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Young Vietnamese American progressives lead a generational split with conservative elders

A man in a mask that says Yes on 16 takes a selfie in front of a group of a few dozen people with Biden signs
Philip Nguyen, an Asian American studies professor at San Francisco State, takes a selfie while speaking at a San Jose rally for Vietnamese American progressives who support the Biden-Harris ticket.
(Philip Nguyen)

On election day, then beyond, their work will not stop.

Since Donald Trump was elected president four years ago, Vietnamese American progressives have been building a movement that’s redefining their culture’s political landscape.

Although most of their parents and grandparents have stayed faithful to the Republican Party — largely because of staunch anti-communist feelings dating to the Vietnam War — many of the younger set say they’re focused on domestic issues, not homeland ones. What motivates many of them are concerns over income inequality, keeping the Affordable Care Act, climate change and humane immigration laws, as well as solidarity with Black Lives Matter over racial justice issues.

Some members of Pivot, the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization, which started on the West Coast about four years ago, are trying to persuade family members — moms, dads, uncles, cousins — to back the Biden-Harris ticket. They tick off talking points on taxes and China policies, armed with information from the bilingual VietFactCheck.org, a Pivot spinoff with source-verified articles about the 2020 election.

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“Staying within a specific political party is not the end goal. It’s to make sure our values are aligned so that there will be benefit for all,” said Kat Phan, a rising young leader within Pivot and a demographics researcher based in San Francisco. She is among the group’s 300 members across 25 states.

Some analysts describe the nonprofit’s political evolution as “inevitable.”

“Originally, their parents were likely one-issue voters, drawn to the Republican Party by its outspoken stance against communism and by the likes of Bob Dornan and Ronald Reagan,” said Fred Smoller, associate professor of political science at Chapman University. Dornan is a conservative former Orange County congressman.

“But Donald Trump isn’t a conventional Republican. And young people and progressive thinkers are realizing that the things he stands for are not what they stand for.”

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Pivot is “a natural outgrowth” and a group “that would really matter in a community where voter participation is dynamic and at the forefront,” Smoller continued. “The Vietnamese vote is a much-coveted vote,” he said, along with the Asian American vote, representing the fastest-growing electorate in the country with more than 30 ethnic and national subgroups.

National data from a survey of Asian Americans released this fall showed that Vietnamese Americans were the only group in which a majority favored President Trump over Joe Biden — 48% versus 39%. Alarmed by such statistics, Pivot leaders “leveraged our understanding of our collective trauma, history, and media consumption” to examine why citizens might vote against their own interest or even avoid voting, said Thi Bui, one of the group’s lead organizers.

In the jam-packed months leading to Nov. 3, Pivot expanded in fundraising and visibility. Volunteers from its election committee created a tool kit that includes a voter guide, voter registration site and an English-Vietnamese glossary with audio for younger immigrants who cannot read Vietnamese “to empower folks who are fired up to have intergenerational conversations but may not know the right words to move hearts and minds.”

Two people with Biden signs stand next to a small, old-school red car
Supporters of the Democratic presidential ticket gather in San Jose last month.
(Tung Nguyen)
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Pivot’s president is Dr. Tung Nguyen, an internist and professor of medicine at UC San Francisco in his mid-50s. He remembers a time when community pressure, especially in Orange County’s Little Saigon — the capital of the overseas Vietnamese population — often silenced political dissenters.

“In the ’90s, if you ever say something about justice, you get verbally attacked but also through your businesses. A sizable population of Vietnamese who were liberal or progressives remained really, really quiet. Now, they’re very angry at seeing the truth, seeing the underlying issues,” he said, citing Trump’s constant scapegoating of Latino and other underrepresented communities, his anti-Muslim travel ban and other policies that cracked down on immigrants and separated families.

“Fast-forward to 2020 and there’s safety in numbers,” Nguyen added. “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gotten emails in the last several years from fellow progressives who said, ‘Oh, my God, I didn’t even know you guys existed. Now I don’t feel so alone.’ ”

Nguyen was a leading voice in the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders when Trump enacted the travel ban on a handful of Muslim-majority countries in February 2017, after which he resigned from the presidential advisory committee and began forming what would become Pivot.

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Members like him understand that the more physically removed they are from the old-guard, conservative politics of Little Saigon, where Trump maintains popularity, the more protected they are.

“What happens in Vietnam matters. Yet people are realizing that what happens here” in the U.S. “matters as much,” he added. And because he doesn’t live in Orange County — or depend on the Vietnamese community for his livelihood — he and his peers do not worry that their businesses “will be protested if we say who we support in this election or another election.”

Nguyen also said some Pivot volunteers in their 20s and 30s didn’t identify “so strongly with the traditional community so they’re not threatened when they take a position. To them, you follow your conscience, guided by facts. If people want to protest and one of them works at Microsoft, go picket at Microsoft. Good luck with that.”

Alex Nguyen, 26, of San Jose said he speaks out for a reason. Although he respects his elders and said he is grateful for the sacrifices that the first generation endured so their children and grandchildren could live more securely, he strongly believes that a vote “is a decision for the way we want to shape our future.”

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He and his father, Tan Nguyen, 63, a veteran of the South Vietnamese army and survivor of a communist reeducation camp, have been talking about what happened in the 2016 presidential race and the huge stakes facing the electorate this November. The younger Nguyen, a food industry entrepreneur, is especially troubled about the lasting effects of racism and how Black people continue to be targets.

The older Nguyen accepts his son’s views. Last weekend, he felt compelled to go onstage at a Viet 4 Biden rally in San Jose to endorse the Democratic former vice president, whom he described as “more caring about the big issues” confronting society, among them the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The adults may be shy about talking to their kids, but it’s time to open up, to exchange ideas,” he said later. “Dialogue is what we need to solve problems.”

Pivot leaders and volunteers say they’re encouraged when people from the “Republican stronghold generation” grow more open-minded, willing to give the youth a platform to showcase their convictions.

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And at the Sept. 27 virtual Launch Into Action, an extravaganza that pulled in $25,000 to help start a national campaign to win elections, Pivot youths and other supporters did just that.

Phan, 25, the demographics expert for the San Francisco Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs, co-hosted it with Philip Nguyen, 26, an Asian American studies professor at San Francisco State.

Philip Nguyen, raised in the Antelope Valley, said that during his childhood, there was “little need to question what the candidates stand for — you are ultimately loyal, you always vote Republican.” But as he grew older, he often thought of the resilience that marked the refugee experience as they fled from their homeland starting in 1975, at the end of the Vietnam War.

“What the current administration stands for is antithetical to that experience,” he said. “I had to activate myself to motivate others.”

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For the event, organizers recruited community celebrities to amplify their messages on video.

Cookbook author and James Beard Foundation Award winner Andrea Nguyen told viewers that “democracy is about self-determination” and that when you vote, “man, you are making your voice heard.”

Hollywood fashion designer Thai Nguyen, who has dressed Cindy Crawford and Kelly Marie Tran, confessed that he usually didn’t pay attention to voting but considered this election crucial.

Huey Nguyen, barber, model and TikTok influencer, urged his audience not to “be a sheep.”

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“Dude, you gotta vote,” he said. “As a millennial, I know there’s not enough of us out there voting.”

One of Pivot’s strategies is to pay attention to swing states where Vietnamese American and Asian American voters can have influence.

Massachusetts state Rep. Tram Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American woman elected to the state Legislature when she defeated a tea party Republican, applauds that focus. The Democratic legislator said her father — a South Vietnamese army veteran who was jailed for eight years when the Communists seized power — was a Reagan supporter. He later voted twice for Barack Obama, and the political awakening she and other family members experienced resulted in part from what she learned about racial and gender justice while attending Tufts University.

“The income gap, the racial gap — that progressives seek to fix that while embracing diversity and humanity is what’s crucial to me,” said Nguyen, 34. “I hope that we can continue this momentum with Pivot because, finally, this is a group where we can claim our voice.”

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Philip Nguyen echoed her sentiments.

“I wholeheartedly think to be Vietnamese American is to be political because our existence in the U.S. is the result of politics,” he said. “You must participate in what’s going on in society.”


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