America, divided states of america, Serious Writing, society, Thoughts, TRUMP, US Presidential Elections

The United States of America: A Blueprint for a Divided Society – Part I – The Issues

NOTE: This is the first installment in a series of posts outlining my observations on the divided nature of this country. All posts can be found here

In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Elections, the New York Times wrote the following in an opinion piece titled “The Divided States of America”:

Most large cities, college towns, the Northeast and the West Coast are deep-blue Democratic. Ruby-red Republican strongholds take up most of the South, the Great Plains, the Mountain States and the suburban and rural areas in between. Rather than compete directly against each other, both parties increasingly occupy their separate territories, with diminishing overlap and disappearing common accountability. They hear from very different constituents, with very different priorities. The minimal electoral incentives they do face all push toward nurturing, rather than bridging, those increasingly wide divisions.

From a macro perspective, those observations are very valid and true. But they only speak about one of the many factors that divide the people of this country into two rather distinct categories – Liberals and Conservatives.

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The Divided States of America

The history of this country may have taken whatever route it did to get here. But simply taking a long and hard look at ‘the system’ now  can go a long way in explaining the growing divide among the people here. What I present below (and in future posts) are  some simple observations that have had a profound influence on the divided state of this country. I do this with the ultimate objective and hope of informing people from other countries to keep a look out for these very symptoms in their own country, lest they become victims to the same divisive power plays.

What are the Issues?

It starts with a simple question: How can you divide a set of people if you don’t have anything to divide them over? It has an equally simple answer: You can’t. So any process with the stated or implied objective of dividing a set of people has to necessarily start with the identification of issues that can be used for that purpose. But it cannot be any issue. Trying to divide a large group of people over a debate such as “Should Government funding be increased to Arts or Science education?” is far less likely to have an impact than a debate such as “Should Muslims be allowed to migrate to the USA?”.

The key to coming up with a divisive issue is to use a topic that has a very visceral basis. For instance, issues arising out of religion are usually safe bets when it comes to their ability to generate strong and conflicting feelings (think abortion and gay marriage). Real or perceived threats against strong traditions that also have a controversial side-effect are also equally effective (think gun rights/control). Role of Government in the day-to-day working of the economy is yet another topic that can generate strong feelings (think socialism/free market).

It is not enough to simply identify divisive issues. It is equally important to create two (and only two) very distinct approaches to resolve the issue. And once these approaches are identified and articulated, it is then that the crucial act of labeling one approach as ‘liberal’ and another as ‘conservative’ can be taken up. This labeling is the final step in the ‘creation/identification of divisive issues’ step of the process. And in a country where most of the people identify as one of liberal or conservative, once you label a particular approach to any divisive issue as either liberal or conservative, you have then automatically scaled up the division on that particular issue to the entire population.

It is a scary observation, but one that is far too commonplace in this country today. Perhaps the more relevant aspect of this process of creation of divisive issues is that the ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ approaches to these issues do not necessarily have a common overall basis. That is to say there is no defined set of values for either of these groups from which these differing approaches take shape.

The most glaring example of this lies in the perception of socialism and religion. Both are divisive issues that this country has fought over for decades. For liberals, socialism (or at least some form of it) is generally perceived as a necessary means to address issues such as income inequality and capitalistic greed. The conservatives, on the other hand, view socialism as absolute evil and denounce any form of it. Fair enough. But what about religion? The bible and the values and messages derived from it are by far the most important guiding principles for conservatives. The liberals, on the other hand, vehemently oppose any interference between the church and the state. Again, fair enough.

Now I ask this simple question: What kind of a society does Christ/God preach in the Bible? Does he preach a socialistic society where each person looks after the other? Or does it preach a capitalistic society breeding a dog-eat-dog philosophy where one looks out only for oneself? Even the most cursory reading of the Bible will tell you overwhelmingly (and categorically) that it is the former. (Click the links and you can see for yourself)

So if the Bible preaches a socialistic society, then why do the group of people (Conservatives) who so vehemently propagate its message also support the exact opposite in capitalism? It is an open and glaring contradiction. And so, like I said, there is no basis of common values from which the approaches of a particular group of people spring from.

The damaging significance of a divisive issue in a country cannot be understated. The USA is a country where legislatively bringing about a big change (think Civil rights) is a deliberately slow process. In such a ‘system’, a divisive issue inevitably leads to a situation resembling more of a trench-warfare between opposing groups rather than that of an open and fact based debate and resolution. Needless to say, trench warfare over the same issues over a long period of time only works to divide the society that much farther and deeper. This deepening of the division leads to a feedback loop that incentivizes the systems in play to propagate these divisions even more.

But a society cannot be truly divided into two distinct groups just because people have differing opinions on some specific individual issues. To better understand this, consider a (hypothetical) middle aged man in rural California who owns a small farm, employs legal AND undocumented immigrant workers to work his farm, carries guns with pride, goes to church every Sunday, wants universal healthcare, opposes abortion and gay rights, wants the rich to pay their fair share of taxes, advocates for tuition-free college, advocates for climate change initiatives and wants tariffs on goods (including food) imported from outside the USA.

How on earth would you label him – a Conservative or a Liberal?!!?? He supports issues on both sides as it would be perceived today. It is simply impossible to put him in one or the other category as these categories are understood today. Now imagine if America was made up with people like him – people who have strong and differing opinions about the seemingly divisive issues, but do not have a set pattern in their opinions across these issues. In such a situation, when everyone has differing sets of opinions about the same issues, there cannot be a sufficiently large population group that can be thrown into just two distinct categories. Instead, there will simply be dozens (or hundreds) of different groups where the people within that group share common opinions on ALL the issues. But this does not lead to a divided society! This actually leads to a lot of different groups of people with lots of different priorities – but no sustained division. So then why exactly is it so hard (or just plain impossible) to find such people?

The answer lies in grouping. The ultimate key to generating a divide  is to identify these divisive issues and the two contradictory (for or against) opinions about these issues. Then allocate a ‘for’ to specific issues and an ‘against’ to the other issues. (Which ones get a ‘for’ and which ones get an ‘against’ are not necessarily rooted in any common basis or philosophy. And the question of exactly WHO decided these ‘fors’ and ‘againsts’ is for another post). This becomes one group – say liberals. Reverse the allocation of ‘for’ and ‘against’ and we have the second group – the conservatives!

So, for example, one group of such opinions would be to stand for gun rights, oppose gay rights and abortion, for free market, for lesser taxes, against Climate control initiatives, for religion, against immigration, against government programs for general population, pro-business, etc. These, as we understand them today, are considered conservative opinions. The opposite group of opinions would then be considered as liberal opinions. So once the opinions of people on these issues are grouped in a certain set way, the label can then be applied to that entire group.

So instead of having dozens (or hundreds) of groups with each group having different sets of opinions on the same issues, we now have two specific groups where the set of opinions on the same issues are pre-determined. In the former, there is no real way to create and sustain a deep division between dozens (or hundreds) of groups of people. But in the latter, it becomes very simple to create the divide when you only have two groups of people with pre-determined and contradictory sets of beliefs/opinions about the same set of issues.

(Yes there are obviously many many people who do not identify themselves as a strictly conservative or liberal in the way these terms are understood today. But there is no one representing these people in Congress or anywhere for that matter. In other words, they are not large enough in number to actually have a voice that can make a difference. This, unfortunately, makes their presence quite redundant. Similarly, it is also true that the current administration’s trade policies aren’t exactly favoring a ‘free market’ – which has led to some conservatives getting rather confused on how to respond to this).

And that is what has happened to this country. There are exactly two groups of people – liberals and conservatives – each seemingly represented by one specific political party. And with each group having a pre-determined (and opposite) set of beliefs and opinions about the same issues, the ease of creation and sustenance of division becomes that much easier.

But then this leads to further questions: WHO exactly creates these divisions? WHO sustains them? And HOW?

Future posts to discuss these and other aspects of a divided society in detail.

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America, India, Serious Writing, Thoughts, US Presidential Elections

From a Land of Handouts to a Land of Opportunities

One of the most powerful sources of clarity is contrast. Societies in different countries offer glaring contrasts between each other in a myriad aspects of life – all inevitably attributed to a range of factors including the history, the diversity, the founding principles etc. When both extremes of any specific aspect of a society are experienced or witnessed, the nuances of the society’s working reveal themselves in more detail and clarity. Growing up in India and now living in the US since 3 years has provided ample opportunities to observe this very contrast in many many important facets in both the countries.

The role (and its extent) of a government in the functioning of a democracy is one such prevailing contrast. I have been fascinated to see how Americans perceive the Government in stark contrast to how a majority of the Indians see it. Several questions inevitably are raised when this contrast is quantified in terms of where the two societies are right now and what the Governments are doing in each case. What components of public life does the Government concern itself with? Where exactly do they decide they need to interfere? What are the people demanding from the Government?

Profit was a dirty word for Nehru

In order to attempt answering this question, let’s go back to the time India got independence and the first Government came to power. When Jawaharlal Nehru became the Prime Minister in 1947, he inherited a country in chaos and disarray that needed quick solutions. Tasked with the job of restoring order and generating faith among the people in a quick and easy manner, the founding fathers of the Indian Government decided that the Govt’s role was to act as the entity which had a responsibility to personally take care of every single aspect of its populace. Not only did it see its primary role  to be that of shielding the masses from the problems facing the country, it also saw that the only solution to these problems was the Government itself. Inevitably, when this school of thought manifested in the generation of policies, Govt interference became the primary mode of problem addressal at every level of public life.

The impacts the society faced over the next several decades should not only be viewed as a result of what the Government did back then. Equally important is to look at what the Government did NOT do. When it told the people, “We are the Government and we are responsible for you. We will take care of you so you do not have to take care of yourselves”, the Govt did not frame policies that generate opportunities and jobs for the people to solve their problems themselves. It did not encourage the people to seek out and build their own lives. Instead of framing policies and laws that generated jobs and opportunities, the Govt decided that the easiest way to “take care” of the poor and the lower class was to give them ‘handouts’.

These handouts came in many forms – subsidies on cooking gas, petrol, diesel, loan waivers for farmers, tax breaks etc. The lower class families were shielded from the real problems of the society by the appeal of free money. An added benefit for the Govt was that it made it more popular among the voters. (When did free stuff ever become unpopular?). But the important question to ask is how the Govt paid for all these schemes. Its answer was simple. All it had to do was to play Robin Hood. It made sure to tax successful businessmen at insanely high rates (up to 70%) in order to give free handouts to the poor. (I mean, surely those rich people did not NEED that money, right?) This led to the now obvious consequence of discouraging  job creating businesses and instead encouraging Government dependency among the people. More the people depended on the Government, more the Govt decided it was their responsibility to take care of them. The effects of this vicious cycle over the years are reflected best in the demands the poor and the lower class make now.

The entire population that has received handouts from the Govt over the years now demand only one thing – more handouts. They do not demand  better infrastructure and more opportunities for them to build their lives on. This does not appear to them to be the solution to their problems. Why? Simply because the only solution they have ever known has come in the form of free handouts from the Govt. Bad rains? Wave the farm loans. High diesel price? Subsidize it. So much so, these handouts have almost become a fundamental birth right for the long term recipients. And any attempt to get these same people to do without the handouts is going to be futile.

In addition to the obvious consequence of mass objection by the recipients to any reduction in the handouts, there is always going to be a political party that is bound to take advantage of the discontent among the voters to further their own agenda. So ultimately, we have a society in which a Govt gives handouts instead of opportunities or infrastructure, which is in turn voted to power by people who demand more handouts as opposed to opportunities and infrastructure – and all this in a democratic setup that does not allow the breaking of this vicious cycle.

Contrast this with what I have observed in the USA. The founding principles here were based on individual liberty and achievement. The people were encouraged, and in fact expected, to build their own lives by hard work and effort. Meanwhile, the Government saw its primarily role as the entity tasked with the responsibility of framing policies and laws that generated sufficient opportunities for the people to go out, build their own lives and to take pride in their achievement. The Government also sees that it has a responsibility to provide the necessary infrastructure and security that facilitates the effective utilization of the available opportunities by the people. When elections come in, people don’t demand subsidies or handouts. They want to know how each candidate plans to create opportunities, improve infrastructure and provide healthcare and security.

The prevailing mindset in a society that has been subjected to THIS process is very evident. People take pride in building their own lives and achieving their dreams. This in turn leads to improved dignity of labor  – something that is grossly lacking in the Indian context. But perhaps more importantly, we will have a society that attracts and retains the best talent in the world – and this is extremely evident in what is happening in America. You see, this is because the best minds seek appreciation of their talent through opportunities and reward for hard work, not through handouts and subsidies. Ultimately, we have a society where the economy prospers when the people prosper.

(As a side note, the fact that President Obama is going exactly in the opposite direction – that is more Govt control, more food stamps, more subsidies, bailouts, redistributing wealth Robin Hood style – is what will make him never get my support. Do read the full text -not taking anything out of context – of his now infamous ‘You did not build that’ speech and if you still feel he does not have Socialistic tendencies, then you are perhaps already an Obama supporting Democrat no matter what. This ideology, however, sets a very dangerous and irreversible precedent for going down the wrong path)

But I digress.

My main aim of providing this contrast is for it to serve as a means of explanation for the origins and roots of something so deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche. Make no mistake. This is not to imply that the average Indian will consciously NOT make an effort to make use of opportunities and infrastructure. On the contrary, Indians have shown what they are capable of when the economy was hit with reforms in early 1990’s. The middle class rose to the occasion to make use of all the newly available opportunities to build their own lives. Entrepreneurs blossomed amidst encouragement for businessmen and industrialists – generating employment for millions. Today this result can clearly be seen in the ever booming software industry.

Even the poor lower class have shown a propensity to utilize whatever opportunities and infrastructure is available to improve their livelihood.  As Nandan Nilikani has pointed out in his book ‘Imagining India‘, a million dollars spent on laying a road to a remote village is likely to create a lot more jobs than the same amount being spent to provide subsidies for the people of the same village. However,  the fact that their demands still revolve around subsidies should be attributed more to their own prior experience regarding what they have received, instead of implying an inherent hesitancy to work.

The proof is evident and clear. Whenever opportunities are provided, and along with it the necessary infrastructure, the people of India have always risen to the occasion to make use of it and succeed – irrespective of how rich or poor we are. The Government needs to recognize this and prioritize its spending accordingly. What India needs are opportunities – not handouts; it needs infrastructure for the people to effectively make use of these opportunities – not increased subsidies that increase Government dependency and drive up the deficit.

However, as I pointed out earlier, in a multi-party democratic setup like in India, there will always be someone who will seek to appease the people by promising them more handouts. And the unfortunate fact is that this approach has shown to work repeatedly. When or how this vicious cycle is broken is hard to tell. And until that point, India will never make the transition from a land of handouts to a land of opportunities.