
Among Jews, higher approval of President Obama
In May of 2013, slightly less than 50 percent of Americans approved of the way President Barack Obama was handling his job as president. Jews, on the other hand, felt differently, with 70 percent of those living in the West approving of Obama while 64 percent elsewhere did, as well. Moreover, on the question of Obama’s handling of the economy, roughly 42 percent of Americans approved his approach. Again, Jews felt more positively, with 68 percent of Western Jews and 57 percent elsewhere reporting support of the president. So, once again, we see expression of Jewish liberalism, with a more pronounced version in the West.
The question that remains is why are Jews so liberal — and even more liberal in the West? We offer some partial explanations for why Jews are generally liberal, and Western Jews even more liberal than American Jews elsewhere.
One is that Jews are decidedly found in areas such as Los Angeles, San Francisco or Denver, which have left-of-center political climates. Another explanation can be found in the demographic trends. Western Jews dramatically trail Jews in other parts of the U.S. in terms of those who self-identify as Orthodox, and we also found a smaller proportion of Conservative identifiers in the West. At the same time, the West markedly leads other American Jews in the number who identify with no denomination (48 percent versus 32 percent).
Consistently, for Jews and Americans, traditional religiosity is related to conservatism. Among Jews, those who are Orthodox specifically, and more religious generally, situate themselves more to the right on the political spectrum; those who identify simply as Jewish without a denominational label, or are less religious in other ways, more often fall on the liberal left. Therefore, unsurprisingly, the West looks far more liberal compared with other parts of the country.
Samuel Abrams is research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and professor of politics and social science at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Steven M. Cohen is research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director, Berman Jewish Policy Archive at Stanford University.