In November 2015, then-radio-host Stephen Bannon was interviewing then-presidential-candidate Donald Trump. During the interview, Trump expressed concern that, owing to American immigration laws, many foreign students attending elite American universities were being forced to return home after graduation. “We have to be careful of that, Steve,” said Trump. “You know, we have to keep our talented people in this country.”
“Um,” Bannon replied.
“I think you agree with that,” Trump added. “Do you agree with that?”
Bannon paused, and said, “When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think . . . A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”
The Bannon–Trump exchange highlights the most significant division within the conservative movement today.
In one camp are demographic pessimists such as Bannon. They presume that Americans of non-European heritage are hostile to conservatism and think we should oppose the increasing racial diversification of America because it will move the country to the left.
In the other camp are demographic optimists. They believe that conservative values are universal values, shared by people of all races, and that non-European immigrants can add substantial value to America. They argue that the conservative movement must find a way to attract members of minority groups if it is to live up to its universal moral claims and thrive in a more diverse America.
One oft-ignored group will determine who wins this debate: Asian Americans.
Asian Americans are a diverse lot, representing many different nationalities, races, cultures, and religions. But in general, they favor free enterprise, traditional family values, and a vigorous foreign policy. And yet Asians are increasingly turning away from the Republican party and identifying with the Left. Why?
The loyalty of blacks — and the growing allegiance of Hispanics — to the Democratic party is widely discussed in conservative and Republican circles. Some conservatives have concluded that it is futile to court these voters because, it is said, prevailing trends in their communities are culturally and economically incompatible with conservative values.
Black and Hispanic voters suffer from higher rates of poverty, goes the theory, and therefore have an economic interest in supporting the expansion of the welfare state. Furthermore, illegitimate births have become more common in black and Hispanic households, a trend that — again, according to the theory — makes blacks and Hispanics uninterested in conservative family values.
“Illegitimacy has become completely normalized among [social workers’] Hispanic clients,” wrote Heather Mac Donald, author of The Diversity Delusion, in a 2006 article for National Review. “Far from exercising a brake on the erosion of traditional values, . . . the growing Hispanic population will provide the impetus for more government alternatives to personal responsibility.”
A related — but somewhat contradictory — argument made by the pessimists is one of civilizational incompatibility: that non-European immigrants are fundamentally ill equipped to uphold American values. By this logic, it doesn’t matter whether families are intact or incomes are low. As Steve Bannon put it in his radio interview, it’s not merely the non-European immigrants from broken or low-income homes who undermine “civic society,” but also the wealthy, married, capitalist ones.
Similarly, Michael Anton, writing under a pseudonym for the Claremont Review of Books, has argued that “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.”
Laura Ingraham, on her Fox News show, said, “In some parts of the country, it does seem that the America that we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people. And they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like. From Virginia to California, we see stark examples of how radically in some ways the country has changed. . . . This is exactly what socialists like [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez want: eventually diluting and overwhelming your vote with the votes of others, who aren’t — let’s face it — too big on Adam Smith and the Federalist Papers. . . . This is a national emergency.”
These two ideas are powerful in conservative circles in part because they are self-flattering. Our inability to attract minority groups, we tell ourselves, is due to the moral superiority of our values and their lack of interest in self-reliance, hard work, and family formation.
Demographic pessimists of the 19th and early 20th centuries made similar arguments about German, Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants. Back then, those countries were not suffused with democracy or individual liberty or economic freedom; that is, after all, why millions left for America in the first place. The same holds true today for so many immigrants to the U.S. who flee authoritarian countries precisely because they crave political and economic liberty.
But plenty of Asians come to America from democratic countries. South Korea and Japan rank higher than the United States on The Economist’s “Democracy Index,” which grades countries on civil liberties and tolerance for political opponents. India has been a parliamentary democracy since 1948 — that is to say, for significantly longer than Spain, Portugal, East Germany, and Poland. Hong Kong, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, and Taiwan all rank higher than the United States on the Heritage Foundation’s 2019 “Index of Economic Freedom.”
Indeed, Asian Americans provide a test case for the claims of the demographic pessimists. Is Bannon right that Asians are too different from Europeans to contribute to our society? Or are conservatives in part responsible for the Left’s growing appeal among Asians?
In just two generations, Asian Americans have become America’s most successful ethnic group. As a share of the U.S. population, Asians have grown from barely 1 percent in the early 1960s to more than 6 percent today. Between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, the Asian-American population grew by nearly 50 percent. The Asian vote is now large enough to swing elections in Virginia and Nevada.
If conservative values really are the values of family, personal responsibility, education, and hard work, the most conservative demographic group in America is Asians. The divorce rate for non-Hispanic whites is 40 percent; for Asians, it is 21 percent. The teen birth rate for whites is 17 percent; for Asian Americans, it is 8 percent. The illegitimacy rate for whites is 29 percent; for Asian Americans, it is 16 percent.
Asians also value merit and hard work, just as conservatives do. Take educational attainment: Thirty-six percent of white Americans have a college degree, while 54 percent of Asian Americans do. Asian families push their children hard to score at the top of standardized tests and achieve sterling grade-point averages. They rightly prize the great benefits of being educated at our world-beating universities. Opposition to race-based affirmative action at Harvard University, the University of California, and New York City schools has brought out Asians in support of conservative arguments for meritocracy and against race-based quotas.
Asian Americans are among the most successful participants in the American economy; they compose the highest-earning ethnic group in the United States, and one of the highest-educated. In 2015, median household income for whites was $63,000 a year. For Asians, it was $77,000.
Asians are more likely than whites to run a small business. When Asian families immigrate to the United States, they may at first lack proficiency in the English language or American social skills. They will not have immediate entrée into our elite cultural institutions or corporate networks. So they will often run motels, dry cleaners, convenience stores, and restaurants as a way to support themselves and their families. If the natural home of hard-working, tax-paying, family-forming Americans is the GOP, Asians should be voting overwhelmingly for Republicans.
And yet Asians have become a loyal component of the Democratic party. In the 1980s and 1990s, Asian Americans voted Republican. George H. W. Bush won the Asian vote in 1992 over Bill Clinton, 55–31. Bob Dole also beat Bill Clinton for the Asian vote, 48–43. But during the era of Barack Obama, Asians turned decisively away from the Republican party. In the 2012 elections, 76 percent of Asian voters turned out for President Obama: a higher proportion than did so among Hispanics, Jews, or single women, and second only to that of African Americans. In 2016, two-thirds of all Asian voters supported Hillary Clinton, again the second-highest proportion among demographic groups.
Democrats have rewarded this overwhelming support with an intransigent defense of policies that explicitly or implicitly discriminate against Asians. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the disheartening use of race by elite universities to suppress Asian achievement.
In the early 20th century, Ivy League schools found that the use of admissions tests was leading to a rise in Jewish matriculants. By 1922, Jewish students constituted nearly 22 percent of Harvard College, up from 7 percent in 1900. This led to alarm among university administrators. Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell sought to rectify this “problem” by developing a “holistic” admissions process that deemphasized test scores. “We can reduce the number of Jews by talking about other qualifications than those of admission examinations,” Lowell wrote, expressing the view that the ideal proportion of Jews was about 15 percent.
Harvard and other universities changed their attitude toward Jews after World War II. As Americans learned of the Holocaust, it became untenable for universities to continue to discriminate against Jews in their admissions practices. But elite universities never dropped the “holistic” admissions system. Today, that system is used against Asian Americans.
Under the pressure of a lawsuit, Harvard disclosed in summer 2018 that Asians would make up 43 percent of the student body if academic considerations alone dictated admissions. This seems about right, given external statistics. In 2012, Asians represented 13 percent of California’s population but 59 percent of California’s National Merit semifinalists: those whose scores on the PSAT were in the top 0.5 percent of all test-takers. In Texas, in 2010, Asians were 3.8 percent of the population but more than 25 percent of the National Merit semifinalists.
But even though, on average, Asians rated the highest in Harvard’s admissions system for academics and extra-curricular activities, they also had the lowest score for “personality,” which includes traits such as “humor, sensitivity, grit, [and] leadership.” This is “holistic” admissions at work.
By dinging Asian applicants’ personalities, Harvard was able to limit Asians to 26 percent of the class; the college then made “demographic” adjustments, which further limited the Asian proportion to 23 percent.
Moreover, Asians are a rapidly growing share of the U.S. population and of the highest-achieving college applicants. But their share of the Harvard freshman class has remained magically constant for decades, ranging from 17 to 19 percent. In other words, if Harvard is not discriminating against Asians, Asians’ personalities have deteriorated over time to make up for their rising academic achievement.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld Harvard’s racially discriminatory “holistic” system; every Supreme Court justice appointed by Bill Clinton or Barack Obama has voted to support race-based admissions programs in the name of “diversity.” These Democratic appointees have been joined by enough Republicans to maintain the anti-Asian status quo.
Democratic legislators have also supported anti-Asian policies, especially in education. Democrats in California, for example, have sought repeatedly to overturn Proposition 209, which is the only law preventing state universities such as Berkeley and UCLA from resuming the use of race to suppress Asian admissions. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed ending the sole use of standardized testing to determine entrance into magnet schools such as Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, where Asians now constitute more than two-thirds of the student body. Calling the racial demographics of these schools a “monumental injustice,” the mayor declared: “Can anyone defend this? Can anyone look the parent of a Latino or black child in the eye and tell them their precious daughter or son has an equal chance to get into one of their city’s best high schools?” When Asian groups protested, Richard Carranza, the city’s schools chancellor, responded, “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admissions to these schools.”
While school admissions is a top-tier issue for Asians, disregarding it is not the only way in which Democratic leaders take Asian voters for granted. Although Asians earn high incomes and run the small businesses that suffer the most from growing government, Democrats have aggressively resisted Republican tax cuts and the Trump administration’s deregulation initiative.
But Republicans deserve much of the blame for this state of affairs. Like past immigrants, many Asians first land in our largest cities: the ones that conservative pundits sometimes exclude from “the real America.” The Republican party no longer seriously contests elections in the inner cities as it did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when many Irish, Italians, and Eastern Europeans immigrated to the U.S. Asian Americans who rely on municipal government for safe streets, business licenses, and good schools may never meet a serious Republican politician. At naturalization ceremonies throughout the U.S., where new citizens pledge their allegiance to the flag, representatives from the Democratic Party are usually waiting outside to register them to vote. Republicans rarely are. It would come as no surprise if these immigrants — especially those who have fled authoritarian governments — got involved in local Democratic parties that appear to be their only avenue for civic engagement.
But the tension between Asians and conservatives may run deeper. For half a century, opponents of the Right have alleged that, while conservatives and Republicans claim to support universal values, in reality the Right’s agenda is racist and sectarian.
Immigrants from Korea and China are among America’s most fervent Evangelical Christians, but immigrants from India are more likely to be Hindu or secular in background. It is quite apparent to these communities that there are conservatives who view them with suspicion because their ancestry is not European or their faith not Christian, or simply because their rapid success has surpassed that of other Americans whose families have been here longer.
For demographic optimists within the conservative movement — those who wish to show that ordered liberty is a universal principle that can make life better for everyone — Asian Americans represent an ideal opportunity. A conservative and Republican coalition that includes Asians will gradually learn how to talk about its principles in a way that appeals to both nonwhites and non-Christians. Asians, in this way, could help Republicans learn how to appeal to all minorities.
On the flip side, it is hard to see how, if they cannot bring Asian Americans into their coalition, conservatives will ever rise above the perception — or reality — that their movement is solely a vehicle to advance white interests.
But if conservatives and Republicans are to win back the Asian vote, they must refresh their policy agenda and reform their political culture.
First, they should go beyond simple distaste for race-based affirmative action and prioritize the enactment of a workable replacement. It would be far more faithful to the Constitution to give an advantage to university applicants with lower socioeconomic status than to employ race-based quotas. It would also be more fair. While socioeconomic preferences might adversely affect high-income Asians relative to a purely academic standard, Asians would recognize that such an approach does not discriminate against their children on the basis of skin color. It would also not insult them, as does race-based affirmative action, by assuming that all Asians are monolithic in their views or experiences. Socioeconomic-status-based affirmative action would reinforce America’s openness to merit and hard work and better reward those who overcame obstacles presented by poverty or family breakdown. Conservatives should be the ones upholding the principle that hard work and talent are more important than accidents of birth, wealth, or social networks.
Second, conservatives should learn from Canada and Australia and embrace a skills-based approach to immigration. Many Asians oppose illegal immigration for the same reasons that conservatives do: Most Asians came here legally and see illegal immigration as unfair — to them. But Bannon-style restrictionists who seek to suppress all immigration — both legal and illegal — drive Asians away.
Conservatives may disagree about what the right scale of legal immigration would be. According to the Department of Homeland Security, the United States admits roughly 1 million people a year as permanent resident aliens. While some pessimists want to reduce that number to zero, many optimists ask: Would the character of a country of 325 million people really change if we admitted 2 million instead of 1?
Since pessimists and optimists still have to live together in the conservative movement and the Republican party, it would be best not to argue over the scale of legal immigration to the U.S. but rather to at least maintain it at current levels. Such a compromise would allow conservatives to focus on improving the quality of the immigrants the U.S. legally admits.
As Reihan Salam argues in his recently published book Melting Pot or Civil War: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case against Open Borders, conservatives should urge a shift away from family-based immigration — which currently dominates federal policy — and toward an emphasis on immigrants’ ability to support themselves and their families without relying on the safety net. This would help improve the economic welfare of those already here.
President Trump was on to something when he told Bannon that the U.S. ought to change policy to persuade foreigners who receive advanced degrees at American universities to stay. In his book, Salam reviews evidence showing that the most self-sufficient immigrants are those with college and graduate degrees. Conservatives should support offering permanent residence, with a pathway toward citizenship, to every law-abiding foreigner who graduates from a U.S. college or university.
Conservatives could similarly advance preferences for those who serve in the U.S. armed forces, help our troops or diplomats abroad, or offer important economic skills. The Association of American Medical Colleges predicts that we will have a shortage of 40,000 to 120,000 doctors by 2030; the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a shortage of 1.1 million nurses; placement firms estimate that 3 million available STEM jobs are going unfilled. If our nation suffers from shortages of doctors, nurses, engineers, computer scientists, teachers, and emergency responders, conservatives should deploy the immigration system to help meet those needs. Otherwise, that knowledge and skill will stay abroad, where it may even benefit our foreign rivals.
In purely demographic terms, both the optimists and the pessimists are right. A Republican party composed solely of white voters will not survive the 21st century. Even if the U.S. were to enact what many pessimists fantasize about — a total moratorium on future immigration — it would make little difference. Since 2013, the majority of new births in America have been to minority or mixed-race parents. Generation Z and whatever we end up calling the generations that follow will all grow up in an ethnically and racially diverse America, as Millennials already have.
If the conservative movement and the Republican party want to attract Asians, the most important thing is to want to include Asians in their coalition. Playing hard-to-get doesn’t work in politics the way it does in romance. Conservatives often act as if it were up to members of minority groups to realize how wonderful conservatism is on their own. In the real world, it is conservatives’ job to make the case to black, Hispanic, and Asian voters that conservative policies will improve their lives.
Canada provides a roadmap for how the Right can build a coalition that includes Asian immigrants. In 2006, Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper convinced one of his deputies, Jason Kenney, to take on the party’s immigration portfolio in Parliament. Kenney’s orders: Help integrate new immigrants into Canadian culture and into the Conservative party. “I understood that I would have to be everywhere at all times,” Kenney has recalled. “Personal contact is crucial for new immigrants.”
Kenney spent the next decade crisscrossing the country, meeting with Korean community leaders in Vancouver one day, Sikh celebrants in Ontario the next, and Chinese immigrants in Ottawa the day after that. In 2009, a Chinese shopkeeper caught a shoplifter in the act and tied him up before calling the police. After the thief was arrested, he had the gumption to file assault charges against the shopkeeper, for tying him up. Kenney learned about the controversy by reading Chinese-language newspapers. In response, he helped draft a bill allowing shopkeepers to use “reasonable force” against thieves and intruders.
The newest Canadians, Kenney learned, were culturally more conservative than the average Canadian of European stock. And they wanted, above all, to be heard: to be treated as if their concerns were of equal importance to those of other voters. Because the natural predisposition of politicians is to focus on existing constituencies rather than new ones, those such as Kenney, who did focus on new constituents, won their loyalty. Immigrants in Toronto’s suburbs drove Conservatives to a sweeping victory in Canada’s 2011 federal elections.
The addition of immigrants to the Canadian conservative coalition didn’t hand Tories a permanent majority. Harper and company lost in 2015 to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. But the Conservative party of Canada has shown how, contrary to claims of pessimists in America, non-European immigrants can strengthen conservatism in a Western nation. Kenney and colleagues didn’t appeal to Asians by moving left but by applying conservative principles to the problems that Asian Canadians were facing.
Just as with the Conservatives in Canada, the survival of the GOP hinges on its ability to attract a more diverse electorate. But as we have seen, American pessimists are not persuaded by arguments of practical politics. They argue that it will not profit the GOP to gain the minority vote but lose its European soul.
The Republican party, however, was founded in 1854 to establish the principle of liberty and justice for all Americans, regardless of race. It was a remarkable principle, given the practical politics of the time. Republicans, in effect, were promising to diminish the economic and political power of whites — that is to say, voters — in order to liberate nonvoting blacks from slavery.
In recent years, Republicans have lost their connection to that tradition. It is a problem they can overcome with a well-considered reform agenda and by doing the humble and uncomfortable work of courting people who are different from them. But most of all, it requires the conviction that conservative values can improve the lives of Americans of all races and creeds, and that Americans of non-European ancestry have just as much at stake in the survival of liberty as do the sons and daughters of the American Revolution.
As recently as the 1980s, these views were conventional among Republicans. Ronald Reagan, in his last speech as president, said, “I think it’s fitting to leave one final thought, an observation about the country which I love. It was stated best in a letter I received not long ago. A man wrote me and said: ‘You can go to live in France, but you cannot become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey or Japan, but you cannot become a German, a Turk, or Japanese. But anyone, from any corner of the earth, can come to live in America and become an American.’”
This is the principle that once made America exceptional. Is it still?
This article appears as “Eastern Americans” in the March 25, 2019, print edition of National Review.