The Unusual Political Leanings of Indian Americans

October 22, 2012

Indian Americans are possibly the most Democrat leaning group of any community in the United States other than African Americans. According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of Indian Americans identified themselves as Democrats and just 18 percent as Republican – a nearly 4 to one ratio. This is somewhat of a paradox for several reasons.

For one, Indian Americans have amongst the highest average incomes of any community in the United States and are also amongst the most highly educated.  If a comparison is drawn with white voters, high income whites vote strongly Republican while college-educated high-income whites vote moderately Republican.  In a survey on the political attitudes of Indian Americans conducted several years ago, I found that that the only significant predictor of whether Indian Americans had more liberal values was not their education or income or when they came to the United States, but whether they had studied in the United States.  But to the extent that more than nearly half of all Indian Immigrants receiving legal permanent resident status in U.S. have come after 2000, primarily as a result of the H1-B visa program, this group has largely not studied in the United States.

In addition Indian Americans, like other Asian Americans, have strong family values, an attribute associated with Republicans. Indian Americans are also over represented amongst large entrepreneurs – another group that is more favorably inclined to support Republicans because it is perceived as the more pro-business political party. And finally, the India-US nuclear deal engineered by the Bush administration signaled the strong pro-Indian stance of the Republican Party. And yet, as stated earlier, Indian Americans support Democrats by wide margins.  Why?

While it is indeed the case that minorities in the United States are more likely to back Democrats, the principal – and uncomfortable – reason for the antipathy of the Indian American community towards the Republicans is the appearance of an overtly religious stance of the Republican Party. The religious beliefs of most Indian Americans are different from the aggressive religious posturing of an influential section of the Republican Party.  It is not surprising that the Indian Americans most identified with the Republican Party – Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina – are those who have converted and become devout Christians.

The religious barrier to entry has been further raised by the atavistic stance of many in the Republican Party on critical science issues such as climate change and evolution. Since so many Indian Americans have been trained in science and technology (S&T) – and indeed a major factor in the migration decision of many was the global leadership of the United States in S&T – this religious fervor inspired anti-science stance of the Republican Party has made many in the community even more wary of the Republican Party.   The “Rockefeller Republican” strand of the Republican Party, fiscally conservative but socially liberal, would probably have struck a chord with many more in the Indian-American community. However, the increased polarization in American politics has shriveled this strand of the Republic Party – and with it, the support of the majority of the Indian American community as well.