The Coming Asian American Century

Three voting stickers that say "I VOTED" in English paired translations of "I VOTED" in Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean

Much has been written about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders’ (AAPI) political engagement as we close the proverbial book on the 2020 election. In what’s likely considered one of the greatest leaps of political engagement of a demographic group in one four-year political cycle, this period was a defining moment in the long history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in America. 

The ramifications of growing political engagement of AAPIs on politics and public policy will be significant going forward. As the newest and second voter block behind Black voters, AAPIs will now ask for more resources to be spent by the Democratic National Committee and progressive political groups to continue to ensure that our community comes out to vote in future elections. Elected leaders of all stripes, both Democrat and Republican as well as other non-political institutions, will be forced to respond to an engaged electorate that will demand that more government policies and legislation be crafted and resources be spent to ensure their safety, health and prosperity. 

On the surface, it may seem that our community’s 47% increase in turnout from 2016 to 2020 may be impossible to maintain in future elections. However, given only 54% of AAPIs are even registered to vote, there exist plenty of opportunities to increase electoral growth. 

While it’s hard to even grasp a 47% increase in turnout in raw political terms when a 1 to 3% shift in the electorate is considered seismic, the 12% voting increase in the overall population in 2020 was a hundred-year high point in election turnout. Political scientists and historians will point to 2020 as the time when AAPIs arrived — and in a big way.

Future students will, I hope, read in textbooks that it was because of the tremendous AAPI vote that Arizona and Georgia were delivered to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, as well as the two game-changing Georgia Senate seats.

Future students will, I hope, read in textbooks that it was because of the tremendous AAPI vote that Arizona and Georgia were delivered to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, as well as the two game-changing Georgia Senate seats.

The tidal wave of AAPI engagement actually started in 2016 after Donald Trump was elected. In the 2017 election in Virginia, the first post-presidential bellwether, there was a record level of AAPI engagement. In 2018, AAPI turnout was so high that, by some measure, it accounted for more of the Democratic vote share than the Latino vote. Again, in the little-noticed 2019 state House and Senate elections in Virginia, our analysis concluded that AAPI voters saw a 240% increase in turnout from 2015. Even though AAPIs reflected 2.5% of voters in the voter file, we had 10% of all votes cast in that election, drastically punching above our weight. And yet, given our small population size and minimal attention and funding, many did not actually notice what was happening and how pivotal a role our vote would soon play the following year. 

Due to many factors, including hidden biases by democratic institutions against spending sums of campaign dollars on an electorate that was 6% of the U.S. population and even less of eligible voters, less than 1% was spent on turning out the AAPI vote. Shifting electoral tactics primarily due to the political aftereffects of the murder of George Floyd and the pandemic, Democrats turned on the digital machine to reach our voters. For AAPIs in particular, reaching voters in this fashion was also a central tactic as our organization operates on a digital-first tactic when reaching our core demographic. When dollars typically are given to AAPI political turnout organizations, it’s generally in the last quarter of the ball game, hardly enough time for a robust multi-year organizational plan that might be more typical of better funded groups, let alone a field plan.

So, for years, we honed in on digital due to the fact that it was the only option left open to us. That, and AAPIs might be more receptive to digital communications since we have the highest smartphone penetration of any other demographic. Additionally, since 60% of AAPIs are first-generation immigrants, we often rely upon messaging apps such as WhatsApp, WeChat, KakaoTalk and others to keep in touch with our friends and family both in the U.S and in our home countries. In the end, what turned out to be a shift in tactics for most Democrats and progressive organizations due to COVID-19, was actually in large measure the key to our success in the 2020 election. 

Largely, volunteer groups like They See Blue, South Asians for Biden, PIVOT, KAYA: Filipino Americans for Progress, NCAAT, Arizona AANHPI, Asian Americans Advocacy Fund of Georgia and others catered to engaging South Asians, Vietnamese and Filipinos and broadly all AAPIs around the country in battleground states and elsewhere. Spurned by the thought of another four years of Donald Trump, there was more engagement than I’ve seen in my 30 years in politics.

So, where does this record-level of engagement go from here? While it’s too soon to tell if high attention of civic engagement can continue, anecdotal evidence points to continued activation in the political process by AAPIs. The inflammatory rhetoric spewed by Trump, his acolytes and Trumpists in general may actually drive AAPIs to say “enough is enough” once more and broaden and accelerate the AAPI movement we are seeing even further. Further, the vicious murders of East Asian women in Atlanta and of South Asian Sikhs in Indianapolis earlier this year occurred at a time when AAPIs were already reckoning with the pain and hurt of discrimination and hate crimes stemming from the pandemic. 

More recently, there has been more conversation about how AAPIs fit into society and civi life than I’ve ever seen before. From Hollywood representation, to mental health of AAPI sub-ethnicities to the microaggressions faced by AAPIs for decades, this all has reached new heights and sparked active conversations. This has been, for many of us, a lot to grasp in a short time as we ourselves have not come to terms with our own Asian-ness often living in an immigrant multiverse. 

One of my favorite quotes is that “a mind stretched never goes back to its original shape.” If applied to the Asian American experience, our new frontiers are now in the spheres of public policy and new found engagement by the masses of AAPIs who were in the past, passive spectators. Gone now is the time when our community may have once said, “we must work hard and earn enough to have a good life.” We will never go backwards.

Our very survival hangs in the precipice. Without continued engagement, the collective realization had been that if we don’t get involved in America, then we will remain perpetual foreigners. We also ask, however, that people in this country do a better job of understanding who we are — 23 million people from 40 different countries who speak hundreds of languages and dialects. 

Ultimately, if we truly engage with America, as active participants in civic life, there will come a day that there will be no difference between Asian Americans and Americans.

Varun Nikore is the President of the AAPI Victory Fund.