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Friday, 05 February 2021 12:29

Winning votes through identity politics

According to official estimates, Donald Trump obtained 74 million votes in the November 2020 US presidential election losing to Joe Biden who secured 81 million votes. Biden won by a comfortable margin but Trump also performed remarkably well.

What explains his performance? Analysis of his performance may reveal the growing influence of a certain combination of forces that may shape elections in not only the US but also in other parts of the world in the coming years.

Considering that most of the popular media channels, many established business outfits, professional groups, women’s organisations and youth movements were against Trump, how did he succeed in harnessing so much support?

Let us not forget that more than the media and various entities, Trump’s failure to handle the Covid-19 pandemic which resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and spiralling infections eroded his support base considerably.

While a variety of factors may have been responsible for the votes that Trump garnered – including his incumbency – certain observers have highlighted his appeal to a huge segment of the majority White population and his economic record as decisive.

As he did in his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump successfully projected himself as the defender of the interests of the Whites at a time when demographic changes favouring the Hispanic population on the one hand and Black political empowerment on the other (Barack Obama’s eight years in the White House as a case in point) were allegedly jeopardising the position of the majority community.

Baseless as these allegations were, they were craftily manipulated to the advantage of the fearmongers.

Fear manipulation by itself would not have worked if Trump had not proven that he could also deliver the goods – even if it was superficial. During his four years as president of the US, it is true that he created jobs for not only the majority but also for the minorities including Blacks, Hispanics and Asians.

Businesses at all levels flourished and the economy appeared to be benefitting various segments of society.

It is this combination – Trump at the forefront of identity politics and him pushing the economy forward that seems to have helped him in his electoral campaign. This combination of forces would have ensured his political triumph, some analysts argue, if it had not been for the pandemic.

Within his White constituency, the force that mobilised mass support for Trump came from the Christian Right. The Christian Right comprises diverse elements including Christian Zionists who in recent times have come to view Trump as a divinely chosen leader who will fulfil their ideological mission through Israel.

This is why many Christian Zionists blindly endorsed Trump in the November 2020 US presidential election.

Hindu nationalism

When we turn from the US to India, the world’s largest democracy, the nexus between identity politics and economic achievements becomes even more obvious.

In recent elections, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which assumed power on its own in 2014 has projected itself as the champion of Hindutva, of Hindu nationalism – a party sworn to protect Hindus against alleged moves by Muslims and other minorities in India to weaken the link between religion and the Indian polity.

In the 2019 general election, after five years in power and with its Hindutva credentials even more pronounced, the BJP had a greater grip on the Hindu vote.

Its readiness to erase manifestations of Islam in the public arena from places, names to historical narratives was testimony to its fidelity to the religion.

But the BJP also has a people-oriented development agenda. It is committed to not only creating jobs and raising incomes but also to building much-needed public facilities.

Its claim to have built “a million toilets” since coming to power in 2014 has had some impact upon popular sentiments. The BJP often talks about its rural transformation programmes and how it has reached out to the urban poor.

The BJP’s identity politics provides psychological support to its development agenda just as its development agenda derives its moral strength from its adherence to identity symbols and forms.

However, as in the US, the issue is how identity politics tends to encourage exclusive tendencies within the body politic. It strengthens dichotomies and divisions in society.

The real challenges facing the people in the economy, in politics and in societal relations are often marginalised as bigotry, and prejudice takes centre stage.

Thus, some religious or cultural symbols manipulated by the elite may capture the popular imagination through what requires attention in society. It may be falling educational standards or universal healthcare.

Political parties or leaders who do not want to see the politics of identity expressed through bigotry and communal stances dominate their societies especially if they are multi-ethnic are often in a quandary.

How do they defeat such politics while remaining faithful to politics that is inclusive, honest and committed to justice and integrity? There is one thing that they should not do.

They should not play the same game of exploiting religious or communal sentiments to gain electoral support. The entire system will sink deeper into the communal cauldron. Neither should the opponents of bigotry and communalism dismiss the impact of these forces as a temporary phenomenon which will disappear in time.

Authentic message

The sane response is to examine in depth the eternal values and principles embodied in the great religious and humanistic philosophies and present their wisdom as an alternative discourse.

In other words, what is universal and inclusive, what is just and compassionate in our traditions should be articulated as the real, authentic message of our belief systems. This should be done with courage and integrity whatever the bigots and communalists may say, and however harsh and aggressive their pronouncements and actions may be.

At the same time, those of us who are fighting bigots and communalists with an exclusive agenda should also put forward development policies and programmes that are just, inclusive and humane.

In concrete terms, if the former seeks to build colleges it would be primarily to equip the next generation with the character, knowledge and skills that serve the public good rather than strengthen the elite stratum of society.

As articulators of an alternative, promoting peace and harmony through shared values and principles that bind diverse communities together would be our cherished goal, not the propagation of attitudes that create barriers among us and sow the seeds of mutual distrust and suspicion.

Likewise, those of us who subscribe to an alternative vision of society, will expose the corrupt and the greedy regardless of whether he or she is on our side or not.

If those of us who are opposed to bigotry and communalism possess and practise the right values and principles, it will not be possible for the manipulators of identity politics to spread their influence in society.

The writer is the president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST)

Published in: Free Malaysia Today, 04 February 2021

Source: https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/opinion/2021/02/04/winning-votes-through-identity-politics/

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Tuesday, 07 July 2020 16:54


Ethnic stereotypes are a bane upon any society.

Most of the time they are based upon simplistic generalisations that do not reflect actual realities. They exacerbate ethnic relations in multi-ethnic societies. Worse, they impede the growth of understanding and empathy among individuals from different communities that have had minimum social interaction over a long period of time.

Recent remarks by former Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad that “ the Chinese are  a wealthy lot” and that they “control all the towns in the country” would be examples of such stereotyping. According to the Department of Statistics, 70% of Chinese Malaysians in 2016 belonged to the working –class. In fact, even at the time of Merdeka, the majority of Chinese, as the well-known economist, the late James Puthucheary pointed out were employees not employers of capital. If some Chinese from working-class backgrounds have become rich over the years it is because of opportunities and mobility afforded by the prevailing socio-economic system, apart from their own hard work, perseverance and frugality.

As for towns, while it is true that many present-day towns were pioneered by Chinese, their current management and control are in the hands of largely Malay bureaucrats. Local government bureaucracy in turn is linked to a mainly Malay political order.

This leads us to yet another stereotype which needs to be scrutinised.  There are many non-Malays who argue that Malays exercise total monopoly over political power. This is not true if one appreciates the nature and evolution of political power in Malaysia. Monarchical power which has been exclusively Malay for centuries was preserved by British colonial rule and shared with the people through democratic procedures and practices embodied in the Merdeka Constitution of 1957. It was the Malay Rulers and the UMNO elite who decided to confer political rights upon the domiciled non-Malay populace through extraordinarily accommodative citizenship provisions in the Constitution which had no precedent or parallel anywhere in the world.  Of course, a number of factors contributed to this momentous decision, including colonial interests. But what is critically important is that the decision transformed the entire political landscape forever: from a people associated with a land, the Malays became a community among communities. If this process of accommodation and acceptance is understood, no thinking Chinese or Indian Malaysian would talk of the monopolisation of political power by the Malays. There would be a more empathetic attitude towards the Malay position.  It would improve inter-ethnic relations in the country and contribute towards national integration.

To explain the question of ‘political power’ in more concrete terms, it is often forgotten that the UMNO led Alliance coalition from the first Federal legislative election itself in 1955 set a trend that has remained through 14 general elections. In that election 17 Chinese and Indian candidates from the MCA and MIC were fielded though there was a Chinese majority in only two out of the 52 constituencies. All the MCA and MIC contestants won, most of them needless to say, with Malay votes. This phenomenon of cross ethnic voting is not confined to the Alliance or its successor, the Barisan Nasional.  Other parties have also demonstrated their capacity to elicit support transcending ethnic boundaries. And yet the myth about Malay monopolisation of political power persists.     

There are other ethnic stereotypes that are equally pernicious even if their political impact is not as serious as the two we have just examined.  Segments of different Malaysian communities believe that greed is a Chinese trait; that Indians are untrustworthy; or that Malays are lazy. These are stereotypes that are easily demolished. That many Chinese have displayed tremendous generosity is an irrefutable fact; that there are trustworthy Indians is so many sectors of society is an unchallengeable truth ; that industrious and diligent Malays are found in all walks of life is obvious to any casual observer of Malaysian society.

The stereotype about Malay laziness is perhaps the only instance of a stereotype subscribed to by certain leaders of the targeted people themselves. It is a stereotype that two-time Prime Minister Dr Mahathir has clung on to stubbornly for decades ---- in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary and in spite of the wide range of persuasive arguments marshalled in Syed Hussein Alatas’ much lauded classic, The Myth of the Lazy Native published in 1977. It is a pity that Mahathir does not seem to understand that this myth is rooted in the ideology of colonial capitalism and has been exploited by both the colonialists and by purveyors of communal politics to denigrate native peoples.

The persistence of stereotypes of this sort underscores the importance of emphasising public education on the impediments that obstruct integration in societies like ours. It is revealing that there has not been a single discussion on The Myth over any Malaysian television channel. It is not just the media that should be harnessed for this purpose. The school and the university should also play their role. The family is even more crucial since so many of our values and attitudes are formed through intimate interaction within the confines of the home.  Religious and cultural organisations are equally decisive in this mammoth task of raising social awareness on how destructive stereotypes are.

Dr Chandra Muzaffar has been writing on Ethnic Relations since the early seventies, he is President of International Movement for a Just World.