Monday, September 19, 2011

Filipinos and US Politics

To the average urban Filipino the topic of politics is often a passion-stirring and hot-button issue, eliciting many avid responses from participants. In friendly family gatherings, or extemporaneous congregations of acquaintances, and most especially in the various forms of media, politics assumes a very focal role, almost like as default features to enliven pages and sell copies. Its discussions are always lively and keenly partisan and in many instances do escalate to shouting matches or ad hominems. No wonder then to this FilAm who visits the old homeland quite often, the question of politics is often asked – US politics, that is.

Compatriots are quite eager to learn how their own kind behaves as political animals in other countries, countries they have adopted after leaving the old homeland.

They are not mistaken to assume that indeed there are many ethnic Filipinos in the US, both legal and those who have decided to stay beyond their temporary visas. Many place the count to as many as 5 million though official stats would probably show their total closer to 4 million plus.

So the typical questions asked revolve around these. Is there a Filipino vote? How do US politicians regard and/or court Filipino votes? Do Filipinos have clout in US politics or in the political process?

But they are usually nonchalant or downcast when they learn of the real lowdown. They assume wrong that their compatriots in foreign lands behave similarly or as intently as with their local counterparts.

They are quite perplexed that there is not even a category of Filipinos in the US demographic/ electoral rolls. That Filipinos are lumped together in the category of Asian Americans which is quite a small category numbering a little over 15 million in a country with a total population of over 300 million. Among others, Asian Americans include Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis, etc. No doubt a very broad category net that catches and bundles together many minorities in the US. From the figures above, Asian Americans make up only about 5% of the total population. Comparatively, African-Americans number 38 million while Latinos top at over 44 million, unarguably the two fastest growing minorities in the land.

While the total number of Asian Americans appears substantial, these immigrants are not that active politically. And are thus said to be quite invisible politically. This group has the lowest proportion of eligible voters, a little over 50%, compared with the populations of other racial groups. Plus, only about 50% of eligible voters actually register. Translated that would be about 7 million eligible voters and about 3 million actual voters. And how many actually vote during elections? Having over 50% of registered voters vote is considered typical in presidential elections and as low as 40% in state elections. Another negative factor for Asian Americans is that only 60% know English, thus many shy away from or shun active participation in politics.

No wonder then that while Asian Americans represent 5% of the population, only 1% of them count among those holding elective offices.

What about party affiliations? In this group a third are registered Democrats, another third Republicans and the last third are unaffiliated or may be registered as Independents. And for the last third, more than 50% were born overseas and thus, politics has not yet become a priority in their lives.

Except that Asian Americans congregate in great numbers in some states. And in order of the size of their presence, they are: California, New York, Texas, Hawaii, and New Jersey. So this may be where they could influence elections and thus be a future force to reckon with.

A most recent special election result may reveal this to be true or may be the inauspicious start of a trend. We refer to the most recent special election in the 9th congressional district of New York to replace disgraced Democratic Congressman Weiner. This district is ceded to be predominantly Jewish and may explain the election of Weiner, though as a Democrat he probably had a lock on it given that Democrats had controlled this district for many, many years. But take a look at its current demographic distribution (2010):

56.48% non-Hispanic White
5.21% Black
18.70% Asian,
17.21% Hispanic,
0.2% Native American,
2.2% other

In an ironic twist, though expected by the polls, a Republican took the win on this heavily Democratic district, a district once held by Democratic stalwarts Geraldine Ferraro and now Senator Charles Schumer.

Without delving into the issues that may have driven this sudden change of wind, what could have possibly happened in the voting?

A given for this district is that Asian and Hispanics have historically voted Democratic. Now taken either singly or collectively, these two groups could have provided the swing votes to change the current history of this district. In this election the actual margin of win for the Republican against his Democratic rival was 6 points (53-47).

Thus, in a race where two white candidates dominate, two minority groups with sufficient numbers could have provided the impetus for the upset. That factor could have made possible an almost political improbability.

It is to be noted also that Asian Americans are trooping in great numbers to some battleground states like Nevada, Minnesota, and Virginia, so the future could see this third-largest growing minority assume more active and decisive political roles.