Nikki Haley, GOP Gubernatorial Nominee, Bears Cultural Distinction

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Nikki Haley won the Republican nomination for governor of South Carolina on Tuesday, making her to one of the leaders to watch in the GOP, and a likely history-maker; she’s poised to become the state's first female governor and its first of Indian descent should she win in the fall. Guest host Tony Cox speaks with author and political commentator Reihan Salam about Indian Americans in politics.

TONY COX, host:

As you heard, Nikki Haley won the Republican nomination for governor in South Carolina. She is the star of a record-breaking political season for Indian Americans. There are at least six Indian-Americans on the ballot for Congress. And then South Carolina, Haley could join Bobby Jindal as the second Indian-American governor of a southern state if she wins the general election in November.

Ms. NIKKI HALEY (Republican, South Carolina Gubernatorial Candidate): To our friends in the media across this state and across this country who are analyzing what this victory means and what barriers this may have broken, I will tell you there might be some truth to that. But this is so much more than that. This is a movement about the idea of government being open and accountable to the people.

(Soundbite of cheering)

COX: That, again, Nikki Haley in South Carolina. With us now to talk about the new wave of Indian American politicians, we have Reihan Salam, a regular political contributor to our program, and the co-author of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream." He also wrote a piece for the Daily Beast entitled "How Ethnic Can Our Politicians Be?" He joins us now from NPR in New York. Reihan, welcome.

Mr. REIHAN SALAM (Co-Author, "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream"): Thanks for having me.

COX: So, why the record number of Indian-Americans? What's inspiring this?

Mr. SALAM: Well, I think it's a simple demographic artifact. When you think about the Indian-American community in the United States, a lot of it derives from the immigration wave that started in the mid-1960s. So it stands to reason that, you know, those immigrants had children, a lot of whom were born in the late '60s and the early 1970s. And now they're coming of the age when it makes sense for them to take part in politics at the highest levels.

So I think that it actually makes sense that it happens now rather than, you know, say, 10 or 15 years ago when these kids would have been too young to run for office.

COX: Does it make sense, obviously for it to happen in the southern states where it is happening, effectively? Why, for example, would Bobby Jindal, the son of Hindu immigrants, and Nikki Haley, the daughter of Sikhs, be seeing so much support from voters there?

Mr. SALAM: Well, it's interesting. When you look at American politics, you look at the folks who've reached the highest echelons of American politics, they tend to be highly unrepresentative in all kinds of ways. For example, you have a disproportionately large number of Mormons who are in the U.S. Congress, disproportionately a large number of Jewish-Americans as well.

For whatever reason, you have some groups that tend to gravitate towards these positions. And you also have a lot of immigrant groups that traditionally in the early phases were reluctant to engage in politics, partly due to history in the old country, something along those lines. But then you have a younger generation that becomes more interested.

Across the American South, you have a fairly large number of South Asians who settled and who became small business owners, et cetera. And, you know, it's natural that if you're a small business owner, if you come from a family of small business owners like Nikki Haley, that you might find the political views we associate with the Republican Party more congenial. So I think that that's a big part of the story.

COX: How would you characterize her behavior in the race so far? And would you say that Indian-American candidates, including Nikki Haley, are highlighting or are playing down their ethnic identity, particularly on the Republican side?

Mr. SALAM: Well, I think it's a mixed bag. You also have a lot of Indian-Americans who have taken part very actively in Democratic Party politics at very high levels, not only staffers, but also candidates. For example, in Minnesota and a variety of other northern states.

And I think that when you're talking about this downplay of ethnic identity, it's complicated. For example, Nikki Haley is someone who married into a native non-Hispanic white family. Her husband was raised as a Methodist and she converted to his faith. And, you know, with a lot of intermarriages, you see an attempt to meld the two religious traditions or the two cultural traditions.

But that's something that can be hard to explain in an electoral context. So it stands to reason that people are going to emphasize one thing rather than another in order to seem more recognizable to make voters comfortable with them. And I think that that might be some of what we see happen with candidates from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, including someone like Barack Obama.

COX: How big a deal is it that Nikki Haley and even Bobby Jindal changed their names or simplified them in terms of their assimilation?

Mr. SALAM: Well, I think that in the case of Bobby Jindal it's something that happened when he was a very young kid and I think the same goes for Nikki Haley. I don't know how many people you know with hard to pronounce names, it's a fairly, you know, straightforward convention in American life. You see this a lot with kids of East Asian backgrounds, from Eastern European backgrounds, where you'll adopt a quote, unquote, "American name."

My family is from Bangladesh and my name Reihan that I use with you here on the radio is not a name that my parents would use. They would use the name Pretu(ph), which is a Bengali name, whereas Reihan is an Arabic name. So this is a convention that we don't just see in the United States, but we see around the world.

COX: In response to the title of your article for the Daily Beast, how ethnic can our politicians be before they alienate voters? And do you think that this is changing? We've got about a minute, Reihan.

Mr. SALAM: Well, it's a really hard question to answer. I think that people can be more ethnic now than they could've been 15 or 20 years ago, in part because we have greater familiarity with people who come from distinctive, diverse cultural traditions.

COX: Reihan Salam, co-author of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream."

Let me just squeeze one more question in for you, do you think that she is going to Haley, I'm talking about now that she is going to be successful in the general election? Will this carry over really quickly?

Mr. SALAM: I think so, yes.

COX: That's as quickly as it can be. Thank you very much, Reihan, as we said, co-author of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream." And he is a regular on TELL ME MORE. Reihan, thank you.

Mr. SALAM: Thank you.

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