Hoping for a middle path in the US

After all, the exaggerated chasm created between the Republicans and Democrats is a pre-election political propaganda whipped up by a few irrational melodramatic extremist troublemakers.

Shilpa Kameswaran
8 November 2012

I am a recent immigrant to the United States, having lived between the cities of Chicago and New York for over three years. My daughter was born in New Jersey a few months ago and is an American citizen and as an immigrant mother I have been keenly inquisitive about the American elections and the political processes.

On the sixth of November, I watched from my living room on the Hudson river, the blue and red lights on the Empire State Building in NYC reflecting the ongoing electoral outcomes of the Cable News Network. At some point closer to midnight the top of the Empire State was all blue indicating the Democratic victory and President Obama’s re-election. A fanit feeling of relief was largely combined with uneasiness that the Democrats had won.

I was not (yet) eligible to vote on Tuesday and my daughter can vote only in seventeen years’ time. When the Pew Research Center in their many studies and surveys talk about ‘the Indian diaspora and its political disposition’, I’m not certain if they’re referring to ‘highly-skilled immigrants’ with work visas like me or to Indian Americans who are ‘natural citizens’ like my daughter.

So, should I associate myself with a political stream of thought and a political party? Assuming I should for the health of the democracy I inhabit, how does a resident alien like me make informed political choices?

I’ve always believed that for me it was pretty simple. I am an economist with deepseated respect for the Chicago School of thought, for free markets, for small government, for private enterprise and for the pre-eminence of the ‘individual’. The Republicans in general and Governor Romney in particular had the right take on taxes, on achieving economic efficiency in production, on empowering state governments and minimizing federal interventions. Mitt Romney was a geeky Mormon, a nervous nerd who wouldn’t in my head cap H1B visas, curb US’s information technology outsourcing to India or command the US forces to intervene in the ‘Kashmir’ issue . Three things that matter very much.

It mattered much less to me that Governor Romney was only a quarter as charming and graceful during their debates and speeches when compared to the warm and lovable Barack Obama. The Republicans in the recent past I thought have always come across as very reliable, very meticulous, but especially very economically liberal in their take - and I liked that notion.

‘Socialism’ and ‘welfare state’ are political processes that are to me as frightening as ‘racism’, ‘sexism’ and ‘religious fanaticism’. I was born and raised in a socialist, inward-looking welfare state in the 1980’s and early 1990’s of independent India.  Before India’s structural economic reforms of 1991, the middle-class were poor, the poor were poor, common consumers had no disposable income and the few that did had no clever choices to make in the domestic market. Air-travel was unaffordable, and I had never heard of anyone in my friendship or family circle who flew frequently or took vacations abroad. There were two makes of car and two brands of ice-cream sold across the nation. Cheese slices or cheese cubes weren’t exactly stacked in abundance in grocery stores in a megapolis like Bangalore in those early years.

My father was an energy technocrat with the state government for over thirty years, and he came home each day to tell us kids how he believed - if ‘power’ was privatized - one could achieve efficiency in transmission and distribution and how the monstrous public sector undertakings were sucking the very last penny of the state’s revenue. My mother - a professor of sociology - worked investment-banking hours only to realize at each month-end that the government’s treasury was broke and had no money to pay the teachers their salaries. I remember the many university teachers’ strikes she used to participate in back then.

And so, when the darling Elizabeth Warren the Democratic Senate elect in Massachusetts, hosted house gatherings in Massachusetts earlier this year as part of her campaign, talking to supporters about ‘big governments’ and the welfare state, the democratic perceptions of national economic policy seemed myopically regressive to me.

Yes, I am an avid admirer of smart strong women like Warren the Harvard law school professor and the other charming democrats like the Rhodes Scholar Cory Anthony Booker, the Mayor of Newark, Deval Laurdine Patrick the current Governor of Massachussetts and Julian Castro the Mayor of San Antonio. These dashing democrats, socially uber progressive and with their ivy-league law degrees, diverse ethnicity and open-mindedness often are the heroic wind beneath immigrant aspirations (as they displayed during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte).

But, then why can’t these democrats be as liberal in their economic policies as they are with their social policies? Why are they so keen on making America economically ‘inward’ looking ?

Like most other highly-skilled or semi-skilled Indian immigrants from the sub-continent, I too aspired to immigrate to the United States for the twin purposes of securing tangible economic mobility (higher standards of living) and intangible social equality (higher quality of life).  Needless to elaborate, this includes access to cutting edge health-care, education, investment options and absolute freedom over one’s religious practices, sexual practices and lifestyle practices – things which are neither guaranteed nor easily bestowed  - back in developing India.

So, it constantly leaves me in a dilemma that there are the Democrats who will fight for gender equality and sexual integrity and seem just right to our hearts but, when we think with our heads about being happy consumers in a free market and enjoying meritocratic economic fruits the Republican policies make more sense.

In last week’s article about Indo-US relationships ‘Shaking a foreign hand: A view from India’ by Little Magazine Founding Editor Antara Dev Sen, the author talks about how “ the Republicans don’t beat around the bush, they are pragmatic, avoid troubled waters and focus on useful stuff. On the other hand, the Democrats annoyingly watch our every move, brood over our human rights records, and focus on liberal values that we may not wish to follow.” 

That said, during these past four years of living in the United States I must admit I’ve found it immensely difficult to look in the eye my homosexual/transgendered friends and say  - ‘ I support the Republican Party at the cost of your peace of mind’. And I imagine how much more difficult it would be to look in the eye a victim of gun violence and say - 'I support the Republican Party despite their patronage of the National Rifle Association'.

I also can’t come to terms with the fact that the two prominent Indian Americans (Governor Piyush ‘Bobby’ Jindal and Nimrata ‘Nikki’ Randhawa Haley) in the Republican Party find a need to act more ‘white’ and ‘Christian’ than what they actually are to fit into the party’s outlook.  As a practising Hindu, it’s hard to swallow my spit when the Republican conservative commentator and Indian American Dinesh D’souza gets away with expressing his evangelical and gender–derogatory thoughts on prime time talk shows on the Cable News Network. The Grand Old Party’s persistent audacity to be inappropriately socially repressive in a land as heterogeneous as the United States frightens me as a South-Asian immigrant woman to great depths. 

This weekend after the big American elections as I re-read Michael Lewis’ profile of President Obama in Vanity Fair and Nicholas Leman’s profile of Governor Romney in the New Yorker, and every Lexington column The Economist has published in the past ten months, I find fewer and much- fewer policy differences between the two parties and I realize that the exaggerated chasm created between the Republicans and Democrats is a pre-election political propaganda whipped up by a few irrational melodramatic extremist troublemakers.

I do hope that some day on a macro and national level the two political parties can resolve a way of being both socially liberal and economically liberal. Last week, Democratic New Jersey’s liberal Republican Governor Chris Christie and President Obama maturely managed to stand side-by-side and see eye to eye in the midst of rescue operations after the catastrophic hurricane Sandy left the state I live in destroyed. Now that was how it should be.


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