American politics shares much with medieval Indian politics. In the Mughal Empire, successions from one emperor to the next took place through a years-long laborious process of conflict, warfare, negotiation and alliance building and, of course, patricide or regicide. Contestants found allies in the far corners of the empire and among the kings and commanders, priests and prophets and many others who endorsed them. So it was that Aurangzeb rose to power in a struggle that killed two of his brothers, exiled another to Burma, and imprisoned his father.
Lest anyone think that this is a peculiar feature of the Muslim dynasties, the Rayas of Vijayanagara also solved their succession in a similar manner. It was a process by which these empires found the most qualified person to succeed and to strengthen the empire. The winner managed to bring together finances, soldiers, guns, scholars, saints and sultans into their orbit. Succession struggles were a unique political process that chose the best person for the job. No wonder, then, that the institution lasted so long until the arrival of the British.
The American elections mimic the medieval succession conflicts. They last years, manage conflict, test ideas, and most important of all, the most shrewd, connected and popular candidate vanquishes his or her opponents to capture the party’s mantle. After six months of primaries, the candidate with the most delegates is anointed at the party’s convention in late July or August.
Donald Trump managed to rise to the top in a field of nearly 20 Republican contestants through ruthless political calculation. Among the Democrats, an inspired Barack Obama won over the well-connected Hillary Clinton in 2008 and she, in turn, outmanoeuvred Bernie Sanders in 2016. Over the next few months, you will likely hear names such as Biden, Buttigieg, Bloomberg, Klobuchar, Sanders and Steyer. These are names of the Democratic Party contestants vying for the mantle of the Democratic Party and the opportunity to face the Republican Donald Trump in November 2020. Virtually no one expects there to be a serious contest on the Republican side.
Window into Society
Nearly all general elections in the US are preceded by primaries held by the respective political parties. They are the semifinals or the quarterfinals, if you will, that help whittle down the number of contestants in the general elections. But they are more than a mere precursor to the finale. Unlike the Indian political parties, they test ideas and popularity within the party’s core constituencies. Across the land, in almost all elections — from local municipal councils to district and state level — candidates test their strength with their base.
Primaries are also a window into American society. They provide a closer look into each State and its changing demographics, its economic and cultural history, and finally its cultural proclivities. They give candidates an opportunity to raise finances and build their campaign teams over months or years. In presidential elections, candidates begin their preparations as early as two years in advance. For the devoted followers, the months and years can be a time to sharpen their local knowledge and predictions.
But not all Americans are interested in these long drawn fights. Most Americans, the so-called “uninformed” voters, are too busy with their lives to register such things. It is said that mostly the older and white voters—those with the time and access—vote in the primaries. The younger, working age, non-white are often less likely to participate. The biggest sign of this disjuncture shows in the disparity between the polls and the outcomes.
Indian observers can seek comfort in their considerably more centralised and more modern process. Witnessing the almost ritualistic process of the US primaries, one is reminded of the 18th century origins of electoral democracy. If the US is among the founding members of electoral democracy, then India is certainly an improved version. There are many peculiarities of the process that harken back to the 18th century when elections were first designed—without the access to motorised transport and mass media.
In the absence of an Election Commissioner, it is up to each county and State to decide how it will conduct the elections. Some districts use paper ballots while some use electronic ballots. Unlike in India, there are nearly no legal statutes that require States and districts to provide easy access to polling stations. Here there are no valiant stories of ballot boxes being carried over to Kargil or deep into the Adilabad forests. Much is left to the whimsical preferences of the ruling party in the State. So the Republicans in control of States like Georgia may choose to place polling booths far from their African-American residents in an attempt to inconvenience the Democratic voter.
As parties conduct their primaries, the political and economic dynamics and how they shape outcomes become evident. Early States such as Iowa and New Hampshire, which have already voted in their Democratic Party primaries, are mostly white and older. Starting with small manageable States allows new candidates who have little to no resources to try out their platforms. As the primaries move through the larger and more diverse States, the complexities of endorsements, party loyalties and insider access come into play.
Survival of the Fittest
Next week, the Democrats in Nevada vote for their candidates followed by South Carolina, at the end of this month. Latinos are a sizeable presence among the Democrats in Nevada and African-Americans in South Carolina. On March 3, called Super Tuesday, the primaries will move to multiple large States where only the well-funded and well-connected campaigns will survive.
For an outsider, it is a time to relish in the peculiarities of each State and its history. Nevada, a small desert State (population 3 million) next to California, is symptomatic of the Western United States. It is notorious for its gambling industry, mining history, its history of nuclear testing and displacement of native populations. It is also a State with a large minority, non-white population, and a vast majority of employment is in the retail sector. Most important of all, it is a State that was ravaged by the 2008 economic recession. If the conditions on the ground indicate anything, it will choose the candidate who is most likely to talk about economic hardships and the growing divide between the rich and the poor: Bernie Sanders.
Nevada is a classic Bernie state. A large group of minimum wage employees, a large non-white (close to 40%) population, and a history of classic booms and busts of a mining economy. For them, Sanders’ support and constant push for raising the minimum wage (now at $7.25/hr) resonates, as do most of his other ideas. With the exception of a privileged coastal Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, much of the American West is subject to the same trends as Nevada. What happens in Nevada will tell us a lot about what is likely to unfold in much of the American West.
(The author is Associate Professor, Department of History, San Francisco State University, California)