US shows democracy's limits

Updated: 09 November, 2020 07:42 IST | Ajaz Ashraf | Mumbai

Despite his vile language, racism and authoritarianism, Donald Trump polling nearly 8 million more votes and other indicators show that democratic debates do not necessarily change worldviews.

US President Donald Trump watches citizens celebrate from his motorcade in Washington as he returns to the White House after playing golf. Pic/AP
US President Donald Trump watches citizens celebrate from his motorcade in Washington as he returns to the White House after playing golf. Pic/AP

Ajaz AshrafDemographic changes in the United States have been a compelling factor behind Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden becoming the 46th President of his country. These changes enabled Biden to neutralise to a great degree Republican Donald Trump's campaign largely built around White nationalism or racism, which fetched Trump nearly eight million votes more than he polled in 2016. Trump took one State after another until he was thwarted in the battleground or swing States.

All battleground States have seen a significant dip in their share of non-Hispanic White eligible voters since 2000, according to Pew Research Centre data published in September. For instance, Whites comprised 58 per cent of Nevada's electorate in 2018, down from 76 per cent in 2000 – a fall of 18 percentage points. During the same period, the share of White eligible voters in Arizona dipped by 12 percentage points, and by 10 in Georgia and seven in Pennsylvania. These were precisely the four States where Trump floundered.

Before the counting of votes began, Florida and Texas were also tipped to flip in Biden's favour. These two States, too, have witnessed dramatic demographic changes: In Florida, the share of White eligible voters has dipped by 13 percentage points since 2000; in Texas, by 12 during the same period.

Yet Trump won both these States. People eligible to vote can cast their ballot only when they register. Whites are historically more likely to register to vote than other races; their turnout on the polling day has also been consistently higher in comparison to other racial groups. It does seem a rise in political consciousness among racial minorities will give an even sharper edge to demographic changes in the years to come, more so as the share of non-Hispanic Whites in America's population is expected to dip from today's 60.1 per cent to below 50 per cent by 2045.

The role of demographics in turning some States into battleground ones suggests that an area votes differently, in comparison to its past voting pattern, not merely because its inhabitants have changed their views. Rather, it is more likely because of the changes in the racial composition of the area's population. Take Arizona, where, as a percentage of its population, the Latinos increased from 16 per cent in 1980 to nearly 32 per cent in 2008. They were politically galvanised because of the State enacting a contentious immigration measure in 2010. Arizona is also witnessing rapid urbanisation and a growing influx of liberals from California, where real estate prices are high. These changes have influenced voting behaviour in Arizona, which last elected a Democratic President in 1996.

Analysts worldwide have been worrying over the support for Trump widening over the last four years, regardless of his boorish behaviour, his racism, and the authoritarian streak in him. Trump's primarily White supporters identify with him because of their insecurities – they have seen their share in the US population decline from 90 per cent in 1950 to 60 per cent now. Trump has chosen to aggravate these insecurities to his electoral advantage, through policies and vile language. He has turned racism into a justifiable form of social and political behaviour, much to the horror of White liberals, who steadfastly and vociferously opposed him.

Their failure to wean away Republican voters from Trump underscores democracy's limitation in altering the worldview of people. Its vulnerabilities have been exposed by a leader who unabashedly stoked the primordial fears of people. The Republican Party, traditionally, is dominant among those living in rural communities, men without a college degree and citizens who frequently attend religious ceremonies. The Democratic Party is stronger in cities and has a substantial base among graduates, women and racial minorities. Trump's politics of tribalism seems to have deepened party loyalties in the traditional bases of the two parties.

Perhaps the only exceptions are the States which have undergone demographic changes. The rise of committed voters implies democratic debates do not make as much difference as we think, particularly when atavistic passions run high. This is validated by the exit poll conducted by the Edison Research for the National Election Pool – 57 per cent of Whites voted for Trump, as against 12 per cent of Blacks and 32 per cent of Hispanics, although he registered a small uptick in the latter two categories of voters since 2016. Some did think Trump was better suited than Biden to bolster the economy. But as far as the Hispanics go, particularly those of Cuban descent, Trump's portrayal of Biden as an apologist for Socialism, laughable though it was, had a special appeal for them.

By contrast, 42 per cent of Whites, 87 per cent of Blacks and 66 per cent of Hispanics voted for Biden. White graduates were evenly split between the two parties, suggesting Trump's racism had an echo for the educated as well. Nearly 71 per cent of voters decided who they would vote for before September and only two per cent made up their mind in the week before the polling day. These figures testify to the populist leader's capacity to pull supporters and repel opponents with the same intensity – and turn democracy into a dialogue of the deaf. This is as true of India.

The writer is a senior journalist

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First Published: 09 November, 2020 06:15 IST

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