Immigrant Voters and the Spectre of ‘Socialism’

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These days, it feels like every news cycle brings reports of yet another vicious public assault on Asian people. As a Vietnamese American, I feel immense dread after every attack—but the recent rise of anti-Asian racism has only strengthened my belief in social justice and the progressive ideals for which we fight in DSA.

Unfortunately, not all Asian Americans feel similarly, particularly those within my own ethnic subgroup. Even as Donald Trump’s rhetoric helped spark anti-Asian hate last year, a summer 2020 poll by Asian Americans Advancing Justice found that 48% of Vietnamese Americans planned to vote for Trump in the 2020 election. During the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, a three-striped South Vietnamese flag was clearly visible amid the scrum of rioters.

Vietnamese American conservatism is disheartening, but not surprising.

“The people who came over here after 1975 came over because they’re rabidly anti-communist,” said Cynthia Nguyen, a psychiatrist and founding member of PIVOT—the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization, in an April interview. “The Vietnamese who came over are so grateful to America—and for some reason, they think that the Republican Party is responsible for this welcome.”

Indeed, many older Vietnamese Americans view the Republican Party as the last and only line of U.S. defense against communism, a feeling stoked enthusiastically by conservatives in the United States. This sentiment is widespread not only among the Vietnamese American community, but within all U.S. immigrant populations with roots in so-called “socialist” or ex-socialist states.

“The people who lived in Cuba and experienced the period after the Cuban Revolution … experienced a lot of hardship,” said Fernanda Uriegas, a Cuban American journalist and podcast producer, in an interview with Democratic Left. “Because of their decision to move to the United States … they lost their businesses, they were separated from their families, and they were unable to go back. And I feel like that trauma has made them fearful of the same thing happening in the United States by electing a Democratic candidate.”

These feelings resurfaced in July 2021, when a wave of domestic protests against Cuba’s ruling Communist Party evoked sympathy from Cuban Americans on social media and in the streets of Miami.
How can we convince these individuals of the benefits of socialism if they gave up everything to escape a system called socialist? For some minority groups, appealing on racial lines might be effective, but this tack is unlikely to work with older Vietnamese or Cuban Americans. When I asked my grandmother, Vinh Nguyen, why her Republican-voting acquaintances hadn’t been pushed to the left by the simple fact of Trump’s anti-Asian racism, she answered without hesitation: “Some Vietnamese people believe that they are next to white.”

In the same vein, according to Uriegas, many Cubans view themselves as separate from the anti-immigration narrative propagated by Trump and his allies: “For Cubans, most of us are white or Black—there are not that many brown Cubans.” Racial injustice is simply not a core issue for many white Cuban individuals.

Instead, organizations such as PIVOT have found success by approaching Vietnamese Americans through language they understand—literally. Last year, PIVOT created Viet Fact Check, a website that publishes Vietnamese-language articles debunking right-wing conspiracy theories. Through Viet Fact Check—and considerable community outreach efforts—PIVOT managed to convert scores of Vietnamese American voters who would never have been reached by English-language media.

“I think we did a lot to influence the results of the last election, especially in the Georgia runoff,” Cynthia Nguyen said.

Since then, the organization has made similar Vietnamese-language public safety announcements to inform older Vietnamese Americans about politically charged topics such as COVID-19 safety guidelines. To get these public service announcements in front of older eyes, PIVOT encourages the organization’s younger members to share them with their relatives via email and social media.

Whether through homegrown channels like Viet Fact Check or across the dinner table, both Cynthia Nguyen and Uriegas advise against explicitly using the word “socialism” when pitching progressive policies to ex-refugee family members. This is more than just a semantic issue: “They believe that socialism is equivalent to communism, which is equivalent to the communist regime in Vietnam that tortured them,” Cynthia Nguyen said. While it might feel like ceding ground to the Right, the fact is that someone whose family was murdered and whose property was taken by communists—both things that happened to my relatives—is more likely to associate socialism with those hardships than with Medicare for All.

There is reason to be optimistic. In the 2018 midterms, more young Vietnamese Americans voted than ever before. Vietnamese American politicians such as Thu-Ha Nguyen, a city council member in Garden Grove, California, have cited the immigration policies of the Trump administration as their direct inspiration to run for office. And, though the Republican Party maintains a strong grip on the Cuban American population, recent polling shows that more and more Cubans between the ages of 18 and 39 are drifting to the Left.

Regardless of this gradual shift, communist oppression still looms large in the living memory of these immigrant groups. By tailoring outreach efforts to the language and media consumed by older members of these communities—and by carefully avoiding overuse of the word “socialism”—it is possible to convert at least some of them into a progressive voting force.

“Education is a big thing, so just push on that. Just say, ‘You know, we are educated, and this is not brainwashing. This is actually what you sacrificed for,’” Cynthia Nguyen advised. “Saying stuff like that makes them understand that we’re not ignoramuses, that we actually know the sacrifice they’ve made—and we’re not being unfilial by saying you really should vote for things that are actually good for you.”