- The Racial Logic of Politics: Asian Americans and Party Competition
In a letter to Francis Hopkinson in 1789, Thomas Jefferson remarked, "If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all." Thus this "Founding Father" of the new American republic professed his belief that the interests of political parties were averse to the public interest and to the independent decision making necessary for the proper flourishing of democracy in the United States. Yet his personal convictions notwithstanding, the irony in Jefferson's remark is that he is commonly credited with founding the "party of the common man," the Democratic-Republican Party.
The further irony is that over the course of history, we have come to view political parties (to some extent, misguidedly) as the controlling institutional [End Page 115] gateways that mobilized and incorporated large waves of immigrants to the United States, especially white ethnics migrating in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In fact, today we cannot conceive of electoral politics in America outside of the role played by political parties. Parties organize and simplify the inordinate complex decisions voters need to make down to two major candidates and mobilize voter registration and turnout, and the political party a person identifies with remains the most important determinant of individual voting decisions.
Political parties, however, play a vastly different role with racial and ethnic minorities in general and with Asian Americans specifically. Janelle Wong finds that emerging panethnic groups like Latinos and Asian Americans vastly underparticipate in politics vis-à-vis whites in no small measure because parties no longer bring these newcomers to America's shores in droves onto voter rolls. Claire Jean Kim further finds that Asian Americans in particular are valorized in some contexts as "model minorities" and ostracized in other contexts as "perpetual foreigners." In The Racial Logic of Politics, Thomas Kim puts these various pieces together into a powerful and damning account of how Asian Americans have been systematically excluded in two-party competition in the United States.
Kim's core argument is that there is a structural logic to two-party politics that motivates parties to be actively hostile toward the inclusion and incorporation of Asian Americans. This antipathy, Kim claims, is not a matter of "coincidence, bad luck, or simple anti-Asian prejudice" (6). There are two key elements to this argument. First, following other scholars who see wisdom and insight in the median voter theorem, Kim sees both Democrats and Republicans as caught in a deadly spiral of political competition to build a majority electoral coalition. Second, Kim sees Asian Americans as racialized, whereby "Asian bodies have been framed as irreducibly illiberal alien foreigners that threaten the American body politic" (27). The conjoint result here is that parties seeking to build majority coalitions have little cause to reach out to a segment of the electorate that is viewed as illiberal and every reason to actively dissociate themselves from that group.
The empirical body of The Racial Logic of Politics is filled with a rich chronicling of the 1996 campaign finance scandal involving numerous Asians in the United States whose legal standing to express their political viewpoints through campaign contributions was deemed suspect without sufficient vetting or evidence. Kim's discussion of the regrettable rush to judgment by the Democratic National Committee's so-called internal investigation, the deafening silence of prominent Democrats on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, and the collateral damage this affair had on the political prospects of Matt Fong and Bill Lann Lee are excellent and well tailored to his core arguments. [End Page 116]
The book also includes a riveting recounting of race-making through the construction of Census Bureau categories. The key aim of this chapter is not to further fortify the argument about the structural logic of party competition. Rather, Kim seems motivated in this chapter to demonstrate the possibilities for Asian American political agency "through quintessentially...