Time to heal America by Prathamesh Jagtap
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
Is Progressive politics in a polarised and politically bruised nation the way ahead?
Did Biden win this election or did Trump lose? Those are not the same things if you have followed the recent US elections closely. Nevertheless, a win is a win. Bitter or sweet, in a democracy the winner takes it all. The chaotic last act in the US elections that might play out for a while throws light on the twin tragedies of American politics. One is the deepening polarization that threatens to turn the US into a dysfunctional polity. An archaic voting process has made matters worse. There was a widespread expectation, based on opinion polls, that the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, Joe Biden, will inflict a crushing defeat on the Republican incumbent, Donald Trump. The latter was deemed to be the source of America’s current crisis. But Trump has stood his ground in the face of strong opposition from the traditional political establishment, the debilitating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, intense media hostility, and an impeachment effort.
Trump increased his popular vote from the 2016 elections by about 5 million and won nearly 48 per cent of the vote. His impressive performance highlights the tension between two equally strong but opposite political forces in America. Close votes should not be a problem in resilient democracies if the voting and counting procedures are credible, transparent and not open to contestation. But the messy process in the US, where each state has the right to decide on its voting procedures, has become worse this time around. Whether Trump is justified in turning to the courts or not, the fact is voting rules were changed in this election. Citing the coronavirus, Democrats pressed and got the courts to agree on a new procedure of mass mailing out of ballot papers to all registered voters. The Republicans objected and pointed to the potential problems with ensuring the integrity of the process. The issue of what is a “legitimate” vote, which all agree must be counted in full, is back with the courts.
The next president could start by establishing a new set of common nationwide rules for conducting elections. That could help reduce inevitable friction in close and bitterly fought contests. Many Americans have long questioned the electoral college system that privileges the voters in the small states over those in large states. But the resistance to a direct election of the president is deep. Whether electoral reforms can be put on the agenda or not, the US badly needs a presidency that can bridge the current domestic political divide. On his part, Trump had some success in expanding the Republican reach to the minorities and the working classes. Still, his grating style, political indiscipline and the inability to build a new consensus within the ruling elite have left him ineffective and vulnerable. Biden has promised to unite the nation, but he heads an unwieldy political coalition that is bound to fall apart once Trump is no longer the president. All democracies have a way of rising to the challenges, and the US system is, hopefully, capable of self-correction to transcend the current crisis that goes deeper than Trump’s failings as a leader.
What direction will liberal politics take in America?
Progressives/Liberals around the world celebrate the passing of the Trump presidency. But the narrowness of Joe Biden’s victory means that we need to diagnose the liberals’ malaise.
First, the Democratic Party elite has tragically abandoned the predominantly white working-class and indeed, treat the latter with contempt. This election was won in metropolitan suburbs where white-collar workers, many being racial minorities, turned their back on the racist, misogynist incumbent. These service sector workers with middle-class aspirations form the bulk of the Democrats base along with working people of all races and young people mobilised by activism. But unlike the latter, these suburbanites are hardly a stable force and shift between both parties, often on cultural issues. They are no replacement for the solidly Democratic and now-lost union base.
The liberal establishment — in the media, the universities, and the business world dominated by finance — did not conceal its contempt for the white working-class whom they see as parochial, locked in anti-modern racism. It enables them to avoid their failings in addressing America’s altered economy and shifting class structure. White working-class racism is, of course, a reality, but it is also in no small measure a reaction to elite disdain. There is a geography to that disdain. Elites, white-collar workers, and minorities reside for the most part in cities within red (Republican) states or along with the blue (Democrat) coasts. The expansion of urban areas in the tech/research urban economies of Houston and Dallas (TX), Atlanta (GA), Phoenix (AZ), and Durham (NC) — southern states — outside the coasts, is, along with substantial minority turnout, in no small measure responsible for putting Biden in the White House as independents flipped. Yet much of America remains rural, poor, and white, and the American political system gives these voters special privilege.
With the Electoral College (EC) is composed of representatives from a particular state, and each state is given two senators irrespective of its population, the fact that each state’s average rural population is 35 per cent, well above the national average of 25 per cent, means that these rural voters have disproportionate representation. Wyoming (population 5,80,000) sends as many Senators as California, (population 39.5 million). This is the second element of the progressive malaise: Their focus on centralised solutions to the country’s problems. No doubt the EC could use updating. Yet progressives miss the message of the EC’s design: There is no America, only the United States. The illusion created by the singularity of the office of the president, fuelled by a national media staffed by cosmopolitan elites, is that there is some political entity called “America”. All nations are imagined communities, of course, but some are more imagined than others.
There might be a cultural and even an economic entity called America, but no directly elected political unit corresponds to this name.
A popular national vote does not directly elect the president. America is not a political constituency; its component states are. The presidential election is not one but 50 different elections because American is irreducibly a federation.
The EC’s design indicates that the basic political unit is not the individual voter but the respective state, each complete with its flag, constitution, and state supreme court. Each state can raise its income tax and sets its own rules for registering corporations. There are substantial national components to the American state formation that have grown over time and been subject to heated debate, including a civil war. But the net result is tremendous potential policy space for individual states. Rather than leverage this federal space, American liberals unswervingly focus on the presidency and the federal government. It labours under the illusion of a unified, American constituency utterly ignoring the fact that the route to federal power lies through the states. The Senate has to confirm every appointment the president makes, even her cabinet. Even though it has grown over the years, federal power is meant to be extremely limited, the checks-and-balances system almost geared for gridlock precisely so that real power defaults back to the most salient political unit, the states. What liberals ought to realise is that in a deeply divided nation, there can be no centralised solutions that do not entail one half of the nation imposing its views on the other. By insisting that all roads lead to the White House, progressives participate in their own typecasting as elitist, top-down centralisers. The solution to national division and diversity is to let people arrive at their solutions at the state level. These are not just American concerns; they matter to the world because America still matters. While we exhale today, plan on some deep breaths in the months ahead.