(Summary: Ending the marginalization of Asian American voices and stopping the monolithic portrayal of Asian American political attitudes would be great strides toward eliminating the conditions that sustain the "bloc vote" mentality.)
All this week, CNN has been hyping Anderson Cooper's special report on "Race, Gender and Politics." As expected, Cooper and his guests mostly rehashed the same arguments and opinions they've made four or five times a day for the past month. What has stood out for me, however, is that Cooper has been the national television news figure most interested in reporting on Asian Americans. (Sadly, that's not saying much.) A couple commentators made the obvious but still necessary point that we should not jump to quick conclusions or reproduce stereotypes about how Asian Americans think and act. No one pointed out that Asian Americans have switched dramatically from Republican to solidly Democratic over the past three to four presidential election cycles. Overall, Cooper's reporting has exposed how little the media understands the political dynamics within Asian American communities.
Cooper's main goal has been to explain why exit polls from the California Democratic primary showed Asian Americans voting nearly three-to-one for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama. It began with his anchoring coverage on the night of Super Tuesday. As pundit David Gergen was discussing the significance of the Latino vote to Hillary's win in California, Cooper interjected that she also registered a sizable win among Asians. Gergen's tangential response was "well, they're in play here, too." Then, Gergen continued with his point about Latinos. This was, of course, a misstatement. "In play" for the political pundits analyzing the horse race means that the battle to win a state or a demographic segment of the electorate is highly competitive, not lopsided. What Gergen really meant by the Asians are "in play" comment was something more like, "We don't normally view Asian voters as significant, but here's one isolated case where they happened to make a difference."
Next, Cooper did a very short feature on Asian American voters during his February 8 show. In its entirety, the segment consisted of brief comments by four random Asian Americans plus 38 words from a political science professor whose primary area of study is Latinos in politics. The consensus: Hillary Clinton is better known because her husband was president; also, recent Asian immigrants might be uncomfortable with the idea of change and maybe a little wary of a black candidate. In response, an Asian American political action committee called the 80-20 Initiative launched a petition against CNN saying it was "outraged" by this "2 minute segment."
CNN subsequently interviewed a representative of the 80-20 Initiative, S.B. Woo, for the "Race, Gender and Politics" special. Woo delivered the night's big new thesis: the strong Asian American backing of Clinton in California was the result of none other than the 80-20 Initiative's campaign to organize Asians into an ethnic bloc vote for Clinton. The group has declared on its website, "Let the word go forth that we've learned how to reward political leaders who share our rightful concerns, and punish those who don't." While Woo is no doubt overstating his group's influence, the actions of the 80-20 Initiative help us to appreciate in the crudest manner how a particular type of ethnic identity politics functions. Since Anderson Cooper fell well short of "explaining it all," I'll try to demonstrate how this works.
First, a group of self-identified leaders get together and declare themselves the representatives of their ethnic (or other form of interest) group. Second, the group identifies a narrow set of positions purporting to represent the self-interests of the entire group. In the case of the 80-20 Initiative, the group asked candidates to pledge to "break the glass ceiling" for Asian Americans in employment and "nominate more Asian American judges." All questions on these points singled out Asian Americans. The 80-20 platform is not couched broadly as a civil rights initiative; it's only a call for the government to give certain Asian Americans treatment already afforded "other minorities." Third, the group takes it platform to the candidates and chooses a horse in the race. (A variation on this theme is petitioning a media outlet to remedy its allegedly biased coverage by devoting airtime to your group and its cause.) Fourth, the group attempts to mobilize a bloc vote by arguing that the chosen candidate best represents "our" interests. Finally, if the candidate wins and the group is seen to have delivered the vote, the symbolic representatives of the ethnic group get in line to cash in their rewards (e.g. patronage, federal appointments, dinner at the White House).
What must be emphasized regarding the relative success of the 80-20 "bloc vote" campaign is that minority interest group politics of this nature conform perfectly to the niche marketing and service-delivery model of politics practiced by head Clinton strategist Mark Penn. Winning the 80-20 endorsement was but one part of a broader Clinton strategy to win endorsements from minority politicians, court ethnic community leaders, and advertise in ethnic media. This largely top-down approach seems to have worked in this instance (though it might have fallen short if the Obama team had developed a better ground game among Asians and Latinos in California). Yet, the primary results are also proving that so many Americans are tired of politics framed by narrow self-interests that ignore the intersecting relationship between race, gender, class, sexuality, ecology, education, health care, and a million other issues.
While there are some interests unique to ethnic groups, there are also ways to address these concerns within the context of struggling for a greater good and a higher purpose. Memo to Anderson Cooper: your next task, if you choose to accept it, is to find the tens of thousands of Asian Americans who see politics and activism in this light. Ending the marginalization of Asian American voices and stopping the monolithic portrayal of Asian American political attitudes would be great strides toward eliminating the conditions that sustain the "bloc vote" mentality.
Scott Kurashige is an associate professor of American Culture, History, and Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies at the University of Michigan and author of The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton University Press, 2008).