By Marc Ambinder, GQ
What can one possibly add to the hill of hype that now surrounds the glorious Jeremy Lin, New York Knickerbocker?
We are fascinated by his rise, but instead of focusing on his talent, which is raw and untested, we fixate upon his race and his biography. Lin's parents came here from Taiwan in the late '70s, settling in California, and he grew up as American as he did Taiwanese, with a quiet but devoted Christianity that marks him as a cultural conservative, and a playfulness and sense of humor that keeps him tethered to the modern world. Implicit within the coverage of Linsanity is the assumption that Lin is so special because he is unusual. But he's not, really. If you've been paying attention to integration of second-generation Asian-Americans into our political super-culture, he's kind of normal.
Asian-Americans are a unique lot for political folks to categorize, in that they don't tend to identify collectively as one. Korean-Americans in Northern Virginia have different ways of seeing the world than Filipinos in Nevada. (Manny Pacquiao's last-minute endorsement of Harry Reid in the 2010 Senate race may have swung the race to him.) Taiwanese-Americans in Palo Alto are more conservative than Chinese-Americans in New York. It has long been assumed that Latinos would become more Republican as subcultures assimilated into the mainstream, but that hasn't happened. It doesn't seem like it will happen with Asian-Americans either, who, by 2050, will compromise about eight percent of the U.S. population.
The GOP's association with American Christianity and with upward mobility are enough for Asian-Americans to give that party a look, but the Asian-American vote has become more and more Democratic as the average Asian-American voter has spent a longer amount of time inside the U.S. "On paper, Asians -- culturally conservative, family values, entrepreneurship, fiscally conservative, meritocracy -- seem tailor-made for Republicans," says Tony Lee, a Korean-American conservative and editor at the publication Human Events. "But, like with Cubans, the younger generation of Asians has not voted as Republican as one may have expected or assumed. "
Another superstar Asian-American athlete, the short-track speedskater Simon Cho, provides a second example. Like most Asian-Americans in their twenties, Cho's parents weren't born in the U.S.; when he was two, they moved to the U.S. from Korea seeking a better life for their children. (They snuck in from Canada and were later naturalized.) Cho turned out to be a prodigy. His parents sacrificed their own economic security so that he could train for the Olympics. At any point -- even now -- Cho could return to Korea and be a celebrity, getting endorsements, and money. At age 20, though, he chooses to remain in the U.S., because he is an American, pure and simple, even though Americans insist on seeing him as an Asian who happens to be an American. Last weekend, Cho won the World Cup in the men's 500 meter race, despite having literally broken his back last year. In all likelihood, he will race in the Sochi Olympics in 2014, and he is, as of now, the favorite to win the gold, supplanting his mentor Apolo Ohno, as the speedskater's new it-man.
I don't know how Cho will vote next November, but I suspect it won't be for a Republican. Cho has spoken out in favor of compassion for illegal immigrants. He was one, after all. But if Republicans were to rid themselves of their anti-immigrant wing, or if they choose not allow their primaries to be controlled by it, there is no real reason why Asian-Americans can't become a true swing constituency. Their allegiances with the Democratic Party are tenuous. "If Asians vote for Republicans like Jews have traditionally voted for Democrats, Republicans could see many advantages," Lee says. "For that to happen, Asians have to see conservatism as the best way for them to be more integrated and assimilated into the mainstream for themselves and their children, which should not be that hard a sell." Look again at Lin's own story: He faced discrimination as a kid playing on the courts of (even) Palo Alto, and slurs while at Harvard, but because of his superior natural abilities, rose up through the most meritocratic institution in society. There is no affirmative action based on race or last name. If you can't play, you are not going to get on the court. That up-by-the-sneaker-laces narrative is a vital part of Lin's appeal -- and the Republican deal.
There's a huge opportunity for Republicans, who will desperately need minority voters in a diversifying America without straying from conservative policies. Right now, they're blowing it. But Democrats would be well-advised to stop treating Asian-Americans as a monolith. The community is too diverse for that these days. They defy typing.
As does Lin.
More from GQ: