Immigrants are not surprised by the Latino vote

Photo by Tiffany Tertipes on Unsplash

So here’s the thing. I noticed a trend in the rhetoric of many Democratic politicians, liberal media outlets, friends, and coworkers when they talk about basically anybody who isn’t white. When discussing politics, social disparities, and economic strife, the aforementioned groups often use the term “Black and Brown individuals” to, uhh, I dunno…lump in a bunch of very different people into one all-encompassing label. If this doesn’t sound problematic to you, let me explain.

Yes, America has a long and ugly history of racism, chattel slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, and the legacy of these tremendous stains on the fabric of this country affect the lives of Black Americans. This is true.

But who are these brown Americans you speak of? Are they Mexicans, Venezuelans, Cubans, Iranians, Iraqis, Egyptians, Indians, and Pakistanis? Do we really think it wise to label multiple ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups under the same moniker? Do Southeast Asian communities count? Do Asian communities count? How far does this term “brown” extend?

By virtue of being immigrants to the United States, these groups share a common experience of migration, resettlement, integration, language learning, resilience, and hardship but outside of this, their views vary widely on social issues. One thing does unite them, however, and it is their struggle to make lives for themselves. The success of most immigrants in the US actually makes them some of the most pro-American American voices in key states.

Nikole Hannah Jones of the New York Times’ 1619 Project tweeted the following.

She aptly put it as such: There is some level of uniformity in the African-American vote because of centuries-long communal struggle, though that is shifting slightly as parts of the country move forward on trying to close racial gaps and disparities. As of now, the diversity of opinion among African Americans is not seen in the presidential races but rather in the Democratic primaries. African Americans who identify as conservatives end up voting in Centrist Democrats like Joe Biden rather than more progressive candidates like Bernie Sanders.

All of that said, the differences among immigrant voters are much more varied due to the simple fact that immigrants bring with them their personal stories of migration, which in turn are influenced by the histories of the different countries from which they came. While every story is distinct, there are commonalities in the immigrant experience that can create support for Republicans, albeit in the minority, especially among groups from authoritarian regimes.

Here’s where my take comes in.

I was born in Dagestan, Russia. It is a Muslim-majority Republic and its population collectively speaks over 40 different ethnic languages. Dagestan was once a part of the Persian Empire but was later ceded to Tsarist Russia in 1812 under the Treaty of Gulistan. Of the many languages that are spoken in Dagestan, my family speaks Juhuri — a Jewish dialect of Persian, with a sizable chunk of vocabulary coming from Turkish, Hebrew, and Arabic.

So you see — I have multiple parts of my identity that come into play when speaking with immigrant groups. I can communicate freely with Russians because I am from a Russified republic of the Russian Federation, but I can also understand the struggles of Middle Eastern Americans because my ancestry is largely Middle Eastern and my grandparents’ generation still speaks Persian. I’m Jewish so this puts me in another minority category especially when I’m in Middle Eastern circles, where most others are Muslim.

This gives me a unique vantage point to talk to various groups about issues they find important: Xenophobia against Russians in the Russian community, Islamophobia and bigotry against olive-skinned individuals from the Middle East, and the rise of anti-Semitism in the west in Jewish circles. My cultural identities allowed me to understand and relate to immigrants from diverging backgrounds since there are always parallels between us.

In almost every immigrant group I have come in contact with, Trump support among parts of the community is clear. There are slogans like “Latinos for Trump” and “Persians for Trump.” While Iranian-American support for Trump went down after the institution of the Muslim ban enacted in the first few months of Trump’s presidency, prior to 2016 the community was largely split.

The Iranian-American Comedian Maz Jobrani even commented on the fact that many immigrants support Trump in his 2017 Netflix special titled “Immigrant” and in prior standup sets from 2016.

In Vietnamese American communities, 48% voice support for Donald Trump. In a Vox article from October, Terry Nguyen writes:

Those who fled Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon tend to remain strongly opposed to big government policies, are suspicious of any socialist-sympathizing politicians, and are blatantly anti-China, haunted by China’s imperialist agenda in Vietnam and the South China Sea. Many are religious, and hail from patriarchal households where the male breadwinner makes all the important family decisions.

In Russian-American communities, support for Trump is rampant. Some are quick to say this is all due to assimilation and white supremacy but hold your horses for a few minutes. It is also important to note that like my family, there are many ethnic groups that are Middle Eastern or East/Central Asian among the immigrants from former Soviet states. These groups not only include Russian Europeans but Turkic Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Tajiks to name a few.

Here’s the line of thinking among many from the former Soviet community, but may apply to immigrants from other authoritarian regimes:

  • Support for America was forbidden. All of the problems of the world were blamed on the US.
  • Support for capitalism was illegal, yet everybody they knew was poor.
  • As immigrants and refugees started leaving the former USSR states in the eighties and nineties, they heard pro-American sentiment for the first time.
  • Upon arriving in the west, they realized how much higher the standard of living in the west is.
  • They equate the high standard of living with capitalism.

Olga Khazan put it like this in The Atlantic.

To Sundeyeva, left-wingers seem to yearn for a workers’ revolution. “I would ask them: Have you ever lived under a revolution?” she said. “Do you know what it’s like? When someone comes and takes your family member in the night?”

Interviews with more than a dozen immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the Bay Area suggest that some in the community are recoiling from Bernie Sanders and his leftist ideals. One hundred years after the Bolshevik Revolution swept Communists into power, some Russians in America say they can’t believe a serious candidate in the United States is calling himself a socialist.

As another Russian émigré, Tatiana Menaker, put it, “We feel like we survived a plague, and now we are seeing people with boils on their skin.”

For many American liberals, who have been pledging allegiance to the flag since childhood, educated to believe in the American Dream and American exceptionalism, seeing faults in “the system” has been liberating. They see themselves as messengers of equality and anti-racism and don’t understand why any immigrants, especially those that are brown-skinned, would refuse to vote for their candidate. But you see — in regimes like the USSR, Cuba, Venezuela, China, and Vietnam, messages for proletariat liberation have often led to authoritarian despotic governments. Ethnic and racial quotas led to discrimination and repression of minorities, not liberation. Many are extremely weary of leftist populist messages because they have permanent scars, either from their own experiences or that of their families, of being brutalized by regimes which increased the government’s control of everything.

My parents do not support Donald Trump, but when Barack Obama was campaigning for the 2008 presidency, running on a platform of change and creating a government healthcare system, my father, scarred from having to wait in breadlines, who saw family members being refused vital surgeries, vehemently opposed it.

His argument stands as such: It is not so simple to just give an entire industry to the government to control. Government healthcare in the Soviet Union lacked quality, had long wait lines for vital operations, and at times people would die before receiving treatment they needed.

Now this line of thinking doesn’t necessarily work because the history of the United States is different from that of the USSR, or of Cuba, or of Venezuela. I can easily point to countries like Canada or Norway or Israel (which many conservatives support) which have a modern government healthcare system and countrywide maternity leave policies and explain that these countries are not authoritarian in their nature. Rather, they have robust social programs but are still capitalist societies where private property is respected, a vital cornerstone of capitalism and free markets.

So here’s the crux:

Progressives are not framing arguments in a way that these disillusioned communities would consider: That America is proud of its capitalist infrastructure, which gave rise to modern developments and technology, but instead of creating tax loopholes for large corporations like Amazon, America should funnel that money instead to increase social safety nets.

Many Republican immigrant voters may also be unaware that conservative justices on the Supreme Court voted for Citizens United, a Supreme court case that allowed for corruption and created a backdoor for corporate interests to buy politicians. Pointing out that Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell supports Citizens United can turn a conservative-minded immigrant voter to think twice about whether Republicans mean what they say when they talk about personal responsibility and small government.

If argued in the right way, some Democrat social policies could end up saving money in the long run because they address issues that otherwise would be very expensive to fix. It is easier to fix a crumbling building in need of repairs than to wait for it to collapse and rebuild entirely.

The problem is that Democrats, when asked about whether they support socialism, are caught off-guard and end up defending socialism with statements like “Well, technically social security is socialist and Medicare is socialist.”

Stop. defending. socialism. and. communism.

The words are so triggering to essential Florida voters. Instead, frame countries like Canada, Germany, Norway, and Israel as bastions of mixed-market capitalism done right, and that we, too, can have a functioning capitalist system that works for the people. In fact, most of those countries that American liberals look to as examples of “socialism” aren’t really socialist! Condemn “corporatism” or “cronyism” rather than capitalism, and defend “strong social programs” rather than socialism.

Freakonomics Radio did a wonderful podcast episode on this very misconception.

In it, Kjell Salvanes, professor at the Norwegian School of Economics, discusses American confusion about the term.

SALVANES: So, I have been met with this argument also, “Kjell, how is it to live in a socialist society?” And then I say, “What are you talking about?” We don’t think about it like that. I mean, we have a free-market economy as you have in the U.S. The important part is the combination of, you know, let’s say a liberal society, free market, and a welfare state, you need three things, and that’s not what people think about socialism.

Of course, immigrant support of Republicans and their policies doesn’t just boil down to capitalism versus socialism. Many Democrats would be correct in their assessment when they claim social programs like SSI and Medicaid stemmed from socialist or even Marxist criticisms of laissez-faire capitalism, but economics as a discipline is so much more complicated than just these two dichotomies. Most economies are mixed-markets with aspects of both capitalism, like private property ownership and individuals owning the means of production, and socialism, like public education, workers unions, and anti-trust laws. To frame it as one versus the other will ultimately fall right into the Republican talking points playbook.

Ultimately, immigrants came to the United States because of the American Dream and the idea of American Exceptionalism. They came here to prosper. Many of us have faced discrimination, oppression, persecution and know family members who sat in prisons, worked at gulags, or went missing. Upon coming here, after facing authoritarian oppression, immigrants are generally resilient when it comes to issues of racism and xenophobia. These things aren’t easy to deal with by any means and should be addressed, but when it comes to their vision for the country they want, they will put the economy and foreign relations ahead of other issues.

Immigrants are also more likely to pay close attention to foreign policy. For Vietnamese Americans, China is a huge problem and Trump’s stances on China have largely helped Vietnam.

Of course, immigrant support is not monolithic. What might plague the Mexican community may not affect the Cuban community. What might harm China might be beneficial to Vietnam. Anti-Arab bigotry does not necessarily affect Kurds, Assyrians, or Iranians as much, many of whom are proud of their own cultures. Immigrants are also divided amongst other lines like generational values and what was happening in the US or their home countries at the time of immigration.

A liberal vision for a multicultural pluralistic society with government safety nets might be appealing to young immigrants who grew up largely in the US, find many commonalities amongst themselves and other immigrant groups, and may or may not identify as “brown.” Meanwhile, our parents, grandparents, and newer immigrants view their identities as entirely separate from other “brown” groups and are still very much affected by the worldviews they cultivated to liberate themselves from the shackles of authoritarian oppression. That worldview has been pro-American and pro-Capitalist. There’s just no other way around it.

@lerachkajan Culture, Art, Lifestyle valeriyanakshun.com

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