2018 was a uniquely momentous year in Asian-American politics. For the first time in a long time, it felt like Asian-Americans were being elected outside of California. In New Jersey’s third congressional district, for example, Democrat and former Obama staffer Andy Kim won over long-time incumbent Tom MacArthur, who engineered the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and is closely aligned with President Trump. Republican Young Kim was poised to be the first Korean-American women in Congress, although the race was just called on Saturday for Democrat Gil Cisneros.
Certainly, neither of these examples speak to a paradigmatic shift in the representation or enthusiasm of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in politics. Outside of California and Hawaii, few AAPI are drawn to active political engagement, whether through protesting, calling representatives and senators, or even voting.
When I worked on a political campaign this summer, I didn’t see any Asian representation. This isn’t that surprising in a country bumpkin state like Indiana, but it was still difficult to grapple with evidence of the long history of political and social exclusion that Asian-Americans have experienced in the United States. These scars still influence our conceptions of politics and America for us when we attempt to become more politically active.
Our parents often discourage our engagement with the system because it goes against Confucian principles of respecting authority. Furthermore, their experiences with the anxiety of immigration and U.S. border protection have increased their fear of the government’s pervasive control. That many of them immigrated from countries that employed authoritarian regimes or at least incredibly strict legal systems does not promote the American ideal of free speech and political representation.
Yet, as the demographic of Asian people in the United States shifts from the first-generation immigrants to AAPI who were born in the United States and identify as American, our political orientations as a group might be changing. Negotiating the terms of this political relationship in terms of partisanship and allying with broad identity groups are crucial and introspective questions that we’ll need to resolve and re-negotiate in the near term.
I think we should strive for two different realizations. First, our identities shouldn’t be tied to a party. Second, we should increase our political knowledge to express our views in elections, lobbying and forwarding representation in our country’s government.
I’ve heard a lot of anecdotal evidence about how AAPI parents (especially Chinese Americans) are voting for Trump. Apparently, much of this pro-Trump discourse occurred through social media platforms like WeChat and specifically circulated around suburban parents who had essentially “made it” in America. Often, these parents (and thus their children) embody the American Dream: they worked hard in their home country to find a way out and then worked hard in the United States to gain better social and economic situations for their children.
My parents often argue with me in this way — that their work justifies others having to do the same work. And no matter what sort of justification Democrats make about the necessity of social security, they don’t care. Their own personal experiences contradict this. These sort of political beliefs, based primarily on the American Dream and the hard work required to succeed are likely to continue, but I don’t believe that we should castigate people who believe in the value of overcoming obstacles.
If we disagree, we should continue conversations instead of framing other Asian-Americans as irresponsible or voting against their interests. Only in this way can we form a larger coalition that can become more politically powerful as well as ease inherent tensions that exist between different AAPI groups as a result of different ethnic background.
In terms of the second point, I’m inclined to think that AAPI have long been ignored by the dual-party system. Although Democrats should care more about minority groups, the number of AAPI who are enthusiastic in voting generally hasn’t been enough to sway elections, especially at the national level. This makes Asian-Americans an unworthy investment. We must change that, and I think we can do so by speaking out and involving ourselves in more political activities, whether it’s commenting often on political Facebook posts, writing letters to our leaders in Congress or picketing for causes we find important. When party leaders begin to hear our collective disgruntledness and political orientations, they will begin to respond.
Nothing hurts more than the wounded attachment of American politics. The narrative has always been that people of any kind are able to participate, but it’s empirically been proven false by racism in campaigns and on the congressional floor. For example, in the Michigan state senate election, Bettie Cook Scott called her Asian opponent a “ching-chong.” We have to force progress within ourselves and our communities, but we need to do it in respectful ways that increase dialogue and overall understanding for AAPI in the political process.