That America is not a centralised state was proved by the election. The declaration of Biden’s victory — the “call”, to use the American phrase — did not come from a Washington official or from any election commission (no such body exists in the US). It came from “decision desks” of TV networks.
Firmly separated from the channels’ popular and usually partisan anchors, these “decision desks” have remained independent over the decades. This has been true also of Fox, whose principal anchors are openly pro-Trump. When, much ahead of rival channels, the Fox “decision desk” named Biden the projected winner in toss-up Arizona, Trump was furious, as were Republicans across the country, but Fox continued to “call” Arizona for Biden.
America’s elections are organised by each county (the equivalent of an Indian district), not by the federal government or, directly, by a state. In each county, volunteering citizens also play a crucial part. In this and other critical areas, the country’s course is set by small independent groups and local communities, not by a leviathan. This is America’s strength.
After news networks “call” an election, counties certify their tallies, and then a state does. Once a state certifies, its Electoral College delegation is constituted. Due this year on December 14, physical voting by EC delegates in their state (or federal territory) will confirm the president-elect, but Joe Biden will not assume a president’s powers until his oath-taking on January 20.
In theory, Electoral College members can be bought, kidnapped, or prevented from voting, though laws exist in many (not all) states to make this hard. However, very few instances of delegates defying their state’s verdict have been recorded.
In reality, therefore, what creates change, joy, and grief in America is the news networks’ “call”, which this year was made on November 7. The rest is always a sequence of formalities, though there is scope for legal challenges, and, Trump being Trump, for some suspense. Losing or dropping many of his challenges, he has earned disgrace by threatening county or state-level officers, who in the US have political affiliations.
“Not a good day for those who’ve lost,” acknowledged Van Jones, CNN’s African-American commentator on November 7. A stirred Jones also said that with the announcement of Trump’s defeat many like him would once more “breathe freely”. Every viewer connected the remark to the dying George Floyd’s “I can’t breathe” gasp earlier in the year. Now, added Jones on November 7, he can tell his young son, “See! Being good matters”.
More than 51 per cent of the US population seemed to equate Trump’s loss with a return of times when a president did not continually lie and bully. They celebrated the return to decency their votes had produced. But at least 47 per cent mourned the result. Many among them felt that “America” had lost, and “a hostile world” had won.
That Trump was endorsed by nearly half of the American electorate showed, among other things, the success of a drive to inject victimhood in the country’s Whites, who form around 61 per cent of the population. Latinos (termed “Hispanics” until recently) make up around 19 per cent, Blacks around 13 per cent, and Asians (possibly the fastest growing segment) around 6 per cent.
That America equals White America is what many Americans, and many non-Americans too, have tended to think. Others have equated diversity with America; they think of the country’s steadily altering racial mix. Much before Trump, American “nationalists” of a dozen hues (ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to naïve believers) had told their White compatriots that the world was exploiting the US.
Trump saw and seized his moment after globalisation enabled Asian economies with talented but cheaper workforces to capture a growing percentage of world trade. Inside the US, IT or “Tech” was outpacing manufacturing. Hundreds of thousands had lost jobs. Renewable energy was displacing coal. “You’re being cheated,” Trump told White American masses left behind by globalisation and “Tech”. Most lived in small towns in the country’s vast hinterland spaces, far from the coasts and the great cities. With Trump at the helm, the forgotten American, the hard-working, flag-waving, family-defending White Man, would take his country back! The message evoked wild enthusiasm.
I was asked, during a conversation about Trump’s adoring audiences, “Do they think he cares for them?” Don’t they recognise his plain falsehoods? My answer was, “They think he cares for what they care for.”
They love the flag, they love the White America that is sailing away, they love America’s dominance in the world, they love their traditional jobs. They love it when Trump implies that the flag, the gun, and the cross are three different words for the same thing. They love it when Trump signals that masks are for sissies. Forgetting that they themselves had once gained from a changing America, they resent fresh changes. And when Trump said, “No more endless wars in distant places!” he touched an old isolationist strain in the American psyche, a sentiment strengthened by continuing PTSD in soldiers who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq. And when Trump claimed that he was for stimulus money reaching unemployed Americans and those on the verge of eviction, he showed a populism which is the very opposite of the fiscal conservatism that Republicans used to stand for.
At the local level, as the election process proved, America possesses a remarkable sense of independence and also of community, even when the US is deeply and sharply divided at the national level.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 30, 2020 under the title ‘America’s common ground’. The writer teaches at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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