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The Fears That Are Churning American Politics

12/06/2016 8:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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This has to be the most exciting time for watchers of American politics, and it also has to be the more fearful time. As I write this, in early June, the politics of the country is in tumult, with conventional wisdom upended, traditional power brokers and opinion makers challenged and at many times rendered insignificant.

Three key players have emerged in the race for the presidency, after five months of state-by-state primary election battles. On the one hand, a fiery businessman, liberally spewing hate towards people of non-White descent, women and the differently abled, and displaying ignorance of domestic and international policy issues, has won the nomination for candidacy for the American presidency from the Republican party, currently part of the extreme right. Playing contrast, a self-proclaimed socialist, in a land that worships the diametrically opposite philosophy of capitalism, has won the allegiance and indeed the hearts of the youth of the country. Although he has already lost the battle for the presidency, he will nonetheless have significant say in the framing of the agenda of the Democrats, currently the party of the centre-left. Meanwhile, the only establishment candidate in the race has just won the nomination for candidacy from the Democratic party, the first woman ever in America to scale such heights, but she is struggling, unable to fend off anti-establishment forces either on the right or the left.

If you are White, you are facing a future where people who look like you and share much of your culture will no longer be in the majority.

But this is not about politics; it is about the underlying society, of which politics is only a reflection.

Thirty-five years have passed since I first landed in the US, a fresh-faced graduate student. The America that I landed in bears very little resemblance to the America of today. The demographics have changed, and the economics have changed, and these two powerful changes hold the key to the tumultuous politics.

The America of the early 1980s, when I landed, was predominantly White. Census figures show that Whites were over 83% of the population then; today, they are closer to 70%. But here is the most telling statistic: there are now more non-White children under five years of age than White children. Extrapolated, it is expected that by 2044, non-White people will form more than half the population of the country.

This is a change of titanic proportions. If you are White, you are facing a future where people who look like you and share much of your culture will no longer be in the majority. This upside down demographic picture challenges the traditional notion of Americanness, a notion long owned by the American White Male, fed by tales, told and retold, of the likes of Washington and Jefferson and more lately of the likes of Roosevelt and Eisenhower and Kennedy and Reagan. If you are White, and if you only find security in people who look and act like you, this can be a fearful time. The rise of the hate-mongering presidential candidate, unfortunately, shows that there are many like you, afraid of losing their identity and their demographic power, and unable to appreciate, much less swim in the tide of diversity that will soon envelop the nation.

[Y]ou have an economy with alarming levels of income inequality, and a society with dangerous levels of anxiety.

But if you are non-White, this is an exciting time. After years of being invisible, you see more and more people around you who look like you. You see people like you occupying prominent roles in the legislature and the judiciary, becoming governors of states, CEOs of major corporations, and presidents of universities. The opportunities seem endless for you. Your challenge is now the opposite: to retain your humanity and not let the numbers get to your head, to remember that underneath, all humans are the same.

The American economy in the early 1980s was one where middle-class opportunity was still abundant. There was still a thriving manufacturing sector, and one could still make a decent living as a factor worker, with little or no college exposure. But a series of political and economic steps, engineered by the most powerful among the capitalist class, has now converted this nation to one where most routine manufacturing is outsourced to low-wage countries, and where there is precious little opportunity for a decent living for anyone who does not have a college degree. Add to this the massive financial meltdown of 2007 (also engineered, ultimately, by the most powerful among the capitalist class), wherein large numbers of the middle class lost their homes and unemployment figures soared, and you have an economy with alarming levels of income inequality, and a society with dangerous levels of anxiety.

[M]any of the economically fearful flock... to the hate-spewing Republican candidate, for he knows how to pander to all fears, stoking them repeatedly for his advantage.

If you are one of the select few who can profit from this lopsided economic picture (technologists, scientists, financiers, marketers, corporate lawyers), this is an exciting time for you. Opportunities to make fortunes abound. But for others, this is a fearful time. Especially if you are young, the dice appear stacked against you; you do not expect to live as well as your parents. So the young flock to the socialist candidate, his message of shared prosperity resonates. But alas, many of the economically fearful flock also to the hate-spewing Republican candidate, for he knows how to pander to all fears, stoking them repeatedly for his advantage.

These are interesting times in America.

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