In white nation talk, the voice of the Squad

How the Democratic Party positions itself in the poll run-up cuts to the very heart of its identity and America’s future

For the first time in over 100 years, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution on July 16 condemning the President of the United States, Donald Trump. Just days earlier he had tweeted that if four Democratic Congresswomen did not like the state of affairs in the U.S., they could “go back” to the countries they came from, countries whose governments were “a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world.” He went on to tweet, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from where they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.”

Vote and politics

All four Congresswomen [they have given themselves the nickname, the “Squad”] are persons of colour; three of them (Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan; Ayanna Pressley, D-Massachusetts; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D- New York) were born in the U.S., and the fourth (Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota) was a refugee from Somalia and a naturalised U.S. citizen. The resolution “strongly condemns President Donald Trump’s racist comments that have legitimized and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color by saying that our fellow Americans who are immigrants … should “go back” to other countries, by referring to immigrants and asylum seekers as “invaders,” and by saying that Members of Congress who are immigrants … do not belong in Congress or in the United States of America.”

The vote condemning the President (240 Democrats for, 187 Republicans against) was overwhelmingly along party lines. The Democrats were a united bloc and only four Republicans (one black Congressman from Texas, two others possibly either retiring or not seeking re-election, and the fourth a naturalised citizen of Polish origin) and the sole independent in the House (a Michigan Congressman forced out of the Grand Old Party, or GOP, for his opposition to Mr. Trump) joined them.

Leader, party and vision

In publicly telling these Congresswomen to “go back”, Mr. Trump was explicitly saying the U.S. was a white nation in which coloured people and racial minorities irrespective of their citizenship status, place of birth, or length of residence, did not belong. And in refusing to join the Democrats in supporting the resolution, the GOP was clearly on board with his vision of a white nation. In the 1990s, faced with the demographic reality that the U.S. would in course of time become a white-minority nation, sections of the GOP had sought to broaden its appeal to Hispanics, Asian-Americans, middle-class Blacks, and other minorities. With the rise of a nativist and white supremacist fringe (epitomised by the Tea Party) the GOP has decided it can dispense with minorities.

Between gerrymandering constituencies, preventing minorities from voting through myriad restrictions, and legalising all this through increasing control over both the judiciary and various state legislatures, the GOP has anchored itself firmly in a white nation. Mr. Trump is both a symptom of this process and its great accelerator. Far from being an aberration or outlier in the U.S. political landscape, he epitomises a considerable section of it only too well.

Mr. Trump was reportedly delighted at the display of Democratic unity on the resolution condemning him for his comments on the Congresswomen. It played fully into his hands for next year’s Presidential elections wherein he would position himself as the candidate of a white nation under threat from a rising tide of minorities, immigrants, and various other un-American ‘outsiders’ living off government handouts and crime. The sight of House majority leader, Nancy Pelosi, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the four coloured Congresswomen was precisely the sort of photo-opportunity that was dynamite as far as Mr. Trump was concerned. (The weeks prior to this show of unity had been marked by bitter differences between the centrist Pelosi and the more progressive Congresswomen on issues such as socialised health care, immigration reform, border control, and Israel-Palestine, to mention the most prominent).

Poll-centric theme

It is obvious that Mr. Trump intends to make the upcoming Presidential elections a contest about race, and paint the Democratic party as beholden to unpatriotic, radical socialist, non-white minorities.

How the Democratic party positions itself vis-à-vis Mr. Trump’s idea of a white nation cuts to the very heart of its own identity and the nation’s future. There is the temptation to seek an increasingly evanescent middle ground through the candidacy of someone such as Joe Biden. With a track record that includes opposition to busing early in his career; shepherding draconian anti-minority laws through Congress (by securing the bipartisan support of southern racists, no less) on the pretext of getting “tough on crime”; serving as Vice President to Barack Obama as the latter consolidated an unprecedented carceral state (with 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. is home to around 25% of the world’s prison population); and as a white male, Mr. Biden might cut into Mr. Trump’s core constituency of angry whites threatened by a loss of privilege. Yet, for those same reasons he is unlikely to make any headway with the young, with minorities, and those who have stayed away from the polls in the post-Obama period. There is the added danger that the “Trump Democrats” in the rust-belt may prefer the unvarnished bigotry of their man to the triangulated message of a Biden.

With their more progressive and articulate economic agenda, the likes of Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris are likely to offer a much better prospect for the Democrats. If a hidebound party leadership does not stymie their chances (as it did with Mr. Sanders for the nomination the last time around), a ticket comprising two such leaders might offer the best bet. Yet, the obstacles are likely formidable. Precisely because of their accomplishments, intellect and articulateness, Ms. Warren and Ms. Harris are likely to evoke the sort of misogyny that clearly contributed to Hillary Clinton’s defeat, while Mr. Sanders’ avowal of social democracy often bafflingly alienates many underclass people who need it most. That his socialism is seen as a problem while Mr. Trump’s practically treasonous and utterly pusillanimous relations with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin does not deflect his followers simply beggars belief.

A thread of hatred

More importantly, as with a host of other countries (India, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, Brazil — to mention only a few) right-wing strongmen and their supporters riding on a cocktail of racist, casteist, majoritarian and misogynistic ideologies seem to be winning everywhere. A visceral politics of hatred for racial minorities and other putative outsiders, energised by social media resonance machines we still poorly understand, has returned incumbent regimes that would have been swept out of power in times past. It may not matter what the Democrats do and Mr. Trump may yet be re-elected. But in confronting his racism and misogyny, in making a forceful case for progressive taxation, for reforming a dysfunctional health-care system, in bringing the U.S. back into conformity with international law on asylum seekers, and in derailing the endless war machine that it has become, whoever wins the Democratic nomination would be well advised to listen to the four minority Congresswomen: they represent the future, however cloudy that may seem at this moment in time. And it would be the right thing to do.

Sankaran Krishna teaches politics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, U.S.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 11:41:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/in-white-nation-talk-the-voice-of-the-squad/article28712852.ece

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