When most American think of Hawaii, they likely picture beaches, volcanoes, jungles, and all the other trappings of a vacation hotspot. While much of this is accurate — the natural beauty of the 50th state is unparalleled — often overlooked is the fact that it’s a state like any other, facing many of the same problems, as well as a few that are unique to the islands.
To begin with, Hawaii’s history with the United States isn’t the same as most of the other 49. While most Americans have a generally vague notion that their state acquired its statehood willingly, several fighting against tyranny and injustice to do so, Hawaii is different. An independent kingdom until the mid-1800s, it was outright conquered by the United States, who overthrew its government in a bloody coup, forcibly annexing the islands shortly thereafter.
The Hawaiian islands then followed the pattern of many other states — its natives displaced and pushed to assimilate, their lands turned into farms and ranches for wealthy white Americans. A large military presence was placed here as well, hoping to stem Japanese imperialism in the Pacific. Even the spelling of the name Hawaii is controversial — in the native tongue it should be spelled Hawai’i.
During World War II, it was essential to the American victory over Japan — fitting, as the attack on Pearl Harbor was what pulled the United States into the war in the first place. During and following the war, immigration to the island ballooned, much of it thanks to military families, and Native Hawaiians were vastly outnumbered in their own ancestral homeland.
When Alaska was to be admitted into the union in 1959, Republicans feared it would become a Democratic stronghold. In keeping with tradition of admitting multiple states at once for balance of political power, statehood was offered to Hawaii and passed with over 95 percent of the vote in favor. Of course, it has been one of the safest states for Democrats ever since, a major backfire for Republicans. But because Alaska has been safely Republican for the same period, the balance argument worked out, even if it was flipped on its head.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton won decisively here, garnering some 61 percent of the vote and carrying every county. It should be noted, however, that native son Barack Obama performed better here, though Clinton’s showing was the best by any candidate other than Obama since President Richard Nixon in 1972.
Whether or not Hawaii should even be considered a state is a matter of considerable debate in the islands now, however. Secessionist movements are much stronger here than just about anywhere else, and the issue has gone to both domestic and United Nations courts numerous times. The argument is that since they were a sovereign nation, they are essentially a conquered people and therefore unjustly occupied by Americans. By law, the matter is settled and Hawaii is officially a US state, but the movement gains steam with every passing year, and it will likely remain a sticking point for years to come.
Within the state, the rural urban divide is less stark than most others. While agriculture and farms dominate the interior of the islands, the high populations of minorities, most predominately Asian and Native, keeps the GOP at bay here. Additionally, the state is among the highest in the nation for cost of living — only cities like New York and San Francisco are higher than Honolulu. Combining these factors with the extremely high homeless rate on the islands, and you have a major need for government aid and welfare programs.
It actually came as something of a surprise that Donald Trump did as well as he did here. While losing by more than 30 points may not seem like a close call, Trump’s appeal to racist ideologies and plans to cut government aid programs, (not to mention his role in the debunked birtherism conspiracy theories against favorite son Barack Obama) should have had Clinton putting up numbers at least as good as Obama’s. But the heavy military presence here tempered that and, combined with Clinton’s own shortcomings and political corruption, he was able to do well.
In the 2020 election, Hawaii is in no real danger of flipping to red. However, the margin of victory here could indicate which way the wind is blowing in this conquered nation-cum-US state. And further division on the mainland will only bolster secessionists here, even if their cause is quixotic at this point in history.