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Opinion | Will Asian Americans Bolt From the Democratic Party? - The New York Times
Will Asian Americans Bolt From the Democratic Party?
Thomas B. Edsall
The New York Times
Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C. on politics, demographics and inequality.
Over the past three decades, Asian American voters — according to Pew, the fastest growing group in the country — have shifted from decisively supporting Republicans to becoming a reliably Democratic bloc, anchored by firmly liberal views on key national issues.
The question now is whether this party loyalty will withstand politically divisive developments that appear to pit Asian Americans against other key Democratic constituencies — as controversies emerge, for example, over progressive education policies that show signs of decreasing access to top schools for Asian Americans in order to increase access for Black and Hispanic students.
There is little question of the depth of liberal commitments among Asian Americans.
“Do Asian Americans, a group marked by crosscutting demographic cleavages and distinct settlement histories, constitute a meaningful political category with shared policy views?” ask Janelle Wong, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, and Sono Shah, a computer scientist at the Pew Research Center, in their 2021 paper “Convergence Across Difference: Understanding the Political Ties That Bind with the 2016 National Asian American Survey.”
Their answer: “Political differences within the Asian American community are between those who are progressive and those who are even more so.”
In 1992, the year national exit polls started reporting Asian American sentiment, the group leaned Republican, supporting George Bush over Bill Clinton 55 percent to 31 percent. But by 2012, that had reversed. Asian Americans overwhelmingly supported President Obama over Mitt Romney — 73 percent to 26 percent.
In their paper, Wong and Shah note that “despite critical differences in national origin, generation, class, and even partisanship, Asian Americans demonstrate a surprising degree of political commonality.”
With regard to taxes, for example, “More than 75 percent of both Asian American Democrats and Republicans support increasing taxes on the rich to provide a tax cut for the middle class.”
Or take support for strong emissions regulations to address environmental concerns. This has 78.3 percent support among Asian American Democrats and 76.9 percent among Asian American Republicans.
In a 2021 paper, “Fault Lines Among Asian Americans,” Sunmin Kim — a sociologist at Dartmouth — found that Asian Americans took decisively liberal stands on Obamacare, admission of Syrian refugees, free college tuition, opposition to the Muslim immigration ban, environmental restrictions on power plants and government assistance to Black Americans. The only exception was legalization of marijuana, which received less support from Asian Americans than from any other group.
In an email, Kim cited the declining importance of communism as a key factor in the changing partisan allegiance of Asian American voters. In the 1970s and 80s, he said, “Taiwanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese chose the party that had a reputation of being tougher on communism. Obviously, it was the Republican Party. Chinese immigrants, many of whom retained the memory of the Cultural Revolution, were not too different.” After the 1990s, he continued, “the children of immigrants who grew up and received education in the United States replace the first generation, and their outlook on politics is much different from their parents. They see themselves as a racial minority, and their high education level pushes them towards liberalism on many issues.”
In short, Kim wrote: “the Cold War ended and a generational shift occurred.”
Despite many shared values, there are divergences of opinion among Asian Americans on a number of issues, in part depending on the country of origin. These differences are clear in the results of the 2020 Asian American Voter Survey, which was released in September 2020.
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Asked for their preference for Joe Biden or Donald Trump, 54 percent of all Asian Americans chose Biden to 30 percent for Trump. Biden had majority support from Indian (65-28), Japanese (61-24), Korean (57-26), Chinese (56-20) and Filipino Americans (52-34). Vietnamese Americans were the lone exception, supporting Trump 48-36.
At the moment, affirmative action admissions policies are a key issue testing Asian American support for the Democratic Party. In educational institutions as diverse as Harvard, San Francisco’s Lowell High School, Loudon County’s Thomas Jefferson High School and the most prestigious selective high schools in New York and Boston, conflict over educational resources between Asian American students and parents on one side and Black and Hispanic students and parents on the other has become endemic. Policies designed to increase Black and Hispanic access to high quality schools often result in a reduction in the number of Asian American students admitted.
Despite this, the 2020 Asian American Voter Survey cited above found that 70 percent of Asian Americans said they “favor affirmative action programs designed to help Blacks, women and other minorities,” with 16 percent opposed. Indian Americans were strongest in their support, 86-9, while Chinese Americans were lowest, 56-25.
These numbers appear to mask considerable ambivalence over affirmative action among Asian Americans when the question was posed not in the abstract but in the real world. In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209 prohibiting government from implementing affirmative action policies, declaring that “The State shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”
In 2020, California voters were asked to support or oppose repeal of the anti-affirmative action measure — that is, to restore affirmative action. 36 percent of all Asian American voters said they would support restoration of affirmative action, 22 percent were opposed and 36 percent were undecided. A plurality of Chinese Americans, 38 percent, on the other hand, opposed restoration of affirmative action, 30 percent were in favor, and 28 percent were undecided.
Compared to white applicants at selective private colleges and universities, black applicants receive an admission boost that is equivalent to 310 SAT points, measured on an all-other-things-equal basis. The boost for Hispanic candidates is equal on average to 130 SAT points. Asian applicants face a 140 point SAT disadvantage.
In 2018, the Harvard Crimson studied the average SAT scores of students admitted to Harvard from 1995 to 2013. It found that Asian Americans admitted to Harvard earned an average SAT score of 767 across all sections, while whites averaged 745 across all sections, Hispanic American 718, Native-American and Native-Hawaiian 712 and African-American 704.
Scholars of Asian American politics have found that Asian American voters have remained relatively strong supporters of affirmative action policies, with one exception: Chinese Americans, who constitute nearly a quarter of all Asian Americans.
In “Asian Americans and Race-Conscious Admissions: Understanding the Conservative Opposition’s Strategy of Misinformation, Intimidation & Racial Division,” Liliana M. Garces and OiYan Poon, professors of educational leadership at the University of Texas-Austin and Colorado State University, give the following reasons for the concentration of anti-affirmative action sentiment among Chinese Americans.
Garces and Poon write that 1990 changes in the U.S. Immigration Act “increased by threefold the number of visas for highly skilled, professional-class immigrants, privileging highly educated and skilled immigrants” while “migration policy changes in China advantaged more structurally-privileged Chinese to emigrate.”
Second, “growing up in mainland China, many of these more recent Chinese American immigrants were systemically and culturally socialized to strongly believe that a single examination is a valid measure of merit for elite college access.”
Third, “The residential and employment patterns among more recent immigrants suggest that their social lives remain limited to middle and upper-middle class Chinese American immigrants and whites.”
The social media platform, WeChat, plays an important role in fostering opposition to affirmative action among some Chinese American immigrants. Some studies have found that WeChat plays a central role in the distribution of information among the Chinese diasporic community, including fake news, to politically motivate and organize Chinese immigrants for conservative causes, especially against affirmative action and ethnic data disaggregation.
Another issue with the potential to push Asian American voters to the right is crime.
The 2018 Crime Victimization report issued in September 2019 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the Department of Justice found that a total of 182,230 violent crimes were committed against Asian Americans in 2018. 27.5 percent were committed by African Americans, 24.1 percent by whites, 24.1 percent by Asian Americans, 7.0 percent by Hispanics, and the rest undetermined.
The New York City police report on 2021 hate crime arrestees shows that 30 of the 56 men and women charged with hate crimes against Asian Americans were Black, 14 were Hispanic, 7 were white and five were Asian American/Pacific Islanders.
While most of the experts on Asian American politics I contacted voiced confidence in the continued commitment of Asian Americans to the Democratic Party and its candidates, there were some danger signals — for example, in the 2021 New York City mayoral election.
That year, Eric Adams, the Democrat, decisively beat Curtis Sliwa, the Republican, 65.5 to 27.1, but support for Sliwa — an anti-crime stalwart who pledged to take on “the spineless politicians who vote to defund police” — shot up to 44 percent “in precincts where more than half of residents are Asian,” according to The City.
The story was headlined “Chinese voters came out in force for the GOP in NYC, shaking up politics” and the subhead read “From Sunset Park in Brooklyn to Elmhurst and Flushing in Queens, frustrations over Democratic stances on schools and crime helped mobilize votes for Republican Curtis Sliwa for mayor and conservative Council candidates.”
A crucial catalyst in the surge of support for Sliwa, according to The City, was his “proposed reforms to specialized high school admissions and gifted and talented programs” — ignoring the fact that Adams had also pledged to do this. More generally, the City reported,
A wave of hate crimes targeting Asian Americans during the pandemic has heightened a sense of urgency about public safety and law enforcement. Asian anger and frustration have, for the first time, left a visible dent in a city election.
Grace Ming, a Democratic congresswoman from Queens, tweeted on Nov. 4, 2021:
Pending paper ballot counts, the assembly districts of @nily, @edbraunstein, @Barnwell30, @Rontkim and @Stacey23AD all went Republican. Our party better start giving more of a sh*t about #aapi (Asian American-Pacific Island) voters and communities. No other community turned out at a faster pace than AAPIs in 2020.
Similarly, Asian Americans led the drive to oust three San Francisco School Board members — all progressive Democrats — last month. As Times colleague Amelia Nierenberg wrote on Feb. 16:
The recall also appeared to be a demonstration of Asian American electoral power. In echoes of debates in other cities, many Chinese voters were incensed when the school board changed the admission system for the district’s most prestigious institution, Lowell High School. It abolished requirements based primarily on grades and test scores, instead implementing a lottery system.
While “these senseless acts of anti-Asian violence have finally garnered the national attention they deserve,” Lee and Huang continue, “they have also invoked anti-Black sentiment and reignited the trope of Black-Asian conflict. Because some of the videotaped perpetrators appear to have been Black, some observers immediately reduced anti-Asian violence to Black-Asian conflict.”
Working against such Black-Asian conflict, the two authors argue, is a besieged but “real-world solidarity” demonstrated in
studies showing that Black Americans are more likely than white or Hispanic Americans to recognize racism toward Asian Americans, and that Asian Americans who experience discrimination are more likely to recognize political commonality with Black Americans. Covid-related anti-Asian bias is not inevitable. While “China virus” rhetoric has been linked to violence and hostility, new research shows that priming Americans about the coronavirus did not increase anger among the majority of Americans toward Asian Americans.
Lee and Huang warn, however, that “anger among a minority has invoked fear among the majority of Asian Americans.”
The changing selectivity of contemporary U.S. Asian immigration has recast Asian Americans from ‘unassimilable to exceptional,’ resulting in their rapid racial mobility. This mobility combined with their minoritized status places them in a unique group position in the U.S. racial hierarchy, conveniently wedged between underrepresented minorities who stand to gain most from the policy (affirmative action) and the advantaged majority who stands to lose most because of it. It also marks Asians as compelling victims of affirmative action who are penalized because of their race.
In recent years, “a new brand of Asian immigrants has entered the political sphere whose attitudes depart from the Asian American college student activists of the 1960s,” Lee writes. “This faction of politically conservative Asian immigrants has no intention of following their liberal-leaning predecessors, nor do they intend to stay silent.”
The issue is “whether more Asian Americans will choose to side with conservatives,” Lee writes, “or whether they will choose to forge a collective Asian American alliance will depend on whether U.S. Asians recognize and embrace their ethnic and class diversity. Will they forge a sense of linked fate akin to that which has guided the political attitudes and voting behavior of Black Americans?”
The outcome may well have a major impact on the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans.
Catalyst, the liberal voter analysis firm, found that from 2016 to 2020, Asian Americans increased their voter turnout by 39 percent, more than any other racial or ethnic constituency, including Hispanic Americans (up 31 percent) and African Americans (up 14 percent). This turnout increase worked decisively in favor of the Democratic Party as Asian Americans voted two to one for the party in both elections.
The April 2021 Pew Research report cited above found that from 2000 to 2019, “The Asian population in the U.S. grew 81 percent from roughly 10.5 million to a record 18.9 million, surpassing the 70 percent growth rate of the nation’s Hispanic population. Furthermore, by 2060, the number of U.S. Asians is projected to rise to 35.8 million, more than triple their 2000 population.”
What this means is that Republicans are certain to intensify their use affirmative action, crime, especially hate crime, and the movement away from merit testing to lotteries for admission to high caliber public schools as wedge issues to try to pry Asian American voters away from the Democratic Party. Indeed, they are already at it. For its part, the Democratic Party will need to add significant muscle to Jennifer Lee’s call for a “linked fate” among Asian and African Americans to fend off the challenge.
The strong commitment of Asian Americans to education has been a source of allegiance to a Democratic Party that has become the preferred home for voters with college and advanced degrees. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is, at the same time, testing the strength of that allegiance by supporting education policies that reduce opportunities for Asian Americans at elite schools while increasing opportunity for two larger Democratic constituencies, made up of Black and Hispanic voters. This is the kind of problem inherent in a diverse coalition comprising a segmented electorate with competing agendas. For the foreseeable future, the ability of the party to manage these conflicts will be a key factor in its success or failure."