Lessons from the US Primaries
When I was growing up in America as a college student in the 1970s, I was struck by the idealism that seemed to pervade public life. The Woodstock generation rejected the material vision that dominated America in the 1950s and 1960s. Young people challenged the culture of accumulation and the power politics of those years including the GE automated kitchen (advocated by their spokesman Ronald Reagan), the Vietnam War, racial discrimination and favored women's rights, abortion, gun control.
"Why would you challenge the American way of life that has done the greatest good for the greatest number and attracts so many people from so many other countries to make their way in this air-conditioned country," I asked Newsweek's David Swanson, who has been a very close friend for more than three decades since we attended graduate journalism school together. His cryptic answer was, "We can afford it."
Today's "Millennial Generation" has replaced the "Boomers," who came of age during the Kennedy era; it is in the forefront of a movement against divisive ideology, soulless suburbia and the long-held notion of "manifest destiny," a worldview that was missionary (think Peace Corps) and morphed into a cash-and-carry imperialism that is well-documented in the activities of various American firms in Iraq. Worse, Boomer politics polarized the country as never before. I have a friend, who is so distressed by the new imperialistic mindset that she scours the internet to make herself aware of which companies support the Republicans and refuses to do business with them.
Far more than Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, George W Bush symbolizes the ideological divide in America. Many of us in India admire Bush because he brought a dose of realism to Indo-US relations. Nevertheless, I was shocked in New York, Chicago and elsewhere at the visceral dislike he evokes. While he did put together an international "coalition of the willing" in pursuit of his Iraq policy, back at home he is reviled with such ferocity that it takes my breath away.
After eight years of Bush's aggressive neo-conservative agenda, it was clear that Hillary Clinton, the candidate favored by the Democratic Party as its presidential nominee, would waltz into the White House with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, in tow. A respected senator from New York, Clinton was considered a shoo-in…until Barack Obama came along.
The forthcoming election was set to be all about Bush and erasing his divisive legacy. That got sidetracked by the campaign battle between Obama and Clinton. I was struck during my recent sojourn in America at the ugliness of the contest. It is as if the Democrats are divided, with working class whites, Hispanics and older people supporting Clinton and affluent whites, Blacks and youth backing Obama. I heard many say that in this battle of primordial issues of race and gender, the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, would benefit.
However, once the Democrats have resolved the fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the next major issue that will come up is about McCain's age; he is 71 years old and as such would be the oldest person to assume the office of US President. "We are going to address all our primordial issues of age, race and sex in this election," a lawyer friend told me.
The US media have already written off Hillary Clinton; indeed there is a growing debate about the possibilities of a Democratic ticket in November that has Obama as the presidential candidate and Clinton as his running mate (for vice president). Gnawing questions remains, which Hillary has posed by winning all the major states like California, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio: can Obama win over the large numbers of urban working class and rural whites, who gave Clinton huge victories in these states? Or will they simply shift their support to John McCain?
These and other questions persist in keeping the Democratic primary race open. Clearly, Obama has won the popular vote and Clinton has no way of catching up. Even the so-called super delegates, senior leaders of the party, have lined up behind Obama, including Ted Kennedy and now Jimmy Carter. But Clinton has raised the issue of two crucial states, Florida and Michigan that were disqualified for holding their primary elections early in defiance of a party edict.
Clinton maintains that she would have handily won a majority in both states. This, she claims, would have given her a majority of the so-called pledged delegates that are divided proportionately among the candidates based on the popular vote. Combined with her sweeping victory in the large industrial states, her campaign managers assert, this would have pushed her ahead of Obama. Many people think Clinton is right and believe that Obama will lose to McCain in November. Nevertheless, Obama has evoked widespread enthusiasm across the country with his charisma and message of hope in a fragmented body politic.
On relations with India, it is clear that McCain would continue the favorable policies of Bush as would Clinton. Obama remains an unknown and he is seemingly unreachable because his campaign has been driven by popular small-time donations rather than fat-cat funding. I can only hope that South Block has found channels that lead to him through the IT community in Silicon Valley, which energized his campaign with technology.