Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton meets with Asian-American and Pacific Islander elected officials on January 7, 2016. Photo: AFP / Frederic J Brown
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton meets with Asian-American and Pacific Islander elected officials on January 7, 2016. Photo: AFP / Frederic J Brown

It has become the conventional political narrative: America is today split, between two nations. In one, there are the liberal, secular, overeducated, cosmopolitan, pro-free-trade urban bi-coastals, the effeminate Ivy Leaguers who shop at Whole Foods, read The New York Times and who voted for Hillary Clinton last November.

In the other America, there are the conservative, traditional, high-school-educated, nationalist, protectionist rural residents of Flyover Country, the racist, boorish, theocratic folks who gravitate to authoritarian figures, hate science and watch Fox News, and who cast their ballots for Donald Trump in 2016.

A caricature perhaps; but like every caricature, it has some element of truth. According to a new study issued by the Pew Research Center this month, the divisions between Republicans and Democrats on fundamental political values, on government, race, immigration, and the environment, which reached record levels during Barack Obama’s presidency, have widened dramatically in Trump’s first year as president.

Pollsters seem to agree that you can predict the electoral orientations of voters by studying their political values that tend to correlate with their economic status, level of education, religious beliefs, and places of residence.

Most residents of Washington, DC; Manhattan, New York; Marin county, California; and Cambridge, Massachusetts, who have advanced academic degrees and hold jobs in the knowledge industry, who are liberal and secular in their political-cultural orientation, and who support legalizing same-sex marriages, vote for Democratic candidates.

West Virginians, those rural voters and blue-collar workers with high-school educations, who attend church every week and are opposed to legalizing same-sex marriages, cannot imagine someone casting a ballot for Clinton.

Asian-Americans, and especially the younger members of that community, are now being asked to choose a side in the cold civil war between the two American nations.

And they apparently have been gravitating to the one that is more culturally liberal and racially diverse, which resides in the large urban centers of the country, where the centers of higher education and scientific research are located.

There was a time when Asian-Americans were seen as the natural political allies of the Republican Party. The party represented the principles of the free market, supported the interests of small businesses, celebrated social-conservative values, and stood at the forefront of opposition to international communism.

Indeed, if you had asked pollsters in the 1970s to forecast the electoral trends among Asian-Americans, they would have suggested that you had to consider that most of them worked in the private sector, that they were also family-oriented and subscribed to traditional values. And that their families had fled communist persecution in Asian countries. Considering all of that, it was a no-brainer. Asian-Americans would probably vote for Republican political candidates in the 1974 election.

And, indeed, during the post-1945 era the majority of Asian-American voters that included refugees from communist-ruled China, Korea and Vietnam tended to identify with the conservative and anti-communist agenda of the Republicans.

They went for Ronald Reagan, a Republican president whose economic principles, social values and foreign policy seemed to be in line with theirs, as was his commitment to the notion of the US as a nation of immigrants. His successor at the White House, Republican George H W Bush, received 55% of the Asian-American vote compared with 31% for Democrat Bill Clinton.

But during the past two decades, Asian-Americans have begun drifting electorally in the Democratic direction, with 55% of them voting in 2000 for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore to 41% for Republican George W Bush, while in 2004 it was Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry who won the majority (56%) of the Asian-American vote.

Young Asian-Americans embrace the “cool” values of urban America on  immigration and environmental protection, and are alienated from the culture of rural America. They have more in common with the liberal Jews of New York City than with gun-toting rednecks in Alabama.

The gap has been widening in favor of the Democrats since then, with Barack Obama winning a growing majority of Asian-American voters in 2008 (62%) and 2012 (73%).

In fact, in 2012 the percentage of Asian-Americans going for Obama was higher than that of Latinos who voted for the Democratic presidential candidate (71%) and another traditionally Democratic leaning bloc of Jewish voters (70%).

And the trend in the Democrats’ direction continued in 2016, with Hillary Clinton winning roughly two-thirds of Asian-American votes, and Trump receiving just over a quarter of their votes.

Indeed, by more than three-to-one, the 17.5 million people of Asian or Pacific Islander descent in the United States now identify themselves as Democrats, the only exception being Korean-Americans, who continue to lean Republican.

There are several explanations for the Asian-American electoral shift from the Republicans to the Democrats.

First, the end of the Cold War has diminished the significance of foreign-policy issues in the electoral considerations of Asian-Americans, especially among the children of immigrants from China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Korea. While the parents wanted to see a tough anti-communist crusader occupying the White House, their kids who were born in the United States have been more occupied with “normal” election concerns, such as the economy and education.

Moreover, second- and third-generation Asian-Americans tend now to embrace the voting patterns of their respective socio-economic groups. So it is not surprising that young, urbanite, over-educated and well-to-do Asian-American professionals and business executives tend to adopt the political culture of (and vote like other) young, urbanite, over-educated Americans in, say, Manhattan, Cambridge, or Silicon Valley. They identify themselves as politically liberal and vote mostly for Democratic candidates.

To put it in simple terms, more Asian-Americans work today in the Silicon Valley than in the mining industries of West Virginia, and reside in the upper-middle-class suburbs of northern Virginia than in the backwater areas of Mississippi.

And young Asian-Americans embrace the “cool” values of urban America on immigration and environmental protection, and are alienated from the culture of rural America. They have more in common with the liberal Jews of New York City than with gun-toting rednecks in Alabama.

Hence, take an average Asian-American family, and you may discover that the grandfather who immigrated from China or Vietnam and opened a business in the US had voted for Republican Reagan in 1980; his daughter cast her ballot for the Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992; and his grandson was a fan of left-leaning Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders or of the libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson in 2016.

And there is no doubt that the nationalist agenda, with its somewhat nativist and xenophobic tendencies, adopted by the Republicans in recent years and embraced fully by Trump in his campaign antagonized many Asian-Americans.

While Trump directed most of his attacks against illegal Mexican immigrants, his criticism of China and other emerging economies in Asia for their trade practices seemed to have had certain racist overtones, while Clinton and the Democrats were promoting a more open, multicultural and globalist vision of America.

But interestingly enough, Trump and the Republicans have succeeded in mobilizing support among some young Asian-Americans, especially among newly arrived Chinese immigrants. In particular, his stand against affirmative-action programs attracted Asian-American voters who feel that giving preference to black and Latino college or university applicants has disadvantaged young Asian-American candidates.

At the same time, Hindu nationalists in India and among the Indian-American community have been drawn to Trump’s positions on foreign policy, and especially his commitment to pursuing an aggressive strategy against global radical Islamic groups.

And President Trump’s decision to appoint a prominent young Asian-American woman – former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley – US ambassador to the United Nations could certainly help Republicans in an outreach effort to this community.

Haley was born in Bamberg, South Carolina, to Sikh immigrants from Punjab, India. Before her appointment as UN ambassador, she had already made history, becoming the first female governor of South Carolina. She is considered a rising young political star in the Republican Party and a possible presidential candidate in the future.

Democrats shouldn’t assume that Asian-Americans are now in their electoral pocket, while Republicans will have make a renewed effort to recruit members of this electoral group into their party. Nothing stands still in politics. And that includes the Asian-American vote.

Leon Hadar

Leon Hadar is a Washington-based journalist and global affairs analyst. He is currently a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm. He authored Quagmire: America in the Middle East​ (Cato Institute, 1992) and Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). He has a PhD in international relations from American University in Washington, DC, and master's degrees from the schools of journalism and international affairs at Columbia University.