Op-Ed | The American Election: Past, Present & Future | Shyama Prasad Mandal

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The voting has already started in many states, and millions of people have already voted by mail or by in-person early. And, the state administration and voting rights advocates continue to fight over voting access, acceptance, and counting. With a large amount of mail-in voting, it is very likely that the outcome of the election may not be known on election night and may result in legal fights as Trump has not committed to accepting the validity of the election.

 

We The People

The focus of a democratic election should be governed — the people. But, is that really the case in America? While America consciously takes pride in its representative form of government, it hides a history of extraordinary effort to keep the people out of the process. From the nation’s conception, the leaders of the American Revolution in the 1770s worried about the people’s ire against the pro-British elite. They worked systematically to prevent similar angst towards the nationalist elite. So, when the Constitution was written, it was left to the states to determine who is qualified to participate in the democratic process. The states pursued very restrictive policies allowing only people with “a stake in society,” or, white Christian men with freehold properties, the right to vote. It is no surprise that only 6% of the population could vote when George Washington was elected president in 1789, and less than 1.8% of the population actually voted.

Despite the belief in the virtues of a representative form of government, it took a deadly civil war resulting in the death of 2% of the population for “We the People” to be more inclusionary. The 14th amendment, passed in 1868, granted citizenship to slaves, and the 15th amendment, passed in 1870, ensured that people could not be denied the right to vote based on their race. But, the states used proven barriers of property, poll taxes, and literacy tests to continue to disenfranchise African Americans for nearly a century afterwards. In 1876, the Supreme Court even ruled that Native Americans, the indigenous peoples of the land, did not qualify as citizens under the 14th Amendment and, consequently, could not vote. In the early 20th century, only a few states afforded women the right to vote. After decades of relentless activism, women finally won the right to vote nationwide with the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920.

Nearly a century after slaves were granted citizenship, the 1965 Voting Rights Acts were passed. These acts barred the policies and practices that states utilized to limit voter participation. The Voting Rights Acts also required states and local jurisdictions that demonstrated a historical pattern of race-based voting suppression to submit changes in their election laws to the U.S. Department of Justice for review and “preclearance.” Sadly, in 2013, the “preclearance” provision was struck down by the Supreme Court. This further enabled the states’ creative and blatant attempts to make voting difficult for certain groups of people.

An unforeseen consequence of striking down the “preclearance” provision is a hindrance of voting access in today’s times of a global pandemic. Americans are dying at much higher rates than that of other countries. Instead of promoting alternative and safe voting practices, President Trump and his party across America have used every maneuver to restrict mail ballots and early voting, forcing people to choose between their health and the vote, further excluding people from the democratic process.

 

Candidate Selection: The Primary Process

The process of selecting candidates by the major parties, known as the Primary, has its own long history of exclusionary mechanisms. For example, southern states hosted a Democratic Party primary called the “White Primary,” well into the 1930s. This primary explicitly excluded blacks and other minorities. In 1935, the Supreme Court upheld the white primary on the grounds that a political party was a private entity. Ironically, black American soldiers were fighting overseas for democracy in World War II. All the while, they were treated as second-class citizens by their own country, even segregated in the armed forces. This sentiment is reflected in “Draftee’s Prayer”:

Dear Lord, Today I go to war:

To fight, to the, Tell me what for?

Dear Lord, I’ll fight,

I do not fear,

Germans or Japs;

My fears are Here.

America”.

In 1944, the Supreme court ultimately ruled the “White Primary” as unconstitutional. Distrust and skepticism of the primary process manifest even today due to complex rules and mechanisms that vary from state to state. In 2016, when Hilary Clinton won 55% of the primary vote compared to Bernie Sanders’ 43%, Bernie Sanders and his supporters called the process “rigged,” reflecting general distrust.

The 2020 Democratic primaries saw a crowded field of 29 major candidates vie for the nomination, with the contest narrowing down to a race between Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden quickly consolidated the support by presenting himself as a centrist–an elder statesman ready to bring people together and lead in times of a global health crisis that demands strong executive experience. On August 11, 2020, Biden announced that his running mate would be Senator Kamala Harris, making her the first colored-woman as a vice-presidential nominee on a major party ticket. Without any surprise, the Republican Party renominated the incumbent President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

The formal nomination of the candidates occurs in national conventions, which provide a venue to celebrate and promote the party’s candidates, in addition to picking one. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic caused both parties to host virtual conventions, which innovatively gathered people from across the nation for convention participation. On the other end of the spectrum, there have been highly controversial conventions. In 1968, Democratic Party leaders ignored primary results supporting anti-war candidates, like Eugene McCarthy, and instead nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a Vietnam War supporter who hadn’t even run in the primaries. These convoluted methods to nominate Presidential candidates is aloof from the democratic process and continues to propagate an environment of voter wariness.

 

Campaign, Debates, and Surprises

Joe Biden considers this campaign as “the battle for the soul of the nation.” He coined “Build Back Better” as a central theme, implying that President Trump has destroyed America’s standing in the world and at home, dealing with the pandemic. He focuses his campaign on dealing with challenges from COVID-19, restoring and expanding healthcare rights, healing racial wounds, repairing relationships with America’s allies, and other staple issues such as climate change, education, and jobs.

President Trump has made his campaign slogans, “Make America Great Again,” “America First,” and “Law and Order.” In his usual hyperbolic style, these sweeping general statements also double as his platform. He promises to bring back the pre-pandemic economy. He scares Americans about how dangerous, and lawless Joe Biden’s America will be. He unapologetically rallies white supremacist and conspiracy groups with a blow-horn to energize his base. He also spreads rumours about Biden’s health and mocks Biden as weak for Biden’s usage of masks and other health safety precautions.

The famous October surprises did not disappoint Trump’s COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and springing back to the campaign; supreme court judge confirmation hearings, and “smoking” e-mails of Biden’s son. All these eclipsed The New York Times coverage of decades of little or no payments of taxes and colossal debt of Trump’s business enterprises.

It is customary for the candidates to participate in debates and provide an opportunity to present their platform, answer questions for their past actions, and future plans. The first presidential debate of this year did not meet any of those goals; the debate degenerated into nasty verbal fights with interruptions and insults. Even the moderator of the debate acknowledged that he was not prepared for Trump’s behavior. The sole Vice Presidential debate, despite being civil, was no less disappointing as the candidates avoided answering any questions and parroted their talking points repeatedly.

The voting has already started in many states, and millions of people have already voted by mail or by in-person early. And, the state administration and voting rights advocates continue to fight over voting access, acceptance, and counting. With a large amount of mail-in voting, it is very likely that the outcome of the election may not be known on election night and may result in legal fights as Trump has not committed to accepting the validity of the election.

 

American Democracy – Asian Connection

Kamala Harris, the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, is the daughter of immigrants, born to an Indian mother and Jamaican father. This is significant, considering that different Asian groups historically have been excluded from voting. In 1922, the Supreme Court ruled that people of Japanese heritage are ineligible to become naturalized citizens. A year later, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind that Asian Indians were not eligible to become U.S. citizens, even though Indians were considered Caucasian by definition, albeit not being “white”. Only sustained activism resulted in the Luce-Celler Act of 1946 that would allow South Asian Americans to be naturalized as U.S. citizens. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted by Congress, called by some politicians “an act of humanity.” In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act ended Asian citizenship exclusion. It seems that the “model minority” narrative of the present day has successfully hidden the shameful treatment of Asians in America. While many see the rise of Kamala Harris as a testament to increasing pluralism in America, a substantial minority of South Asians love Trump for his policies towards Muslims.

A lot rides on this election. Many fear that a Trump win may further steer the country to the point of no return, while others fear their “way of life” will be taken away if Biden wins. Both candidates are promising to bring back what never existed in the first place. But, nonetheless, America’s noisy struggle to form a more perfect Union, to establish justice, and to ensure domestic tranquillity continues.

 

 

Shyama Prasad Mandal is a naturalized U.S. citizen living in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area. He grew up in Purulia, rural West Bengal, and studied engineering in IIT Kharagpur. He maintains an active interest in world politics and history.

 

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