The Republicans have a diversity problem on their hands. Six out of 10 white voters chose Mitt Romney, while blacks (93%), Asians (73%) and Latinos (71%) overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama. So far, strategy has focused on getting the GOP to embrace immigration reform.
That’s a good idea, but it’s going to take some time. It also doesn’t tackle the problem head on: The Republicans need to actually start looking more like America; they need real immigrant politicians behind real immigrant-friendly policies. It’s the only way to get over the party’s “angry white guy problem.”
Yet how to explain this: Two of the fastest-rising stars of the Republican Party are the children of Indian immigrants—Piyush Jindal and Nimrata Randhawa.
Never heard of them? That’s because most people know them better as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. Both were elected in states that are more than 60% white. How did they cross the racial barrier? Fundamentally, they represent the parallel narratives of the Republican Party and immigrant life—family values, patriotism, hardscrabble work ethic, among them. But Jindal and Haley also reflect just what must be lost in order to make it as an immigrant Republican. They’ve changed their names, converted religions, and been very careful about invoking their backgrounds on the campaign trail. That’s helped them win over whites—and their own party. Now what about everyone else? As the party licks its wounds, recruits new blood, and ponders relevance in the new America, it clearly needs to reconsider messaging, even if that means an overhaul of traditional platforms.
The names just scratch the surface. Indians aren’t afraid of assimilation, and Republicans can use this to their advantage. My own Indian immigrant father, Mohesh, arrived in 1971 and promptly became “Mo.” He doesn’t see that as losing himself, just as an easier name for Americans to pronounce. That helped him make friends, find an apartment, climb the corporate ladder. Maybe the Republican Party needs to focus on these success stories instead of race-baiting and advocating English-only laws. As a piece on our sister site The Atlantic argues, the party must get control of folks like Rush Limbaugh who once said: “We have bent over backwards here to accommodate Spanish-speaking people by seeing to it they don’t have to learn English.”
Candidates like Jindal and Haley are self-made. Not so long ago, it was okay for a politician father to pass along a seat to his son. But wealthy, well-connected candidates can no longer just buy elections. (How else to get away with mocking 47% of Americans who expect handouts when Daddy’s been giving them out too?) What’s needed are candidates with working-class roots and firsthand struggle to attain success. Clearly, voters saw through Mitt Romney’s attempts to paint a life of hardship (one cartoonist added a butler to those early married years in a basement apartment, for example). But they eat up and relate to Nikki Haley’s memory of being 13 years old and working at her parents’ clothing store. Young Jindal, meanwhile, was writing manuscripts on Medicare in his spare time and convinced Louisiana officials to let him run the state’s healthcare system—at age 25.
Republicans need to pay attention here because the immigrant vote is still up for grabs. The largest sway among a voter bloc actually came among Asian Americans—up at least 27 points from 2008. What turned them off the Republican Party between then and now? Perhaps fringe movements like the Tea Party alienate more voters than they lure.
More importantly, the Democrats think they have the minority vote locked up. Yet frustration is mounting over a lack of diverse candidates among the Dems, too, and demands for payback are growing louder. This is a key point, and crucial to political gains for people of color. In my first book, Suburban Sahibs: Three immigrant families and their passage from India to America, I followed the campaign of a local New Jersey activist, Pradip “Peter” Kothari. He wanted desperately to run for political office, but the local Democratic machine wouldn’t let him. So he switched sides (he lost, but his candidacy sent a message that immigrant activists like him were ready). At the local level, Kothari reasoned, the party didn’t matter as much as the issues—and voters knowing their candidates as neighbors, rather than politicians. Republicans can adopt this strategy nationwide. Identifying with a candidate whose story resonates can help voters cross party lines.
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