“It’s a Republic, if you can keep it!” - this was the prophetic proclamation by Ben Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of America. Even he would be surprised to know how serious and apt his admonishment was, as the American Republic has been tested, challenged, and almost destroyed from within a few times over in the past 300 years - including the war over slavery that almost split America between the North and the South.
Even though the American Republic pulled back from the brink each time, it also exposed the fragility of the very concept of Republic and the process of peaceful transfer of power every four years. One doesn’t have to go too far in the memory banks to realize this, as Trump has ruled for the past four years almost as a Monarch, destroying, bending, usurping and ignoring all democratic norms. The shocking thing was the fact that almost half the country supported him!
To top it off, even though Biden won by a slim margin, Trump organized and fomented an insurrection just two weeks ago to avert the peaceful transfer of power by capturing the legislative bodies and trying to capture and kill his most vocal critics! If he succeeded, and he almost did, that would have been the end of American Republic, and the very concept of peaceful transfer of power through free and fair elections, with Trump installed as a demi Dictator. He almost succeeded in negating the legitimate electoral process and the will of the people. If that is not the death of a Republic, what is?
So, America dodged a bullet with more luck than planning, but the whole insurrection to challenge and overthrow the Republic calls for serious introspection of the process of peaceful transfer of power through free and fair elections as a cornerstone.
When one thinks of power, it is generally in terms of political or military power. But that is the traditional definition. The new economy, new age and new norms expand the scope and definition of power well beyond that. The equally important powers today are socio-economic, technological and military in addition to the traditional political type. Of course, all of those are closely intertwined and interdependent. So, before we opine on the transfer of power in America, we should define the base case for the above type of powers and who currently has those. The Haves and Have Nots broadly paint the canvass for this analysis.
First, addressing the political power, the country collectively breathed a sigh of relief with the Biden inauguration, signifying the peaceful transfer of power with a notion that sanity, civility and honesty have finally returned in America. However, there are deep divisions below the surface on every front in these “Divided States of America”.
The power held for centuries by the White agrarian society was multidimensional—social, political, economic and racial. They assumed that to be their Way of Life, their right and cultural identity.
Globalization, tech revolution and the educated Minorities now holding respectable and well-paying jobs, large scale immigration of the global talent and labour to America - upset the centuries-old structure in just 20 years. The powers suddenly shifted irreversibly from the rural and less educated Blue Collar Whites to the multicultural urban centres. It was a great shock to the system for the rural White folks who now want to cling to their guns, religion, bigotry and a yearning for the past. The lightning speed of this transfer of political power to the multicultural urban centres made these folks even more bitter, fearful and combative.
The political power has thus shifted to the diverse, innovative, educated and prosperous urban centres, mostly in the coastal Blue [Democratic] States, leaving the rural, less educated people in the dust. As the Whites are still in the numerical majority [70%], with 50% being rural and low educated Blue Collar workers despite a rapid demographic shift, their collective bitterness, anxiety, fear for the loss of a way of life, and cultural identity in this melting pot were cleverly exploited by the Republican Party, which was led by an even craftier Demi Dictator like Trump and they almost succeeded!
Luckily, a diverse coalition of the Minorites, urban, educated Whites and suburban White women finally stood up and resisted this inward and backward-looking Movement based on hate, fear and a feeling of victimhood that Trump cleverly fomented to gain and retain power. They were so staunch and militant about their yearning for the past that the Republican Party and Trump saw the Democratic norms as merely inconvenient, outdated and downright “hurdles”. The urban coalition saved the day just by a hair. For now, despite the insurrection to grab power and upend the democracy on January 6th, the democratic institutions—administrative, legal and police/military powers—held fast and defeated the treasonous power grab by Trump. This was quickly followed by the Biden inauguration on January 20th to signify the peaceful transfer of power through the democratic process as it has been for the past 300 years!
Biden and the Democratic party shouldn’t rest easy, as the dictatorial forces are just temporarily defeated, but are alive and well. In fact, the racist, theocratic and conspiracy theory extremists have just redoubled their resolve and will try again. So, the battle for a peaceful transfer of power is won, but the war is not over yet!
This brings us to the next most important issue—economic power. Here, there has been a silent but huge and rapid shift of power from the Middle Class to the top 1% super-rich and politically influential elite class in just 10 years! The top 1% now own 60% of the wealth, while the bottom 50% own just 2%. It wasn’t so lopsided before the massive shift of economic power from Main Street to Wall Street. This power shift has caused severe economic inequality wherein the huge working-class struggles tomake the ends meet, while the passive investor class accumulates enormous wealth.
This transfer of economic power from the Middle Class to the elites can be partially explained by the sudden and massive from the typical manufacturing-based structure shift to the innovation and creativity-based economy. Creative people like Elon Musk, Gates and Bezos are worth $200 Billion each, while the typical Blue Collar worker can hardly survive. This has created a permanent underclass that is likely to react out of frustration and exasperation one day.
Biden is addressing this wealth gap with $15/hr minimum wage [the solution first perceived and advocated by Kshama Sawant, originally from Pune], enhanced unemployment benefits, free vocational training and State College degrees, etc. The extreme economic inequities, long familiar and meekly accepted in the Third World is a new phenomenon for the predominantly middle-class American society. The speed and scale of this supermassive transfer of economic power from the masses to the elites with no signs of reversal or equitable solution or the efforts by the government is an incendiary situation that is likely to explode one day with dire consequences when the economic downturn occurs. Andrew Young and Thomas Pickette’s UBI [Universal Basic Income] may be a good start to buy time to come up with permanent and better solutions.
For now, though, Biden has recognized the gravity of the problem of economic inequities and has plans to reverse this wholesale transfer of economic power. The jury is still out. Let’s see.
The next important power is the technological supremacy and ownership. There has been a sea change in this area over the last 20 years, shifting the technological power from the typical middle-aged generation to the young, “start up” generation. Gone are the days of older White guys working for IBM or HP. The new tech revolution has shifted that tech power to the very young, innovative and risk-taking generation. In fact, anything and everything that fundamentally changed the way the world lives today has been invented, discovered, built and marketed by the American youth under the age 20, becoming billionaires in the process.
There are so many young tech billionaires that the older generation feels obsolete, unable to keep up with the pace of this transfer of tech power and the economic rewards associated with this. Further, the huge permanent underclass feels that there is not even a chance or opportunity for them to participate, let alone lead this massive and rapid shift of tech power. This power transfer has also brought about a geographical talent shift wherein all the creative tech talent is concentrated in the Silicon Valley, Boston and New York, leaving the agrarian States [Trump Country] and the working class in the dust, with no hope of catching up anytime soon. This just adds to their frustration and fear of being permanently left behind. This will be ready fodder for Trump and his ultra-right-wing supporters to exploit their plight for political expediency.
The saving grace though, is the fact that a vast majority of tech billionaires are actually socially very liberal [California effect?] and most of them, like Bill Gates, pledged to donate their entire wealth for social justice causes and upliftment of the underclass. Let’s see whether that is sufficient to bring about an equitable tech power transfer back to the masses. Also, Biden needs to undertake a massive tech training program for the poor and middle-class students and create Tech Opportunity Zones with the government support to bridge the tech power gap.
This brings us to the government institutions like the Police/Military and the Legal /Justice Systems. Perhaps, these can or should be discussed along with the political or social/racial justice powers, as some of those can be intertwined. There has been a gradual but massive shift toward the ultra-right-wing, Christian fundamentalist, racist, White Supremacist and undemocratic philosophies within the law enforcement and the Justice systems. This was further accelerated and enhanced by a methodical plan and actions by Trump, with “hand in glove” cooperation by the Republican Party.
The recently exposed examples of police brutality against the Minorities and the resultant nationwide demonstrations by the BLM [Black Lives Matter] activists are just the tip of the iceberg and a proof of this massive transfer of enforcement power to the ultra-right-wing, White Supremacist forces within those institutions. The fact that ALL police unions endorsed Trump despite working for the liberal urban Mayors is proof of that. Even during the insurrection on January 6th, many police and paramilitary National Guards openly mutinied and participated in the ultra-right-wing armed insurrection against the Congress and the Senate, the ultimate symbols of democratic powers and the integral part of the American Republic.
The fact that a majority of police, military and even the Supreme Court are dominated by the ultra right-wing, Christian fundamentalist forces is the concrete proof of this massive shift of military power to the undemocratic forces. These law enforcement forces are predominantly White, even in the Minority districts merely keeps the pot boiling. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party was “asleep at the wheel”, ignored or mishandled this grave power shift happening right under their noses. Even the progressive urban Mayors for whom the police and other law enforcement work have been ineffectual in taming this beast.
Biden has recognized this power shift among the police and military to the ultra-right-wing and has proposed some sensitivity training and racial justice lessons for them. That is just a feeble attempt to solve a deeply rooted problem, unlikely to change their hearts and the staunchly anti-immigrant and anti Minorities views. Biden will have to play the strategic game of packing the police and military with the Minorities and liberal forces to counter this rightward transfer of law enforcement powers. Time will tell.
To sum it all, America is still a 50:50 divided country with the ultra-right-wing, undemocratic forces making a bid for the power grab in every important centre of influence. Let us see whether Biden and the Democratic Party recognizes this stark reality and make a concerted and focused effort to counter this rightward shift in most spheres of power.
(The author is a US-based philanthropist and corporate leader of Wall Street. He is the Originator of the prestigious 'Maharashtra Foundation Awards for Literature and Social work'. )
- Sunil Deshmukh