Asian Americans—a broad racial group that includes over 30 distinct ethnic subgroups—are the fastest-growing electorate in the country, and currently comprise nearly 5% of all American voters. Researchers believe the Asian American electorate could play a crucial role in the 2020 election: While still mostly concentrated in coastal urban areas such as New York City and Los Angeles, Asian American communities are growing most rapidly in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Nevada. Asian American eligible voters now outnumber the projected margin of victory in these critical swing states.
Despite their projected influence, Asian Americans are less likely than other voters to declare affiliation to a major political party: Nearly one-third of registered Asian American voters identify as neither Democrat nor Republican. Dr. Anh Thu Bui, who serves as a board member of the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization (PIVOT), theorizes that some Asian Americans—particularly those who have escaped political turmoil or violence in their countries of origin—may be wary of narrowly affiliating with an American political party.
“I know a number of folks who want to retain a sense of independence so they can vote by the issues rather than by party loyalty,” she says.
In several studies, including some conducted by Dr. Janelle Wong, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of Maryland, most Asian American voters report having never been contacted by either political party. Wong notes how this reflects a lack of willingness among political parties to engage with Asian Americans.
“This is short-sighted,” says Wong. “With more investment [by political party leadership] on Asian Americans around some progressive ideas, there could really be long-term payoff—especially for Democrats.”
Contrary to stereotype, the Asian American electorate is engaged, diverse, and spans the ideological spectrum. Some—especially some first-generation Asian Americans, as well as some members of certain ethnic subgroups such as Vietnamese Americans and Hmong Americans—are conservative-leaning. However, most Asian Americans, particularly younger, U.S.-born voters, are strikingly progressive on several issues including health care, the environment, and gun control.
“There’s a widespread false belief that Asian Americans don’t like to pay taxes that’s rooted in the idea that the community consists mostly of small business owners,” explains Wong, who is co-primary investigator of the 2016 National Asian American Survey, a comprehensive nationwide study of Asian American political opinion. “But that’s not the case—most Asian Americans are not self-employed or small business owners. Furthermore, even among the wealthiest of Asian Americans, voters are very much in favor of a tax increase on the richest Americans to provide for the middle class.”
Asian American Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Voters without party affiliation also tend to be moderately progressive on most issues. In the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, Asian Americans voted for President Barack Obama in overwhelming numbers, and more than 70% of Asian American voters backed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Currently, more than half of surveyed Asian Americans view President Donald Trump unfavorably, although these numbers vary by Asian American ethnic group.
Even where the “model minority” myth has historically pitted Asian Americans against Black and brown communities, Asian Americans are generally more progressive than the average white American voter.
“Asian American voters are moderate progressives on issues related to race such as a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, the Black Lives Matter movement, and affirmative action,” says Wong. “We often assume older Asian Americans are conservative on race and other social issues, but we really need to contextualize that within the larger racial context of the United States. If you compare older and first-generation Asian Americans to white voters, Asian Americans are still much more likely to be more progressive on racial issues compared to white Americans, especially older white Americans.”
Progressive ideology is deeply ingrained within Asian American political history. Beginning in the 1960s, young Asian American activists founded groups like the San Francisco-based Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), which built coalitions with Black and Latinx organizers to fight for progressive causes such as voting rights, ethnic studies, school desegregation, and anti-war efforts; together, this work helped to birth the modern Asian American Movement. Vincent Pan, CAA’s current co-executive director, describes the appeal of progressivism for many Asian Americans: “It’s about doing something to break up the status quo that keeps some people voiceless and invisible.”
One issue that finds broad support from most Asian American voters is affirmative action. This election year, California voters will decide ballot measure Proposition 16, which if passed would restore affirmative action to the state. Recognizing the devastating effect of California’s affirmative action ban on Black and brown enrollment in California’s colleges and universities, CAA is one of several Asian American groups working as part of a progressive multi-racial coalition to pass Proposition 16 this November.
Yet, the issue of affirmative action has also galvanized a different grassroots movement in the Asian American community. In 2012, an earlier effort to restore affirmative action in California—Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 (SCA5)—was met with strident grassroots opposition, primarily from first-generation Chinese Americans spurred to enter the political arena for the first time. Labeling affirmative action the new “Chinese Exclusion Act,” these political newcomers organized through Chinese-language social media apps such as WeChat to build a conservative grassroots movement capable of filling the streets with protesters and clogging phone lines with call-in campaigns. These efforts ultimately succeeded in pressuring elected officials to withdraw SCA5 in 2014. Since then, Asian American conservatives have expanded their activism to include other racial justice issues, such as opposition to the collection of ethnically disaggregated demographic data.
Pan reflects on the recent influence of the Chinese American conservative movement. “Everyone wants to talk about the conservatives,” he says, expressing frustration that progressive Asian American support for affirmative action has been largely overlooked by mainstream reporting. “The conservatives are sometimes loud, and sometimes they’re strident. But, for the most part, the visible opposition [to affirmative action] has not had representation from other Asian ethnic groups. The majority of Asian Americans are actually in support of affirmative action.”
Since SCA5’s withdrawal, CAA and other progressive Asian American groups have developed new strategies to address conservatism within the Asian American community. In particular, Asian American progressives have spent the intervening years emphasizing partnership with organizers outside of the Asian American community to build a solid, multi-racial progressive coalition.
“Coalition-building is stronger now,” says Wong, citing Pan’s work alongside Black and brown leaders to re-engage the affirmative action issue this year through Proposition 16. “Compared to Asian American opponents of affirmative action, Asian American progressives are presenting a united front with other people of color, and with progressive whites.”
Asian American progressives’ emphasis on building partnerships also extends to within the Asian American community, where progressives hope to improve intracommunal political discourse. Progressives believe this will help combat misinformation around a number of racial justice issues, particularly as they may be exacerbated in Asian-language ethnic and social media where many Asian Americans primarily receive their news.
“There are Chinese immigrants who haven’t had access to accurate information and who are very vulnerable to fear-mongering in-language,” says Pan of some Chinese American racial conservatives. “Ethnic media has always been how the Asian American community has gotten information. Just like in mainstream American media, these information sources have been disrupted leading to the spread of disinformation, fake news, polarization, and echo chambers. But in Chinese language spaces, these problems are often exacerbated.”
Pan goes on to explain how on WeChat, the relative absence of non-Chinese users coupled with the platform’s heavy censorship of certain topics such as human rights and feminism can limit users’ access to diverse or progressive viewpoints. To address this, CAA has focused on identifying and supporting progressive Asian American voices in digital content creation, curation, and distribution through Asian-language social media, podcasts, and short films. Separately, Pan is also involved in other projects to run political ads in Asian-language print media.
“[With regard to Prop. 16], we hope to communicate that affirmative action will help Asian Americans and other communities, and that this is how we collectively move forward,” says Pan of CAA’s digital content efforts. “We talk about how affirmative action will improve higher education access, but we emphasize this alongside other progressive ideas, such as free public colleges and universities and more universal access to higher education overall.”
“Asian American progressive have realized [since SCA5] that they are not alone in their views, especially when it comes to WeChat,” says Wong. “WeChat is a place where misinformation flows heavily, but there’s also a group of people on WeChat who are extremely progressive, organized, and already attuned to the kinds of messages that will be effective in those spaces. Now, there’s more partnership between first-generation Chinese doing progressive work and Asian American progressives whose space is not WeChat.”
Bui also emphasizes the importance of in-language and culturally relevant messaging for PIVOT’s mission of engaging Vietnamese Americans on progressive policy and candidates.
“PIVOT formed in the aftermath of the 2016 election, and a lot of us came together because we have firsthand experience as refugees and as children of refugees,” says Bui. “We thought, ‘we have to leverage that—it’s a voice that matters.’ A lot of us have been silent because our parents and grandparents are conservative, but the 2016 election really made us feel like we have to have a safe space for progressive voices.”
Like CAA, PIVOT has also focused on developing progressive digital resources for Vietnamese American voters. They have launched several in-language voter education projects, including a Viet-language podcast, election toolkit, and other viral media projects. They have also launched VietFactCheck, a bilingual political fact-checking site that addresses the veracity of statements made by both the Trump and Biden campaigns.
“This is another way we can say there is an alternative opinion compared to what is in Viet media only,” says Bui.
“The ideological divides in the Asian American community especially over issues like affirmative action and other policies having to do with race, racial integration, and access to education—this divide is going to be with us for the rest of our lives,” says Wong. “This is going to define Asian American politics going forward.”
Bui, however, is hopeful about the future of Asian American political discourse.
“One thing that has been so amazing in this work is the passion of the young folks,” she says. “A lot of them are personally healing intergenerational trauma by talking to their parents and bringing progressive ideas home. Whether people change their minds and vote Democratic or not, I feel there is so much hope. The older generation is listening to youngsters, and they’re finding out what we can do to take care of this one and only planet that we have. That is the most powerful thing—engagement … If we can keep that momentum going, that will help us to be so much more engaged as voters and as participants in this society we have adopted.”