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Perspective: Can Desi Voters Be the Trump Card for Democrats?

By Murali Kamma Email By Murali Kamma
May 2024
Perspective: Can Desi Voters Be the Trump Card for Democrats?

All eyes are on the big election in India. But in this year of elections, we’re thinking about other elections as well—and none is bigger than the upcoming U.S. election. Indian Americans, and South Asian voters more generally, are showing their clout, especially in battleground states like Georgia. Can they make a difference in November?

The Republican stalwart, known locally for his activism and fundraising prowess, didn’t look cheerful. Holding a drink, he lamented, “Why don’t more Indians vote for Republicans?” Saying that the Indian community should see the GOP as allies, he used his other hand to list five reasons: social values, piety, lower taxes, deregulation, law and order.

The last reason seemed a bit rich, considering that American democracy was, thanks to Donald Trump and his Republican supporters, in great peril on January 6, 2021. Nevertheless, I understood the activist’s frustration. The rising sway of Indian Americans— not least in swing states such as Georgia, North Carolina, and Arizona—is noticeable, and they tend to vote for Democrats.

Over the past two decades, according to the Pew Research Center, Asian Americans have been the fastest-growing group of voters, and their number since 2020 has increased by roughly two million (15%). This got media coverage, but there was no mention that South Asians are the fastest-growing subset of Asian Americans.

Karthick Ramakrishnan is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside, and director of AAPI Data. AAPI, which stands for Asian American Pacific Islander, may give way to APIDA (Asian Pacific Islander Desi American) because the latter acronym is more inclusive of South Asians. As Ramakrishnan points out in his blog, “Asian Americans, and Americans more generally, continue to hold onto the outdated notion of East Asian as the archetype of what it means to be Asian in America.”

This is obvious in Georgia. AAPI Data shows that Indian Americans form the largest Asian American ethnic group here, with Chinese Americans (except those of Taiwanese descent) coming in second. In the 2020 presidential election, for the first time since 1992, the Democratic Party narrowly won Georgia—which explains why the Republican activist wasn’t happy. Georgia is controlled by the GOP, but it’s no longer red. Now that this purple state is up for grabs in 2024, can Indian Americans prevent the Republican Party from taking it back?

Nearly a quarter of the Indian American electorate came to the U.S. in the last two decades, notes Ramakrishnan, and they’re mostly foreign-born (72%). Indians (along with Filipinos) are—at 68%—the biggest supporters of the Democratic Party among all Asian American groups.

The growing clout of these voters is a big deal because the nation is deeply polarized and the election’s outcome could—once again—hinge on a few swing states. Such is the power of the Electoral College. If the election depended on the number of ballots cast nationally, the GOP would have no hope of winning the presidency. In 2020, Joe Biden got 51.3% of the popular vote (seven million more votes than Trump).

This skewed U.S. electoral system baffles immigrants. While that’s not a reason why Indian Americans are largely Democratic, a good reason no doubt is that they’re anxious over the direction of the GOP, which has turned into a far-right party.

What about Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy, one might ask? Didn’t these Indian Americans gain visibility in the Republican primaries? They did, but Ramaswamy’s extreme views and bizarre performance during his short-lived campaign won him few fans outside the GOP bubble. “Trump Lite, not Trump-like,” I heard somebody say, dismissively.

Ramaswamy will fade from the political scene, if he hasn’t already, but the same cannot be said about Haley. What’s surprising about Haley—an astute politician, even if she’s been accused of flip-flopping—is that she failed to recognize how much her party has changed. Sure, she lasted longer than the other candidates opposing Trump, but this was no contest. Haley fell far short to make her attempt worthwhile, and it seemed futile well before she dropped out of the race.

Perhaps the fever will break once Trump leaves the scene. It’s hard to make predictions about a party, whether in the U.S. or India, when there’s such a cultish devotion to the Dear Leader. For now, the GOP is no Grand Old Party. This headline from The Washington Post says it all, “Haley and Ramaswamy get buzz, but little support among Indian Americans.”

The problem goes beyond Trump, though. He’s the symptom—and the spreader—of a malady that has infected sections of the Republican electorate, where pernicious theories like the Great Replacement (which posits that immigrants of color are replacing whites) have taken hold. When a dominant group feels threatened by minorities, we’re in for a turbulent ride. We can buckle up, but the uncertainty will remain until we land, hopefully without breaking up.

Indian Americans don’t usually pay attention to such theories. Nonetheless, they shun the GOP because, among other reasons, it is tainted by white Christian nationalism and ugly rhetoric directed against migrants. Immigrants also want law and order, and not just in their neighborhoods. But though border chaos is alarming, leading to numerous problems, what’s lost in the xenophobia is that border control is possible only through bipartisan legislation. That won’t happen in today’s Congress, made dysfunctional by Republican hardliners.

The resurgence of isolationism and racism scares people of color, especially immigrants, reminding them of a darker era (no pun intended). And they’re not thinking about a distant past, necessarily; they could be referring to 9/11. “It’s a highly underappreciated story—right?—how South Asians have been targeted, not only Muslims, not only Sikhs, but just being brown,” said Sangay Mishra in an interview with NPR. He is a political scientist at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

What about the GOP’s success with non-white voters since 2020? That’s a startling development, indeed, and Democrats have their work cut out as campaigning intensifies in the coming months. However, it doesn’t negate the fears many people have about a radicalized Republican Party. Inevitably, after a few years in a presidential term, some supporters of the party in power get disenchanted. The reasons could be various, ranging from their economic woes to geopolitical instability, and they might have forgotten what it was like when the other party was in power.

Also, it’s important to note that the GOP has made the biggest gains among Hispanic American voters, who’re more diverse (a good number of Hispanics identify as white). Not to mention, unlike Indian Americans, Hispanics are predominantly Christian.

Among white evangelical Protestants who attend church services, 85% voted for Trump in 2020, according to Pew. The appeal of ethnoreligious democracy, if not autocracy, remains strong. Otherwise, such a large number of people wouldn’t be denying the results of a legitimate election. We’re still dealing with the aftershocks of the 2008 election, which gave us the nation’s first non-white president.

Has there been a political sorting by class? Yes. While working-class whites, especially males, are abandoning the Democratic Party, college-educated voters are flocking to it. Now polls show that some non-whites, particularly those without college degrees, have also joined the exodus.

“There is, indeed, a shift toward Republicans among voters of color, but I would characterize it less as a realignment and more a sort of ideological sorting, where the relatively small population of conservative voters of color are now voting for the party more closely aligned with their ideological preferences,” Bernard L. Fraga told The New York Times. He is a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.

If working-class voters see Democrats as elitist, it’s probably because the social activism of the party’s vocal wing gets excessive attention. Perception can supersede performance in politics. An impartial examination will reveal that it’s Democrats who care about the working class. Biden’s accomplishments—support for unions, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, etc.—are no secret. What, then, is the solution? The messaging could be better, although it’s not easy in a highly splintered news and social media environment where disinformation and misinformation thrive.

A bigger problem is that populism coupled with demagoguery wreaks havoc. Globalization, demographic shifts, inequality, and rapid social change have an unsettling effect, as does the loss of identity, power, or status. Emotions rule. And it’s not just mass migration that triggers a backlash; reactionaries may also oppose the advancement of women or the LGBT+ community.

Class, despite recent claims, has not supplanted race as the nation’s political fault line. For Indian Americans, among others, race continues to be a critical issue. What they fear is not wokeness but white Christian nationalism—and what they care about is gun control, not controlling women’s bodies. They’re worried about losing democracy, which is why they feel more secure in the Democratic Party’s big tent. In the current House of Representatives, all five Indian Americans (the so-called Samosa Caucus) are Democrats, as is Vice President Kamala Harris.

So, to be accurate, the fault lines in our body politic are class and race, along with the related factors involving culture, religion, and gender.

The GOP, I would tell the activist, is not a club that most Indian Americans want to join anytime soon, even if Republicans make space for them.

Murali Kamma is the managing editor of Khabar magazine. A slightly different version of this column appeared in The Quint, a news and opinion media outlet based in India. Email: letters@khabar.com

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