From Bhagat Singh Thind to Kamala Harris: an american story

As I write this, Pennsylvania has just flipped. If the trend continues, we are very close to a declaration that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be the President elect and Vice-President elect of the US. Whatever about the change at the top of the ticket, Kamala Harris’ election as the first Black woman Vice President is truly historic. I still remember as a child watching Geraldine Ferraro being eviscerated during the 1984 election, mocked during her VP run for not being ‘tough enough’, for being a woman. Somewhere out in the cosmos, Geraldine Ferraro is raising a toast to Kamala Harris. And I have a lump in my throat.

But I’m also thinking this afternoon of Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian Sikh man whose petition for citizenship through naturalization was rejected by the Supreme Court in 1923. Thind was born near Amritsar in the state of Punjab in India, and moved to the US in 1913 to undertake his studies, eventually earning a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. Towards the end of  World War I, Thind enlisted in the US Army, where he became the first turbaned soldier in the Army. Before his honourable discharge in December 1918, Thind became a US citizen through naturalization. However, the Naturalization Act of 1906 specified that naturalized citizenship was only available to people who were deemed “free and white”, or of African descent. Four days after he received his citizenship in Washington State, the Bureau of Naturalization applied to have this removed. Thind, an Indian Sikh, was not deemed to be ‘white’.

Thind took his case to the Supreme Court, at a time when the Court’s perception of racial hierarchy was determined by the Plessy case (1896, established the “separate but equal” colour line in law related to Black and white Americans) and a range of anti-immigrant measures including the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the California Alien Land Law in 1913 which prohibited citizens ineligible for naturalization from owning land, the Immigration Act of 1917 and the Asiatic Exclusion League that sought to curtail immigration from Asia, and especially from India. Thind’s lawyers sought to establish that their client was white enough to claim access to naturalization routes to citizenship. They failed.

When the Supreme Court heard the case, they concluded that people from India could not be naturalized as US citizens. In United States v Bhagat Singh Thind (261 U.S. 204 (1923), the English-born Justice George Sutherland authored the unanimous decision declaring that Indian Sikhs were not white, and so ineligible for naturalization under the terms of existing legislation.

Towards the end of his opinion, Sutherland wrote:

“the children of… European parentage quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin,” but “the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry.” Thind presented in his turban, unwilling to compromise his own religion and identity to become invisible in Americana.

Part of the explanation for the Court decision lies in racism, but it was also the case that the courts were suspicious of Indians, like Thind, who articulated political sympathies with anti-imperial movements challenging British and western hegemony on the continent. Thind was not only deemed to be non-white; he was potentially a dangerous political radical.

Thind did eventually gain US citizenship in 1935, although his eligibility at that stage was based on his military service in World War 1. The Supreme Court decision in Thind was not overturned until after World War 2, when Harry Truman signed the Luce-Cellar Act in 1946, finally overturning much of the previous discriminatory legislation and allowing people from India to naturalize as citizens, and to own property, and to sponsor their family members abroad to come into the US. Quotas were tiny at first (only 100 allowed under the 1946 Act), eventually revised upwards in the 1950s and later.

Some 40 years after Thind’s case, Kamala Harris’ mother Shyamala Gopalan – herself born and raised in India – was awarded her PhD by the University of California at Berkeley, Thind’s alma mater. Kamala Harris has long identified both with her father’s Jamaican and her mother’s Indian heritages — in historical terms, quite complex, since there had been little solidarity between immigrant Indians and African Americans during Thind’s lifetime. Like Barack Obama, Harris’ self-identity is intersectional. Her election is important for a wide constituency: a triumph for Black women, many of whom are responsible for pushing the Biden-Harris ticket past Trump in the key states of Georgia and Pennsylvania; a triumph for women in the Democratic party, where she stands on the shoulders of Shirley Chisholm, Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton, among many others; and a repudiation of the racist exclusion of immigrant groups in the past, who despite their commitment to the nation were denied access to its citizenship. A new administration will need to grapple with the racist legacies of the Trump era, including the debacle of separated children at the Mexican border. Thind’s story reminds us how the courts and the government have conspired in the past to use concepts of “whiteness” to decide who gets to be American. Kamala Harris, with dual heritage steeped in histories of exclusion, should be in a unique position to challenge this.

The Electoral college

On 7 November 2012, Donald Trump tweeted “The electoral college is a disaster for democracy”. In that election, Barack Obama won almost 66 million votes nationwide, carried victories in 26 states and the District of Columbia, and 332 electoral college votes. His overall percentage was 51% to his opponent Mitt Romney’s 47%. This stands in stark contrast to the margins in 2016, where Trump won victory through the Electoral College while his opponent Hillary Clinton lost the Presidency although she won the popular vote. As we wait for votes to come through in Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Nevada and Arizona, Trump is again playing for Electoral College votes – his opponent Joe Biden has already won an unassailable lead in the popular vote, and has in fact garnered more votes in hard numerical terms than any other presidential candidate in history.

So, what is the electoral college, why does it exist, and how does it work?

When Americans vote in a presidential election, they are not actually voting for the President. They are voting on a state-by-state basis for a panel of people nominated by their state legislature as Electors, who will then cast their votes in line with the decision of the voters in their state. While the Electors never actually meet as a whole group, the congregation of these people is called the Electoral College, and votes are usually cast and certified by December.

There are currently 538 Electors distributed across the various states, based on the population of these states. So, when you look at the interactive electoral maps produced in the media showing ‘Electoral college votes’, this tells you how many electors each state has. This all means that whatever the voters may think, the Presidential race in the US is decided by indirect voting: the popular vote doesn’t matter, and the winner is determined on a state-by-state basis according to the number of Electors casting their vote.

The existence and selection of Electors is provided for in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution. So, to change the Electoral College system is a tricky thing and would require a constitutional amendment. When the constitution was written and ratified in the late 1780s, the Electoral college was devised as a tool to balance out the power of the more populated states: a national winner-takes-all approach would have advantaged the interests of states with bigger urban populations, and for the Founding Fathers, it was important to ensure that some power was held by rural, low-population states, and of course they also had to balance the power of slave states and free states to maintain national unity.

But a lot has changed since the 1780s, and demographic shifts in the 20th and 21st century reveal real weaknesses in the Electoral college system. No president in the 20th century managed to win victory in the Electoral College without also carrying the popular vote. This is true even in the notorious 1960 election where John F. Kennedy was accused of ‘stealing’ the election through Democratic rigging of the Chicago vote. That year, Kennedy won the popular vote by a mere 100,000 or so votes, but he won the Electoral College by 303 to Nixon’s 219 Electoral votes.

But in the 21st century, the story is very different. Famously, in 2000 Al Gore conceded victory to George W. Bush after the Florida count was decided against him. Bush took the Presidency with 271 Electoral College votes, despite winning only 47.9% of the popular vote to Gore’s 48.4%. In 2016, four years after criticizing the Electoral College via tweet, Donald Trump took the Presidency with a large Electoral College majority, but only 46% of the popular vote, to Hillary Clinton’s 48.1%.

Why does this happen? It goes back to the balance of power envisaged by the Founding Fathers. The system preserves the power of rural, less populous states (like Nevada and Arizona) against the dominant interests of more urban, more populous states (like California and New York). So, the vote weight of Nevada, with a population of 3 million and 6 Electoral College votes is about 1.35. But the vote weight of Pennsylvania, with a population of over 12.8 million, and 20 electoral votes is about 0.83. The Electoral College means that not all voters’ votes count equally.

That would be less divisive if the population was more evenly distributed, and if we could talk about a broad spread of voting values across the US. But the population is becoming less white, more urbanized, and more progressive. Often voting outcomes seem at odds with this. If the Presidential vote was calculated on a national winner-takes-all basis, you can be pretty sure that California and the more progressive East Coast, heavily populated states, would pick the winner every time. Nobody would care about Nebraska, or South Dakota. The existing system, however flawed, keeps these states in active political participation. As the country becomes more politically polarized, this is important. Political alienation encourages separatist mindsets, and we have seen in the recent past that this poses a real threat to national security. As much as we might complain that the Electoral College damages democracy, it serves a function and it is unlikely that political powers will seek to change it any time soon.

As I write this, Joe Biden leads Donald Trump by 253 Electoral college votes to 214. He needs 270 to win. If Trump does overtake him to snatch victory, he will do so without a popular vote mandate, and to use his own words, this would be a disaster for democracy. If this does happen, he will continue this century’s trend of Republicans taking the White House while losing the popular vote. Only in 2004 has a Republican (G.W. Bush) won the Presidency with a popular vote majority. What this underscores is the inability of the Republican Party to appeal sufficiently to the majority feeling in the country. A party that appeals to a narrowing population base will eventually run out of steam: perhaps that is where real change is needed to protect democracy.

The Republican Revolution and the Death of Trust

“So let us begin anew–remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.”

John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech in January 1961.

This could be a blog post with a very short shelf life. As we wait for results to start coming in from today’s general election in the US, I’m reminded of Kennedy’s inaugural speech in 1961. Kennedy was speaking about Cold war divisions here, but I think his words have peculiar resonance in relation to the opportunity for change, healing divisions, rounding a corner, beginning anew in the current domestic situation.

I think most of us would agree that the most significant casualty over the past four years has been political trust. The decline of trust did not start in November 2016. From the early 1990s, New Gingrich developed a destructive partisanship that almost inevitably led to Trumpworld. He created conspiracy theories, engaged in strategic obstructionism, and sought to use the so-called ‘culture wars’ to destroy bipartisanship and create disfunction in Washington. Since the start of his career as a Republican activist in the late 1970s, Newt Gingrich called for Republicans to act “nasty”, in what he called a “war for power”. This was the so called Republican Revolution: to destroy trust in the system and divide the electorate along what Karl Rove, Bush’s key strategist, would later call wedge issues – mostly what we might call progressive social change like abortion, marriage equality, and broad civil rights agendas.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Gingrich has been one of Trump’s big supporters. Trump’s nasty, name calling, personal attacking strategy is straight from Gingrich’s playbook. Rather than draining the swamp, his golfing, Fox-watching, late night tweeting, lying, obstructionism has done exactly what Gingrich wanted: made people sick of politics, mistrust Washington, buy into completely ludicrous conspiracy theories, opt out completely.

It was Gingrich who turned legislating into a reality show. With C-Span cameras installed in the House, Gingrich became a performer in his own political reality show. He repurposed the term ‘communist’ as an insult. The Trump supporters who accuse Harris and Biden of being socialist have, for the most part, no idea what that term actually means; they get their insult handed down from Gingrich, through Rove, through Palin, through Trump. Gingrich even wrote a memo about language use: in the late 1980s, his “Language: a Key Mechanism of Control” encouraged Republicans to call Democrats “radical”, “traitors”, “corrupt”, “socialist”. He weaponized impeachment – again an opportunity for reality tv – and he weaponized supreme court nominations in new and nefarious ways.

If Trump wins in 2020, it will be another triumph for Gingrich, and Gingrich’s successors like Mitch McConnell. We’ll spend four more years going around and around in a spiral of lies, obfuscation, maladministration and distraction, while the foundations of democracy are hacked away, live on tv. I am usually not that melodramatic. But Trump didn’t start this – he is a symptom of it. I’m not sure if a return to civility and sincerity is entirely possible after four years of Trump, but it certainly won’t be after eight.

The high turnout figures being reported this week give some pause in this. Not to indulge too much in counterfactuals, or “what if” history, I do wonder whether this high level of engagement would have been the case if we weren’t dealing with a pandemic. I’m sure the political scientists will be analysing the ways in which the coronavirus influenced political engagement over the past months. And they’ll be able to gauge how much voters register the origins of their political engagement through racial polarization, reactions to police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Democrats, and those who lean Democrat, do not trust the government. Melania voted maskless. Do you trust the masked people or the unmasked? Do you trust Fox news or MSNBC? A good friend of mine told me yesterday that in relatively affluent parts of Philadelphia, the drugstores and other shopfronts have been boarded up for the past couple of weeks. There is no trust that civility will return, no matter who wins.

All the norms appear to be gone. Disinformation has eroded all trust.

The New York Times editorial today headlines: “You’re not just voting for President. You’re voting to start over.” “The American experiment has taken a beating, but there’s a chance to renew our democracy”, the editorial tells us. But Republican activists in Texas are still – even now, even after several court cases – trying to throw out 120K votes. Voter suppression is real. It’s not clear that democracy can be renewed.

What do Biden and Harris represent? Contrary to the Republican hype, they are about as middle ground as you can get. I like Kamala Harris a lot, but you might suspect that if she were a politician in Britain, she could easily have been one of David Cameron’s so-called compassionate conservatives. It’s telling that one of Biden’s last pre-election tv ads was voiced by Bruce Springsteen – a symbol of good old fashioned solid Born in the USA American values. Whereas Biden came into the VP in 2008 on the Obama ticket of Hope and Change, he’s now essentially running on a ticket of God, Can We Rewind the Clock to Civility and Sincerity? Less catchy.

When I was a child, and I would go for a walk with my grandmother, I would start to whine when my feet got sore and I didn’t want to walk any more. She would always tell me the same thing: just a little further. It’s just down the road, and around the corner. Oddly, this is what this Trump cartoon reminds me of. We’re just rounding the corner. Except, like Trump, my grandmother was always lying. Will the US round the corner this week?