Some interesting and unique changes are taking place on the political map of the United States. When Donald Trump won the 2016 elections by brazenly exploiting the racial divide and targeting immigrants, he unleashed the primal roar of disaffected white working-class voters who felt abandoned by the Washington Establishment and the Democratic Party.
But Trump misread the basic values and the political texture of the United States. The blowback against Trump's racial divisiveness has come too soon. The message from the 2017 state elections, particularly in Virginia (traditionally a Republican state), was loud and clear. The voters not only elected Democratic governors but also chose an ethnically and economically diverse group of House of Delegates. What is most encouraging is that the resistance is being spearheaded by a coalition of women and minorities at the grassroots level.
If we take a closer look at the profiles of the 2017 winners we cannot help but wonder if this indeed is an indication of something much more significant—a grassroots democratic protest against Trump's attempts at undermining the disempowered minority. A black transgender activist was elected to a city council, a Hispanic woman and a Sikh man won mayoral races in two cities. Add to this list a Vietnamese immigrant's daughter, an Arab-Latino single mother and a Liberian refugee. Many of these candidates defeated opponents who ran homophobic, anti-immigrant, misogynistic and racist campaigns.
Some are sceptical of reading too much into an off-year election. Many may say this is not extraordinary given that people tend to vote against the ruling party in the following election. But then change happens when “ordinary people do extraordinary things.”
After Donald Trump's somewhat unexpected election victory, the popular refrain among liberals was that America's democratic institutions, its people and the legal system would serve as the bulwark against executive excesses and abuse. It seems we are beginning to see that happen. Despite the president's brinkmanship in bending the ethical code and pushing the limits of his power, the checks and balances of the system seem to be working.
There are two objective ways that the resilience of the democratic system can be tested. The first is to determine if the institutions are working efficiently and neutrally. The second is to ascertain if the legal system is functioning independently. As for the institutions, the recent state elections have reaffirmed our faith in the electoral system and the power of the vote. Those of us who were wondering whether Trump is a historical accident or the harbinger for the dominance of white nationalist, anti-immigrant politics in America have been reassured that the American values of “equal opportunity and inalienable rights for all” can be retrieved through the coalition of civil society and the vigilant media that has been consistently exposing the duplicity and mendacity of the powers that be.
As for the legal system, the recent indictment of Donald Trump's former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has proved that no one is “above” the law. A Special Counsel investigation found that Flynn had lied to the FBI about his conversations with the former Russian ambassador. When questioned, Flynn told investigators that “a very senior member” of the presidential transition team had asked him to make contact with Russian government officials—in other words, he claimed that he was following orders from President Trump's team. That notwithstanding, the indictment in this high-profile case makes it amply clear that association with political heavyweights or being part of the president's “inner circle” does not offer immunity against the law. In fact the current investigation has also extended to include the President himself.
At face value all these developments may appear to be quite routine. Cynics and doubters may even shrug their shoulders and say: “This is all an eyewash. There will be no impeachment or indictment at the highest levels. The Special Counsel is just going through the process to stop public outcry.” Only time will tell if this is true. But there is a deeper moral lesson to be learnt from recent events. The small but significant state election victories tell an interesting story: that ordinary people are feeling empowered as moral agents and the disparities of power, wealth and opportunities have failed to suppress the will of the common people. And that in a functioning democracy people's voices matter most!
The second lesson is that the rule of law is robust enough to face the headwinds from the executive branch. Some of us who have been struggling with the depressing thought that the rich and the powerful can “always” get away with infringing the law can find comfort in the fact that even President Trump's powerful advisors could not escape legal retribution.
We cannot extrapolate the current trends to predict the future of US politics and its impact on the country's multiracial and diverse population. But for now, we can console our sagging spirits with the thought that in the Karmic cycle, right does ultimately win over wrong. And virtue is the strongest weapon of the weak and the honest.
Milia Ali is a Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.