Conservatives Court Asian Americans For Electoral Gains

In the run-up to the 2012 elections, some political experts argued that the era of culture wars was over, and that conservative attacks on abortion, affirmative action, and other social issues had lost lost their efficacy in political campaigns. They might have been right immediately after President Obama’s re-election, but they have been very wrong in the years since.One area where conservatives have tried to have their cake and eat it too has been a systematic recruitment of Asian Americans into their war on affirmative action and policies designed to consider diversity in college admissions and hiring. The Justice Department, for example, is backing a lawsuit by Asian Americans claiming that Harvard discriminated against them by factoring in the race and ethnicity of Black and Latino/Latinx applicants.

Asian Americans as a whole have been a conservative leaning population, particularly prior to 9/11, and prominent Asian American conservatives like Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley served as governors, respectively, for Louisiana and South Carolina. Meanwhile, current Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao has held Cabinet positions in both the George W. Bush and Trump administrations and is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Additionally, Asian Americans such as Dinesh D’Souza, Ramesh Ponnuru and Michelle Malkin have been leading voices in the conservative movement. Much of the appeal Republicans made in the 1980s to Asian Americans was primarily driven by issues such as taxes and foreign policy, particularly anti-communism. Indian Americans, for example, were wooed by the foreign policy of the George W. Bush Administration that promised to cultivate strong US-India ties. This had some success because US-India ties had hit a low point during the Bill Clinton Administration, which saw the United States target India with sanctions after the latter tested a nuclear weapon.

After Asian Americans began swinging to Democrats during the Obama era, conservative groups have also made significant attempts to woo Asian American voters on issues such as crime, deregulation, and family values. As part of this effort, they seem to be playing up Asian Americans’ model minority status — the idea that Asian Americans are hardworking, smart, and submissive — to curry favor. In recent years, Republicans have invested millions in specific outreach to Democratic-leaning groups like Indian Americans while redoubling their efforts to keep more conservative-leaning groups like Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans, and Chinese Americans voting for the GOP.

While conservatives are trying to enlist Asian Americans as cultural warriors against other minorities, they’re also not-so-secretly trying to disenfranchise them.

The Trump Administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the Census would disproportionately impact Asian Americans, likely having the most adverse impact on their political power. That’s because Asian Americans already have lower participation rates in the US census than other groups, and even in areas where Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) lean conservative, their political power has long been held in check by gerrymandering and a high proportion of non-citizens. Additionally, Asian Americans also have lower voting rates than other groups, and, in large metropolitan regions, AAPIs have also a much higher rate of being political independents, with nearly 40 percent not favoring one party or another.

Take, for example, the Houston suburbs, home to one of the country’s highest populations of Indian Americans (and significant numbers of Vietnamese and Chinese Americans). In 2018, Indian-American Sri Kulkarni nearly unseated longtime GOP Congressman Pete Olson in a district with a 20 percent Asian American population. Had the Congressional district corresponded to where the Indian-American population was (suburbs like Pearland and Sugar Land were partitioned to dilute Indian-American voting power), Kulkarni might have won the district easily.

That’s why the Justice and Commerce Departments have been so transparent in their dishonesty about the citizenship question. Their goal has been to increase the power of white Republicans in the face of rapidly changing demographics. If the census question is added (and the conservative majority Supreme Court seems likely to allow it), heavily white — and less populated — states like Arkansas, Wyoming, and Utah would see more federal dollars and possibly more Congressional seats, while states like California — which happens to have the highest Asian American population in the country — would lose billions in federal funding and several Congressional seats because of undercounting. The failure of Democratic presidential candidates to discuss these ramifications to AAPI voters has been jarring. Instead of sounding the alarm about the census implications to Asian Americans, many Democrats have been searching for the mythical white working class voter.

Democratic-leaning AAPI groups like AAPI Victory Fund, CAPA21, Indian American Impact, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus have sounded the alarm, and others are petitioning the Supreme Court to delay their decision, but none of the presidential candidates have taken steps to make the citizenship question a central part of their campaigns. All the while, conservatives are laying the groundwork for maintaining their hegemonic power by continuing to engage and recruit Asian Americans as voters and supporters while working to keep them from ever flexing their political muscle.

About the Author

Murali Balaji is a journalist, author, and academic with nearly 20 years of experience in diversity leadership. He is the founder of Maruthi Education Consulting and is a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Professor and the Pupil (2007), a political biography of W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, the editor of Digital Hinduism (2017) and co-editor of Desi Rap (2008).