On December 7, a joint session of the US Congress certified Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the 46th President and Vice-President of the United States of America. In a normal world, the losing party would concede defeat and allow the new administration to take over. However, the outgoing President Donald Trump had begun to cast doubts on the electoral process years before the elections were even held.
Looking back at America’s 244-year-old experiment with democracy, the events of the past few months have been most uncharacteristic.
Like a toddler unable to fathom his defeat, Trump went on crying about the untrustworthy role of the electoral college. He tweeted that he would not attend Biden’s swearning-in ceremony on January 20. After that, he sent a chilling warning on Twitter that the white supremacist forces who have supported him would have a “GIANT VOICE long into the future”. Twitter went on to suspend Trump’s account permenantly “due to the risk of further incitement of violence”.
Trump will be characterised as a rare president who is leaving office in disgrace, with the “worst approval rating ever”. But we should remember that Trump is the story of American exceptionalism retold in superlatives as the “greatest, largest, strongest country in the entire world”. He cannot be considered an exception, especially when America’s military and the Central Intelligence Agency has conducted similar acts of terrorism, intimidation, and interference in democratic elections across the world.
America’s business in war and war machines is an intrisic accompaniment to America’s favorite hobby of exporting democracy to the world. America has taken it upon itself to free the world. It demonises anti-imperialist nations by claiming that they are “the last bastions of dictatorship” even as it fails to define what exactly constitutes democracy and dictatorship. Its media contributes to this discourse by talking about the tragedies for which these tyrants are responsible.
This train of thought animates almost every college-going student in the US who does not critically examine America’s imperial policy, also known as foreign policy.
Testing American democracy
To better understand the problem we face today, two prominent foreigners who commented on America are relevant: British-born American radical Thomas Paine and Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville.
In the 18th century, Thomas Paine was one of the most dangerous men for the monarchies of Europe and America. Paine attacked the control of the property-owning ruling class over the affairs of a nation that, as it paved the path to establishing a democratic republic, refused to give representation to workers, artisans and indentured servants. Paine saw America as a “birth day of a new world” that maintained republicanism with the bourgeois ideals of business enterprise.
Paine redesigned the programme of democracy by suggesting the distribution of resources and a tax on inheritance and luxury goods to fund social welfare policies. His laid out his ideas in 1791 in Rights of Man, a powerful socialist programme that advocated education for all, housing, employment, pensions, money for newlywed couples and newborns. At the same time, it championed the abolition of the feudal, aristocratic order of the 1790s.
Paine’s objectives of achieving responsible government, his defense of liberal bourgeoisie as an egalitarian order, ridiculing the hereditary principle, pragmatically examining the post-revolutionary economic order as unequal and a great influence on America and beyond. For instance, he would also inspire Mahatma Phule and his friend Govande in Maharashtra. It is not an accident that Paine’s views were reflected in Phule’s long-term objectives.
Frenchman Tocqueville surveyed America in the early nineteenth century and his seminal Democracy in America appeared
in 1835. During his ethnographic sojourn through the new nation, he realised that America’s democratic experience needed a refined definition of political science to make sense of it. After all, democracy was not just a set of actions but an ideology and a belief that present-day Americans preach as an inherent value of their existence. American democracy rested on politics, educational regime and solid institutions.
Thus, Tocqueville saw democracy as a habit, an attitude of modern society. What distinguished American democracy for Tocqueville was the “equality of conditions”, which is distinct from the American liberal mantra of “equality of opportunity”.
The ideal American democracy
The insurrection by Trump supporters at the direction of the sitting president on Capitol Hill while a session of the Congress was underway on January 6 to certify Joe Biden’s victory has produced three consequences. It has thrown an open challenge to America’s existence as a democracy. It has thrown up questions about the future of America as a nation and elicited the disgust of America’s liberal order. Many liberals are having a meltdown at seeing their hard-fought democracy go to the ground or white supremacists.
America celebrated its democracy so intensely, it was arrogant in pronouncing its sanctity. Its democracy is a free-market, statist order of society. It does not address the differences between democracy as representation and democracy as equality.
For many on the poor end of the class chain, democracy means a fragment. It is a way to attain an equality of sorts. For the owning class, Americans democracy is about representation in politics and brokering business deals. These contradictions are responsible for creating the threat of unbridgeable colour- and class-based divisions.
The colour aspect of this American canvas is unsettled. Every decade or so, it issues new glossaries to define people of minority and excluded groups. It attempts to cover up its guilt by corralling groups of diverse nations into one forced category. The current phrase is “BIPOC” – Black, Indigenous, Persons of Colour. For a corporate structure, this could perhaps work. But for a nation, it is more complicated.
Democracy is accountability and opposition. Democracy is a vehicle to decentralise power and redistribute the wealth of the nation. It is an intention to arrive at a heightened quality of life, protect heritage and offer security of personal and public resources.
There can be no free democracy in a capitalist society. It will always mask the fundamental truth of murder but call it freedom. American democracy is a war machine and is dangerous. It is unsuitable for the world.
One can confidently assert that the Biden’s administration will continue to maintain the American mantra of empire. The Democratic Party is a donor-run party where people with inadequate experience will rule over the mass of poor and working class people. Many woke culture liberals have expressed support for Biden. This is their only hope of retaining a modified structure of neoliberal order.
World’s largest and oldest democracies
For democracy to exist, it needs to address the contradictions of society. These are the historically built conflicts of power structures. Democracy in a nation state needs to recognise all differences. Democracy in social life will have to overcome tribalism to establish a common purpose. In the Indian democratic experience, we have reversed the order and promoted a feudalistic, rural democracy with an urban mandate.
To better understand Indian case, we need to examine BR Ambedkar, who was a devoted student of democracy. Ambedkar was greatly concerned about social health and economic equality. That is why he borrowed democratic lessons from the West, specifically America and the UK.
Ambedkar incorporated principles of democracy that would suit the federal Indian republic. He found that the western romanticism of democracy was ill-suited to understanding the Indian polity. The union of diverse states, what he called the United States of India, bound by history but also sharing a mass of land, needed democracy not just in action but also in principle and thought.
India had the experiences of the world, especially the American experiment of democracy, to test and build upon. However, for Ambedkar, the inspiration of democracy was borrowed from ancient India that was “studded with republics”. Even monarchies of the time were “either elected or limited...never absolute”. This could very well be found in the Buddhist Bhikshu Sanghas (parliaments) that emulated existing democratic practices of the “political assemblies” in India.
Nevertheless knowing the caste and communal character of Indian mind, Ambedkar was “anxious” that we would lose the great democracy for the second time after the Constitution was implemented. The modern democracy that India inherited was mature in content and minor in identity.
Civility is a marker of human society and for democracy to thrive, we need a socially centered polity. To put it simply, we need a socialist civic life that promotes communion and respects differences as a human condition and not a detriment to national existence.
India’s democracy is legal, where everyone is bound by it. In absence of this, we are staring at a thuggish, violent product sold as democracy. Today, we are being forced into the shadows of a a monolithic, crony capitalist Brahminism that divides India. Each act of dissent against the government is interpreted as anti-national. This is a virtue of a tyrannical society.
But in a free country, this is the road to doom, It will not only destroy the present but will create a fearful example for the future. We are not offering templates of freedom but teaching the younger generation how to be intolerant and disrespectful. Exhibiting disagreement through dialogue has been increasingly replaced with legal challenges and riots.
We are living in an extremely divided republic where contestations and power struggle will always stand as an impediment to collective progress. Locking away dissent and disagreement will continue as a regular cycle where each regime will target their enemies. Most heinous of all are killings, which have have come to be normalised in recent years.
The Modi government in India will go down as a shameful and plutocratic regime that fractured national feeling. For Narendra Modi to be truly supportive of the nation, he needs to weave the principles of the Constitution and democracy into his political outlook.
When a country is being stolen, citizens are taught to fight among themselves so that they forget about the problems at hand. The disease that plagues American and Indian democracy is race and caste respectively. The people who stormed the Capitol Hill were mostly disgruntled white nationalists who had been fed a diet of the alleged wrongs created by the “lower, uncivilised races” – mostly black, Hispanic, Jews, Muslims.
There were also members of the Virat Hindu Sangham who carried the Indian flag to the Capitol. For India, Muslims and Dalits are become the unwanted byproducts of freedom that are responsible for undermining the nation. To control that, a programme to curtail their freedom and civic participation in elections is deemed essential.
While in the US one easily calls out white supremacy, in India one avoids criticising the forces of Brahminical supremacy that have taken the country by ransom. The fear of this behemoth has existed for millennia. India faces a threat that needs a democratic response in which everyone’s participation will be vital.
Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, is a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.