Convergence Across Difference: Understanding the Political Ties That Bind with the 2016 National Asian American Survey
Increased diversity has accompanied dramatic demographic growth of the Asian American population in recent years. If the common characteristic of Asian Americans is a diversity of origins, languages, resources, and cultural traits, what holds this group together, particularly in the political sphere? The model minority stereotype suggests that Asian Americans might converge around education policies. That most Asian Americans are foreign born and the tenacious power of attendant “forever foreigner” tropes suggest that immigration issues might be the basis for a shared political agenda. Analysis of the 2016 National Asian American Survey, however, shows surprising political consensus within the Asian American population outside the policy realms of education and immigration. In other policy issues, particularly those involving the government’s role, important points of convergence among these groups on certain public policies are clear. Political differences within the Asian American community are between those who are progressive and those who are even more so.
Asian American, politics, political agenda, diversity
The Asian American population is the fastest growing racial group in the United States. Whereas Latinos increased 14 percent from 2010 to 2016, Asian Americans increased 21 percent (AAAJ-LA 2017). Perhaps not surprisingly, increased diversity within the Asian American population has accompanied this dramatic demographic growth. For example, East Asians, dominant for much of Asian American history in the country, are now a decreasing proportion (Wang and Ramakrishnan 2017). As the Asian American community has increased in numbers, it has become more internally diverse not only in terms of national origin, but also along other dimensions, including immigrant generation, socioeconomic status, region, and religion. In fact, Min Zhou, Anthony Ocampo, and J. V. Gatewood claim that “diversity is the hallmark of the Asian American community” (2016, 123). If the characteristic that Asian Americans share is a diversity of origins, languages, resources and other traits, what holds [End Page 70] the members of this heterogeneous group together, particularly in the political sphere? This question drives the analysis that follows. To what extent, we ask, do Asian Americans have a common political agenda?
The answer to this question is critical. The goal of this article is to better understand the political cohesion of Asian Americans. If Asian Americans are indeed a cohesive political group with distinct policy preferences, then their political empowerment is best achieved through an ethnic politics model grounded in group identity and coethnic representation. In this case, Asian Americans would be expected to unite toward common political goals. If they are not a coherent political group but instead diverge a great deal in terms of political attitudes, then working together under a panethnic Asian American label makes little sense (Nakanishi and Lai 2002; Okamoto 2014).
Because of the different dimensions of diversity among Asian Americans, they are a particularly appropriate group for studying the associations between race and intragroup cohesion and divergence (Lien 2001; Junn and Masuoka 2008). However, because all groups show considerable internal diversity, the approach taken here to uncover the parameters of a group-based political agenda is instructive for those studying race and politics more generally. About 10 percent of Black Americans are foreign born and differences within the Black population are stark in terms of generation and average income. Among Latinos, internal divisions are evident in national origin, generation, region, and religion. About 25 percent identify as Protestant and a little more than 50 percent as Catholic, for example. White Americans, too, vary in terms of wealth, region, and religion. Taking a close look at Asian Americans’ internal diversity may therefore be useful for approaching other diversity and political formations.
ASIAN AMERICAN DIVERSITY
Across almost any demographic dimension, real differences in the Asian American community are apparent (Lien, Conway, and Wong 2004; Wong et al. 2011). National origin is the most commonly cited source of diversity. In their book Asian American Politics, Andrew Aoki and Okiyoshi Takeda ask, “Can Chinese Americans and South Asian Americans find enough mutual interests . . . ? Can a fourth-generation Japanese American legislator effectively represent the interests of Southeast Asian refugees?” (2008, 98). Every major textbook on Asian Americans testifies to national-origin diversity as a central feature of contemporary Asian America (see Kitano and Daniels 2000; Zhou and Gatewood 2000; Vo and Bonus 2002; Fong 2002; Min 2006). One claims that “national origins evoke drastic differences in homeland cultures, such as languages, religions, foodways, and customs; histories of international relations, contexts of emigration; reception in the host society; and adaptation patterns” (Zhou and Gatewood 2000, 19). Indeed, disaggregating Asian Americans by national origin instantly reveals major differences in migration history, socioeconomic resources, settlement patterns, population size, religion, and even skin tone. Since the 1990s, for example, Indian applicants have been granted more visas designated for high-skilled immigrants to the United States than any other national-origin group (Zong and Batalova 2017). Indians have the highest average education among all Americans. Most Asian Indians in the United States are foreign born. Most Japanese Americans, by contrast, are not foreign born and many trace their roots in the United States to recruitment as farm laborers in the late 1800s to the 1920s. The distinct migration histories of the two groups is apparent. At the same time, both groups’ histories are marked by discrimination based on race. The height of anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States, as is well known, occurred during World War II, when more than one hundred thousand Japanese, including U.S. citizens, were forcibly interned. Indian Americans have faced intense discrimination as the result of the so-called war on terror since 2001. In the recent past, Indian Americans have been the target of racially and religiously motivated hate crimes based on skin tone and presumed religious background. The latter is largely a function of pervasive Islamophobia (see Chaudhary et al. 2020; Lajevardi and Oskooii 2018; Iyer 2017), although the majority of Indians in the United States identify as Hindu (and some express strong forms of religious nationalist attitudes, [End Page 71] see Mishra 2016). Similar to Sunmin Kim (2021, this issue), our research assesses the degree to which Indians and Japanese, as well as other Asian national-origin groups, demonstrate shared political orientations and policy attitudes.
Whereas immigrants from East Asia, including China, Japan, and Korea, dominated the immigration stream at the turn from the nineteenth century and following the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, today most Asian Americans are not of East Asian origin. Recent data from the U.S. Census show that fully three-fifths of the Asian American community are of South or Southeast Asian origin (Wang and Ramakrishnan 2017). Not only are Asian Americans distinct in terms of national origin, regional formations within the Asian American community are also important (Mishra 2016).
The importance of attending to nationaland regional-origin differences among Asian Americans, especially in the political and policy arenas, is underscored by long-standing campaigns to ensure that, rather than assume that all who fall under the Asian American label have similar characteristics, state and federal agencies disaggregate statistics on Asian Americans (see iCount 2015; Teranishi, Nguyen, and Alcantar 2015). Jennifer Lee, Karthick Ramakrishnan, and Janelle Wong assert that “the accuracy of counting Asian Americans—including detailed counting by national origin—is a civil rights issue; it is essential to the equitable allocation of federal, state, and local funding for America’s fastest growing, most diverse group” (2018, 201).
Although national origin is certainly a primary axis of distinction within Asian America, other critical areas of diversity also merit attention. For instance, age and immigrant generation might drive political differences. In terms of age, Asian Americans tend to be younger than White Americans and older than Black and Latino Americans (Gao 2016). More than 30 percent of the Asian American population are younger than twenty-four. About half fall between twenty-five and fifty, and the remainder are older than fifty. Some variation in political attitudes across age within the Asian American population is only to be expected. In particular, like the general U.S. population, more conservative attitudes are typical among older cohorts (Maniam and Smith 2017).
Immigrant generation is a particularly interesting intracommunity distinction. Nearly 40 percent of Asian Americans were born in the United States (Pew Research Center 2013a). Of the U.S. born, most are the second-generation children of immigrants (Pew Research Center 2013b). Of course, those who are U.S. born are more likely to be English dominant, to attend school in the United States, and to be younger than the foreign born. These differences may lead to political differences as well. The past two decades have seen increasing scholarly attention to generational differences within the Asian American population, studies focusing on adaptation to U.S. life, socioeconomic mobility, and the development of racial identity (see Zhou and Xiong 2005; Park and Myers 2010; Lee and Zhou 2014; Zhou and Lee 2017). Inter-generational conflict is a major theme in the literature on Asian Americans (see Chung 2001; Lee and Liu 2001). Does generational conflict translate into conflict over a political agenda in the United States as well?
Profound differences in socioeconomic status characterize the Asian American population and might be expected to map onto political interests, as well. Not only do economic and educational differences correspond with national origin—within the various Asian national-origin groups we see economic polarization. Arthur Sakamoto and Yu Xie report, for instance, that “foreign born Chinese and Koreans have relatively high poverty rates . . . despite having higher than average wages than whites. . . . These results reveal a general pattern of socioeconomic polarization among Asian Americans” (2006, 74). A 2019 survey shows that though Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander groups are most likely to experience economic hardship, because of their sizable proportions in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) populations, the bulk of the AAPI working poor is made up of Chinese, Filipinos, and Indians (AAPI Data and PRRI 2019). A 2019 report notes that Asian Americans are overrepresented relative to their numbers in the population in occupations making less than $20,000 per year full time as well as occupations [End Page 72]
making more than $100,000 per year full time (APALA 2019; see also Hassan and Carlsen 2018). To the extent that we see class differences in Asian America, the analysis explores the ways socioeconomic status drives political attitudes within the group.
Asian Americans are far from a homogeneous group in terms of national origin, age, nativity-generation, or socioeconomic status. But the degree to which these internal divisions translate into differences in political attitudes and orientations remains an open question. Do Asian Americans, a group marked by cross-cutting demographic cleavages and distinct settlement histories, constitute a meaningful political category with shared policy views?
POCKETS OF DISUNITY AGAINST A BACKDROP OF CONSOLIDATION FOR THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY
The model minority stereotype suggests that Asian Americans might converge around education policies. That most Asian Americans were born outside the United States leads to assumptions that Asian Americans might converge around immigration issues. In fact, though, education and immigration do not appear to be consensus issues. Affirmative action, the most prominent educational policy paired with Asian Americans in national discourse, is far from a consensus issue. In 2018, the national media zeroed in on opposing viewpoints on this issue within the Asian American community, describing how a lawsuit that sought to eliminate race-conscious admissions at Harvard was “exposing a chasm among members of the demographic” (Camera 2018). This divide over affirmative action pits those who believe that Asian Americans are disadvantaged by policies that take race into consideration against those who see race-conscious policies as a fundamental aspect of the broader civil rights agenda (Poon and Segoshi 2018). Over the past decade, a new wave of political activism among Chinese American groups points to the role that national-origin-specific experiences play in shaping policy attitudes among Asian Americans. For example, the most visible opposition to race-based affirmative action policies in college admissions have been led by Chinese Americans, and immigrant members of this group, in particular (Eligon 2018). Analysis of attitudes related to affirmative action show that although most Asian Americans [End Page 73] support affirmative action (Wong, Lee, and Tran 2018), Chinese American opposition has grown dramatically relative to other groups (Ramakrishnan and Wong 2018). Today, Chinese Americans are the only group that demonstrate consistent and visible opposition to this policy (figure 1).
But on other education issues, too, such as whether the “federal government should enact major new spending that would help undergraduates pay tuition at public colleges without needing loans,” differences are apparent in support by national origin, from more than 70 percent who strongly agree among Bangladeshi, Hmong, Vietnamese, and Pakistani registered voters to less than 50 percent who strongly agree among Chinese (40 percent), Japanese (44 percent), and Koreans (44 percent) (Ramakrishnan et al. 2016). At the same time, national origin is only one window into understanding Asian American attitudes toward affirmative action. OiYan Poon and Janelle Wong (2019), for example, report that Chinese Americans age eighteen to twenty-four (who are also more likely to be second-generation immigrants) are much more open to race-based affirmative action in admissions than Chinese Americans thirty-five or older. That is, age is as important for understanding divisions over affirmative action as national origin.
We observe similar divides in Asian America over immigration policy. One might assume that because they are a majority immigrant community that has directly benefited from current U.S. immigration policies, Asian Americans would be particularly strong supporters of increasing family-based and employment-based visas or demonstrate distinct views when it comes to immigration policies. However, Asian American views on legal migration pathways are very similar to those of other Americans (Shah and Wong 2019; Carter and Wong 2020; Tran and Warikoo 2021, this issue). A strong majority of Americans support allowing undocumented immigrants already in the country to be allowed to stay and eventually become citizens. Asian American public opinion, in the aggregate, is quite consistent with and not especially distinct from these trends (Ramakrishnan et al. 2016).
When it comes to policies related to undocumented immigrants, national-origin differences are evident (Shah and Wong 2019). For example, data from the 2016 National Asian American Survey show that although a plurality of all Asian American groups support the creation of a path to citizenship (“Undocumented or illegal immigrants should be allowed to have an opportunity to eventually become U.S. citizens”), this policy elicits some important variations across national-origin groups. For instance, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese respondents are less likely to support such a path than Hmong, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Filipino respondents (figure 2). Fully one in five Chinese respondents claim to not have a position on this policy, the highest of any of the national-origin groups queried. Even though Chinese are the second-largest group of undocumented immigrants within the Asian American population, Chinese respondents were among the least supportive groups in terms of support of policies that would provide driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status (Ramakrishnan and Shah 2017). Although the number of Korean immigrants without documents is estimated at around two hundred thousand, this group, too, is less supportive of providing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants other than Asian American groups (for a discussion on partisanship and education as strong predictors of immigration-related attitudes within distinct Asian American groups, see Arora, Sadhwani, and Shah 2021, this issue).
Even with intense attention devoted to the issue of race-conscious college admissions by the mainstream and social media and a notable drop in support for the policy among the largest Asian American group, Chinese Americans, conflict within the community over affirmative action and other issues is playing out against dramatic consolidation of Asian Americans around Democratic candidates over the past two decades (Ramakrishnan 2016). The overall trend is described clearly in the New York Times: “In 1992, the year national exit polls started reporting Asian American sentiment, the group leaned Republican, supporting George Bush over Bill Clinton 55 percent to 31 percent. But by 2012, that had reversed. Asian-Americans [End Page 74]
overwhelmingly supported President Obama over Mitt Romney—3 percent to 26 percent, almost the same margin by which Hispanics favored Mr. Obama. A Pew Research Center report released last month showed that Asian-Americans have since 2008 embraced the Democratic Party at a faster rate than any other ethnic group” (Peters 2016).
In 2016, estimates of the Asian American vote for Hillary Clinton ranged from 65 to 69 percent (CNN 2016; Ramakrishnan et al. 2016). Surveys show that Asian Americans are much more likely to identify as Democrat than Republican, though a large proportion also do not identify with either party (Hajnal and Lee 2011; Masuoka et al. 2018). More recent data suggest that the proportion of nonpartisans within the Asian American community is shrinking, with attendant gains favoring the Democrats (Lee 2018).
We argue that to understand Asian American politics today, we need to look beyond the issues of immigration and education, including affirmative action. On other policy issues, it becomes clear that despite differences in national origin, age, immigrant generation, and socioeconomic status within the Asian American community, points of convergence on a key set of public policies are clear.
We use data from the 2016 National Asian American Survey pre- and post-election surveys (2016 NAAS-Pre and 2016 NAAS-Post) to explore Asian American political attitudes and to take a closer look at how within-group differences translate into support for a specific range of policy attitudes. The 2016 NAAS-Pre includes 2,238 Asian American and 305 Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander adult interviews conducted by telephone from August 10 to September 29, 2016. The study relied on listed samples using registered voter and commercial vendor samples and classified for ethnicity by name, listed race where applicable, and tract-level ethnic concentration. The sample includes nonregistered people, as well as those who were randomly drawn from the registered voter list. We surveyed nine U.S. Asian and Pacific national origin groups in total, starting with the six largest U.S. Asian ethnic groups. These six largest groups alone account for more than 80 percent of the Asian American adult population. In this report, we analyze data from the following nine groups: Asian Indian (274), Cambodian (59), Chinese (281), Filipino (201), Hmong (151), Korean (286), Japanese (147), Vietnamese (295), and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander (291). Interviews were conducted in English as well [End Page 75] as in ten other languages—Mandarin, Cantonese, Tagalog, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Hmong, and Cambodian—and on both landlines (72 percent) and mobile phones (28 percent).1
The 2016 NAAS-Post includes 4,393 telephone (landline and mobile) interviews of Asian American adults conducted between November 10, 2016, and March 2, 2017. The same sampling process described, relying on both registered voter and commercial vendor lists (including nonregistered people), was used. The 2016 NAAS-Post study included ten national origins: Chinese (475), Asian Indian (504), Filipino (505), Korean (499), Vietnamese (501), Japanese (517), Pakistani (320), Bangladeshi (320), Hmong (351), and Cambodian (401). All data, pre-and post-, were weighted by ethnicity and gender, age, state of residence, education, and nativity.2
The 2016 NAAS-Pre and NAAS-Post include national samples but are not national probability samples. This method produces a sample that looks similar to a probability sample on matched characteristics but may still differ in unknown ways on unmatched characteristics. A probability sample will not yield a study sample large enough to conduct within-group analysis given that Asian Americans are a hard-to-reach population making up less than 7 percent of the total U.S. population (Barreto et al. 2018).
For much of the analysis, we combine results for those who are both registered and nonregistered people. Registered voters made up about 75 percent of the Asian American and Pacific Islander pre-election samples and 88 percent of the post-election.3 For analysis of partisanship and candidate vote choice, we focus on registered voters. Again, with the exceptions of partisanship and candidate vote choice, we include nonregistered people in the analysis. Although one does not need to be registered to vote to identify with a party or support a candidate, registration is directly related to both. One must affirmatively note their party identification in the process of registering to vote and one cannot vote for a candidate without registering. Attitudes about political issues, however, may develop apart from registration and we sought to include the broadest swath of the Asian American sample in this analysis (for more on the distinctions between registered and nonregistered respondents, see note 3).
POLITICAL CONVERGENCE AMONG ASIAN AMERICANS
A critical point of convergence among Asian Americans is vote choice. Despite much speculation about which demographic groups helped secure Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, it appears Asian Americans demonstrated little enthusiasm for him. The 2016 NAAS-Pre showed that 17 percent of registered Asian Americans were planning to vote for Trump, and 72 percent [End Page 76]
for Hillary Clinton. In the 2016 NAAS-Post, fielded after the election, support for Trump had ticked up a bit, to 25 percent, but a majority of Asian American voters (69 percent) still claimed to support Clinton. The 2016 NAAS-Post survey numbers are consistent with national exit polls, which showed strong support for Clinton (65 percent) over Trump (27 percent) among Asian Americans. It is important to keep in mind that the national exit polls do not offer the survey in Asian languages.
Support for Clinton over Trump is largely a function of partisanship. Table 1 shows that, as described, Asian Americans are most likely to identify as Democrat, especially those registered to vote. A relatively large proportion identify as Independent. Among the registered, this group numbers nearly one in five people. Among those who are not registered, this group is larger than either group that identifies with a major political party.
The political science literature suggests that the strong trend toward Democratic partisan-ship among Asian Americans over the past quarter-century is a function of geography (Bishop 2009), education (Pew Research Center 2018), and issue alignment (for a good discussion, see Carsey and Layman 2006) though the causal direction here is a matter of debate (see Margolis 2018; Mason 2018). The latter consideration, issues, is an important one for our analysis. We contend here that it is possible to identify the emergence of a policy agenda among Asian Americans by focusing on the following questions in the NAAS pre-election study:
1. Do you support or oppose the health-care law passed by Barack Obama and Congress in 2010?
2. Do you support or oppose banning people who are Muslim from entering the United States?
3. Do you support or oppose setting stricter emission limits on power plants in order to address climate change?
4. Do you support or oppose the government doing more to give Blacks equal rights with Whites?
Using the 2016 NAAS post-election study, we focus on the following question:
5. [Agree or Disagree] The federal government should increase income taxes on people making over a million dollars a year.
The 2016 NAAS pre-and post-election studies reveal that on these issues, the Asian American community as a whole leans more progressive than conservative. Figure 3, for example, shows that a strong majority of all Asian Americans support the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), stricter emissions limits on power plants to address climate change, and raising taxes on the rich. A majority of Asian Americans also oppose a Muslim ban. One factor that surveys do not capture that is likely to be quite important for attitudes in this area is how politicians and the media frame immigration from majority Muslim countries (S. Kim 2021, this issue).
Asian Americans may not agree on all issues, but support is strong for those policies that might be associated with the U.S. government’s taking a strong role in providing social services and addressing major societal problems, such as climate change and the government’s role in addressing racial equality (figure 3). However, [End Page 77]
to understand the strength of this potential political agenda, we need to delve deeper into whether these policy positions hold across different and diverse segments of the Asian American community. The bulk of our analysis is descriptive. To further explore the degree to which party identification, socioeconomic status, nativity, age, national origin, and region are associated with distinct political attitudes, we use a multivariate model.
CONVERGENCE ACROSS DEMOGRAPHIC DIVIDES
Internal diversity is one of the most often cited features of the Asian American community. Asian Americans do not have much in common when it comes to national origin, historical settlement patterns in the United States, language, religion, or even physical appearance. These differences are underscored by variations in who Americans as a whole, and Asian Americans themselves, classify as Asian (Lee and Ramakrishnan 2019). Given so little in common, one might wonder why we would expect political convergence among distinct segments of the Asian American population. The following data flip this script to some extent by showing that despite critical differences in national origin, generation, class, and even partisanship, Asian Americans demonstrate a surprising degree of political commonality. That is, on issues ranging from the environment to immigration to race, we observe astounding convergence among Asian Americans across party identification, socioeconomic status, nativity, age, and even national origin and region. We highlight five policy issues to illustrate this remarkable level of consensus within the extremely diverse Asian American population.
Taxing the Rich
A long-standing assumption in U.S. politics is that Asian Americans are conservative when it comes to U.S. tax policy. This assumption is based in part on the visibility of Asian American small business owners in ethnic niches, such as urban grocery stores and nail care (Kang 2003; Brettell 2005). However, data from the 2016 NAAS-Post suggests that progressive tax policies are a point of political convergence among Asian Americans. More than 75 percent of both Asian American Democrats and Republicans support increasing taxes on the rich to provide a tax cut for the middle class. In contrast, about 80 percent of Democrats more generally support taxing the rich versus fewer than 60 percent of Republicans in the general population (Casselman and Tankersley 2019). Perhaps even more striking, about 80 percent of those Asian Americans earning up to $125,000 per year support taxing the rich, regardless of their own income category. Even among the very highest-income earners, those making $250,000 or more, fully 70 percent favor taxing the rich. [End Page 78]
Strong support for taxing the rich runs counter to assumptions that Asian Americans will resist government taxation because of high rates of small business ownership. It is true that Asian Americans make up about one-third of small business owners (Atilano and Wong 2018). It is also true that the vast majority (90 percent) do not own small businesses. Further, fewer than 15 percent of any Asian American national-origin group is self-employed. So, although Asian Americans, particularly immigrants, tend to be self-employed and own small businesses at higher rates than the general population, most do not fall into these economic categories.
Progressive tax policies are supported at nearly the same level regardless of region or nation of origin (tables 2–6). Indian Americans, who typically have the highest levels of family income, support taxing the rich (82 percent) at rates similar to Vietnamese (75 percent), who typically have relatively lower levels of economic resources. Few differences are apparent across regional origin (East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian).
Finally, although younger (between eighteen and twenty-four) and native-born Asian Americans tend to be slightly more progressive on tax policy than their older or foreign-born counterparts, more than two-thirds of the latter group support taxing the rich. [End Page 79]
[End Page 81]
Asian American Republicans and Democrats are virtually indistinguishable when it comes to setting stricter emissions standards to address climate change, at rates above 75 percent. This kind of environmental protection policy thus cannot be considered a partisan issue within the Asian American community. Polarization along party lines is far less than among the U.S. population in general in this area. The Pew Research Center (2015) finds that just 50 percent of Republicans in the general public favored limits on emissions.
Support for environmental protection varies only slightly by age. Younger Asian Americans, similar to the general public, are more likely to support stricter emissions standards than older Asian Americans—85 percent of those eighteen to twenty-four favor such standards versus 75 percent of those age fifty to sixty-four and 68 percent of those sixty-five and older. In terms of national origin, Indians and those of East Asian origin, including the largest East Asian group, Chinese, are more likely to support emission restrictions than those of Southeast Asian origin. This may have to do with pressing environmental challenges faced in countries like China and India, such that awareness of environmental degradation remains acute among immigrants from those places.
Environmental protections are more heavily favored by Asian Americans in upper income brackets (about 85 percent of those earning a household income of $100,000 or more favor [End Page 82] restricting emissions, versus just under 70 percent of those earning less than $20,000). Still, most Asian Americans express strong support for stricter emissions standards.
Government-Sponsored Health Care
At first glance, partisan divides seem in evidence when we examine Asian American attitudes toward government-sponsored health care. Fully 71 percent of Democrats but only 52 percent of Republicans favored “the health care law passed by Barack Obama and Congress in 2010” in our 2016 study. These results, however, show a much narrower partisan divide than observed among Democrats and Republicans in the broader public. In November of 2016, just 7 percent of Republicans in the general population supported the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) (Norman 2017).
Partisanship also appears to be the only driver of (relatively moderate) differences in attitudes toward government-sponsored health care. A majority of Asian Americans, regardless of age category, region, national origin, household income, or nativity say that they support the health-care law passed by President Obama and Congress in 2010. In contrast, about 45 percent of all Americans expressed favorable opinions of the act during the same period our survey was in the field (KKF 2018).
In 2015 while on the campaign trail, then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” (Johnson 2015). In March 2016, 45 percent of all Americans expressed support for a ban—32 percent of Democrats and 81 percent of Republicans (Moore 2016). Again, this is a policy area where Asian Americans demonstrate distinct attitudes from the general U.S. population and show more consensus. In our sample, collected a few months prior to the election, most oppose a ban. Again, evidence is limited that any particular segment of the Asian American population is driving attitudes around this issue. Both Democrats and Republicans, at about 65 percent, oppose a ban. Although opposition is weaker among nonpartisans, the lower number is primarily because more among this group are unsure about their opinion on the issue (a relatively large proportion of nonpartisan respondents claimed that they did not know how to answer the question).
Some of the exceptions to the broad opposition among Asian Americans across party lines are notable. In terms of age, those under thirty-five express relatively more opposition (over 75 percent) relative to the very oldest (46 percent). Vietnamese are the only group for which the proportion opposing the ban is under 50 percent. Still, even though opposition is tempered, more oppose (39 percent) than support (28 percent) such restrictions. Similarly, only those at the lowest family income level, earning less than $20,000, show weaker levels of opposition to a travel ban. For all of these groups (the oldest Asian Americans, Vietnamese, and lower-income Asian Americans), rates of support for a travel ban are not particularly high. Instead, we see that these groups were more likely to express lack of understanding or less familiarity with the travel-ban issue, as indicated by relatively high rates of don’t know in responses to the question. In other words, differences in public opinion on this issue between demographic categories does not necessarily imply lack of consensus, but variation in issue-related information.
In the general U.S. public, Republicans and Democrats show little commonality on attitudes about racial inequality (Pew Research Center 2017). However, convergence among Asian Americans is remarkable on the question of “the government doing more to give blacks equal rights with whites.” Specifically, 78 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Republicans support this position. Majorities of each age group, each regional group, and each income group also support government intervention to support racial equality. Similarly, support among the U.S. and foreign born differs little. Although the trends move in directions we might expect, Democratic, younger, and U.S.-born Asian Americans expressing the strongest levels of support for progressive policies related to racial equality, convergence on this issue is striking. [End Page 83]
GOING DEEPER: MULTIVARIATE ANALYSIS
We conducted additional multivariate analysis to better understand the ways in which different demographic characteristics might be tied to Asian American policy positions. Using the NAAS-Pre, we created a composite variable including support for the 2010 health-care law, stricter emissions, the government doing more to give Blacks equal rights with Whites, and opposition to a Muslim ban. If respondents took a politically progressive position on at least three of these measures, they were coded as 1. If they did not, they were coded as 0. Responses of “don’t know” were coded as 0. We did not use the tax policy measure, because that was part of the NAAS-Post. More than 56 percent of Asian Americans adopted a progressive position on at least three of the policies (see table 7).4 We use a standard logistic model, regressing the dichotomous composite policy variable described on the key independent variables identified in this article—national-regional origin, socioeconomic status (education and income), party identification, immigrant generation, and age.
In a model designed to show the associations between our composite policy measure and Asian national-regional origin (Chinese being the excluded category), socioeconomic status, partisanship, immigrant generation, and age, Indian Americans are the only national-origin group that appears to be distinct from Chinese Americans on support for the four policies included in the analysis (table 8). That is, although those who identify as Indian tend to be more supportive on these issues than those who identify as Chinese, those from other places (Vietnam, other East Asia, other Southeast Asia) do not, even when other covariates are taken into account.
Indian Americans exhibit more policy consensus (they are more likely to agree with at least three of the policies) than Chinese Americans, but, overall, national origin does not seem to be the critical determinant. Instead, these data indicate very little difference between groups, except that Indians are particularly progressive on at least three of the four policies (including support for the 2010 health-care law, stricter emissions, the government doing more to give Blacks equal rights with Whites, and opposition to a Muslim ban). That is, the coefficient associated with the variable indicating Indian identity is positive and statistically significant, but none of the other national-origin-relatedcoefficientsshowthe same association with the comparison category, [End Page 84]
Chinese (the largest Asian American group). Further, when we ran the model with Indian as the comparison category, the variables associated with the other national-origin and regional identities were positive and statistically significant.
Democrats are more likely than Republicans and those who do not identify with either of the two major parties to express progressive views on at least three of the policy issues included in the composite variable. An association is also evident between Democratic partisanship and shared policy views, all else equal. Interestingly, those who identify as nonpartisan or as having [End Page 85] no party are less likely to converge around these agenda issues than those who identify as Republican.
Although our multivariate model reveals differences between Indians and other Asian Americans and between Democrats and those who do not identify as Democrats, and more minor differences related to generational status (differences between the first and second generation are not statistically significant, but differences between the first and third generation are evident) in views toward the four policy issues, it is critical to keep in mind that majorities in all of these categories exhibit a progressive view on each. That is, our multivariate analysis identifies more fine-tuned distinctions in level of support among groups that, in the aggregate, express similar viewpoints on issues ranging from health care to the environment to government efforts to reduce racial inequality between Blacks and Whites. At the same time, the multivariate model includes a substantially reduced number of observations relative to the bivariate analyses (1,962 to 2,787). This reduction is due to missing data, particularly in regard to the income variable. Imputing income for those missing income information (19.4 percent of sample) does not change substantive results.
Our analysis shows that despite important distinctions among Asian Americans in terms of national origin, generation, socioeconomic status, and party identification, consensus on certain policy issues is remarkable. These issues include expanded government-sponsored health care, taxing the rich to give the middle class a tax break, federal environmental protections, opposition to religious exclusion (in the form of a ban against Muslims entering the country), and support for the federal government doing more to ensure equality between Blacks and Whites. Those Asian Americans who are younger and third generation are more progressive on these issues than those who are older and first generation, and Indians appear to be more progressive than other Asian Americans. However, our bivariate and multivariate analyses point to a surprising degree of political convergence within the Asian American population.
This is not to say that Asian Americans are more politically cohesive than other groups, such as African Americans or Latinxs. We suspect that they are not as cohesive. But because diversity has been called the hallmark of the Asian American community, it is conspicuous that our research suggests that demographic, national-and regional-origin, and even partisan differences do not necessarily translate into deep political divisions. In fact, majorities of all Asian Americans tend to take a more progressive position on these issues. The political differences we observe are between those who are progressive on each of the policies and those who are even more progressive. Given the heterogeneity that characterizes the Asian American population, this is an important finding.
This issue convergence tracks a dramatic shift over the past two decades in terms of presidential vote choice among Asian Americans. As Karthick Ramakrishnan (2016) notes, in 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton won less than 35 percent of the Asian American vote. By 2012, Democrat Barack Obama garnered more than 70 percent and won majorities of every Asian American national-origin group. The findings presented here help account for the astounding alignment with the Democrats among Asian Americans voters over time. Asian American voters support the core elements of the Democratic agenda—they support big government and environment regulations. They are open to economic redistribution and exhibit a moderate-left stance on discrimination related to race and religion.
As made clear in our earlier discussion, areas of contentious politics within the Asian American community suggest the potential for a more reactionary stance going forward. Sunmin Kim’s article in this issue makes this possibility quite clear (2021). The most visible areas have to do with education and immigration. Although Asian Americans are more likely to support than oppose race-conscious admissions policies, support for affirmative action in higher education varies among Asian Americans with policy framing (Lee 2017) and national [End Page 86] origin. Chinese Americans in particular tend to be much less supportive of affirmative action than other Asian Americans, who have long supported the policy (Ramakrishnan and Wong 2018). Resistance to specific policies designed to increase diversity and access to education is visible and acute among Asian Americans. It is directed toward efforts to expand admissions to specialized high schools and gifted and talented programs based on geography or other factors that do not rely on taking students’ racial identities into account (see Baker 2019; C. Kim 2018). This conservative activism, associated mainly with Chinese Americans, has been both national and local. Washington Post reporter Bill Turque covered the resistance of Chinese American immigrants to proposals to create “sanctuary” jurisdictions in Maryland for undocumented immigrants (local agreements to protect undocumented immigrants by limiting cooperation with federal immigration authorities). He describes the position of some Asian Americans in that state:
As state and local lawmakers in Maryland consider proposals to protect undocumented immigrants by limiting cooperation with federal authorities, some of the most persistent and passionate voices in opposition have been Chinese American. . . . Leaders of the movement say President Trump’s aggressive immigration agenda has resonated with at least a segment of the roughly 60,000 Chinese Americans in the Maryland suburbs. They depict undocumented immigrants as a source of increased crime—a claim not supported by local or national data—and a financial drain on schools. The prospect of enhanced protection for those here illegally seems to offend this particular group of immigrants at a core level.
Underscoring political divisions within the community, Turque describes this opposition to undocumented immigrants as “at odds with the mainstream of Asian American civil rights groups and elected leaders, who generally support ‘sanctuary’ communities and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants” (2017). Asian American opposition to sanctuary jurisdictions highlights the importance of national versus local political activism. Asian Americans have not mounted a national anti-immigrant or anti-undocumented-immigrant campaign. They have moderate to progressive attitudes on federal immigration policies. However, protests in Maryland and in particular counties in that state suggest a willingness on the part of some members of the community to take a more conservative stand in their own localities and may portend the power of NIMBY-ism (Not in My Back Yard) at the grassroots level.
These conflicts over affirmative action and certain immigration policies among Asian Americans are taking place against a backdrop of consensus, however. That consensus, described in this article, revolves around shared Asian American attitudes about the fundamental role of government in American life in terms of providing services like health care, the government stepping in to reduce racial inequality (in principle), and protecting the environment. Many of those Asian Americans vociferously condemning race-conscious admissions policies and protesting sanctuary for undocumented immigrants are not right-wing White supremacists, but instead staunch supporters of the Democratic Party and its core commitments related to health care, the environment, and economic redistribution. This dynamic aligns with research by Howard Schuman and his colleagues that finds that Americans express a strong consensus for the principles of equality, but support for policies designed to achieve equality erodes as they get more specific (Schuman et al. 1997). That is, consensus is considerable on general policies among Asian Americans in regard to racial equality and other issues, but may weaken as more details on those policies are provided or with perceived personal or local impact. They are the drivers behind a new kind of racial conservatism in the United States that is powerful but, as this research shows, possibly limited by a progressive consensus on a set of core issues.
The extent to which Asian Americans are willing to act on their policy preferences seems to vary a great deal by issue area. Asian American opponents of affirmative action have joined [End Page 87] conservative legal activist Edward Blum in a national campaign to dismantle race-conscious admissions (Eligon 2018). Their activism is grassroots and shows no sign of diminishing. Although certainly Asian American organizations and Asian American leaders are working on health-care reform, environmental protections, economic justice, and racial justice issues, these issues have not mobilized the same degree of widespread, consistent activism that has accompanied legal and legislative fights over affirmative action. Despite broad consensus on health care, the environment, and economic redistribution, the salience of these issues does not match that of affirmative action. At the same time, the consensus around these issues goes a long way toward explaining why Asian Americans have moved so dramatically over the past two decades toward Democratic candidates.
We acknowledge that diversity within the Asian American community extends beyond the demographic and partisan divides described here. For example, the Asian American community is among the most religiously diverse in the nation (Pew Research Center 2013a). Previous work has explored these religious divides in depth (Pew Research Center 2012; Wong 2018).
In conclusion, the Asian American political agenda is anchored by an expansive view about the role of the federal government in U.S. life (especially in terms of health and the environment) and moderate views when it comes to income redistribution and the need to address discrimination against religious minorities (Muslims) and Black Americans. Consensus around these issues is widespread and suggests areas where an ethnic politics model and pan-ethnic organizing are most likely. At the same time, this set of issues taps into general principles, not ethnic-specific concerns, and so it seems unlikely that these general viewpoints will translate into a more a passionate and active political movement that is distinctly Asian American.
Janelle Wong is professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, United States.
Sono Shah is a computational social scientist with the Data Labs team at the Pew Research Center, United States.
Our gratitude goes to Jennifer St. Sume and Noah Steinlauf for providing research assistance on this project. Any errors are our responsibility alone.
1. Overall margin of error +/– 3.0 percent.
2. Overall margin of error for the 2016 NAAS-Post, which includes design effect: 2.5 percent landline (63 percent) and cell phones (37 percent).
3. Note that the NAAS sample includes more registered voters than the general Asian American population. About 54 percent of all Asian Americans were registered to vote during the survey period (KFF 2018). Registered Asian American voters are more likely to be native born, characterized by higher levels of educational attainment, and identify with a major party (rather than as nonpartisan) than nonregistered people. At the same time, the majority of foreign-born Asian Americans are registered to vote, and foreign-born Asian Americans make up majorities of our samples (similar to the general Asian American population). For example, in the pre-election sample, about 78 percent of the sample are foreign born. About 73 percent of Asian American adults are foreign born (Pew Research Center 2013a). Because registered voters are overrepresented in this analysis, they are also likely to be more educated and partisan than the general Asian American population. Thus, when it comes to issue attitudes, we speculate that the survey respondents may be more likely than the general Asian American population to have formed a clear opinion about the various issues presented to them. Because this article investigates whether Asian Americans converge or diverge on policy attitudes, the biases in this sample capture those who are more likely to express an opinion, so it is important to consider that the trends described here are developing over time.
4. Those who did not affirmatively express a progressive position (don’t know) were coded as 0. This is a conservative approach to coding progressive policy positions among Asian Americans versus including those who claimed they don’t know their position on the issues presented. Thus we can be more confident that we are capturing progressive positions with this coding choice.
Open Access Policy: RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is an open access journal. This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.