The Rise of Vivek Ramaswamy
Since February, Ramaswamy has steadily inched upward in GOP primary polls by combining extreme right-wing policies with a younger generation’s dose of charisma.
“We’re just good at being Americans” — Vivek Ramaswamy and the Indian American voter in 2024
In late February of this year, a newcomer entered the Republican field for president. On paper, his CV seemed pretty on par with that of presidential candidates: a bachelor’s degree from Harvard, a J.D. from Yale, and an estimated net worth of $1 billion. Except he was different — he was 38 years old, a devout Hindu, and his name was Vivek Ramaswamy.
Since February, Ramaswamy has steadily inched upward in GOP primary polls by combining extreme right-wing policies with a younger generation’s dose of charisma. His elevator pitch is “America First 2.0.” His goal? “Taking the America First agenda even further than Donald Trump ever did.”
Before throwing his hat into the 2024 ring, Ramaswamy’s rightward shift became more pronounced during the racial reckoning of 2020. Ramaswamy was pressured by employees at his pharmaceutical company, Roivant Sciences, to release a statement in support of Black Lives Matter. He rejected doing so.
To many progressives and conservatives alike, Ramaswamy is an enigma: a brown man with far-right views who’s a practicing Hindu. But to Indian Americans like myself, if we’re honest, he’s no anomaly. The same rhetoric that’s made Ramaswamy the newest GOP darling? We’ve heard it all before, usually from that one uncle whose Saturday night pastimes are Glenlivet and ghastly pontifications about the world around him. If anything, Ramaswamy’s rise just highlights how the Indian American voter is a sorely understudied — but increasingly powerful — phenomenon in modern American politics. In short, Ramaswamy, in many ways, is a product of his community.
Why focusing on Indian American voters matters:
- We’re a small but mighty voting bloc. While we only made up 1.9 million, or 0.82%, of eligible voters in 2018, our influence is outsized because of our economic prosperity.
- Our median income is approximately $120,000, and with wealth comes political sway. According to MR Rangaswami, founder of nonprofit Indiaspora, Indian Americans raised around $16 million for Democrats in the 2020 cycle. By July 2019, Indian Americans had already given more to 2020 presidential campaigns than Hollywood donors, according to the Los Angeles Times.
- Large Indian eligible voter populations live in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New Hampshire.
- While Indians largely back Democrats, a shift might be underway. In 2012, 84% of us voted for Obama. While post-election data on 2020 isn’t immediately clear, Biden was polling with Indian American voters at approx 72% just before the election. That 12% drop came even though fiscally conservative Republicans like Romney were replaced by culture warriors like Trump.
When thinking about Indian voters, it’s important to consider the difference between older, naturalized Indian Americans, who hold wealth and power and who are predominantly from Hindu backgrounds, and Generation Y and Z Indian Americans, who lack the same wealth and increasingly contextualize their existence within the broader civil rights struggle in America.
Hindustan/noun: the land of Hindus
Under Prime Minister Modi, India has embraced nationalism and conservatism. Understanding this helps explain a potential similar shift for older Indian Americans, who hold “broadly favorable views of Modi.” Previous generations prided themselves on a Gandhi-esque view that inclusion and diversity were central to India’s success. Under Modi, that has been exchanged for Hindu majoritarianism and nationalism, known as Hindutva. In India, Modi was elected as a reformer who wanted to weed out corruption and fix a stagnated economy. In the process, he has found a convenient scapegoat for India’s problems in minority communities, especially Muslims.
“We’re just good at being Americans” — Nimrata “Nikki” Randhawa Haley
Haley, a former South Carolina governor, Trump’s UN ambassador from 2017-2018, and 2024 Republican candidate, wrote about Indian Americans in her 2019 book “With All Due Respect.” And it is, intentionally or not, a perfect summation of how Indian Americans view America. Many Indians in America, even those with citizenship and decades here, don’t see themselves as Americans. Ask them the question, “Where are you from?” and you’ll more often than not hear, “We are from India, but we live in America.”
To truly understand Indian Americans, you have to be one of us. Coming from a collectivist culture that uses shame as a mechanism of control, Indians are very good at fitting in. Honesty is earned and facades are normal. You’re not entitled to an opinion because opinions create opportunities for friction. Friction is inefficient. Inefficiencies make it harder to achieve your goal. Therefore, opinions are counterproductive.
Most second-generation Indian Americans will tell you their parents have mastered the American Dream. They work hard, amass wealth, move to the suburbs, send money home, and send their kids to college. That’s it. With the pressure of an entire family on their backs, pursuing a different career, having hobbies, and voicing opinions wasn't an option. In their view, that would mean there would be no food on the table and your female cousin would have to get married off at 19 because college was too expensive. So even though you had your opinions, you kept them to yourself. As Hasan Minhaj said in “Homecoming King”: “If it doesn’t cost you your life, you lucked out.”
Today, many of these same Indians who came here poor are now the ones contributing to that median income of $120,000. Moreover, Indians know they made that money in progressive spaces like tech and health care. But, every once in a while, they get together with a few friends — friends with the exact same background, religion, language, and, most importantly, understanding of this foreign country they live in. On those nights, behind closed doors, it's hard to tell what flows faster, the Scotch or their opinions.
For a more empirical view of these disparate worlds, the think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace analyzed findings from the Indian American Attitudes Survey it conducted in partnership with YouGov. It surveyed 1,200 Indian American adult residents and found they hold a far more conservative view of politics back home than here in America. For example, while a majority of Indian Americans disapproved of Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban,” more than half in that same survey didn’t voice opposition to India’s Citizenship Amendment Act, which disenfranchises Muslim voters in India. Similarly, while 73% of respondents saw white supremacy to be a problem in America, only 53% saw Hindu majoritarianism to be a problem in India. Within Hindu respondents, 70% saw white supremacy as a problem, but only 40% saw Hindu majoritarianism as a problem.
My house, my rules
Indian culture skews traditionalist and is heavily patriarchal, based on family values and religion. It’s not uncommon for older, naturalized Indian Americans to reject mainstream music, LGBTQIA+ rights, and to express racist views. And while the world around them might modernize, they keep a keen eye on what parts of the outside world they allow inside their 4 walls. They believe education and wealth insulate them from discrimination, thereby distinguishing them from other communities of color.
In this vein, voter participation among Indian Americans has jumped in recent years, up 9% between 2016 and 2020. In 2016, 16% of Indian Americans voted for Trump, and in 2020, Trump's favorability within the community hovered around 28%. It’s clear that, as Indians grow more economically secure and their roots grow deeper into America’s soil, they’re slowly becoming more invested in how the land is tended to.
There’s the question of whether some of the rightward shift among Indian Americans stems from a worry that American racism could be turned on them. And it's not like that hasn’t happened before: Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Punjabi Sikh man in Mesa, Arizona, was murdered in a hate crime just days after 9/11, to name just one example. But, by and large, in the Indian psyche, if you’re educated and make enough money, you’re safe. Bluntly put, Indian Americans are too good at fitting in, and their lifestyles more closely resemble white suburbia than anything else. In their minds, education and wealth insulate them from crime and discrimination.
This all is a very, very long-winded way of saying Ramaswamy — who enters tonight’s first GOP debate as one of the only viable challengers to former President Trump in the polls — is no aberration. And while parts of his public persona and the views he espouses are likely a grift for votes, the uncomfortable truth is that they’re not far off from the very private, very guarded, but very real views held by many in the community from which he hails. And, yes, younger Indian Americans, especially those of the second generation, want to change this. But it might take years for that bloc of voters to make an impact in the same way.
This raises the question, then, of what’s next. There’s a chance that the falloff in support for Democrats among Indian Americans has stopped, but the tea leaves are still telling. If current trends continue at even just half the rate of the previous 8 years then, within just 4 years, Indian voters could be at an approximately 66% to 33% Democrat-to-Republican split, which is reminiscent of the Latine voter base — another community that’s seeing a clear shift toward more conservative voting patterns.
The second unanswered question is of pure political alignment. If a majority of Indians came here to make money to send home, why wouldn’t they vote with their wallets? Every dollar they save is 80 rupees back home. And as they grow more secure in their place in America, as anyone would hope they do, wouldn’t it make sense they vote with their values and conscience, too? Values that are increasingly dysphoric with America’s liberal society.
The final question means looking ahead: What happens to all these kids currently being raised in these conservative households? What happens when they come of age with a sense of ownership over their motherland? Isn’t there a chance they feel closer to Vivek than Kamala?
The answers remain unclear, and by no means do I think I’ve provided any definitive conclusions here. But the fact of the matter is this: Democrats are sleepwalking into potential disaster next year if they don’t recognize Indian Americans as a growing, nuanced force in American politics.
Lastly, to the uncles and aunties reading this, I don’t aim to bash you. I fully recognize that I wouldn’t be here, writing this very piece, without your American Dream. I recognize that it was your sacrifices that paved the way for my generation to be in a place to even think about things like your political leanings. I’m also not saying you didn’t earn your American Dream. You did. Your backs were against the wall, and you pulled it out. You worked hard, sacrificed, got good grades, and earned every cent you made. You did it on your own and did it the right way. I will defend that truth, wholeheartedly.
But I leave you with a question: With the economics of your American Dream secured, are you going to forget what’s going on outside your 4 walls because you have everything you need within them? Are you going to forget when your back was against the wall and insist on building them?
To my fellow second-generationers: If their answer is yes, can we really blame them? After all, that might be the most “American” part of the dream itself.