Twenty years ago, in the lead-up to the 2004 elections, the Arab American Institute (AAI) hosted a Democratic presidential forum that was attended by the eight major candidates who were running that year. Before he was to speak, one of them, a leader in the polls at that time, came to me and said, “Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to start by addressing jobs, heath care, Social Security and education. Then I’ll talk about your community’s issues.” I responded, “With all due respect sir, Arab Americans need good jobs, get sick, get old and want to see their kids get a quality education. Those our issues. And if by ‘my community’s issues’ you mean the war in Iraq and Israeli-Palestinian peace, those are issues for all Americans, not just Arab Americans.”
As the US gears up for what will be critical national elections in 2024, the AAI commissioned a poll, as it has done for the past 30 years, to better understand how Arab Americans will vote next year and what will drive their votes. As the community possesses significant strength in several key battleground states, how they vote and the issues that matter to them are important to consider. What comes through from the poll results is that Arab Americans support policies that are more liberal than conservative. And while both parties are losing support among Arab Americans, it appears that a majority of the community will favour Democrats over Republicans when choosing a president and members of Congress.
While these are the top-line political findings of this new Arab American study, what also comes through from the results is that despite the complexity and diversity of the community, there are common threads that unite them as a constituency of shared concerns.
First, a look at the demographic breakout of the Arab American community that emerges from the study. Although most are from Lebanon or Syria, Arab Americans increasingly come from countries across the Arab World. While the majority of the more than three and one-half million is descendants of the first wave of immigrants who came to the US before and shortly after World War I, the community has been enriched in recent decades by an influx of new immigrants from across North Africa to Iraq. And while the majority is Christian, more than one-third is now Muslim.
Even with this diversity, there are multiple areas where attitudes are shared across all of the main demographic groupings. For example, despite a majority of respondents reporting that they have experienced discrimination because of their heritage, and this is true of all of the sub-groups of Arab Americans, four in five continue to profess deep pride in their ethnicity and heritage. And while their religious affiliations and countries of origin matter, a majority says that they define themselves as “Arab American.”
Continuing a trend that has been observed since Arab Americans reacted negatively to the post-9/11 policies of the Bush administration, the percentage of those in the community who identify as Democrats is nearly double those who identify as Republicans (40%-24%). The biggest changes in this year’s poll are the drop in Democrats from the fifty percent range in the Obama years and the steady growth of those who say they are Independents, up from 15% in 2014 to 28% this year. Further evidence of this shift in party affiliation can be seen in the almost four in five Arab Americans who express concern with political polarisation in the US today, with almost one-half of the community blaming both parties for this problem.
While Arab Americans give President Joseph Biden a low 31% job approval rating, the 47% of Arab Americans who say they have a favourable view of Biden is significantly higher than the 36% who have favourable view of former President Donald Trump. And, despite their concern with partisan polarisation, by a margin of 53% to 30%, Arab Americans say they would prefer that Democrats have control of Congress.
When it comes to domestic issues, Arab Americans, like most other American ethnic groups, demonstrate a mix of liberal and centrist policy concerns. Far and away, they say that their single most important issue is gun violence. This is followed by a second tier of issues such as the need to address the budget deficit and government spending, create jobs and grow the economy and concerns with the environment and climate change. Also scoring high are improving health care, addressing race relations and protecting Social Security and Medicare.
With regard to their top foreign policy concerns, three issues are closely bunched together and are shared by almost three-quarters of respondents, across demographic lines: the crisis in Lebanon, the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people and securing justice for Palestinians.
Arab Americans were asked two questions regarding their attitudes toward limiting free speech. When asked how concerned they are with “state laws or executive orders that penalise individuals, groups, or businesses from engaging in activities that boycott Israel,” over four in five said they are concerned. And three-quarters are also concerned with efforts by school boards that seek to ban books containing Black history and LGBTQ content.
What emerges from this examination of Arab American attitudes is a profile of a community which, largely due to its own experiences in recent decades, is more liberal and tolerant than the overall American population. At the same time, they are also balanced and opposed to extreme views that divide the country.
Of equal importance is the fact that these attitudes are largely consistent across the many diverse demographic groups that make up the Arab American community: age, gender, religious affiliation, immigrant/native born and country of origin. These shared views, values and life experiences are the hallmarks that define the community and place it well within the mainstream of American politics.
Dr James J. Zogby is President of the Washington-based Arab American Institute. This article was originally published by Arab Weekly