THROUGH THE FIRE: How the GOP Lost the Japanese American Vote

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By BRETT FUJIOKA

The 2012 presidential election is over, but there are plenty of lessons to learn and plenty that will likely go ignored.

For years, political scientists have kept a keen eye over the trending African American and Hispanic votes. President Obama’s overwhelming victory among Asian Americans raised eyebrows when he ran away with as much as 73% of their support in crucial swing states like Virginia and Nevada.

This is at a moment where censuses describe Asian Americans as the fastest-growing ethnic group between 2000 and 2010. For once, Asian Americans have political scientists’ attention.

The high Japanese American, let alone Asian American, turnout should confound the older generation of Nikkei. After all, it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the patron saint of the Democratic Party, who signed Executive Order 9066 and interned more than a hundred thousand Japanese Americans. On the opposite end, it was President Ronald Reagan who signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which offered a formal apology for the internment and reparations to surviving internees. One should presume that history would guide a stronger allegiance to the GOP for Japanese Americans.

Clearly this is no longer the case. Japanese Americans narrowly supported 2008’s Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry by 42 percent to 38 percent over President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama over Sen. John McCain by 68 percent to 16 percent with 22 percent undecided.

An overwhelming number of Japanese American politicians decorated Congress’ rows, including Norman Mineta, Patsy Mink, Mike Honda, Colleen Hanabusa, and the newly elected senator Mazie Hirono. Last but not least, the late senator and Senate president pro tempore Daniel K. Inouye stood amongst their ranks.

We’re still waiting for Gen. Eric Shinseki to declare his party affiliation. In fact, the only prominent Japanese American conservative who comes to mind is the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, and he endorsed Obama in 2008.

Perplexed journalists like Richard A. Posner factored higher levels of education, wealth, and “conventional” family values compared to other groups as reasons why Asian Americans by all accounts align closer to the Republican Party. What complicates this puzzle further is that Pew Research’s study “The Rise of Asian Americans” explains that fewer Asian Americans are inclined to view discrimination as a critical issue amongst their ilk.

“Although most Asian Americans are first- or second-generation Americans,” writes Posner in his article “Why Did Asian Americans Mostly Vote for President Obama?” in Slate Magazine, “they are not the targets of Republican hostility to immigrants; the target is illegal Mexican immigrants, and from elsewhere in Central America.”

Posner was rhythmically on a roll in elaborating the conundrum throughout his article, but hits a dead note with this false observation. For starters, both sides of the partisan aisle have painted China in a villainous light. But on the topic of Japanese Americans, fringe individuals in the GOP are less than sensitive about this demography’s history. Seventy-three percent of Japanese Americans are U.S.-born. A closer study is needed to determine how many are second-, third-, fourth-, or even fifth-generation Japanese Americans, but it’s a safe assumption that a significant number of them descended from former internees, veterans of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, or Military Intelligence Service.

Again, many would believe that this would come in the GOP’s favor with Roosevelt’s original sin and one of Reagan’s aforementioned achievements. But President Lincoln also freed the slaves and one great deed hardly absolves a party of a long reputation of perceived prejudice, as is the case for African Americans who overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates.

What Posner overlooked was the number of fringe individuals in the GOP who played down the ruthlessness of the relocation and even flat-out justified it. Conservative journalist Michelle Malkin did just that in her book “In Defense of Internment,” and called for racial profiling against Muslims and Arabs during the War on Terror.

When G.W. Bush Administration Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta urged Americans not to succumb to the same fear and paranoia that enforced the internment, conservative journalist Ann Coulter wrote an article titled “Mineta’s Bataan Death March” for the Jewish World Review denigrating his views. “Let the record reflect,” she wrote, “that among President George Bush’s dazzling team of advisers, the only stink-bomb is the one Democratic holdover from the Clinton Administration.”

“A guard took Mineta’s baseball bat as a child,” she continues, “and as a result he’s subjecting all of America to the Bataan Death March!”

By belittling Mineta’s experiences, Coulter and company dealt a higher hand to the liberal intellectuals they so despise. For the past decade, liberal programs in politics have tied the narratives of victimhood from the internment to racial profiling in the War on Terror and incarceration of suspects in Guantanamo Bay without trial. The internment is a sensitive topic to those descended from internees and it’s indeterminable how many recent college graduates accepted this comparative narrative. If so, then William J Bennet’s assertion in his CNN article “Republicans Lost the Culture War,” that “identity politics” in universities, colleges, and public schools were to blame for the party’s embarrassing loss, holds a ring of truth.

Yet, what Bennet misses is how dysfunctional Tea Party policies have made the GOP. There was a growing anxiety amongst journalists prior to the election that Mitt Romney would eventually have to bend over backwards for this element of the Republican Party.

Therein lies the problem. Right-wingers are no longer just a fringe element of the party. Supporters could get away with dismissing these politically incorrect screeds as part of the party’s lowest common denominator. If that were the case, then Coulter and Malkin wouldn’t be New York Times bestselling authors and Rush Limbaugh’s radio show would’ve gone off the air.

No one prominent in the GOP had the guts to tell Limbaugh to shut up when he seemingly made light of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. The same applies to conservative columnists in The Rafu. Many of the things they write embarrass younger Nikkei and merely reinforce the prejudices they have against Republicans.

Charles P. Pierce best illustrates the GOP’s predicament in his article “The Real Problem with the Demented Republican Party” in Esquire Magazine. In short, the party can’t ameliorate its problems without shutting off a key demographic in its base.

It may just have to do that to survive in the 21st century. Minorities — Asian Americans notwithstanding — are becoming swing votes. The other problem is that Democrats and liberals were the only ones criticizing Coulter and Malkin for their positions. The few Republicans who disagreed with these journalists and others like them allowed themselves to be drowned out through all the noise. Endangered rational Republicans need to speak up against what their party has become even if it means ostracizing themselves from their friends and allies.

As legend has it, President Lyndon Johnson mournfully declared to an aide, “We have lost the South for a generation” when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing unequal voter registration and segregation. Fifty years later, his Democratic Party staggered, limped, but soon prospered forth. Prominent members of the Republican Party need to do something symbolically just as powerful if it wants to survive.

The Republicans have no idea how bad it is. Japanese Americans have sworn fealty to the party of a president responsible for the internment and against another who granted them a redress. The GOP should think about what they did that was so terrible to make Japanese Americans forget that.

Brett Fujioka can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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