India’s prime minister Narendra Modi met President Trump for the first time last week.
Modi and Trump are similar in many ways: both are populist nationalists who draw large crowds, and both are dedicated to putting their countries first, economically and strategically. Yet while Modi is wildly popular among the Hindu-American community in the United States, Trump did not even get a tenth of its vote. Why is it that Hindu-Americans, a group so favorably disposed toward a right-wing Indian leader, voted overwhelmingly against the candidate from the right in the United States?
Hindu-Americans are a high-income, family-values oriented group, yet vote for Democrats in overwhelming numbers. This paradox can be explained by the nature of Hinduism as a religion, India’s historical social, cultural, and agricultural patterns, and India’s experience with British colonialism—all factors that influence Hindu-Americans to vote for the Democratic Party.
While Hindu-Americans are one of the largest religious groups in the United States, they do not yet have the clout, influence, or even general public recognition that other large religious groups in the country have, such as Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, though there are advocacy groups such as the non-partisan Hindu American Foundation (HAF).
Perhaps this is because they have been taken for granted as a Democratic Party voting bloc. According to data from the Washington Post, fewer than 7 percent of Hindus are likely to have voted for Trump. Only a slightly larger percentage of Hindus voted for Mitt Romney. Hindus strongly favor the Democratic party over the Republican party—more so than almost any other ethnic or religious group in the United States.
According to data collected by Pew in 2015, there are now 2.23 million Hindus in the United States, making them the fourth largest religious group in the country after Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Hinduism belongs to a family of religions known as Indic or dharmic religions. Hinduism is the largest dharmic tradition in the United States. Two other dharmic religions also have large populations in the United States: Sikhism, with around 500,000 individuals, and Jainism, with around 180,000 adherents. There are also large populations of Muslims and Christians from the Indian subcontinent in the United States. Approximately 16 percent of Muslims in the United States are from South Asia (around 600,000 people). Additionally, there are smaller populations of Buddhists and Zoroastrians (Parsis) from South Asia in the United States.
Hindu-Americans have the highest retention of any religion in the United States, with a full 80 percent of those raised Hindu still identifying with Hinduism as adults. In comparison, the rate among mainline Protestants is only 45 percent. This is not surprising due to the nature of Hinduism, whose philosophical and cultural traditions encompass several religious viewpoints including monism, pantheism, panentheism, henotheism, monotheism, polytheism, and atheism. Most Hindus are either immigrants or the children of immigrants from India, Nepal, Guyana, and Suriname, although there are some from non-desi (South Asian) backgrounds.
Given this diversity, how can we explain the fact that Hindu-Americans’ political preferences and social norms generally point them in the direction of liberal politics in the United States? After all, as The American Conservative’s executive editor Pratik Chougule has pointed out, Indian-American (including Hindu-American) economic interests, merit-based educational aspirations, and family-values are much more aligned with the Republican Party.
There are several factors that explain Hindu-Americans’ mentality, political patterns and views on economic and social issues.
There is the nature of Hinduism itself. The worldview of Hinduism is different from the Judeo-Christian tradition that often informs the right in the West, though it has many more commonalities with the Greco-Roman pagan tradition. Hinduism advocates a “live and let live” attitude toward theological viewpoints. Its plethora of customs, philosophical systems, and regional traditions embrace diverse ways of understanding the divine, as well as ordering life in this world. Hinduism is the collective wisdom of sages, seekers, gods, and kings accumulated over several thousands of years. In short, it is not monolithic. Hinduism says that people take multiple spiritual paths and reach the same goal: the paths of knowledge, action, devotional worship, and meditation. The Rig Veda, composed over 4,000 years ago, states:
They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuṇa, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garutmān.
To what is One, sages call by many names — they call it Agni, Yama, Mātariśvan.
(Rig Veda 1.164.46)
This can be reworked for the modern world and would still be valid under the Hindu perspective: “They call him Bhagavan, Allah, Jesus, Buddha, and he is heavenly, shining Krishna. To what is One, sages give many a title — Ohrmazd, Ishtar, Zeus, Osiris, Amaterasu.” This means:
In the Indian belief, no one religion can have a monopoly on truth. A common Indian metaphor, about blind men and an elephant, tells of how some blind men touch different parts of an elephant, and then compare notes to find that they are in complete disagreement about the shape of the elephant. The analogy, which is with religion, argues that only by putting together the experiences of all the blind men (individual religions) will gain us an approximate understanding of the whole (truth).
In the realm of earthly action, the duty of humans is defined by dharma, a word that is difficult to translate but whose shades of meaning include righteousness, duty, calling, and order. The Mahabharata tells us that dharma is subtle, and as such, doing the right thing in a certain situation is often circumstantial. However, the concept is usually linked to duty. To do one’s dharma is to do one’s duty to the utmost, which is why suggestions by some Republicans that Hinduism “doesn’t align with the constitutional foundation of the U.S. government,” or that Hinduism “is a false faith with false gods,” are deeply problematic to the Hindu community. Observant Hindus don’t necessarily agree with the secular, materialistic worldview that characterizes many on the left, but they see the Democratic Party as less hostile to the Hindu tradition than the Republican Party.
Two prominent Indian-Americans, Bobby Jindal, former governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina, are both converts from their respective religions (Hinduism and Sikhism) to Christianity and are thus not really strong advocates for Indian religions. Bobby Jindal in particular has acquired a reputation for trying to disassociate himself from his roots. Because of the nature of Hinduism, it is difficult for many Hindus to understand why someone would want to leave the religion. Most Hindus do not appreciate Christian evangelization because Indian identity is strongly linked to religion (relative to say, Chinese identity, which is more ethnic and linguistic).
On the other hand, there are four Hindus in Congress, all of whom are Democrats. Hindu-Americans have an especially strong advocate in U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii). She was the first Hindu-American elected to Congress, and has since been a staunch champion and advocate of Hindu causes. She was instrumental in bringing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States.
Hinduism is already an eclectic tradition; American Hinduism is even more so. Many young second or third generation Hindus also identify primarily as Hindu, although in a different way than first generation immigrants. Older Hindus are more ritualistic and temple-oriented. Younger Hindus, particularly those born in the United States, either see their Hinduism as more of a tribal badge and are “cultural Hindus” or are more interested in Hinduism as a philosophy, or a collection of metaphorical lessons—an interest they often discover through their own study of ancient Hindu texts with universal application, including the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, and Mahabharata. This newer Hinduism is in contrast to a more traditional and conservative Hinduism, which is often a reflection of factors specific to pre-modern Indian culture and history, and more influenced by later Hindu literature, the shastras (codebooks relating to rules and conduct) and puranas (traditional lore and myths). This individualistic, non-institutional approach resembles the “spiritual but not religious” approach toward religion often adopted by individuals less in tune with their religious traditions; in other words, people who are non-conservative in their attitude toward religion.
If religious issues are taken out of the picture, it would seem that Hindu-Americans potentially have a lot in common with a more conservative worldview. Affirmative action and higher taxes both hurt Hindu-American communities. Most Hindu-Americans are well-educated, legal immigrants who have waited their turn to enter the United States. Additionally, some Hindu-Americans are not favorably disposed toward Muslim immigration due to centuries-old tensions between Hindus and Muslims in South Asia. Yet Hindu-Americans lean toward Democrats on many non-religious issues as well.
On the topics of immigration and civil rights, because most Hindu-Americans are Indian-Americans—a minority in the United States whose descendants were once subject to British colonialism—combating racism (real or perceived) is particularly important to Hindu-Americans. Hindus and Muslims are, so to say, on the “same side” in the United States, as they might not be distinguishable to the European-American population. This predisposition for racial grievance among Indians can be taken to absurd lengths by second-generation Hindus (and Indians), many of whom drink up the more extreme kool-aid of identity politics on college campuses. Because of the perception that the Democratic Party is more friendly toward immigrants, civil rights, and non-Western cultures, many Hindus support the party en masse in a tribalistic manner. On a related note, Hindu-Americans also want more legal, educated immigration for their kinfolk back in India; any scheme to curb H-1B visas is met with hostility on the part of the Hindu-American community, particularly because they contend that allowing more Indians into the country would be to the advantage of the United States.
The support of most Hindu-Americans for the Democratic Party in the United States is not necessarily tied to support for left-wing or right-wing politics in the American sense. Many Hindu Democratic voters in the United States are also strong supporters of the right-wing, Hindu-nationalist party currently in power in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party’s name means the Indian People’s Party. Yet conservatism in the Indian sense is not particularly related to the American classical liberal tradition of individualism and small-government, although the right in India is generally more business-friendly than the left. The guiding philosophy of the BJP is Integral Humanism, an ideology that sees humans as both spiritual and material beings and seeks a compromise between capitalism and socialism. This philosophy resembles theories of Catholic economics and the “One-Nation” conservatism found in Britain that views society as organic and values paternalism and pragmatism; in the United States, some Republicans such as Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower had similar views. Very few Hindu-Americans, including business-friendly and socially conservative ones, identity with the Republican orthodoxy that emphasizes cutting taxes and services and reducing the size of government. It is an alien ideology to the Indian tradition, despite Indians being the single wealthiest Asian-American group in the United States in terms of median income.
In the Indian tradition, it has long been assumed that the well-off must assist with uplifting the poor, who would otherwise be incapable of doing so on their own. Perhaps this is because Indian society was inherently biased against individuals working their way up. According to the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, one of the prime duties of kings is government-sanctioned charity. More communitarian views of society (reflected by governance) are common in Asian cultures relative to Western societies. India has traditionally functioned as an interconnected society of villagers and peasants. Rice agriculture is an intensely cooperative activity. According to research in Science magazine, rice-growing societies are less likely be individualistic. As Thomas Talhelm, who led the study, explained: “Families have to flood and drain their field at the same time…So there are punishments for being too individualistic.” He also noted that rice paddies require irrigation systems: “That cost falls on the village, not just one family…so villages have to figure out a way to coordinate and pay for and maintain this system. It makes people cooperate.” As such, an individual’s or a family’s self-interest has limited relevance in understanding Hindu-American political leanings.
Just as in the United Kingdom, the Conservatives recently beat Labour among Hindu and Sikh voters, Hindu-Americans’ current leanings toward the Democratic Party could change in the coming decades. The Republican party is becoming more economically populist and may become more influenced by Catholic notions of distributism. These trends could make the Republican Party more like the British Tories. In this scenario, more minorities might embrace the Republican Party.
Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative. He also writes for The National Interest and The Diplomat. He is part of the Hindu-American community.