How Indians dominate America’s party system - Hindustan Times
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How Indians dominate America’s party system

Feb 27, 2024 08:21 PM IST

Indian-American leaders are central players in the five political strands, from the far Right to the progressive left, that animate the US today

America has a two-party system in theory. But in practice, both the Republican and Democratic Party are coalitions in themselves. And it is perhaps more accurate to see the US as a polity with five distinct political strands that find representation within these two parties and compete to define its dominant ideology.

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks on stage at her watch party during the South Carolina Republican presidential primary election in Charleston, South Carolina, U.S. February 24, 2024. REUTERS/Brian Snyder(REUTERS)
Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks on stage at her watch party during the South Carolina Republican presidential primary election in Charleston, South Carolina, U.S. February 24, 2024. REUTERS/Brian Snyder(REUTERS)

The Republican Party is witnessing a great civil war between its dominant far-Right wing and old-school conservatives struggling to retain a voice within the party. The Democratic tent is home to centrist democrats (with a small d), the centre-Left, and the progressives.

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Strikingly, taking off from a recent cover piece in The Nation magazine on the desi influence in conservative politics as an inspiration, the story of these five strands can be told through Indian Americans.

Begin with the far-Right. This strand offers the following policy prescriptions. One, America needs to focus inward on building economic resilience through corporate tax cuts; relentless exploitation of energy; and sharp reversal of existing trading arrangements. Two, America needs to narrow down on its international commitments, draw back from Europe, and focus largely on China. Three, America must strongly secure its borders and institute tougher immigration policies on the grounds that the economy can’t sustain the new entrants and social demographic changes are inviting conflict, with the subtext that migrants represent a threat to political dominance of White Christian population. Four, America must crack down on “woke” politics, be it sexuality or education on racism or affirmative action or anti-war movements. And five, the American federal government and investigative agencies are politically compromised and require a dramatic reboot including through downsizing.

While Donald Trump is the true pioneer and face of this strand, Vivek Ramaswamy is among the next-generation faces of this movement today. Indeed, at a conservative political action conference in Washington DC, Ramaswamy emerged as among the favourites to be Trump’s vice presidential pick.

Move to the centre-Right conservative strain. This dying breed of moderate Republicans differs from the Far-Right in three crucial respects. One, in terms of international commitments, this school believes that American strength rests on alliances, a commitment to NATO, and partnerships. And the US has to confront the Russian challenge in Europe, the China challenge in Indo-Pacific, and Iran in West Asia together. Two, in terms of culture wars, moderate Republicans align with the party’s agenda on abortion, gun rights, and education, but are less paranoid and somewhat more open to diverse viewpoints. And finally, moderate Republicans have faith in the American institutions and abide by democratic rules, marking a contrast from the defenders of the January 6 mob attack on the United States Capitol.

While Mitch McConnell leads this segment in the Senate, Nikki Haley is now the public face of the moderate Republican flank. The fact that she lost Iowa and New Hampshire primaries to Trump, got routed in her home state of South Carolina, and got less than the votes polled by the “none of these candidates” category in Nevada shows how politically weak this segment today is. But it does represent a substantial constituency, visible in the 43% vote polled by Haley in New Hampshire and 39% in South Carolina. It isn’t enough to win, but if this segment stays home, Trump’s prospects in the general elections suddenly become bleak.

Switch to the Democratic Party tent.

Joe Biden leads the Democratic centrists and centre-Left. This school shares the moderate Republican commitment to the traditional American security role in diverse global theatres. It has picked from both the far-Right and progressive quarters and steered a new industrial policy with an investment boom inside America. It shares the progressive view on abortion rights but frames it both as a public health issue and a women’s rights issue. It recognises structural racial discrimination but also believes in incremental reform. It is committed to expanding the social safety net while keeping an eye on the high deficit. And, on immigration, it seeks to strike a balance between both more stringent law enforcement and a more humane policy.

Among Indian-Americans, Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois is a centrist. But the most prominent claimant of the centre-Left mantle is Ro Khanna, the House Representative from Silicon Valley. He is seeking to occupy a space that is left of the centrists and right of progressives and is expected to throw in his hat for the presidential run in 2028. Khanna speaks the language of technology to the market, of economic patriotism to the working class in middle America, of pluralism and representation to the minorities, of hard national security measures on China and of ceasefire in Gaza, and the language of corporate exploitation and campaign reform to the progressives.

And finally, peek into the progressive strand. While they have their own internal contradictions, broadly speaking, progressives are sceptical of free trade; opposed to what they see as the military-industrial complex driving American engagements globally; advocates of using structural racial and gender discrimination as fundamental prisms to view inequality and frame policy; champions of a wider social safety net; strong opponents of corporate power and proponents of higher taxes; fierce climate policy defenders; and lobbyists for more active American interventionism on issues such as human rights in the rest of the world.

The most prominent faces of this segment are House progressive caucus chair Pramila Jayapal, and Vice President Kamala Harris, who shares many of these progressive convictions though it does appear that the stint in executive leadership has shifted her politics to the centre, especially on foreign policy.

This five-party framework perhaps helps explain why American politics is today more noisy, divided and complicated than ever before. And Indian-Americans are up there, arguing democratically, often with each other, about the future of their new land.

The views expressed are personal

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