‘I can’t breathe.” That wasn’t just George Floyd. There were a lot of people who felt like they couldn’t breathe.”
– Van Jones. CNN commentator/ Former Obama Administration Advisor. Nov. 7, 2020.
George Floyd’s last words— a rallying cry, and an anthem for those protesting the injustices and discriminations of race and colour in America. Floyd, an African American, was killed during an arrest by the Minneapolis police in May this year, when an officer knelt down hard on his neck for over 8 minutes, suffocating him to death. The incident sparked off a summer of unrest, as racial violence erupted on the streets of major American cities.
Unable to contain either his relief or his tears as Joe Biden was declared America’s new President-Elect, Van Jones said what was on the minds of 74 million American voters who cast their ballot for the Democratic candidate in this uniquely divisive election, held in the midst of a pandemic. “If you’re Muslim in this country, you don’t have to worry that the president doesn’t want you here. If you’re an immigrant, you don’t have to worry if the president is happy to have your baby snatched away or sent dreamers back for no reason,” Jones elaborated. His emotional response to the election result has gone viral on social media— evidence of the steam that’s been let out of the proverbial pressure cooker that America has been for the months during a tense, vitiated election.
When Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign, he said he was launching a battle for the soul of America. When he chose Kamala Harris as his running mate he sent a message. Harris, who, with Indian-Jamaican roots identifies racially as Black and is married to a White American Jewish husband is a symbol for all — immigrants, African Americans, racial and religious minorities. And, when Biden accepted the office of President at a rally filled with honking automobiles in the Northeastern state of Delaware on Saturday night, he promised a return to decency in US politics. But how easy will this be to achieve?
Four years was more than enough to see the divisions sown by an emboldened White Supremacist extreme right-wing rise to the surface of everyday America. Vitriolic campaigns, often dictated by hate-filled propaganda and misinformation have fed economic grievance and fear, created enemies where none existed and propagated the perception of White identity, faith and culture under threat. Trump’s supporters on social media and his allies in the mainstream media further weaponized hate to perpetuate his agenda willfully; discrediting Democrats, political activists, journalists — just about anyone who questioned him — along the way.
From the ban on travellers from six Muslim countries to Neo-Nazi rallies in Charlottesville to antisemitic attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh, and the most recent incidents of racial violence that sparked a reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement, to his deliberate characterization of #BLM protests as violence by ultra-left angry mobs, to his targeted campaigns against Joe Biden calling him a corrupt socialist who wanted to take away public wealth from the Whites for ‘others’, America’s spiralling descent into domestic chaos will perhaps be the abiding memory of Donald Trump’s single-term presidency. Even as he threatens lawsuits to challenge the result, Biden’s message to the public is one of unity. ‘We can be opponents, we are not enemies. We are Americans.’ he said. An important message— one that recognizes America’s current political reality.
In his bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, conservative author JD Vance exemplified the rightward shift of the poor, white, blue collar American— originally largely Democrat, but one that felt left out of an inclusive politics that he suggests, seemingly prioritized racial minorities. If 74 million Americans voted for Biden, 70 million more chose, unsuccessfully, to re-elect Trump. The underlying message is this— Trump’s win in 2016 was not a one-off. It is in fact symbolic of deep divisions within American society which is seeing both newer Democrats and newer Republicans push towards the extreme ends of their ideological compasses.
Decency in politics demands empathy, integrity, courage and tolerance. It demands the ability to listen to your opponent, to live with differences and most importantly it urgently demands an expansion of a middle ground. Sitting halfway across the world, often forced to deal with the aftermath of the follies and misadventures US policy in lands far away from its own shores, one could argue that the soul of America was lost a long time ago, or that the Democratic party’s intentions of speaking for true democratic values are hypocritical. But if you’re in the continental United States, Biden’s pledge to engage and empathize in the wake of social conflict and armed violence in a population known globally for political correctness and liberal principle; and his pledge to rebuild partnerships with traditional allies around the world is an important, necessary step towards America’s healing— both at home and abroad.
Maya Mirchandani is a journalist, a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Ashoka University.
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