Thursday, February 7, 2008


Asians for Clinton?

By Christopher Fung, Ph.D.

I don't think it will be news to anyone who knows me that I found this latest op-ed piece by Joan Walsh at Salon in which she tries to make sense of "Asian" support for Hillary Rodham Clinton more than somewhat frustrating.

Ms. Walsh has shown an annoying tendency to jump immediately to simplistic notions of race, class and/or gender in order to bring some sort of taxanomic order to what is actually a relatively complex array of factors used by voters to select the candidate of their choice.

Her discussion of "Asians" is a case in point. As with the rest of the punditocracy (interestingly, Walsh does not seem to believe she is a part of this group), Walsh engages in lazy generalizations which I believe end up obscuring more than they illuminate. As someone who has studied Asian diaspora cultures professionally for almost two decades, I’d like to make a number of points.

The first issue that needs to be remembered is that the people being interviewed are registered Democratic party voters. Many of the people who are active enough to vote in the primaries are people who are involved in Democratic Party politics or who have been mobilized by friends who are active in Democratic Party politics. As I have said before in this blog, Asians and Latinos inside the Democratic Party are much more likely to vote the establishment party line. And let us remember some of the people who are the Democratic Party establishment in California: Dianne Feinstein, who is often referred to as a quasi-Republican, Nancy Pelosi who has given the Republicans everything they want even though they are no longer the majority in the House, and the Orange County mafia who are similarly pro-business and pro government. Now granted, there's also Barbara Boxer, Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters, but the overwhelming majority of the California delegation are much less radical than the reputation of the state as "liberal" California would have us believe.

The party line in California is thus establishment and therefore overwhelmingly pro-Hillary. It is no accident that the states Obama took handily are those which have not been considered to be Democratic strongholds. The Democratic party power structures in these states are likely to be much more flexible and perhaps responsive to change since they have relatively little to lose compared to their dinosaur sister chapters in the Democratic heartland.

The second issue is that of generation and orientation. Those Asians who either are immigrants themselves or who identify politically and socially with their immigrant parents or grandparents are likely to be relatively conservative - not politically conservative but conservative in the sense that they want to be part of a large, powerful organization with which they have an established relationship and some history of mutual benefit. By contrast, third and fourth generation Asian immigrants, those young Asian Americans who see themselves as entitled to full citizenship in a cultural sense, and those with strong ties to other communities of color tend to be more excited by the idea of transformational politics and the kind of true polyculturalism that the Obama campaign represents.

Hillary Clinton's faction embodies the qualities sought by the immigrant-identified to a T.

The third issue I would like to point out (a trifle wearily), is that to make a big deal out of "Asians" political choices is to overstate the political importance of Asians as a group. Nowhere except in Hawai`i do Asian Americans constitute an electorally-decisive population in terms of numbers. There are select districts particularly in the LA area and the Bay Area where this is so, but in general terms Asian Americans are not in the same league as Latino voters in the southwest or African American voters in the southeast.

Ms. Walsh has confused the politics of establishment with the politics of race. In this she does nothing more than prove that she doesn't really understand the groups she blogs about with such apparent authority.

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