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Jun. 11 2010 - 12:25 pm | 669 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

The Identity Politics of Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal


The Daily Beast’s Tunku Varadarajan argues for identity politics as the thing that keeps Indian American liberals from positions of prominence within the Democratic Party:

Why has no Indian-American liberal risen as high in the Democratic ranks as Jindal and Haley have done in the GOP? Could it be that because Democrats put more of an emphasis on identity politics, an Indian-American Democrat would have to contend with other ethnic constituencies that might think that it’s “their turn” first? And once you go down the “identity” route, your success as a politician tends to rest more on the weight of numbers—the size of your ethnic constituency, or your racial voting bloc—than on the weight of your ideas.

Varadarajan seems to think that identity politics are nonexistent within the Republican Party, when in fact, the opposite is true. The identity politics of whites — and particularly Southern whites — have defined American politics for the better part of thirty years, and they’ve been completely operative in the careers of Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley.

Bobby Jindal’s persona is probably authentic — I have no reason to think otherwise — but it’s clear that his Christianity, his unassuming name and his recognizable accent are all part of his appeal to white Southerners. It’s hard to imagine a Piyush Jindal rising as rapidly through the ranks of Southern conservative politics. The same goes for Nikki Haley, whose birth name is distinctively South Asian, and who repeatedly stressed her Christianity in order to dispel rumors about her religious beliefs. This doesn’t make her any less authentic, but it does suggest that it might be difficult to succeed in Southern conservative politics if you insist on retaining the cultural markers of your ethnic heritage.

In order to explain the rise of Bobby Jindal and Nikki Halley, Varadarajan puts forth a Southern conservative electorate that is hyper-ideological to the point of “color-blindness.” To Varadarajan, Southern voters are looking for reliable standard-bearers, race be damned. But that doesn’t fit with anything we know about the history of conservative politics or politics in the South. In all likelihood, Jindal and Haley owe some portion of their success to their ability to assuage the racial anxieties of white Southerners, and to assure them that their backgrounds notwithstanding, they aren’t too ethnic.

Photo credit: Patrick Collard/AP


3 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    To Tunku’s question, I have to wonder if the failure of any Indian-American Democrats to rise is the rapid movement of Indians in America from Democratic core urban areas into outlying suburban areas where Republicans tend to be stronger fixtures.

    I’ve seen this in Chicago where for a time, my neighborhood was full of Indians. Then so many moved to the suburbs so quickly. So instead of building coalitions of electability with the likes of African-American groups, labor unions, etc., they were out in the suburbs where you’re more likely to get elected based on an endorsement from a local chamber of commerce.

    I would imagine this would hold sway for Indians who settle in the south.

  2. collapse expand

    Mr. Bouie & Mr. Roston,

    I think the key point that is being missed her is the roll of class. Immigrants from India have a strong tendency to come from the upper classes in India, speak English, and enjoy a comparatively well to do status here. From their own class perspective, a great many Indian-Americans have interests which make them supportive of conservative politics. Well to do immigrant are generally political conservative no matter their nation of origin. Further, they have less need for community or communally based politics as they can fend well for themselves.

    The contrast is with other immigrant communities. Most more noticeable immigrant communities tend to come from the working classes in the native lands, do not speak English, are often here illegally, and are in the lowest economic strata of society. As a result, their politics tend to be liberal. Moreover, being less politically influential as individuals, they generally benefit more from pooling their political efforts.

    It is the class origins and status that explain the comparative success of Indian-Americans in the Republican Party as compared to the Democratic Party.

  3. collapse expand

    I don’t know much about the career of Nikki Haley, but Jindal’s rise in Louisiana politics has to do with the popular former governor Murphy Foster who served as Jindal’s patron and mentor. If race had anything to do with Jindal’s rise, race played into the stereotype that all Asians (including Indians) are brilliant. I remember early on hearing about Foster’s “boy wonder” and how Jindal had an incredible grasp of statistics and other policy minutia. “Boy wonder” wasn’t used prejoratively. Jindal was in his early twenties when he has made Director of Human Services in Louisiana. My other guess is that most Louisianians probably think Jindal is some form of Cajun.

    I think you are right that Jindal has mastered the language of the Southern good ole’ boy, and his ethnicity and his conservative Roman Catholicism have proven to be strengths rather than a liabilities in Louisiana whereas his catholicism might not have played as well in rural Alabama.

    Another thing about Jindal is he is incredible popular among middle class suburban white conservatives who do tend to welcome members of other races who appear to share their values. In places like Jefferson Parish, St. Tammany Parish, and East Baton Rouge Parish, Jindal does incredibly well. In rural conservative strongholds like Washington Parish, Jindal is less popular and non-ethnic “white” conservative politicians have a much stronger following.

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    I am a blogger and occasional freelance writer. Usually, you'll find me here, but I occasionally contribute to PostBourgie.com, as well as Spencer Ackerman's blog (when he's away). At my old Wordpress digs, I blogged about progressive politics, public policy, nerdy things and food, and here at True/Slant, I intend to do the same. I'm all about the social media, so feel free to follow me on Twitter: jbouie, or friend me on Facebook (though I might make you wait awhile). And if you'd rather avoid social media, you can always email me at jamelle DOT bouie AT gmail DOT com.

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