Reflections on an election from far away, but still so close.
NEW DELHI — Many of us non-Americans have long drunk the blue kool-aid of the red white and blue. Despite its shortcomings, we've grown up thinking that, at its heart, America lives up to its ideals of freedom and justice: where a free press, equal rights, and equal access to opportunity can be fully realized. We look to this singular nation where immigrants are welcomed, where the world's leading educational institutions prosper, and where progressive social thinking, scientific advancements, and a fair justice system are open to all. The home of Batman, Spiderman, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016, and the tumultuous past four years, no doubt gave us pause. So it was only natural that we would follow this month's election with both trepidation and hope. For days, we sat in front of our TV and computer screens, watching so closely that many of us now know not only the swing states, but the swing counties, from Allegheny, Pennsylvania, to Maricopa, Arizona. That Trump ultimately lost, however, can't erase the fact that he received 73 million votes (compared to Joe Biden's 78 million) — and should make us finally question what has been our naïve, simplistic, one-sided perspective of America.
The other half of America, which the world has effectively ignored for decades but which is growing in visibility and anger, is very different from the image we've constructed. They do not want immigrants — at least not those of color. They do not condemn racism. They don't believe in science or vaccines or that COVID-19 is a serious threat. The press is the enemy of the people, and the truth whatever they want it to be. And now they say they don't believe the 2020 elections were fair. They don't believe that Trump lost, or even could lose. Sure, within this half of a divided nation, there are some who may not truly believe in any of these things but they are prepared to stay quiet and sacrifice their rights in the hopes of getting jobs.
Trump was not their inspiration; he was merely their high-level mouthpiece. Even though he led their parade, he was clearly in it for his own gains.
We've learned from China that economic growth need not automatically lead to greater democracy. Now we're learning from the U.S. that democracy need not lead to a more open and progressive way of thinking. Indeed, the revelation of the past four years, and past two weeks, is that there's no guarantee that "once a democracy, always a democracy."
This could also portend the decline of a global superpower.
So facing these hard truths, what should those of us in the rest of the world do? We need to educate ourselves on the real America in all its complexities, and better anticipate its possible evolution. We need to see the U.S. for the deeply divided nation it is. The contentious relationship between Republicans and Democrats is not merely one between two political parties: It is a reflection of two opposing halves of America that seem to be sliding toward some kind of civil war, at least in terms of ideas. All of this could also portend the decline of a global superpower.
Indeed, it's time our countries explore alliances and institutions and agreements that are not centered around the U.S. We can no longer rely on the U.S. to protect our interests — be it in terms of global health, trade, climate, or security. It was naïve of us to think they ever could. Some years ago, when Henry Kissinger was visiting India, he was asked a rather long-winded question as to why Washington had adopted certain policies that were detrimental to India. He leaned forward and in his low, gruff voice, succinctly said, "American foreign policy is for Americans."
Hopefully America will soon have a man in the White House who doesn't speak with the cynicism of a Kissinger or a Trump. But the world will never look at America in quite the same way again.