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Playing Politics in America’s Pacific Territories

During the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia) declared that America’s tax dollars should no longer be sent to “China, Russia, the Middle East, Guam – whatever, wherever.” However Guam, unlike the other places mentioned in her list, is fully American. For better or for worse, Guam’s American identity is as ubiquitous as McDonald’s and shopping centers are in the mainland United States. As exemplified by Greene’s remarks, America’s Pacific territories are often forgotten in the grand scheme of national political discourse, but they present a dichotomy of how local cultures have been fused with a distinctly American flair. Guam, and the other Pacific territories of American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands, have a unique political culture that both conforms and transcends the two-party system of the mainland.

Political Ideology & Labels

The salience of the two major parties, Democratic and Republican, has dominated politics on the mainland and increased partisan division. In the Pacific territories, although the two mainstream parties remain active in political life, they operate under different conditions of ideology and relevance. Terms such as ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ hold different meanings to Pacific Islanders. In American Samoa, a territory just shy of 50,000 inhabitants, these terms deal with political positions on the role of fa’amatai (chief system), protection of communal lands, and protection of business interests. For example, an American Samoan may view liberalism as willingness to adapt the role of the chief system within the context of the 21st century while conservatism as preserving traditional roles. However, modern ideological issues along liberal and conservative lines also exist–Professor Arun Swamy, a professor of political science at the University of Guam, commented in an interview that “during the last election, GOP candidates consistently sounded a traditional pro-business (low tax, tough on crime) theme, while Democratic candidates are more likely to emphasize issues like the minimum wage.” Both of these issues are consistent with the ideologies espoused by their stateside equivalents. 

Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa
Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa
Source: Sven’s Travel Venues

While ideological lines can be drawn on some issues, party labels in the Pacific territories are relatively loose compared to the mainland. For example, Swamy points out that for the abortion issue in Guam, party labels aren’t a good predictor of issue position: “[the] recently passed and vetoed heartbeat bill was supported by several Democratic legislators and opposed by one or two Republicans.” This can be attributed to the social factors on the island, with former chairman of the Guam Democratic Party, Joaquin Perez, telling the Pacific Daily News that “on issues such as abortion and gambling, the dominance of the Church and religion is evident.” Barry Wicksman, assistant professor at the Northern Marianas College, notes in an interview that while “party affiliations are important [,] candidates are a little looser regarding party philosophy and policy.” Both Swamy and Wicksman emphasize the role of family affiliations in party labels, with this serving as an heuristic, a cue, for voters. In American Samoa, being a matai (chief) is a virtual prerequisite to holding any elected office, with the territory’s congressional delegate’s website writing “chances of an individual being elected to any office without holding a matai title are slim.” A chief is elected by the aiga, meaning extended family or clan.

Some non-ideological issues, while not unique to the Pacific territories, are also particularly salient. One such issue is corruption–a 2015 survey conducted by the University of Guam found that more than 62 percent of Guamanians believe that corporate and political corruption is a very serious problem. There is a strong perception of the government being built upon the Pare system, which Swamy describes as a “reference to patronage or favoritism in appointments especially in the public sector.” Corruption isn’t just limited to Guam, as the Northern Mariana Islands are arguably even more entrenched in allegations of corruption with two of the territory’s governors impeached for corruption allegations. The nature of corruption and nepotism in the Northern Mariana Islands even gave rise to a website, Saipan Sucks, critical of the islands’ politics.

The looser correlation between political ideology and partisan labels of the Pacific territories can perhaps be best demonstrated in the case of Guam during the 2022 midterm elections. After losing the Democratic gubernatorial primary to incumbent Lou Leon Guerrero, Delegate Michael San Nicolas, the non-voting representative of the territory to Congress, endorsed the Republican ticket in the general election. He also endorsed James Moylan, a Republican in the territorial legislature, to succeed him in Congress, calling Moylan’s “bipartisan ethic an important characteristic for success in the Congress.” San Nicolas was also not alone in this cross-party endorsement as Democrats in the Guam legislature made similar ones.

Given this political environment, one might wonder why politicians in the territories identify with the two party system at all. Convenience is likely the major factor at play–the parties form a comparatively bigger tent ideologically-wise than their stateside counterparts. There is room for conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans with parties providing a party infrastructure to campaign upon. Guam’s Democratic Party has gone as far as to state “we are a big tent party” and  “we accept all views and respect everyone’s unique approach to the problems we face.” While a loose ideology and partisanship is a recipe for likely electoral defeat on the mainland, the Pacific territories call for an adjustment, reflecting their cultural emphasis on building relationships between politicians and voters of familiarity and trust. 

Political System

In American Samoa, the context of the chief system makes for highly localized politics as that, as mentioned previously, is a virtual prerequisite to elected office. Representatives to the territorial legislature, Fono, are elected from single-member constituencies and senators are elected from multi-member constituencies. However, the electoral systems of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands comparatively limit the influence of localism in politics. Guamanians elect their legislators at-large through the block voting system where Swamy explains, “voters can vote for up to 15 candidates who all run island wide.” Marianan voters elect their legislators from multi-member districts (with two single-member districts). In contrast, a wide majority of state legislatures are elected from single-member districts.

Nationalizing: Federal-Territorial Relationship

Seat of the Guam Legislature
Seat of the Guam Legislature
Source: CSG West

All three Pacific territories elect a non-voting delegate to Congress. Non-voting delegates are elected to two-year terms, the same as U.S. representatives, and can participate in the activities of the House like other representatives with the important exception in voting “while conducting business as the Committee as the Whole or on final passage of legislation.” Currently, two delegates, Aumua Radewagen of American Samoa and James Moylan of Guam, are Republicans while one delegate, Greogorio Sablan of the Northern Mariana Islands is a Democrat. Although the delegates are affiliated with a political party, all three Pacific territories demonstrate an appetite for electing politicians of both parties–American Samoa and Guam both have Democratic governors while the Northern Mariana Islands has a Republican-turned-independent governor. This is a stark contrast to the decline of split-ticket voting stateside.

The territorial delegates have pushed for increased representation of their constituencies at the federal level. In 2022, Sablan and San Nicolas, both Democrats, introduced legislation to create non-voting Senate delegates for each U.S. territory. The lack of voting representation for territorial residents represents disenfranchisement, something further extenuated by the lack of a vote in presidential elections.

Since 1980, Guam voters have participated in a non-binding straw poll to express their preference for U.S. president. Like the other Pacific territories of American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands as well as Puerto Rico, Gumanian voters do not have representation in the Electoral College. This non-binding straw poll, however, has correctly predicted the winner of every presidential election since 1980, aside from 2016 when voters chose Hillary Clinton, Democrat, over national winner Donald Trump, Republican. There is a case to be made that, given the lack of strong linkages of the Pacific territories to any particular political party, all three of them would be swing votes at the national stage. Despite being politically competitive, however, it is unlikely that the Pacific territories would be afforded electoral votes on a basis similar to that of states due to their small populations, with their combined population recorded at 250,875 people in 2020. The least populous state is Wyoming with 577,719 inhabitants, a population more than double that of the territories.

The lack of federal representation correlates with less federal support, for government budgets and residents. To name a few cases, only Americans in the Northern Mariana Islands are eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, there are ceilings on federal grants to American Samoa and Guam, and all three Pacific territories are not eligible for federal unemployment compensation benefits. Despite being part of the United States, the Pacific territories experience an inequality in federal support amongst each other and relative to states.

Sign protesting U.S. colonialism
Sign protesting U.S. colonialism
Source: Guampedia

Some argue that increased connections to the United States further damages past harms stemming from the colonization of the Pacific territories. The demotion of American Samoans to second-class citizens (American Samoans are not citizens, but rather nationals of the United States) is a striking example. The Insular Cases, a series of cases considered by the Supreme Court, delineated the territories from the rest of the country out of blatant racism. The citizenship issue is, however, nuanced–the American Samoan government’s official position is opposed to full integration: Michael F. Williams, a lawyer for the government, told the New York Times that “the American Samoan people have concerns that incorporating citizenship wholesale to the territory of American Samoa could have a harmful impact on traditional Samoan culture.”

In Guam, Swamy emphasizes the “aspirations for independence among a significant segment of the population” which requires politicians to respect “Chamorro culture and aspirations, especially decolonization/self-determination”–Guam has held multiple referendums on its continued status with the United States. A significant issue within this respect is the large presence of the American military in the Pacific, especially to counter threats to American interests. Swamy says that the military presence is a “major issue in every [Guam] election, at least rhetorically” in that the two sides, one “for buildup (favored by business)” and one “against buildup (favored by community, environmental and Chamorro cultural activists).” In the Northern Mariana Islands, a member of the legislature, Sheila Babauta (D), called for the decarbonization, decolonization, and demilitarization of the island, alleging that “the military has desecrated sacred land.” However, regardless of opinions in terms of military presence, it is indisputable that the military makes up a large portion of the economies of Pacific territories, especially Guam where the Defense Department “has committed to more than $11 billion in construction there over the next five years.”

The Pacific territories, as the closest American soil to adversaries like China and North Korea, are considered of great strategic importance to national security. However, the legacy of American colonialism is lasting in all three territories, with the degree of each territory’s relationship to Washington D.C. a continuing debate from disenfranchisement to uneven federal support and cultural preservation. Regardless, each of the three Pacific territories has fostered a unique political environment that fuses American political institutions with enduring perspectives of traditional governance, evident in the centering of relationships rather than ideological buttons.

Featured Image: Desert Sun

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