Democrats Still Don’t Understand Asian American Voters

In the last edition of this newsletter, I wrote about the dilemma that faces progressives who may have problems with changes in education policies and curriculums but don’t want to feed into a nationwide anti-critical race theory panic. Today, I want to dig a bit deeper into that issue by examining how voters and politicians have responded to the fight over education.

I also want to experiment a bit with form in this space. To date, this newsletter has mostly been delivered, more or less, as a standard article. This works, I believe, for a majority of the topics I’ve covered, but sometimes I just want to update you on some of the stuff I’ve been writing about.

A rightward shift for immigrant neighborhoods in New York City

In November of last year, I wrote a piece titled “‘People of Color’ Do Not Belong to the Democratic Party.” The argument I made was quite simple: The 2020 election had seen both Latino and Asian American populations swing toward the Republican Party. To some liberals, this might have seemed counterintuitive given Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. What I argued then, and I continue to think today, is that anyone who actually spends any amount of time in these ethnic enclaves or bothers to talk to immigrant parents could have seen this coming. A strategy of broad but, ultimately, shallow antiracism talk by the Biden campaign wasn’t going to attract voters who either care much less about racial issues than many might assume or may even see its egalitarianism as anathema to both their American dream and the pathways to success for their children.

After last year’s election, I talked to Taeku Lee, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Berkeley, for a podcast I co-host with two of my friends. Lee has worked in the past for AAPI DATA, an organization that collects and analyzes voting patterns in the Asian American community. There are great disparities among so-called Asian American voters, which certainly makes sense given their wide range of countries of origin, class status and geographic location. But one thing they have in common, Lee said, was that they generally have been ignored by both parties in terms of outreach.

There’s some evidence now that this is changing. This month’s New York City mayoral election was basically a formality — there was no world in which the Republican candidate, Curtis Sliwa, would ever beat the Democrat Eric Adams. But there was one bit of surprising information that came out of the polls. Sliwa, who got 29 percent of the citywide vote, did better in Asian enclaves. As reported in The City, “Sliwa scored 44 percent of the vote in precincts where more than half of the residents are Asian — surpassing his 40 percent of votes in white enclaves, 20 percent in majority-Hispanic districts and 6 percent in majority-Black districts.”

Sliwa had a real presence in Asian immigrant neighborhoods in the city, where signs in Chinese and English backing his campaign were posted. One in particular mentioned Sliwa’s support for “merit-based SHSAT,” the test that determines entry into the city’s elite, specialized high schools, his plan to expand gifted and talented programs, and his standing behind the Police Department and “Law and Order.” Some signs also called for voters to reject Democrats because they “label looting, burning, murder as peaceful protests,” want to “abolish merit-based SHSAT” and encourage “laziness.”

Data on why, exactly, immigrant populations vote one way or the other is unreliable, but the sense I’ve gotten from my years of covering this question is that the most important issues in these communities are affirmative action, anti-Asian attacks and so-called merit-based educational issues like admissions tests for top schools. Sliwa, for his part, had a plank of his platform dedicated to “Protecting Asian Community,” where he talked about how his Guardian Angel group had been patrolling “areas that have large Chinese populations.”

The Republican strategy to court Asian voters extended beyond New York City. After their victory in Virginia, governor-elect Glenn Youngkin’s staff did a victory lap in the media. In an interview with Ryan Lizza in Politico, Jeff Roe, a strategist, said, “One of our first advertising pieces in the general election — and one of the first things we hammered on — was that the Thomas Jefferson School in Northern Virginia had lowered their academic standards.”

Thomas Jefferson, or TJ as its called by alumni, is a magnet school with a predominantly Asian student population and an admissions test that was recently replaced with a more holistic model of student assessment. The fight has been prolonged and bitter, and it’s still unclear whether Youngkin’s inroads into the Washington suburbs were spurred on by frustrated Asian American parents. Regardless, it’s notable that Republican political operatives, and not Democrats, are talking empathetically and specifically about the concerns of Asian Americans.

In the interview, Roe also said:

“If you’re an Asian American family going to Thomas Jefferson School and they lower the standards to let more kids who aren’t in accelerated math into the best school in the country, that’s pretty important to you. Advanced math is a big dang thing. But it also is to the Republicans: Why would you not help and want your children to succeed and achieve?”

This is the type of direct messaging that should work for a lot of Asian American voters. Forget about making some unified, antiracist edict that you hope will capture the entirety of a population made up of people who may not think of themselves as a “people” at all. Instead, focus on the things a specific population of Asian voters actually do care about and try to sound empathetic when you talk about them, even when you disagree. It’s not that complicated.

So, what’s the future of the Asian American vote?

Prior to the ’90s, Asian Americans were generally thought of as a reliable Republican voting bloc who supported Ronald Reagan-style economic policies. There was a lot of truth to this, but it also was belied by the fact that political participation was low in many Asian American communities. A more accurate statement would be: Asian Americans used to vote Republican, but a majority did not vote at all. Bill Clinton’s second presidential campaign was seen as the start of a shift toward the left, one that became more pronounced during the 2008 election, when Barack Obama captured an estimated 62 percent of the Asian American vote.

There are a lot of theories about why this happened, but most people agree that it has been because of some mix of outreach and a generational shift from immigrant parents, whose politics are shaped by their homelands, to their children, who are acculturated in the United States.

I want to focus here on the generational question because it stands to reason that if young Asian American voters are reliably liberal, then the Democrats will keep or possibly even expand their gains over the past 30 years. The idea is that bumps in the road like this year’s New York City mayoral election should be contextualized within a long-term trend toward the Democratic Party.

It still feels too early to tell what might happen 20 or even 10 years down the line with Asian American voters. A study released this summer by Tufts University found a surge of political participation among Asian American youth, many of whom did cite “racism” as one of their top priorities. But they still did not vote at the same rate (47 percent) as white youth (61 percent) and still cite a lack of outreach by political campaigns, which means that a lot of votes are still up for grabs.

More important, generational divides are not static or fixed in time. The children of immigrants who came to the United States in the ’70s and ’80s may very well now be voting Democratic, but nearly 60 percent of people of Asian descent in America are foreign-born. The politics of recent immigrants, especially those who live in enclaves like the ones who turned out for Sliwa, are still in flux, and there’s no guarantee that their children will follow the same pattern as earlier, second-generation Asian Americans.

This means that Democrats shouldn’t simply sit back and wait for the first generation to die out. There are new first generations arriving every day.

Why can’t Democrats speak to voter frustration?

The most compelling analysis I read about education and the Virginia governor’s race came from Maya Wiley in The New Republic. Wiley, a progressive civil rights attorney who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City, argued that Youngkin was using the C.R.T. panic to shore up white support and spread racial resentment. This, she wrote, was a new version of the “Southern strategy,” the 1950s and ’60s movement to solidify Republican voting strongholds by inciting anti-Blackness in Southern states.

But Wiley also saw a personal touch in Youngkin’s outreach to parents. Describing his final campaign speech, she wrote:

“He sounded like a moderate Democrat, with the notable exception of C.R.T. His very first promise is to end the closure of schools due to Covid-19. Well, with schools fully reopened and the now-approved vaccine for school-age children, that is a promise without a problem behind it. It’s also irrelevant. The facts often are. In that opening salvo, he was connecting with the pain and frustration of parents, particularly all those white women without college degrees who voted for Biden last year and shifted massively to Youngkin on Tuesday. He was saying he understood their pain and would not repeat it.

“People cheered. He went on to promise more money for students needing special education and more advanced math and advanced degrees. As a progressive, I agree! Shocking, right? This was not just the substance of his message. It was the order of his message. He was saying, “I feel you. I got you. And I will be concrete, specific, and clear.”

Wiley also noted Terry McAuliffe’s poor performance. He “failed to talk about people’s lives” and spent his final speech railing against “Trump and racism.” She criticized McAuliffe for being far too “wonky” and gave an example in which McAuliffe says he will spend money to expand access to pre-K programs but does not directly talk to mothers about how they have gone through a hellish two years of balancing work and full-time child care.

Wiley is right: Candidates need to connect with the anger of people who have been left behind during the pandemic. They need to understand that almost everyone, whether it’s suburban mothers who have left the workplace and feel abandoned by their children’s schools or essential workers who took care of the elderly and indigent in nursing homes with no meaningful support. They feel a great deal of frustration about the pandemic. They will not be reassured by a list of policy proposals and stale anti-Trump messaging.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

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