Taeku Lee on Racial Politics, Voting Patterns for People of Color, and Intersections of Scholarship and Social Change

Sara Grossman

Communications and Media Specialist
Faculty Profile

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Taeku Lee portrait by Lauren Ahn

Taeku Lee, UC Berkeley Professor of Political Science and Law, was recently named the new Haas Institute Associate Director. We interviewed Taeku about his scholarly work on voter engagement, racial politics, and the implications for the future of the political landscape due to the collective anxiety and polarization fueled and exacerbated by the Donald Trump campaign. Taeku also shares his vision for the possibilities of the Haas Institute and faculty research in moving the needle on tackling structural marginalization for a more fair and inclusive society.

Let’s go way back. Today, you are an expert in political behavior, racial politics, and public opinion, among other topics. What made you interested in these issues in the first place? Were you always intrigued by political science?

Here's a confession. Although I am a fairly successful and visible political scientist today, I am a late and reluctant comer to political science. In fact, I am the only political science professor I know who never elected a political science course as an undergraduate. I tried to elect a poli-sci course twice, and found myself unable to stay awake in them and dropped both courses within the first two weeks. Truth be told, as a passionate, angry, idealistic young adult, I never trusted professors with fancy degrees to tell me how politics worked. Instead, I romanticized the life of an autodidact. In free moments when I did not have a basketball in my hand or a hacky-sack on my foot, I would organize (on issues like the U.S. in Central America, apartheid in South Africa, the nuclear arms race, hunger and homelessness), read (Marx, Arendt, Rawls), and discuss (with anyone willing and able). So I guess while I was very slow to become intrigued in political science, I was always interested in politics. The interest in political science did not come until later, when I realized that I was not very good as an organizer. And, to cut to the chase, there's the old saw: those who can, do; those who can't teach. 

Much of your scholarly work has been around voter engagement and how the parties can better engage minority voters. Can you talk a little bit about that? Why are so many voters of color apathetic towards both parties and what does your research say can be done to address it? 

Great question. The relationship that voters have with a political party is supposed to be a simple two-way relationship: voters ally with the political party that seems to better match their political interests and aspirations and parties in turn do their best to understand their voters and pursue the policies and embody the political values that those voters want. In today's era of candidate-centered, polarized, mediatized party competition, voters of color complicate this relationship. 

African American voters, who have allied with the Democratic Party in large numbers since the days of Franklin Roosevelt (and in overwhelming numbers since John F. Kennedy) have long felt relegated to a "taken for granted" status within the party. Both parties see African Americans as a very liberal voting bloc (especially on issues of racial and social justice), which leads the Dems to assume that black voters will not switch to vote for the GOP and the Republicans to assume that black voters cannot be persuaded to rejoin the ranks of the Grand Old Party. This structural relationship results in a kind of cynical realpolitik where the Democratic Party want and woo African American votes but constantly worry that pursuing the policies that African American voters favor will anger and alienate (white) moderates and Independents. Given this dynamic, it is not quite right to describe African American voters' relationship to parties as one of apathy. Rather, the relationship is often of disaffection, distrust, exasperation, and the like … all of which can be demobilizing.

For Latinos and Asian Americans, the relationship is far less baked in. Both groups have grown dramatically in number since the mid-1960s, which means that, as a segment of the electorate, they are neither fully comfortable or fully familiar with what it means to call oneself a Democrat or a Republican. And, from the standpoint of the parties, there is a slow (and I would say reluctant) process of recognizing these groups as important new constituencies to woo and win over. Certainly, Latinos have become much more visible and valuable to parties and their candidates, but this has yet to translate into substantive commitments in dollars spent on Latino GOTV efforts, a visible swell in the number of Latinos elected to political offices, or meaningful gains on comprehensive immigration reform. Moreover, Latinos and Asian Americans have also been subject to a kind of bare-knuckled political calculus, where parties worry whether actively appealing to these electorates will carry negative consequences with their customary base.

This dynamic leads to the seeming paradox where large majorities of Latinos and Asian Americans vote Democratic because of their hopes and demands from politics more closely align with the Democratic Party. Yet because neither party has actively, consistently, and successfully fought for and won policy gains for these constituencies, the majority of both groups tend not to ally with either political party. Is that "apathy" among Latinos and Asian Americans, or "apathy" from the Democratic and Republican parties? I'm not sure, but what is clear is that both parties (and their candidates) could do a lot more to earn trust, respect, and a sense of belonging among Latinos ans Asian Americans.

Given this dynamic, it is not quite right to describe African American voters' relationship to parties as one of apathy. Rather, the relationship is often of disaffection, distrust, exasperation, and the like … all of which can be demobilizing.

You’re also an expert on Asian American voting patterns. What are you seeing today when it comes to voting trends? Has the arrival of Donald Trump affected Asian American engagement with the two major parties?

Well, over the last two decades, Asian Americans have shown the most dramatic transformation of any segment of the electorate that we regularly keep track of. In 1992, only 31 percent of Asian Americans (according to national exit poll data) voted for the Democratic candidate and eventual winner, Bill Clinton. By 2012, that figure jumped all the way up to 73 percent of Asian Americans voting to re-elect the Democrat Barack Obama. And in the interceding election years, the Democratic vote share among Asian Americans has climbed steadily upward. 

Over the same two decades Asian Americans have grown as rapidly in numbers as any segment of the electorate. Since 1992, Asian Americans as a proportion of voters in a presidential election has nearly doubled, and roughly half a million Asian Americans enter the ranks of first-time voters in each of the last two presidential elections. At the same time, as a political community seeking greater voice and power, Asian Americans are also leaving too many votes on the table. In 2012, about 3.9 million Asian Americans voted, but another 3.6 million Asian Americans who were eligible to vote stayed away from the polls. In fact, one of the really alarming trends for both Asian Americans and Latinos over the last several presidential election cycles is that the gap between the voting population and the voter eligible population in these two groups has grown, rather than narrowed.  

On Trump, there is little reason to think that he will succeed in bringing sizeable numbers of Asian Americans into the GOP fold. The Republican Party, under Reince Priebus' directive, carefully crafted a "Growth and Opportunity Project" document in 2013 which underscored the need to reach out to groups like Asian Americans if the GOP stands a chance of remaining viable in presidential elections into the foreseeable future. Trump seems, if anything, to have further pushed Asian Americans away from the GOP with his vituperation against "anchor babies," his villainization of all things "China," his insistence on "extreme vetting" of immigrants and a religious test for Muslims wishing to enter the United States, among many memorable acid themes. In fact, a national survey of Asian Americans (on which I am a co-Principal Investigator) that is about to be released will show that our best estimates are that Asian Americans will turnout to support Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump at a level that will approximate, if not exceed the nearly 3 to 1 margin enjoyed by Barack Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012.

One more thing. In the long-run, the lessons learned from Proposition 187 in California may be instructive. In 1994, then-Governor of Pete Wilson similarly attempted to cynically achieve political gain by exploiting and deepening underlying social divisions with his prominent support of Proposition 187. In the short-run, Wilson may have achieved success with the passage of Proposition 187. But in the long-run, Wilson hand-delivered Latinos (who had been somewhat split in their partisan loyalties prior to 1994) to the Democratic Party, with the unexpected and forceful result that California is today a supermajority Democratic state in large measure due to the overwhelming support for the Democratic Party among Latinos. If history serves, something similar may happen with both Latino and Asian American voters with the 2016 campaign.

Historically, according to your work, Asian Americans have relatively low voter engagement in general. Why is this? And what can be done to better engage this population?

I've discussed this a bit in answering the previous question. To understand the low levels of voter engagement among Asian Americans, there are two keys to keep in mind. First, there are three important steps between being a new immigrant in American and being an American voter: you must first naturalize if eligible for citizenship; you must then register to vote once you are naturalized and of age; you must show up to vote once you are registered. Of these three steps, the key chokepoint for Asian American voter turnout is registration. Asian Americans who are eligible for citizenship naturalize at rates that are comparable to, if not exceed, naturalization rates for other groups of immigrants to the United States; Asian Americans who are registered to vote turnout at similar rates to Latinos registered to vote and at rates that approximate whites and African Americans who are registered.

So, why don't Asian American register to vote at higher rates? To understand this piece, you must understand the second key to voter engagement. Namely, there are three "Ms" that predict whether someone who is eligible to vote will turnout to do so: motivation, means, and mobilization. Do I care about the elections or the candidates, and is there a personal reason for me to be involved? Do I know enough about where to vote, what issues and candidates are up for a choice, and so on? Has someone asked me to be involved? 

All three matter, and political parties could be doing much more in all three aspects. On motivation, parties could design and deliver culturally sensitive GOTV ("get-out-the-vote") outreach campaigns that clearly and cogently communicate what is at stake for Asian American communities in a given election, and they could draft party platforms that reflect a clear understanding of the policies and issues that are foremost on the minds of Asian American voters. On means, parties could again do explicit outreach that includes, among other things, voter registration and voting materials in multiple Asian languages. The lack of Asian language election materials turns out to be one of the most stubborn barriers to voter registration and voting for AAPIs. Finally, on mobilization, parties could actively seek out the participation of Asian Americans. 

The lack of Asian language election materials turns out to be one of the most stubborn barriers to voter registration and voting for AAPIs. 

Based on your own work, what do you believe has fueled the rise of Donald Trump at this point in time? Post-election, can the GOP come back from alienating so many voters of color (which national polls are currently indicating)? If so, how do you think they will try to do this?

In thinking about this question, I am struck by the ways in which Donald Trump is the other side of the coin that is Barack Obama. Obama was distinct, if not unique, in his ability to be a multivocal, code-switching candidate who spoke to the hopes and aspirations many diverse constituencies. Trump is distinct, if not unique, in his ability to be multivocal in his connection to fears and frustrations that are gripping many diverse constituencies. At its core, I think Trump's ascendancy is fueled by a growing sense of helplessness and loss that is gripping all-too many Americans. It is all too common that, when faced with a collective sense of lost agency, that people will be tempted to look for a "magical" savior to whom unrealistic and unfounded powers of agency is attached.

Some of this sense of hopelessness and loss is due to the sense of change beyond our control that result from structurally-embedded, man-made challenges such as the ravages of crony capitalism and environmental crisis. There is a lot of pain, anger, and apprehension that many Americans feel as a result. Yet at the same time, the rise of Trump is also not incidental to our racial past and our racial present. It is no accident that Trump's ascendancy follows Obama's rise to power; that Trump's bona fides among his base was established by his leading the charge on "birtherism" (and before that, his rhetoric on the "Central Park Five"); that Trump's first speech as a declared presidential candidate launched the association of Mexican immigrants to drugs, crime, and rape.

Look, the writing has been on the wall for several decades now that, given demographic trends, the United States would be a "majority-minority" nation by sometime mid-21st century. Given that decline in numbers and, almost assuredly with the numbers, an anticipated loss of power and privilege, it would have been most extraordinary for the United States not to have seen the emergence of a white nationalist movement. So now we are fully in a moment of a rising white nationalist tide. The key questions now include: For how long? With what degree of political violence? And, will it continue to be under the banner of the Republican Party? Or will the Republican Party, at some point after this election, take a principled stand against this ugly underbelly of social and political transformation?

How may demographic changes affect how each party engages with voters in the coming decades? Are there any major shifts you are expecting to see?

I've already touched on a lot that relates to this question, but one way of weaving together the many threads is to ask the question: is the American electorate undergoing another major "realignment?" By realignment, political scientists usually mean the joint occurrence of three things: (1) a dramatic shift in existing partisan coalitions; (2) coupled with an extended period of high voter involvement; (3) both of which presage the long-term dominance of one party in national elections. Realignments, if they happen, happen very rarely (1896, 1932, possibly the mid-1960s), and when they do, they are transformative moments that usher in sustained periods of policy reform. 

The writing has been on the wall for several decades now that, given demographic trends, the United States would be a "majority-minority" nation by sometime mid-21st century. Given that decline in numbers and, almost assuredly with the numbers, an anticipated loss of power and privilege, it would have been most extraordinary for the United States not to have seen the emergence of a white nationalist movement.

So the reason why the question of whether we are witnessing a new electoral alignment is so interesting and important is that, if we are, it is almost surely an alignment wrought out of deep racial divisions within the country. The Democratic Party is poised to build on recent gains by consolidating a pan-racial coalition of blacks, Latinos, Asians, mixed race Americans, and white millenials. The Republican Party, especially in a post-Trump Era, is facing a long period of internecine struggle to hold together a fragile coalition between a reactionary, isolationalist white nationalist faction and its traditional base that champions hawkish foreign policy, lower taxes, and minimal regulations. The shifting tectonic plates of demographic change, and how the major parties have thus far responded to those shifts, bodes well for the likely success of the Democratic Party in maintaining its pan-racial coalition. 

But there are important cautionary notes to keep in mind. The leadership of the Republican Party, prior to the 2016 election, clearly gets that they have to appeal more broadly to Latinos, Asians, and younger voters in order to replenish their base, which is aging out. So, in a 2016 post-mortem, that may still happen. Another important point is that continued success in winning the White House without winning major policy reforms (of the sort that lit a fire under Bernie Sanders supporters) will eventually threaten to rupture this growing "Obama coalition" on the Democratic Side. And the third key point to keep in mind is that we might be headed for a long period of bifurcated party dominance, with the Democratic Party securely in power in the White House and the Republican Party equally securely in power in Congress and in a large majority of state governments. That is a surefire formula for worsening our current state of party polarization, legislative gridlock, and political disorder.

Why did you decide to take on this new role at Haas? What are some critical areas or issues that you are hoping to address as Associate Director? Any goals for the new school year?

That's an easy one. The Haas Institute is an incredible community of scholars, scholar-practitioners, and fellow travelers dedicated to the proposition that ideas and knowledge can shine a restorative, cultivating light. In the case of Haas, the light we shine (or work steadfastly to shine) is on the many challenges and opportunities of diversity and inequality – defined around markers of race, religion, sexuality, ability, chief among many – and the approach we bring to analysis, interpretation, and action rejects sharp boundaries between academic disciplines, or between communities of thought and communities of practice. These precepts and commitments really breathe life into Berkeley's motto, fiat lux, and, in my view, what it means to be an "engaged scholar." So, when asked if I would consider taking on this new role, the easy answer was, "when do I start?"

In terms of goals for the new school year, the metrics I aim to use to assess how I am doing in this new role at Haas are connections and relationships. So the job requires me to constantly and creatively ask, how can people, projects, ideas, resources that were previously unconnected or thought of as unrelated be productively brought together? The sweep here, for me, is not just limited to a single faculty cluster, but also between faculty clusters, between faculty clusters and other ongoing projects at Haas, between Haas and other potential partners at Berkeley, and between the work of Haas and projects beyond Berkeley. My focus is also not limited to faculty members affiliated with the Haas clusters. In particular, one area that I plan to invest time and energy into is devising programs and practices that invite and integrate undergraduates and graduate students more fully into the Haas Institute clusters. As I think about the new year, there are urgent issues, great people, important ideas, and generous resources. I can't wait to see what we the year brings!

These precepts and commitments really breathe life into Berkeley's motto, fiat lux, and, in my view, what it means to be an "engaged scholar."

What issues are you currently interested in? Are you working on any new research, articles, or books?

How much time do you have? To be honest, I am working on so many projects it is hard to know where to start. I continue to be drawn to better understand the truly transformative moment we are in with respect to diversity, inequality, and its challenges for democratic politics. The pace of change – in who makes up "we the people" and the changing ways in which we see ourselves and the political demands we attach to our claimed and imposed identities – and the intransigence or responsiveness of social schemas and structures in the face of these changes is fascinating intellectually and critical politically. 

For me, understanding this problemmatic entails juggling many different pieces. One of my projects looks into different ways of asking people about their deeply-held identities. Another examines the evolving role of mediating institutions like political parties and election polling in working to achieve or stifle a genuinely participatory democracy. Yet another is focused on whether talking through common problems, the aims of deliberative democracy, can foster building blocks of democratic politics like agreement, persuasion, and tolerance. Perhaps my most ambitious interest is in taking the moment of diversity, disparity, and disequilibrium that we are in to re-conceptualize how we understand power itself. So, I am keeping busy!