2020 United States Presidential Election – An Indian American’s perspective
* ‘Wealthy Indians have resources to contribute. It makes sense for politicians to court them as they have always courted the wealthy’
* ‘Kamala Harris is concerned. She has chosen to categorize herself as Black and this is a conscious effort to ally herself with a voting bloc that is not Indian’
* ‘Trump identified issues that struck a chord with many Americans… If any other country played those themes, we’d call it nationalism. With Trump, things took a different turn’
* ‘The digital economy, e-commerce, and the explosive power of the Internet will propel the U.S. forward. This has nothing to do with Biden. Or Trump’
Our interviewee this week is Anil Madan, whose father C.B. Madan was a Minister in the Kenya government from the mid-50s to 1961, became Chief Justice of Kenya and had met Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam a number of times. After his school education in Tamil Nadu and Nairobi (where he was born), Anil graduated from Cornell University, and Harvard Law School, in 1971. He has practised law in Boston since 1973 as a trial lawyer, representing the Harvard-affiliated hospitals and physicians, surgeons, and staff in medical malpractice cases; major manufacturers and Fortune 500 companies in product liability cases and handled environmental and employment discrimination cases. He has also handled commercial litigation, contract matters and consulted in providing strategic and business advice.
He blogs on subjects of avid interest to him – politics, law, social issues, science, technology, the arts, etc. He gives us his balanced views on various aspects of the forthcoming US elections, comparing some of the positions taken by the presidential candidates Trump and Biden on hot issues such as the handling of the Covid pandemic, climate change, the new deal between Israel and some Arab states, the inclinations of the American Indian diaspora amongst others.
Mauritius Times: The 2020 United States presidential election has been qualified as “the most important election in US history’ by Donald Trump himself. “American voters,” he said “face a clear choice between two visions and two agendas.” But it appears that many Republicans — former senior officials who worked for previous Republican administrations, including several who worked for Trump himself, have openly warned that “a second Trump term represents an existential threat to American democracy”. What’s your take on that?
Anil Madan: For as long as I can remember, almost every candidate declares the election in which or she is running, the most important election for the nation, for a state, city, even a school committee. Every election is important because elections have consequences. Witness the fact that Trump has had the opportunity to nominate three justices of the U.S. Supreme Court and reshape that court so that it will have a decided right-wing lean for decades to come. More importantly, he has nominated hundreds of federal judges who, also for decades, will put a “conservative” cast on the interpretation of laws and regulations in ways that will reshape the way in which the federal government interfaces with citizens.
Donald Trump’s statement about voters facing a clear choice should be taken with a grain of salt. The fact of the matter is that he really has no vision and no agenda. Sadly, the same can be said of Biden. To the extent that Trump has an agenda, it is to hope that the coronavirus goes away and the economy, at least as measured by the stock market and unemployment, comes roaring back. Certainly, he intends to carry on his mission of deregulation. Biden, on the other hand, talks nominally about creating jobs but with a vague promise that his approach to climate change and energy policy will do that. He also speaks to creating a much less restrictive immigration system, embracing Iran’s Ayatollahs by resurrecting the Iran nuclear deal, and perhaps extending health care coverage to more Americans.
The notion that Trump’s re-election represents a threat to American democracy is hyperbole and frankly, nonsense. After all, Trump is participating in the democratic process of running for elective office. He has used the democratic process to nominate Supreme Court and other federal judges and used his authority over agencies to repeal regulations. If the Democrats retain control of the House of Representatives as it appears they will, Trump will have to negotiate with Nancy Pelosi or forgo legislative solutions and have limited ability to make changes by issuing Executive Orders. All of these will be subject to review by the courts. If the Democrats take the Senate, then even Trump’s executive appointments may face higher hurdles for confirmation.
* But what if Trump gets re-elected despite the polls that are indicating today a Biden win on Nov 3? USA Today’s headline ‘Polls show Trump is losing to Joe Biden. They said the same thing 4 years ago against Hillary Clinton’ suggests that the presidential election is much, much closer than American polling data have been indicating lately, isn’t it?
The national polls showing Biden with a healthy lead over Trump are probably an accurate reflection of voter sentiment. As in 2016, they do not necessarily tell the tale of the tape insofar as the electoral college is concerned.
Chase Harrison, senior preceptor in survey research in the Department of Government and associate director of the Program on Survey Research at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science, pointed out in a recent article in the Harvard Gazette that although there is not a lot of evidence that people lie to pollsters, the problem with polling is that those who respond don’t always do so in proportions that reflect the composition sample designed by the pollster. This requires adjustments for geographic region, sometimes urbanicity, gender, age, education, race. Once we accept that envisioning a sampling universe that accurately reflects those who will actually vote involves some guesswork, then we have guesswork upon guesswork when the polls results are tweaked for the factors mentioned.
Another problem is that pollsters often claim to sample “likely voters” and this can lead to wildly inaccurate results. Most people are likely to affirm that they are likely to vote because that is a desired norm. I see this as the obverse of the people who were Trump supporters but did not want to reveal their position to a pollster, indeed sometimes to their own families or neighbours.
The net result is that the election is still tight in the swing states. We know that the early vote turnout, so far exceeding 54 million has been massive. Democrats are reportedly outnumbering Republicans in voting by mail. But the Republicans expect to mount a major push on election day for in-person voting. The rate of ballot rejection is reportedly much higher for Democrat voters than for Republican voters.
That said, it appears that Trump has fewer paths to victory than Biden. Trump cannot afford to lose Florida. Biden seems to have a comfortable lead in Pennsylvania and Michigan. If he wins both of those states he will need to flip only one other state that Trump carried in 2016.
This is still too close to call.
* In his comments on the US elections Michael Hirsh writing in ‘Foreign Policy’ quotes Charles Kupchan, a Georgetown University political scientist and former diplomat saying that “One term is bad enough, but if Trump is re-elected, Americans and people around the world would no longer be able to say the American electorate made a mistake. Instead it would be an affirmation this is the direction Americans want to go.” How do you react to that?
The idea that the American electorate made a mistake is an elitist liberal reaction, a refusal to accept the results of a democratic election. The reaction of Trump detractors outside the U.S. is more understandable. When he declared that he was for “America first” he was saying what most politicians are afraid to say in public, that he was going to put America’s interests ahead of their interests. It is even undiplomatic and perhaps counterproductive to make such statements.
The truth of the matter is that 66 million people voted for Hillary Clinton and 63 million for Trump. Those 63 million are also Americans. Our system built around the electoral college keeps the big coastal states from dominating the rest of the country. If you take the votes in the eastern coastal states, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, the western coastal states California, Oregon, Washington, and Illinois in the Midwest, Clinton had a lead of some 8 million votes. That means she lost by 5 million votes in the rest, the 42 states plus Washington DC, Puerto Rico, etc.
Another way to look at this is that the electoral college has been quite even-handed in modern times. Starting with Truman, we have had six Democrat presidents (years served in parentheses): Truman (8), John F. Kennedy/Lyndon B. Johnson (8), Carter (4), Clinton (8), Obama (8). We have had seven Republican presidents: Ike (8), Nixon/Ford (8), Reagan (8), George H.W. Bush (4), George W. Bush (8), and Trump (4 so far). 36 years for Democrats and 40 for Republicans.
As for the direction in which America wants to go, certainly Trump identified issues that struck a chord with many Americans: illegal immigration and lack enforcement, massive job losses to China, unfair trade deals, and a general sense of overreach and overregulation by Big Government. For good measure, he added the jingoistic “Make America Great Again.”
If any other country played those themes, we’d call it nationalism. With Trump, things took a different turn because his statements about illegal immigrants from Mexico and his Muslim ban were seen as racist.
Now, Trump is able to claim that he had built the best economy ever and a soaring stock market as part of his doing. He’s wrong on both counts. He is entitled to his opinion that it was the best economy. It was not by many measures, but it was pretty darn good. His initial tax cut and deregulation had a significant impact in the early months of his term, but it is the Internet economy, e-commerce, and innovation in the tech sphere, none of which has anything to do with Trump, that have propelled the stock market.
That said, if Americans perceive through association that Trump deserves credit, they are entitled to that view in a democracy.
The overhang of the Covid-19 crisis may not allow Trump the luxury of finding out.
* There are however those who argue that although ‘Trump has shown little respect for US science’ resulting in the poor response of the US to the Covid-19 pandemic, his ‘open encouragement of racial violence and national division’, he had been right on the fundamentals as regards the US foreign policy decisions or to trade. What’s your view? Trump’s rejection of the advice he got from the scientists is difficult to fathom. His lack of knowledge of a subject has generally been no impediment to the expression of his “learned” opinion on it. But Trump could easily have chosen to follow the advice of the scientists and escaped the blame he has brought on himself. The outcome, in terms of total cases and deaths might not have been substantially different no matter what we did as experience in Europe and elsewhere shows this virus to be malignant and unpredictable. But certainly, Trump’s disdain for masks and social distancing led to unnecessary surges.
It is, in my opinion, unfair to accuse Trump of encouraging racial violence. He condemned the violent riots. True, he did not outright condemn white supremacists but he has done that on other occasions.
The liberal media has created the notion that Trump encourages racial violence. It is more accurate to say that Trump has been his own worst enemy on this subject. He simply seems to have no ability to articulate in a few short sentences what should be a simple proposition, that he rejects white supremacy, rejects racism, and that every single person in America is entitled to be treated with equal dignity and respect.
Trump has certainly been right about China’s exploitation of the U.S. when it comes to trade, technology transfer, intellectual property theft. To the extent that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reflects a Trumpian view, he is entirely correct that China is encroaching in unfair and dangerous ways on the world stage.
Trump was right about Iran and right to impose sanctions on Russia. But we must not forget that he has achieved very little in terms of bringing Russia, China, Iran, and even Turkey to account. He’s given us a lot of talk and not much to show for it. His dalliance with Kim Jong Un is a glaring example.
Trump does deserve great credit for forging accords between Israel and Arab states. This is a massive achievement. Given Israel’s technological prowess and the continuing need for security in the region, here is the promise that vast new markets will be opened up and the lives of Arabs will be the better for it.
* Given the central place the United States still holds in the global system, would a Biden win restore U.S. prestige by reversing ‘Trump’s failure on Covid-19, political polarization, the economy, global stability, and climate change’, as the Democrat candidate has promised to do?
If anything is clear, it is that Biden has no strategy for Covid-19 that represents a fix for what Trump and many countries have not been able to achieve. Indeed, we hear that China is conducting massive testing campaigns months after they supposedly had controlled the virus.
Here is Biden’s response at the last debate with Trump as to what he would do to control the virus:
“What I would do is make sure we have everyone encouraged to wear a mask all the time. I would make sure we move into the direction of rapid testing, investing in rapid testing. I would make sure that we set up national standards as to how to open up schools and open up businesses so they can be safe and give them the wherewithal, the financial resources to be able to do that.”
Respectfully, this is nonsense. Masks, testing and investing in rapid testing are not going to control the virus.
Political polarization has been an American phenomenon for the past forty years. It started with Ronald Reagan’s declaration that government is not the answer, government is the problem. This is antithetical to the basic American notion, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, that governments are instituted among men to secure the unalienable rights which include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Sadly, the pursuit of happiness in America is now dulled by having to look over your shoulder for extremists from both the left and the right.
The economy is generally in pretty good shape. Yes, we have had a major hit to many industries and severe economic pain for about 20-30 million Americans. But, on balance, the digital economy, e-commerce, and the explosive power of the Internet will propel this nation forward. This has nothing to do with Biden. Or Trump.
I don’t see global stability as a generally achievable goal. In the Middle East, Trump is bringing about a semblance of stability with new peace deals between Israel and Arab states. But the Palestinian issue remains a blistering sore as does Iran and there is no real peace in Iraq. Syria is a mess and Turkey is a local aggressor there as well as against Greece. In the South China Sea, China intrudes and flexes its muscle. North Korea is an ever-present threat.
On climate change, Biden may make a difference. Trump has shown himself to be entirely useless on that subject. Yet, we must take heed that there is no rapid shift away from fossil fuels possible without creating an economic downturn that will rival any depression. We need an intelligent response which means asking can we do anything to fix climate change, and if so, should we try?
This is not an idle question because first, we must know if we can address the cause of the problem, assuming that our assumptions about carbon are correct, and then, whether we can achieve a desired beneficial outcome at an acceptable cost. We must understand the cost of action and inaction, and also understand the downside to what we try. And, of course, there are unknown unknowns.
* A recent survey by the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Carnegie Endowment and University of Pennsylvania has revealed that nearly three-quarters of Indian Americans plan to vote for Joe Biden. The Democratic presidential candidate’s choice of Senator Kamala Harris, a woman of Indian and African descent, as his vice-presidential candidate is apparently mobilising the vote to some extent and creating “greater enthusiasm” for the Democratic ticket. But Kamala Harris and her stand towards India have evoked mixed reactions. What do you think?
It is a mistake to treat the Indian diaspora in the U.S. as a monolith. While it is reasonable to expect that the professionals who make up a sizable chunk of the medical community are opposed to Trump, those who are involved on Wall Street, in money management, financial services, and at the managerial and executive levels in American corporate life, are not so easy to classify.
More importantly, the Indian diaspora is a tiny piece of the American electorate unlikely to have a major impact on the election in terms of sheer voting numbers. However, its major impact comes from the enormous financial contributions that Indians can make to politicians and the increasing influence they have on media outlets.
I do not see the Indian community being a major force one way or the other as far as Kamala Harris is concerned. She has chosen to categorize herself as Black and this is a conscious effort to ally herself with a voting bloc that is not Indian.
* One would have thought that Donald Trump’s personal relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have helped garner support for the Republican candidate, but it appears that ‘the strong Indian American support for the Democrats is driven by bread and butter issues, healthcare and the economy’. What does this say about the top concerns of the Indian Americans?
Well, I think you have put your finger on it. Most voters are driven by bread and butter issues, healthcare and the economy. Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the U.S. included a major rally attended by thousands of Indians. But again, as I said earlier, the Indian diaspora represents a teeny tiny piece of the puzzle.
The top concern of Indian Americans is for their own welfare and as every American will, they have to decide which candidate best meets their needs. Modi is irrelevant in that equation.
* According to that same survey, even Biden voters have a positive view of the Indian PM Narendra Modi, placing him at 52 while Trump voters put him at a high 76 on the likeability scale of 0 to 100. But when it comes down to reasons why Indian Americans lean towards the Democratic Party, ‘a large number find the Republican Party “unwelcoming” because of its policies on immigration and treatment of minorities and the influence of Evangelicals on the Republican Party troubling’. India and “the Modi factor” do figure in the voters’ calculations, it would seem?
I think this split reflects the views of different segments of the Indian American population. On the one hand, the medical profession and academics who generally tend to be more liberal, are more likely to abhor Trump for his health and immigration policies. With business and financial types, they may hate Trump’s views but he is good for their pocket books. My guess, and this is an educated guess, is that Modi is not a factor in this.
* The Indian American population grew by nearly 150 per cent, making it the second-largest immigrant group in the US, and according to American and Indian press reports, there is a growing, ‘avid courtship’ of the Indian American vote by both parties. Is that due to their growing numbers and influence in the political process?
Yes, Indian immigration has exploded. More importantly, Indian Americans are a major economic force. As you know, the CEOs of major Fortune 500 companies are Indians. This is the most remarkable penetration of any ethnic group into the fabric of America’s corporate infrastructure. Wealthy Indians have resources to contribute. It makes sense for politicians to court them as they have always courted the wealthy.
* Do you have the feeling that there is growing interest and concern amongst the Indian Americans about how the Diaspora is faring worldwide and resulting in shared ideals and ambitions?
I think that among Indian Americans there is a natural curiosity about their fellow Indians in other parts of the world. I am less clear that there are shared ideals and ambitions other than that India should resist Chinese and Pakistani aggression. Perhaps the Indian Americans feel more strongly than their counterparts in the rest of the world that India is better served by allying with the U.S. than with Russia.
Then, of course, there is the concern that Trump is not as committed to America’s obligations to Europe and NATO as previous presidents were and whether that should counsel caution about America’s bona fides.
* Published in print edition on 27 October 2020