IT IS A MEASURE of the US’ influence in the world that large numbers of people throughout the world consider the presidential election in that country as their own. A friend from the UK forwarded me a Twitter exchange involving a desi who shared Joe Biden’s anxieties over how terrible the US would be if Donald Trump secured a second term with an equally agonised comment of his own. The punch line was from a cynic who casually informed the disturbed soul to take it easy since, after all, he was living in Patna.
Speaking personally, I must admit that my working knowledge of American politics happened during the presidential election of 1968 involving a triangular contest between Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace. I recall visiting a second-hand pavement bookstall off Gol Park in south Kolkata each week to pick up well-thumbed copies of Time and Newsweek detailing the turbulent campaign that also included the assassination of Robert Kennedy and violence at the Democratic National Convention. What was equally fascinating was the political world of Wallace, then governor of Alabama, who ended up winning five southern states and heralding the shift of the erstwhile Confederate states away from the Democratic Party.
The preoccupation with this election prompted me to devour Theodore White’s compelling accounts of the three presidential elections from 1960 to 1968. I must admit being bowled over by Barry Goldwater’s slogan: ‘In your heart you know he is right.’ In 2007, when I was camping in Gujarat with Arun Jaitley for Narendra Modi’s re-election as chief minister, I was asked whether I could think of a suitable line for an advertisement in English. I told Jaitley that I could think of nothing more appropriate than Senator Goldwater’s 1964 slogan. Jaitley loved it and next morning’s The Times of India edition carried a Modi advertisement with that slogan and, alas, without attribution.
Unfortunately, there has been an unhealthy fascination of many middle-class Indians with the Democratic Party in the US, just as there has been with the Labour Party in Britain. In 1972, during my first undergraduate year in St Stephen’s College, a visiting American academic came to talk on the presidential election that involved the incumbent Richard Nixon and his Democratic challenger Senator George McGovern. Before explaining the policy perspectives of the candidates, the speaker asked the preference of the audience. Of the 40 or so students present, some 38 raised their hands for McGovern. I was among the two dissenters—an act of bravery that prompted the speaker to inform me that at least I would be on the winning side.
This fascination with the American Right and, more particularly, the conservative movement in America has persisted. I am not sure I consider Donald Trump to be a conservative. I think his quirky individualism defies definition. However, if I had a vote in America, there is no doubt that I would count myself as a Trump voter. This has very little to do with Trump’s emotional proximity to India or his supposed special relationship with Modi.
The mistake we foreigners sometimes make in studying the politics of another country is to be disengaged from its domestic politics. We often forget that voter preference isn’t normally shaped by foreign policy but stems from domestic concerns. Now Joe Biden may be a decent, upright individual with an impressive record of working the corridors of power in Washington DC. Unfortunately, in his battle to upstage Trump, Biden has become a prisoner of a woke culture that, to say the least, is insidious. I never imagined that the US would actually witness the electoral emergence of an American Left that packages itself in a cultural garb. I guess that demographic shifts have made this shift from the Judaeo-Christian civilisation that Samuel Huntington defined as the soul of America, inevitable. Whatever the reason, the emotional schism in America has destroyed all semblance of the political coherence that determined the outcome of the Cold War.
As I observed the election results—flipping between CNN on the TV and Fox News on my laptop for balance—I couldn’t help being overwhelmed by the feeling that we are watching the curtain come down on the American century that began after 1918. That’s because the battle has boiled down to a contest between two sections of the population that have very little in common with each other. They can’t even agree on the ground rules of voting.