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There's plenty of room in the Democratic tent
July 14, 2008
There are troubling signs that the Indian-American community will be divided in this fall's presidential election. In my unscientific polling of friends, acquaintances and fellow Democrats during the primary election season, I have observed a generational divide, and while this may not be true in all cases, first generation Indian Americans are largely supporting Senator Hillary Clinton [Images], and those in the second generation, and now the third, are largely on the side of Senator Barack Obama [Images]. With the primary effectively finished and Obama installed as the de facto Democratic Party nominee, it's disconcerting that there are many Democrats who are vehement in their opposition to voting for him.
This perceived divide exist for many reasons. Perhaps Senator Clinton's older supporters were more comfortable with her after being on the national stage for over 16 years. Or perhaps Senator Clinton's support of our community was evidence of her loyalty to us and ours to her, and it may be hard to break that bind of trust to support another. Younger Indian Americans have come out in droves for Senator Obama, and are perhaps more comfortable with him because of his message of change, and his egalitarian view of the world.
Having been a Howard Dean supporter in 2004 and having experienced Dean's defeat at a personal level, I can say that it was hard initially to shift gears and work for Senator John Kerry's bid to unseat President George W Bush [Images]. At the time, there was talk of shenanigans in the Iowa caucuses and secret backroom deals that conspired against Governor Dean, all of which added insult to injury.
Eventually, however, the hard feelings were replaced with the fear of a second Bush term. I had also come to a realisation that, to a large degree, this was politics in America, and we could not afford to nurse grievances and in the process, permit another four years of Bush, given how disastrous the first four years were.
No one could have imagined that the Democratic primaries this year would have dragged on as long as they did -- not those on the Democratic National Committee who devised a system to name an early winner, nor those on the Rules and By-laws committee of the DNC, who had penalised Florida [Images] and Michigan for going out of turn.
In recent history, the Democratic primaries have effectively been over by February or March. It is now July, and in some ways, despite the rising level of excitement on our side and large numbers of those recently registered to vote, we have lost precious time towards preparing for the general election -- in other words, we gave the opposition a head start that, fortunately, Republican nominee Senator John McCain [Images] squandered.
The length of this primary season certainly had the effect of increasing candidate loyalty as well as deepening our stand towards our respective candidates. This will make the reconciliation process that much longer. Recently, a friend who was supporting Clinton mentioned to me that 'my guy' had won the race. I replied to him that as a fellow Democrat, he was now 'our guy', and that the Obama campaign would do all it could to bridge any divides because we need everyone's help in the fall election. While this did not assuage him, my sense is that at the broader level, there is a lack of trust that will take some time to assuage, and to build that trust again.
Perhaps there's more psychoanalysis to be done, but one thing I've heard that's quite alarming is that many in our educated community falsely believe that Senator Obama is a Muslim, or that perhaps even knowing the truth, they have trouble voting for an African American. This confounds me: the country we all hail from is in many ways like America in its multi-religious composition, and so it is surprising to think that factors like religion or race may be cause for adverse opinions against a candidate who boasts amazing credentials.
Maybe it's not even important to know exactly why many from our first generation are having difficulty coming around. Sometimes we search so hard and long for answers in life that even we find that answer, we then realise that it does not speak to our higher purpose, which is a commitment to our core beliefs and ideals. A friend of mine so often says, 'What would Gandhi do?' As children are our bridge to social consciousness these days, perhaps we should ask, 'What would the younger generations encourage us to do?'
Regardless of differences in the recent past while we rooted for our favorite candidates, I think it is imperative that we come together now -- and I think we will. There will be hard feelings for some time to come. As in a relationship, a break-up in such a public space results in deep wounds, and the memories of a courageous Clinton battling on against the odds are just too fresh.
We must strive to overcome those feelings and immerse ourselves in the heady work of supporting our presumptive nominee, and working towards that larger purpose: to take back the White House from the Republican Party, end eight years of misrule, and get this country back on the rails again.
I often think back on that 2004 election, and wonder: If I had worked just a little bit harder, if we all had gone that extra mile, would we have been saluting President Kerry today and looking back at a one-term Bush presidency as a distant, uncomfortable memory?
Here is a cautionary story: In 2004, if Democrats had only won 10 more votes in each precinct, Kerry would have been President today. And that is why we cannot afford to slacken; why we cannot afford to mourn 'our guy' or 'our girl', and put in less than our maximum effort towards the larger purpose.
What heartens me and gives rise to my optimism are my recent experiences with the Obama campaign. It is certainly the most inclusive team that I've had the privilege to be affiliated with, and one that strives for multiple opinions and alternative viewpoints. In the 'cliqueness' that often exists in campaign work, I find the Obama dynamic highly refreshing and truly inspiring. We need Clinton supporters as much as our own, and it would be impossible to win this election on our own while millions of Democratic supporters stand on the sidelines or even vote against our presumptive nominee. In the days after the primary ended, Senator Clinton gave an electrifying speech, and the two competing campaigns have made efforts to reach out and work together despite the long-fought race.
My message to Hillary supporters is, take all the time you need to get over these bruising primaries, and when you are ready, Senator Obama and the Democratic Party will be ready to work with you. We'll need all of you this election. The stakes have never been higher and the issues never more important. Hillary Clinton will be fighting hard to bring us all together, as she knows all too well the disaster of a continuation of Bush policies, under a Senator John McCain administration, will bring.
These are dire times. One more vote on the Supreme Court could have made torture legal. A Republican win could mean our soldiers spending decades more in Iraq, while America bleeds life and money. A wrong-headed vote this fall will continue to incur an Iraq tax burden which is now three trillion dollars and counting. If you hate taxes now, you'll just love financing Senator McCain's foreign policy foibles. Additionally, we will be mired in a petro-based economy and continue our reliance on Middle East oil, which will self-perpetuate our cycle of international incursions and dominate our foreign policy for the foreseeable future. This is what we have to look forward to, unless we collectively get under the big tent.
Senator Obama has the ability to unite our nation as no one has done in my lifetime. Perhaps you need more proof, and in the coming weeks I'm sure he and his talented team of campaign staffers will show us. With the US at the precipice of history, it will take a leader with a strong and inspiring vision of the future to restore our place in the world and motivate our actions. As a new immigrant community that has worked so hard in past years to enhance our political clout, we cannot let our current divide crumble our newly realised potential -- most certainly not when we stand on the edge of a great new tomorrow.
Democratic Party activist Varun Nikore is founder of the Indian-American Leadership Initiative and aviation advisor to the Senator Barack Obama campaign
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