Shifting Paradigms in Electoral Politics – The US Example

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We are a few of days away from the 2016 US Presidential elections. The past few months leading up to this moment have witnessed a Trump vs. Hillary debacle, filled with name-calling and fifth grader insults. Spectators are left with a mix of amusement and incredulity. In 2014, before Hillary Clinton even announced her candidacy, several platforms sprung up, supporting potentially the first woman President of the USA. Today, two years later, that angle of her candidature has slipped to the sidelines. Like there two sides to every coin – this could be a progressive step for society or an effect of myopic vision, given the current circumstances and her opponent.

A Leap Forward

The system of democracy and electoral politics in the USA is a unique case in point, accruing to aspirations of the American Dream, biblical references such as City on the Hill, and the cultural significance of a Melting Pot. 2016 is anticipated as a year of change, similar to the dynamics of 2008, when President Obama was elected the first African-American President in US history. This is important because for a large part of the USA’s past, racial segregation and discrimination levels were exceedingly high, manifesting in occurrences such as the dogma of apartheid and the Ku Klux Klan. The Presidential election of Barack Obama was seen as not just a symbol and inspiration for minority groups all over the world, but a realisation of the acceptance of so-called colored people in America – a long overdue breakthrough for the country’s society. Obama represented a milestone in American history, and a step forward in ‘the triumph of the American story’.

When Obama entered the American national scene, his promises appealed to citizens in their desire for a dramatic change in the wake of the fractious Bush years. His personal story and his optimism about the future sounded an uplifting note, which would provide leadership the society urgently needed. Obama’s tenure, like all other things, is debatable, but it cannot be ignored that his reign did a lot of good for the American economy and the country’s national status, particularly in the post-recession years. Over his two terms, Obama’s policies have brought unemployment, which peaked at 10 per cent in 2008 down to 5 per cent, reduced the budget deficit by approximately $1 trillion, and maintained the US economy’s growth stance in significantly outperforming other advanced economies.

Yet, on the social front, there aren’t very many tangible changes. For decades, minority groups have been the target of crippling rather than rippling policies. They bear the White man’s burden and take the blame and fall for their mistakes. Black people are discriminated against much more than the average white citizen, most commonly in terms of punishment, where the severity is considerably higher than if the same situation were applied to a white person. It was perceived that a coloured President and the overall development of the community would be directly and positively correlated. However, prejudices and stereotypes still prevail. Blacks still face the largest unemployment rates, people of color are still unjustly pegged to crimes they do not necessarily commit, and the Gini co-efficient (a measure of inequality) has increased in the country.

Moreover, today, the Trump wave is countering the sentiments that prevailed back in 2008. With his catchphrase ‘Make America Great Again’, many white men are enamoured by his appeal to take their institutions ‘back’. This is nothing new. In fact, in the 2012 elections, racial attitudes substantially shaped the re-election of Obama. Several studies prove this point. Mahzarin Banaji, a professor at Harvard University puts it well, “Our findings indicate that many of those who expressed egalitarian attitudes by voting for Obama in 2008 credited themselves with having ‘done the right thing’ then are now letting other considerations prevail.” Once again, with Trump, conservatism and right-wing ideologies are finding traction. Obama was a man ahead of his time, which raises the question – is society not ready to embrace the change?

Another Leap Forward?

Move the same argument to Hillary 2016. The role of women in the US has dramatically shifted over the past few decades. Every day, more and more women extend their responsibilities outside the house by joining the paid workforce. Statistically, while women made up only about one-third of the workforce in 1969, women today make up almost half of all workers in the US. Women are also stepping up as leaders in their own right, in the capacity of job promotions to senior posts and running for public office. In 2012, a record-high percentage of women served in Congress. They have also made progress in health and education, which have not only impacted their personal well being, but also their economic security. In fact, the Gender Inequality Index 2014 was as low as 0.280, exhibiting increased recognition in women rights.

However, despite these advances, substantial inequalities remain. Although a larger number of women today are either the sole breadwinners for their family or share the duty with their partners, women in the United States are paid around 78 cents for every dollar a man makes. The pay gap is even wider for women of colour. On average, African American women make 64 cents for every dollar that white men make. While 2012 was a watershed year for women in terms of getting elected to public office, women still comprise less than 20 per cent of Congress, despite comprising over half of the US population. Thus, a distinct gap is prevalent between genders, directly and indirectly dominated by the corresponding male gaze.

Hillary Clinton is at the forefront of the upcoming election. While women are undoubtedly better off in the forward-thinking US society as compared to others around the world, inequalities still prevail. Race and gender may not be overtly influencing instruments in electoral politics, but their subtle nuances do play a role on the psyche of individual voters. One can ponder, if society reacted in such a misleading way (discrepancy between visions and reality) to a minority group President like Barack Obama, what will the reaction be to a female president like Hillary Clinton? Will the society actually accept a female president? Rather, can a society accept a female president as long as notions of patriarchy exist? Will the relative failure of the race card presage that of the gender card? While the seeds are being sown right now, these questions can be only be reaped, sought, and answered over the next four years.

Kadambari Shah is a Senior Analyst at IDFC Institute, a think tank based in Mumbai. Prior to this, she studied at the Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics. She has an undergraduate degree in Economics and English Literature from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. Twitter @kadambari_shah