Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series on Indian Americans and the elections. Read Part 2, Why Indian Americans Should Pick Obama.
As we enter the home stretch of the presidential election, one group whose support President Barack Obama can apparently take for granted is Indian Americans. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 65 percent of the 2.85 million-strong community self-identifies as Democratic or Democratic-leaning. Fewer than one in five see themselves as Republicans. In 2008, a whopping 84 percent of Indian-Americans voted for Obama, one of the highest proportions of any ethnic group in America. Four years later, despite the weak economy, two-thirds of Indian-Americans approve of President Obama’s job performance. Only about a fifth disapprove. Anecdotal evidence suggests that support for Romney in the community is weak.
Wisdom, however, does not always lie with crowds. For those accustomed to viewing politics through the prism of race—with non-white minorities expected to line up robotically behind Democrats—a pronounced lean toward Obama may not seem surprising. In fact, it’s utterly illogical. Interests, values, and history all suggest that the natural political home for Indian-Americans is the Grand Old Party. With a little effort and the right arguments, the Romney-Ryan campaign ought to be able to make inroads into a community that, though still relatively small in absolute numbers, represents the fastest-growing segment of America’s fast-growing Asian-American population.
From an Indian-American perspective, the case for President Mitt Romney consists of two parts. First, the GOP emphasis on entrepreneurship, low taxes, fiscal rectitude, and the nuclear family makes the party a better fit than the Democratic Party for most members of the community. Second, Romney represents the moderate and plural wing of his party.
From an Indian-American perspective, the case for President Mitt Romney consists of two parts. First, the GOP emphasis on entrepreneurship, low taxes, fiscal rectitude, and the nuclear family makes the party a better fit than the Democratic Party for most members of the community. Second, Romney represents the moderate and plural wing of his party. If the evolution of the Republican Party toward a greater acceptance of ethnic and religious diversity is in Indian-American interests, then now is the time to step up and support the candidate who best represents this trend.
Why the GOP? To begin with, the Indian-American experience is proof, if any were needed, that America remains a land of opportunity. For all intents and purposes, the community is less than 50 years old—Indians began migrating to the United States in significant numbers only after it opened its doors to non-Europeans in 1965—but it has already carved out space for itself at the heart of American life. Look no further than Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo or Vikram Pandit of Citigroup, writers Jhumpa Lahiri or Atul Gawande, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Sabeer Bhatia and Romesh Wadhwani, or comedians Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari. In short, contrary to what the Left suggests, America is a fundamentally fair society that rewards hard work and talent.
Nor is this experience limited to a few outliers. In 2010, median household income for Indian-Americans was $88,000, compared to the national average of $49,800. Seven in ten Indian-Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to three in ten in the general population. Only 9 percent live in poverty, compared to the national average of 12.8 percent. And even if you step away from the doctors and software geeks, the archetypal Indian-American figure is a striver: a motel owner in Florida, a newsstand worker in New York, or a taxi driver in California. To put it bluntly, this is not the natural constituency for the party of food stamps, affirmative action, and welfare without work.
What about social values? The Pew survey finds that a minuscule 2.3 percent of Indian-American children are born to unmarried mothers—compared to 37 percent of children nationwide. More than nine out of ten Indian-American children live with married parents, compared with the national average of about six in ten. If the GOP is the party of the nuclear family—a Pew survey finds that 88 percent of Republicans say they have “old-fashioned values” about family and marriage, compared with just 60 percent of Democrats—then should it not also be the party of Indian-Americans?
Then there’s the question of India. Like most immigrants, Indian-Americans ought to view their ancestral homeland in the rearview mirror, but this does not preclude wishing India well or working toward closer ties between Washington and New Delhi.
To be fair to the Democratic Party, it is part of a broad bipartisan consensus that seeks a strong U.S.-India relationship. Nonetheless, it was a Republican president, George W. Bush, who went the extra mile for India in 2005 by backing a landmark civilian nuclear accord. And in general, Republicans have greater clarity about the threats democracies such as India face from the rise of an authoritarian China and the resurgence of radical Islam. On immigration, Democrats tend to favor restrictions on highly skilled immigration, the kind that affects Indian-Americans most directly, much more than business-friendly Republicans. As for trade, suffice to say that there is only one presidential candidate out there taking regular potshots at jobs outsourced to Bangalore. It’s not the guy who ran Bain Capital.
India ought to inform the community’s choices in a deeper sense, as well. The overwhelming majority of Indian-Americans are economic refugees who fled the wreckage of Nehruvian socialism for greener pastures. To describe Obama as a “Kenyan socialist,” as the Indian-American author Dinesh D’Souza did in 2010, may be a needlessly inflammatory exaggeration. But the president’s faith in big government, ceaseless castigation of “millionaires and billionaires,” and careless talk of “social Darwinism” should give the jitters to anyone who has experienced firsthand the policies that flow from such rhetoric.
Needless to say, not all Indian-Americans will be convinced by these arguments. That most live in reliably blue states such as California, New York, and New Jersey probably colors their perspective. Others have bought into a toxic culture of victimhood, despite the obvious fact that the overwhelming majority of Indian immigration came after the United States experienced the great civil rights victories of the 1960s. Others still may simply prefer the gaudy identity politics of the Democratic Party to the GOP’s quieter acceptance of all as Americans—with an emphasis, in an era of hyphenated identity, on what comes after the hyphen. And, of course, those for whom gay marriage and abortion rights matter more than the fiscal deficit or a strong military have good reason to prefer blue to red.
For its part, the Republican Party could do a better job of reaching out. Though the two most prominent Indian-American politicians in the country are Republicans—Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina—many Indian-Americans still seem more comfortable in the Democratic Party. Two years ago, all five Indian-Americans who ran for Congress (and lost) were Democrats. That both Jindal and Haley tend to wear their conversion to Christianity on their sleeves obliquely sends the message to some that the largely Hindu and Sikh Indian-American community may not be entirely welcome.
This year’s GOP convention in Tampa included an invocation by a Sikh priest. By nominating a Mormon to run for the presidency, the GOP has punctured the myth that it belongs only to fundamentalist Christians.
In the end, though, these misgivings are misguided. This year’s GOP convention in Tampa included an invocation by a Sikh priest. By nominating a Mormon to run for the presidency, the GOP has punctured the myth that it belongs only to fundamentalist Christians. Romney’s landmark 2007 speech on religion in America shows that he understands the importance of religious pluralism more than most politicians. For his part, Paul Ryan was the only candidate on either presidential ticket to visit with the victims of August’s horrific shooting at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin. He also moved a resolution in the House condemning the shooting.
Moreover, no reasonable person can gainsay the fact that America’s prosperity and proud tradition of religious liberty owe their existence to a society built on a bedrock of Judeo-Christian values. Acknowledging this does not in any way reduce either a community’s space to practice its own faith, or the fact that the Enlightenment informed America’s founding principles. It merely underscores what ought to be blindingly obvious to most Indian-Americans: that the vast believing Christians have historically upheld pluralism in America.
To sum up, not much of substance tethers Indian-Americans to the Democratic Party or the Obama candidacy. Once the community begins to view the world through the prism of interests, values, and history, it will soon discover that it belongs more naturally in the GOP. By throwing their weight behind Romney, Indian-Americans will align their interests more clearly with their politics, and help the two-party system acquire a balance that’s good for America. This, rather than a reflexive embrace of the president, ought to inform the community’s choice in November.
Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter @dhume01. A shorter version of this essay was published in The American.