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Two democracies: The US and India

Compared to Modi's India, Trump's America is a democratic miracle
Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders

Mukul Kesavan   |   Published 29.02.20, 08:51 PM

The Democratic Party’s presidential primaries aren’t just continents removed from us, they could be happening on another planet. The front runner and one of his principal challengers are Jews and nobody cares. Literally nobody. The Democratic establishment and the mainstream liberal media have just had a collective meltdown about the prospect of Bernie Sanders winning the nomination. I counted half a dozen op-eds in the Washington Post in a single day that warned the world would end if Sanders went into the Democratic convention with a majority or even a large plurality of delegates because he was a socialist, spendthrift, immigrant-loving, Clinton-hating, business-baiting boor.

They warned that he would be destroyed like George McGovern was, fifty years ago. Trump would eat him up in a real election because his radical economic agenda and his ambitious healthcare plans wouldn’t resonate at a time when the economy was growing and unemployment was at a historic low. He was the wrong candidate because he was an old, dogmatic loner who wouldn’t pivot to the centre to build the broad coalition that Democrats needed to take the White House. But nowhere in this handwringing chorus was there a single argument, not even an implication, that his being Jewish was an electoral handicap or even a political issue. A right-wing Never Trumper, Jennifer Rubin, denounced him for being unreasonably hostile to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group. She didn’t reproach him for being a self-hating Jew; she criticized him for taking a position on Israel outside the mainstream of Democratic Party politics.

At the other end of the ideological spectrum in this cohort of Democratic hopefuls is Michael Bloomberg, who was once the Republican mayor of New York and now plans to spend his billions buying endorsements and airtime on a scale never seen before in a bid to upend the primaries despite his late start. Nowhere in the media was there any attempt to do a Soros on him, to hyphenate the fact that he was both Jewish and a billionaire, to insinuate that he was part of some global cabal conspiring to subvert American democracy. He was criticized for behaving like an oligarch, for instituting racist stop and frisk policies in New York, for his history of misogyny and sexual harassment but even in the super-heated context of a primary race, this criticism didn’t descend into dog-whistling anti-Semitism.

This is not a small thing. This slate of primary candidates has been criticized for being too white and so it is. What this criticism doesn’t acknowledge is the Democratic Party’s achievement in producing a contest where two Jewish candidates can pitch for the most powerful job in the world in this matter-of-fact way, in the reasonable expectation that the electorate will vote for or against their political agendas, not their primordial identities. It is sometimes argued from the Left that this isn’t significant because Jews have been assimilated into whiteness for the same reason that Irish and Italian immigrants were, to keep people of colour out of the charmed circle of real power.

This is a bad argument for several reasons. One, after the Obama presidency it should be impossible to make the case that there is an unbreakable glass ceiling in American politics for people of colour. Even if progressives have come to see Obama as a centrist in the Tony Blair mould, his two terms as president demonstrate that at least half of America’s population is willing to countenance a black man as president. Two, Obama’s presidency is in part responsible for creating this new normal where two Jews can run for the Democratic nomination. It wasn’t always like this. When Joseph Lieberman became Al Gore’s running mate, there was a lot of newspaper interest in his Jewishness. Most of it was just benign curiosity about an observant Jew running for vice-president for the first time but his religious identity mattered in a way that Sanders’s and Bloomberg’s doesn’t seem to. It wasn’t so long ago that there were informal quotas to keep the numbers of Jews down in Ivy League schools, when anti-Semitism was a casual part of ruling class conversation.

As an Indian watching the primaries from Narendra Modi’s India, it is hard not to envy a political system where members of a once discriminated against minority can run for high office not as a quixotic lost cause but as viable candidates. This is even more remarkable given that the US president is directly elected; a majority of voters have to directly endorse a candidate from a minority community before he or she gets to be president.

The most extraordinary thing about Sanders’s candidacy is that he is running to challenge Trump for the presidency, a man who has done more than any other American president to nurture white resentment and to inflect mainstream political discourse with racism. When the Republican Party (and half the American electorate) backs a president who is wholly committed to a dog-whistling white nationalism, it is a tribute to the political culture of the United States that the other party in this two-party system has as its current front runner, a man whose father was a Polish Jew.

What would the Indian equivalent of Sanders’s or Bloomberg’s candidacy be? Manmohan Singh as prime minister for two consecutive terms might be one answer, though it could be argued that he didn’t win the prime ministership but was given it by Sonia Gandhi. Also, as a Rajya Sabha MP, he never actually contested a direct election. There were Muslim chief ministers in Congress-ruled states like Maharashtra and Bihar in Indira Gandhi’s time, which would be inconceivable today.

Given the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu supremacism, it isn’t surprising that there aren’t any Muslims at all amongst the BJP’s Lok Sabha MPs. What is shocking is how docilely the Opposition conforms to the new majoritarian normal. From the commitment of the chief minister, Kamal Nath, to cow shelters, to the Opposition’s acquiescence in the caging of Kashmir, to Arvind Kejriwal’s willingness to give up Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and others for prosecution for sedition, the Opposition consistently defers to a feral nationalism that makes Trump seem tame. Compared to Modi’s India, Trump’s America is a democratic miracle.

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