Nirmala’s hope, Biden’s challengeDonald Trump’s major loss still came with him amassing over 73 million votes. The new president’s work is cut out for him.
I went to bed late on November 6, anxious, like the rest of the world, about the outcome of the US presidential election. I was hoping for the end of Donald Trump’s chaotic, egocentric and corrupt presidency. Around eight o’clock in the morning of November 7, a message alert on my phone woke me up; the contents will forever remain etched in my mind.
The message was from Nirmala, a close friend living in the US. It read: ‘I have now some hope that my precious boys have a future in this country’. Nirmala is a Nepali married to an African-American and has two young sons. The media had projected Joe Biden’s win just a few minutes ago and Nirmala was elated. Her anguish and hope, encapsulated in the message, mirrored the sentiments of millions of Americans, who have felt hopeless in the face of the deepening racial, cultural and political divide in the country.
Will Joe Biden be able to bridge that divide, create an environment where all citizens are treated as equal and bring hope back in America?
The racial divide
The American constitution, promulgated in 1786, at once promised a perfect Union where everyone was equal and, to protect the interest of the slave-owning whites in the Southern States, undercut that promise by staying silent on slavery and the constitutional right of the slaves. There was little or no attempt to rectify the contradiction until 1861.
In 1861, Abraham Lincoln attacked the slave-owning states who had ceded from the Union. The American Civil War lasted for five years and ended with over 600,000 dead. Slavery was abolished. This led to the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution resulting in the citizenship of the former slaves. Near the end of the 19th century, a few African-Americans occupied elected office, but the Southern States promptly enacted laws that effectively annulled the citizenship rights provided by the amendments. They scuttled the progress towards equality.
The laws required all likely voters to meet eligibility requirements, purposely designed to ensure non-compliance by African-Americans. The ‘grandfather’s clause’ was one of them. It said: ‘you could not vote unless your grandfather had voted—an impossibility for most people whose ancestors were slaves’.
It was not until the (unambiguous) Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the African-American’s right to vote became secure. But this too did not stop the Southern States trying legal subterfuge to suppress the African-Americans enfranchisement. Gerrymandering, identity card requirements, felons not eligible to vote are, to this day, widespread in the Republican Party controlled states.
Besides the legal impediments, the harassment of the African-Americans continues by way of unequal (more severe) application of the criminal laws to them than to the whites. For the same crime, the likelihood of a black man going to prison is five times more than the whites.
But the increasingly secure voting rights of the African American’s, their growing population and their power at the ballot box, has made them more assertive in claiming their rights than ever before. Movements like ‘Black Lives Matter’—demanding equal application of the law—are active across the country.
The cultural conundrum
The cultural differences between the growing non-white and the white population have added fuel to the racial fire. In a 2020 report, William H Frey of the respected Brookings Institute estimated the non-white population in the US to be about 40 percent of the total and projected that by 2045, the US will be a white minority country. This has deepened the anxiety of many whites. They fear that the non-whites will subsume their way of life and are deeply emotional about it.
Donald Trump sensed this fear, played on it and became President on anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim; evangelical, nativist, isolationist, minimum government, anti-climate change an overall extreme-right platform. The whole of the Republican Party sold out to his agenda and sheepishly enabled his stoking white anxiety once he was elected.
As a result, the divide between conservative America led by the Republican Party and the liberal or progressive America led by the Democratic Party has deepened further. The Republicans want to continue with the status quo and generally object to any reform. Their base is rural America and older Americans.
The Democrats believe in a global, liberal world, unencumbered equal rights and opportunities for all citizens and in government’s role in securing this agenda. Their base is large cities, relatively better-educated Americans, young Americans and coastal states in the East and the West.
Can Biden deliver?
Biden has promised to bridge the cultural divide, reign on the systematic racism and unite a polarised country. Although Trump lost the election, he secured over 73 million votes compared to Biden’s nearly 77 million. The 73 million affirms Trumpism is strong and is not going to go away easily or soon.
Historically, America’s advance towards an equal society (‘a more perfect Union’ as they call it) has been two steps forward and one step backwards. It took three amendments to grant the African-Americans citizenship status and nearly 100 years from the promulgation of the constitution to granting them voting rights. In 2008, the country elected a black president, Barack Obama, to the surprise of many. The whole world sang praises to American democracy. But soon after Obama’s election, one of the senior leaders of the Republican Party, Mitch McConnell, vowed to make his presidency a failure.
In 2016, Americans elected Donald Trump on an extreme right-wing Republican ticket; it pushed back on the gains of 2008.
If Biden is going to be successful, he will need Republican cooperation in the legislative chambers, unequivocal support from the whole of the Democratic Party’s ideological spectrum and two terms in office. Major legislative actions, enforcement and consistent messaging will be required.
The Republicans are unlikely to cooperate against the wishes of their conservative base; the far left in his own party is unlikely to be happy with any halfway compromised legislation. They will demand sweeping, quick actions. Such actions are likely to provoke the radical right stoked by Trump and his Republican enablers. This could lead to serious violent conflict.
In addition, the Supreme Court with a majority of conservative judges is not likely to support progressive legislation if they are brought to the court. The re-election of Biden may be a challenge given his age and the ethnicity of his vice president, who is a natural candidate to succeed him.
The euphoria from Biden’s election will die soon. Biden will bring decorum to the White House and dignity in public discourse and may succeed in narrowing the divide in a small way, but to expect anything more will be unrealistic. It will take a Herculean push over a number of years before Nirmala’s hope will come to fruition.
What do you think?
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