Late Tuesday afternoon in India is when the United States begins voting to decide whether President Donald Trump gets a second term or, like in his episode ending line in serial Apprentice, people say “you are fired”. The stakes are high both for America and the world as the policy schism between Democrats and Republicans has never been wider in decades, on a slew of domestic and global issues.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in How Democracies Die devise four core behavioural warning signs in politicians that endanger democracy. These are when ruling politicians (1) reject, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game; (2) deny the legitimacy of opponents; (3) tolerate or encourage violence; or (4) indicate a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media. Alexander Hamilton, a founding father of the United States, wrote in the Federalist Papers: “History will teach us, of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the great number have begun their career by paying obsequious court to the people: commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants”.
President Trump has displayed all these symptoms and with the Supreme Court now in his pocket, with a 6-3 majority of conservative judges, he is likely to unravel the liberal-compassionate socio-economic order evolved since the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt in late 1930s.
American Presidents are elected indirectly by an Electoral College, created with graded advantage for smaller states, disproportionate to their population. The US having been formed as a union of independent states, the smaller units negotiated checks on the power of the larger states. India’s states, contrariwise, were carved out from a unitary India, while merging en masse quasi-independent states under rulers, after Independence. In fact, a major reorganisation of states occurred only after 1956 on a linguistic basis. This process continued till last year when Jammu and Kashmir was reorganised.
The US system worked fine till the white working and middle classes felt threatened by demographic changes, and perceived loss of their way of life, and economic stagnation caused first by the oil crisis of the 1970s and then by globalisation the deindustrialisation of vast areas. These states, now referred to as the Rust Belt, are like Michigan, the old car manufacturing hub of the US, or the steel industry in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which produced one-third of the national steel output in the 1920s but collapsed in the mid-1980s. This caused a geographical bipartisan split in national politics, creating a wall of so-called “red” (Republican) and “blue” (Democratic) states, with more or less pre-determined voting preferences. For instance, California, with the largest haul of 55 electoral college votes, is home to technology innovation and a growing Latino population, swung to the Democrats in 1992. It has since voted for them in increasing numbers in each successive election. Similarly, the states of the Northeast, including global financial centre New York, favours the Democrats. Large parts of the Midwest and beyond, constituting America’s food bowl, vote Republican.
Thus, presidential elections really boil down to the “swing states”, which can tilt either way and impact the election result. In 2016, Mr Trump managed his 304 Electoral College votes, crossing the 270 required for a win, with 46.1 per cent of the popular vote. He did this by carrying Michigan (16), Wisconsin (10) and Pennsylvania (20) by narrow margins, which in the past were pro-Democrat. In addition, he swept Florida (29) and North Carolina (15). But the election this time, conducted under the shadow of Covid-19, has seen almost 100 million people, nearly 70 per cent of the 2016 vote, do early voting. In-person early voting is fine but mailed votes have led to disparate rulings about their receipt deadlines. Emboldened by his sway over the higher courts, Mr Trump is preparing to tie up postal ballots in legal challenges if he emerges ahead in votes cast in-person in crucial states.
Joe Biden needs to wrest one, or more, swing state early to stymie Mr Trump. Three states -- North Carolina, Florida and Ohio -- will be reporting early with their postal and in-person votes. A win in one of them can signal a change in the popular mood against the incumbent and the game is over. Three more states that Mr Trump carried in 2016 -- Iowa, Arizona and Georgia -- are in play this time as demographic changes are altering the electoral map in the so-called Sun Belt states in the South. That explains the Houston hoopla in September 2019 where the “Howdy Modi” rally saw President Trump’s tango with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Texas has almost 125,000 Indian voters. However, a recent YouGov.com poll indicated that over 70 per cent were pro-Biden. The moral is that while the diaspora may express nostalgic euphoria at essentially Indian political events on their soil, at election time they consider bread-and-butter issues like immigration policies and inclusive politics.
Mr Biden has led consistently in national and crucial state pre-election polls, despite Mr Trump’s aggressive attempt in two debates to kill the challenger’s momentum. The race has narrowed in the last few weeks. Mr Trump’s supporters may intimidate non-white voters on election day to supress voting. But due to the pandemic or intimidation fears, many Democratic voters may have already cast their votes, as shown by the huge early voting numbers. But if an exceptionally heavy turnout on November 3 swells the overall vote, the outcome is more difficult to guess, as independents’ voting intent is less decipherable.
Interestingly, Bihar’s second polling phase is the same day as the US election. Major department stores in metropolitan cities, including the iconic Bloomindale’s in New York, are shuttering stores fearing possible violence if Mr Trump trails or prematurely claims victory. This is more reminiscent of Bihar’s electoral past than expected in the world’s most powerful democracy. For India, the outcome will be a mixed blessing. Mr Trump, in a second term, may look to moderate his China-baiting, cut deals with Russia over West Asia, increase pressure on Iran and bring trade back to the India-US table. Mr Biden may resurrect old alliances, maintain a positive engagement with India, but also adopt a less confrontational China policy. India may also find his focus on democracy, human rights and the freedom of the media irksome, unless the government here curbs its religio-cultural evangelism. For the next 24 hours, the entire world will be literally holding its breath.