Twenty years ago, in the lead-up to the 2004 US presidential 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 are our issues. And if by ‘my community’s issues’ you mean the war in Iraq and peace between Palestinians and Israelis, 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. To ensure both random selection and representative national distribution, the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 per cent, was conducted using a hybrid methodology reaching 404 Arab-American registered voters by telephone or online.
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, it is worth having 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 3.5 million are descendants of the first wave of immigrants who came to the US before and shortly after the First World War, the community has been enriched in recent decades by an influx of new immigrants from North Africa to Iraq. And while the majority are Christian, now more than a third are 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 subgroups 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 say 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 the percentage who identify as Republicans (40 per cent compared with 24 per cent). The biggest changes in this year’s poll are the drop in Democrats from the 50 per cent range in the Obama years and the steady growth of those who say they are Independents, up from 15 per cent in 2014 to 28 per cent 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 half of the community blaming both parties for this problem.
While Arab Americans give President Joe Biden a low 31 per cent job approval rating, the 47 per cent of Arab Americans who say they have a favourable view of Mr Biden is significantly higher than the 36 per cent who have favourable view of former president Donald Trump. And, despite their concern with partisan polarisation, by a margin of 53 per cent to 30 per cent 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, like the need to address the budget deficit and government spending, creating jobs and growing 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 towards 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”, more than 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 that 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.