Thanks to American voters who showed up in sufficient numbers, the country may have dodged a fatal bullet
It’s horribly inefficient, riddled with flaws, and excruciatingly slow to action, but participatory democracy is still the best weapon in humanity’s political arsenal. As the irredeemably racist warmonger Winston Churchill once summarized, it is “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried.”
All the bugs and features of the universal franchise have been on display this week, as the world became riveted by Joe Biden’s battle for the US leadership. Only now, after his challenge has inched all the way to an insurmountable advantage, has it become entirely clear how close we were to catastrophe.
Trump almost won, with an increased base, and the license to go even further rogue. All the other majoritarian bigots being suffered in other countries would have been equally emboldened.
America usually takes a lot of flak, and deserves every bit. But there are also occasions when the country inspires awe, and this is one of them. In the throes of a raging pandemic, bucking majoritarian trends that have swept decisively from its shores right to ours, and fighting tooth-and-nail against its own leadership’s intimidation and threats, an impressively decisive plurality showed up to elect an obviously elderly man (Biden will be the oldest president) and the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants.
It couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
The uniquely inclusive nature of American democracy becomes especially apparent further down the ticket: Rashida Tlaib (she is Palestinian-American) and Ilhan Omar (who was born in Mogadishu, and got asylum in the US only in 1995) both handily retained their seats, despite being singled out for virulent attacks by the entire right-wing, including Trump himself. In July last year, he notoriously tweeted: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came?”
Along with political superstar-in-the-making Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (her family roots are in Puerto Rico) and Ayana Pressley (the first African-American woman to represent Massachusetts) this rather remarkable “Squad” will now be joined in Congress by Cori Bush, the veteran Black Lives Matter activist who will be the first African-American representative from Missouri.
All four of the “samosa caucus” of Indian American legislators will also be back (they’re Democrats) -- Dr Ami Bera, Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, and Raja Krishnamoorthi -- and will most likely be joined by another: Hiral Tipireni (who would be only the second-ever Indian woman elected after Jayapal).
Most fascinating of all South Asian American candidates is Zohran Kwame Mamdani, the colourful 29-year-old former rapper (look up Mr Cardamom) whose parents are film director Mira Nair and Ugandan-Indian academic Mahmood Mamdani. He won an insurgent campaign for the New State Assembly on the Democratic Socialist ticket by castigating Democrats as much as Republicans, and a platform with a positively biblical bent, to “tax the rich, heal the sick, house the poor & build a socialist New York.”
On November 1, Mamdani tweeted: “3 yrs ago, I applied for my citizenship. 3 days ago, I lined up to vote in my first election. & in 3 months, I’ll be Astoria’s next Assemblymember. Much love to every person that made this happen. Alone, I’m just an individual. With you, I’m part of a movement.”
That backstory would be remarkable anywhere, but it also begs the question about what’s preventing the emergence of similarly fresh, attractive, idealistic, and bold candidates in all the other polities in other countries, and most especially in South Asia. As many studies -- and our own eyes -- easily reveal, the vast majority of young political candidates in this part of the world are the product of straightforward nepotism.
Ever since the liberation struggles that created our nations, it has become increasingly rare for popular movements rooted in dissent to throw up significant contenders for leadership. Most often they get squashed. Political innovators are treated as threats. Social and intellectual capital is distrusted. The status quo is enforced by accommodation between police states and mob rule.
All this is another reason to appreciate American voters at this crucial juncture. They had many of the same onerous conditions in place, and still showed up in sufficient numbers to say enough is enough.
Make no mistake, it is thanks to them that we dodged a potentially fatal bullet. Just a couple of days before the election, Noam Chomsky warned that Trump was already “the worst criminal in human history.” The eminent academic told Isaac Chotiner of the New Yorker magazine that the incumbent president’s anti-climate-change policies would surely “destroy organized human life on earth.”
Thank the American voters, because their democracy intervened instead. Joe Biden’s very first policy-related tweet after it became clear he’s going to win was: “Today, the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will rejoin it.”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.