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Fil-Ams go to the polls

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In the last couple of weeks I’ve seen the question raised by several Filipino journalists on Twitter. The way TV reporter and anchor Lynda Jumilla-Abalos posed the puzzle last week was both representative (the other questions I read were also phrased with an embedded hypothesis) and instructive:

Why do most Filipinos in the United States, historically, vote republican? #seriousquestion

Like many others who have visited with Filipino immigrants and Filipino-Americans in the United States, I too share Lynda’s assumption, although I would date the start of the historical period to the Reagan years. That is to say, this sense I share that many Fil-Ams we know are attracted to the Republican Party goes back only a generation.

Many Fil-Ams, but not all. That must be the first qualification; I know other Fil-Ams who are staunchly Democratic; one friend is even a labor organizer working with the Democrats.

Demographic status may be another filter. A good number of Fil-Ams I have visited with over the years have been markedly successful at their business or profession; a look at the Pew Research Center’s 2012 Asian-American Survey reveals that the 504 Fil-Ams interviewed had a median household income of $75,000—the second highest among the six largest Asian subgroups, next only to the $88,000 reported for the Indian-Americans. (The four other subgroups are American residents of either Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Vietnamese descent.)

Religious affiliation must be another screen. Fil-Ams are classified in the survey as “majority/plurality” Catholic, but if the Fil-Am population tracks the religious composition of the mother country, then anywhere between three-fourths to four-fifths are Catholic. But while 82 percent say they are “satisfied with life” (to borrow the category the survey used), only 30 percent of Fil-Ams say they are “satisfied with direction of country”—by far the lowest among the six subgroups. Perhaps a good case can be made that this finding mirrors the American Catholic hierarchy’s own and very public disaffection with the Obama administration, on such fundamental-option

issues as abortion, gay marriage, contraception.

With some hesitation, I would add another possible filter, which may help explain the hedging in the original Twitter question: that of identity.

The answer to the question may in the end depend on whether a particular Fil-Am voter sees himself as committed to the project of full assimilation; that would partly explain choosing a party that has—how should I say this?—less sympathy with Philippine history.

Here, for discussion’s sake, is a shorter version of our complicated history with the American

republic-turned-empire. It was a Republican administration which waged undeclared war on the Philippines in 1899; it was a Democratic administration, keeping to the promise of the Democratic administration it succeeded, who proclaimed our independence in 1946.

I know, I know. This capsule history is an oversimplification (and puts too much emphasis on the political content of independence). And yet: It was a Republican president who rationalized the conquest of the Philippines, with a population of some 6 million Catholics, as an effort in Christianizing the world. It was another Republican  who kept the best proof of Filipino intellectual maturity, the sage Apolinario Mabini, in dreary exile. It was a Democratic president who created the Senate, and another Democrat who inaugurated the Commonwealth (an experiment in guided democracy that whetted the appetite of our neighbors in what was then the Dutch East Indies). It was a Republican president who green-lighted the Marcos dictatorship; it was another Republican who stood by the dictator until almost the very end.

My point: Perhaps a Fil-Am who votes Republican has set that history aside, or outgrown it. The history he is assimilating himself into is consciously, deliberately, unhyphenated.

But will the three million or so Fil-Ams break for the Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney?

The Pew survey’s findings on “political and social attitudes” suggest that the answer is, at best, maybe. They show Fil-Ams as more sympathetic to the Republican party than the five other major subgroups—but “more” is relative.

“Compared with the general public, Asian Americans are more likely to support an activist government and less likely to identify as Republicans. Half are Democrats or lean Democratic, while only 28% identify with or lean toward the GOP. Among all American adults, 49% fall in the Democratic camp and 39% identify with or lean toward the Republican Party. Indian Americans are the most heavily Democratic Asian subgroup (65%), while Filipino Americans and Vietnamese Americans are the most evenly split between the two parties.”

According to the survey, 40 percent of Fil-Ams are Republican or lean Republican, while 43 percent are Democratic or lean Democratic. (The comparable numbers for Vietnamese-Americans are 35-36.) But no other subgroup reaches the level of plurality support for Republicans as the Fil-Ams; among Indian-Americans (who have at least two high-profile Republican governors), support for the Republican party is only 18 percent.

The survey’s margin of error is plus or minus 2.4 percentage points, so the Fil-Am vote could really split evenly. Or, like the US electorate as a whole, it could also lean, ever so slightly, for Barack Obama. How American.

jnery@inquirer.com.ph/@jnery_newsstand

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