Guest Blogging

11.14.12

How Do You Make Inroads With Asian-Americans?

Skanda Amarnath on the importance of actually listening to prospective voters.

I don’t know how many of you caught the latest Frum-Shrum podcast, but I was personally struck by the fact David brought up regarding how strongly South and East Asians in Canada favored the Conservative Party in their past federal election. I’ve always known that, at least in New Jersey, where I grew up, South Asians reliably voted for Democrats. Yet no more than 20 years ago, at least among the broader group of Asian-Americans, the Republicans have lost significant ground over the past twenty years. It is certainly possible for the Republicans to compete with Democrats among Asian-American communities, but the insulting needs to stop, as does the assumption that family values and small-business tax cuts will be enough court these voters.

Even in 2012, the Republican Party and its dark-money partners have been far too keen to use the politics of race-baiting and division to extract what little short-term political gain still can be captured. Have a look at these two commercials. Do either of these commercials send a welcoming and inclusive message to Asian-Americans? Sure, both parties engage in an unreasonable amount of China-bashing, and the further to the extremes that you look, the more likely you are to find its ugliest manifestations. Yet there’s still a difference in magnitude and frequency with which the Republican Party race-baits. That’s not to say that there aren’t examples of insensitivity on the Democratic side. In 2007, then Senator Obama had to apologize for a campaign memo that derisively referred to Senator Clinton as “(D-Punjab)”.

But while Citizens Against Government Waste was still running its ad until Election Day, and Pete Hoekstra stood by his ad for the longest time, Senator Obama immediately disavowed his campaign’s memo as ‘stupid’ and made amends. Both parties’ strategists will always have some incentive to engage in insensitive political tactics that pit Americans against ‘those foreign-looking people’, but how each party reacts when such sleazy tactics are deployed speaks volumes about the true inclusiveness of the party.

The hope that right-wing family values will bind coalitions with immigrant communities is also misguided. Whether they come from Mexico, India, or Korea, immigrant families are likely to be ‘privately’ conservative on social issues, but ‘publicly’ liberal. As traditional as they may be, just by being members of minority immigrant communities, they’re not as keen as the Religious Right when it comes to enforcing their values on everyone else. In fact, for all the talk of Hispanics sharing the same ‘family values’ as social conservatives, it didn’t exactly show up in the data from this election’s exit polls.

In order to make these communities competitive for Republicans, they will have to understand how the average South or East Asian immigrant views of social mobility, especially in the context of education. These immigrant families are often looking to move to the suburbs with the best public schools so that they can give their children the best possible education that they can afford. This is where thinking purely in terms of “high taxes = bad, low taxes = good” is least helpful for the Republicans. No one likes high property taxes and wasteful spending on education but to think in such a context belies the greater point. In many of the towns and regions where Asian-Americans are most prominent (i.e. Northeast, Bay Area), there is an implicit understanding that, with the territory, comes higher taxes and a higher standard of education. It’s also not cheap stereotyping to say that the South and East Asian communities are the most keen to take advantage of educational opportunities in the public education system. In the high schools in my area, South and East Asians tended to make up a sizable proportion, if not a majority, of those in Advanced Placement math and science courses.

Republicans should be encouraged by knowing that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the South and East Asian communities. I need only show you Edison, NJ and Fremont, CA as prime examples of this fact. While the nature of the entrepreneurship is different, both are, or close to, majority Asian, and both vote solidly in favor of Democrats. For the family owning an Indian grocery store in Edison, they too want their children to have the educational opportunities so that they can become doctors, professors, lawyers, investment bankers, and engineers. Educational opportunity was probably why they moved to the giant suburb of New Jersey in the first place. Even in multicultural Silicon Valley, which embodies the conservative economic ideals of entrepreneurship and private sector innovation, there is no great fear of President Obama’s second term tax hikes. They were in fact one of President Obama’s biggest donor constituencies in 2012.

All of this is to say that the Republicans lack a holistic approach to tackling the issues concerning South and East Asian communities. The insulting needs to stop, but so too does the idea that tax cuts and family values are a panacea to all socioeconomic issues. If Republicans can improve their chances among these communities, they will likely make inroads elsewhere too. May the listening begin.

Skanda Amarnath is a double major in Economics and Applied Mathematics entering his final year at Columbia University.