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A most unusual American poll

A most unusual American poll
Highlights

With barely twenty-six days to go for the United States of America’s presidential polls, it is fair to attempt a close look. Unlike India’s elections...

With barely twenty-six days to go for the United States of America’s presidential polls, it is fair to attempt a close look. Unlike India’s elections in numerous parliamentary constituencies that are prone to last-minute uncertainties, this is a direct, nation-wide election between two teams representing two parties. One can see things coming.

Besides, the US has a well-developed political culture of making assessments of a fairly streamlined process, before, during and after the votes are cast. Yet, this is an unusual election full of uncertainties and none can confidently predict its outcome. Remember the close contest in which George W Bush defeated Al Gore by a narrow margin?

It is an election the world has been watching, not just with keen interest in the most powerful nation. There are fears of its impact on the global scene as, perhaps, no other election before. Exaggeration it may be, but it is there.

As violence in the name of religion engulfs large parts of Asia, as the traditionally Left Latin America gradually moves towards the Right and as Europe struggles to deal with the swarms of refugees, the world is wary of Republican Party nominee Donald Trump’s possible victory.

It is a push towards conservatism. The rampaging of the “neo-cons” under George W Bush Jr that confronted the world with unwinnable but nevertheless highly destructive wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and much else is still fresh in collective memory.

The global logic that drives this fear is that if Britain, one of the world’s oldest democracies that boasts of the Mother Parliament, can vote for Brexit and quit European Union, why can’t the Americans vote for Trump?

The campaign has been toxic with exchange of personal innuendoes and abuse. There are serious apprehensions generated by last 15 months’ campaign by Republican Party nominee, Donald Trump. His aggressive approach and his opposition to women, immigrants and Muslims, among many others, have alarmed significant sections of people and governments around the world and those who espouse inclusive, liberal values.

It is not that his Democratic Party rival Hillary Clinton is an ideal choice. Controversies surrounding her have helped Trump closely follow her in parts of America. And despite many things he has said – knowingly, well considered and not off-the-cuff – his support among large sections of Americans, mainly White and conservative who dominate the countryside – is intact, and is said to be growing.

Trump enjoys an unprecedented, even if unfair, advantage over Hillary is that she is the first-ever woman nominee. America has never had, never tried to have, a woman president. Her presence has made the campaign more abusive, even as long years in public life and experience of governance give her an advantage over Trump, an ‘outsider’ to the political establishment who has spent his years during business and making money.

If Hillary has come across as a high profile, if controversial public figure, Trump stands in contrast for his private activities and audacious observations during the campaign. But he is not in the least embarrassed about them and has used them only to paint his rival in dark hues. We hear of his not paying tax for 19 years even as he threatens to drag his rival’s private life into public.

One man doing his best to block Trump is Barack Obama. No serving American President has campaigned for his party’s nominee as Obama has done. He is desperately working to ensure the continuity of what he has cherished for a lifetime and has worked on for the last seven years-plus. A Trump victory would be a serious setback to the values that he has stood for.

It is a black-versus-white issue – literally. In Obama, the Americans elect their first ever African American, a black man. It was a catharsis. The challenge for them is whether they will now elect a first-ever woman president. That, if nothing else, makes this election crucial, and not just for the American people.

To put it simply, it is a contest between a seasoned politician and foreign policy practitioner and the other, a business tycoon and entertainment entrepreneur — the two differ widely in background and experience.

It is not that Hillary has no blemish and no critics. Also, it is not that Obama has not made mistakes during his two terms as the president. Indeed, his tenure has seen what is perceived as declining American power in the way the US engaged in a victory-less withdrawal from Afghanistan – and leaving the Taliban almost untouched and stronger than before – the compounding of the mess in Iraq, the rise of the ISIS and much more.

Here, we are only looking at America’s global performance under Obama. If wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were Bush’s cross that Obama had to carry, the unresolved conflict in Syria is Obama’s very own. So is the government-less Libya. Together, they have spawned ISIS, while Al Qaida continues and their affiliates hold the world hostage to terrorism.

There is resentment at Obama’s reaching out to Iran and Cuba from the conservative Americans. This, plus the perception of declining economic power have raised fears, some real, some definitely imaginary. Loss of IT jobs to Indians and products to China, South Korea and others, leading to closure American industrial units has triggered economic misery for the Americans and these are the fodder for Trump’s campaign.

In seeking the ‘change’ that Trump is promising, the Americans must contend with two factors apart from the economic, social and workplace disruptions caused by trade and technology. One is race; the other is gender.

Both seem to have played significant roles in solidifying political polarisation. Indeed, Trump offers ‘protection’ from the demographic and cultural changes that Obama’s election signified. And in doing so, he is stoking precisely those anxieties about the ‘change’.

The very idea of a woman poised to succeed a black president appears to have sent many cultural conservatives scurrying to Trump in the hope that he will turn back the wave of change. Looking back, part of the problem was that Trump gate-crashed over 15 months ago and played with the public hopes and fears for long while Hillary’s nomination took time. But that phase is over and the campaign by Obama, Hillary and Bill, her husband and former president, has effectively changed the way the wind blows.

Significantly, after the public debates were unleashed, more people said they would vote for Hillary than those who reiterated their support for Trump. Now, Trump has destroyed himself after the most disparaging observations anyone could make about how he ‘hits’ women. This should leave no doubt – even at the risk of being accused of wishful thinking – about his defeat.

Whatever the results, the election speaks of the way Americans view and deal with issues. From their “performances” in the various election processes earlier, they have labelled Clinton as representing “the mind” and Trump, the “heart.” On a different level the former has earned the prefix of “a bringer of change” while the latter, that of “chaos.”

Unlike us Indians who view things through many prisms and complexities, the Americans are used to seeing problems in dualistic aspects. For them, life can be good or bad, low or high, slow or fast. They seem to think the problem between the two individuals or forces can only be resolved if they are allowed to fight to the end – between Abel and Cain, David and Goliath, Federalists and Unionists, Blacks and Whites, rich and poor – and the US and the “Others”.

Perhaps, this ability to view things in duality will make it easier for them to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

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