As I write this, an American presidential election has just concluded. Along with all its craziness, this election also saw the repetition of a global phenomenon that’s carried on consistently for years, and seems to only be gaining traction. No, I’m not talking about nationalist populism or political partisanship, nor about public responses to either of those things; I’m talking about us non-Americans caring deeply about American politics.
In the buildup to the U.S. election—and particularly on the counting day(s)—chatter about American politics was unavoidable. From dinner-table conversations to Instagram stories, most Indians had an opinion on Trump, Biden, and the American polity. These opinions didn’t just come from Non-Resident Indians or the so-called ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis); they equally came from Indians who’ve at best visited the U.S. a couple of times. These Indians have no part to play in the American political cycle—they cannot vote in U.S. elections, do not live on U.S. soil, and will at most feel repercussions of American policy when it comes to visa and green card regulations. Some do admittedly have family and friends in the U.S., and so have some stake in American political processes. But an equal number don’t have such considerations either, meaning they hold strong opinions about an event that would, on the face of it, have little to no direct effect on their lives.
All of which begs the question: why? Why would people care so much about something they have so little direct stake in? And why do we see this time and time again? After all, it isn’t just about presidential elections—every American socio-political movement elicits strong reactions from certain sections of Indian society whose members arguably have little to do with the movement. We don’t even need to go back that far to find examples of this. Some months ago, following George Floyd’s murder, a large number of Indians—including celebrities like Karan Johar and Karisma Kapoor—raised their voices in protest on social media, asserting that Black Lives do indeed Matter. But while any stand against institutional discrimination is commendable, it’s worth noting that many of these people had likely never discussed such issues with an African-American or interacted with an American policeman—making their participation in the movement somewhat less obvious. I could, as many already have, point out the hypocrisy in such stances—the fact that the very same people who protested George Floyd’s murder had little to say on violence against Black Africans at home, or the fact that we Indians continue to obsess over fair skin—but that’s besides the point. Because, before trying to explain our comparative levels of investment in domestic and American politics, we should perhaps ask why we even care so much about American politics in the first place.
One weak answer is that this trend has to do with a cultural inferiority complex that a certain segment of Indian society is subject to. As per this view, English-speaking Indians always care more about what’s going on in the West than what’s going on at home, because they have no pride in their roots, and aspire to a culture that isn’t theirs. This is the sort of argument one often hears from members of older generations who have a particular love for Twitter and WhatsApp. At a general level, there’s a kernel of truth in there—jeans, for instance, are ‘cooler’ than dhotis—but this does not adequately explain our investment in American politics. And the biggest reason this explanation falls short is that the phenomenon at hand really isn’t one limited to English-speaking India. Why did Hindu Mahasabha members—who are ostensibly some of the proudest of their cultural roots—conduct prayers for Donald Trump’s victory in 2016? Why did French DJ David Guetta dedicate a remix of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to George Floyd and his family? Why did massive crowds (not of upper-middle class English speakers, mind you) assemble in Gujarat to greet Trump in February last year?
A far stronger answer to the question of why we all care so much about American politics has to do with soft power.
Soft power generally refers to the ability to sway people without coercion, typically on grounds of culture and social values. This is in contrast to ‘hard’ power, which deals with coercive force. Here’s an example: many people around the world try to learn Japanese as a second language, despite it serving no functional use in their own countries. But they don’t do this because they have to—they do it because they want to, primarily thanks to the popularity of Japanese art forms like manga and anime. They are, in this sense, under the sway of Japanese soft power. Contrast this with hard power: the reason schoolchildren learn a second language (generally) isn’t because they want to. It’s because they have no choice. Schools have coercive power over their students (such as the ability to detain them) which forces most students to obey. The average school-going child isn’t under the sway of a school’s soft power—they’re under the sway of its hard power.
These notions of hard and soft power are applied far more often to situations involving international politics than they are to everyday events. But soft power in particular does inevitably trickle down to influence even the smallest details of our lives. This is most evident in the case of American soft power. The American way of life—through entertainment, social media, and a whole lot of junk food—has touched even those in the most remote parts of the world. English is the world’s lingua franca, even across parts the British never conquered. Hip-hop is its rhythm, and Coke its third-most favourite drink. (Coffee and tea still stand strong, but who knows what the future holds.) None of this is new, but it also shows no signs of slowing down. For all the talk of the U.S. losing its military dominance over the world, it continues to be the dominant soft power of the global order.
And one consequence of this soft power is that U.S. political discourse permeates far beyond its borders. Hollywood, which produces the biggest movies in the world vis-à-vis both budget and audience, increasingly addresses American political concerns; hip-hop, the language of the global youth, still maintains strong roots in U.S. racial politics; the celebrities with the highest numbers of followers on social media are disproportionately American, and often speak their mind on politics. So if anything, it’s not so much that non-Americans are drawn to distant political territory on account of some love for American society, but rather that American socio-politics is everywhere. For better or for worse, there’s no escaping U.S. politics.
There’s one final, slightly less obvious piece to the puzzle, though: American hard power. Because while the U.S.’s gargantuan soft power explains a lot about why people outside the States care so much about its politics, it still leaves some questions open. Why, for example, do more people not care about Korean or Japanese politics? Both countries wield considerable soft power through different art forms—think anime for Japan and K-pop for Korea—but this soft power does not translate to political investment as it does in the case of the United States. One part of this deficit has to do with the fact that those countries still wield less overall soft power than the U.S. does. But another part of the answer, I think, is that countries like Japan and South Korea lack America’s hard military and economic might. Sure, they produce popular media, but they don’t occupy the centre of most countries’ own political considerations. Because when a country like India has a border row with a country like China, neither Japan nor Korea can swing things one way or another as much as the United States can. Similarly, a trade deal with the United States is likely to have a much stronger economic effect on any country than one with the Vatican City—despite the latter’s sizeable soft power. To that extent, American politics really does have an influence on each and every one of our lives.
The point I’m trying to convey is that while it might seem absurd that people so disconnected from the political process of the U.S. are so invested in it, there are genuine reasons for this investment. And these reasons have to do with political forces that are as powerful as they are inescapable—so although investment in a distant political process is far from obvious, it is also far from ludicrous. Furthermore, this isn’t just about India or Indians; it’s a global phenomenon. Now, the morality of this phenomenon is worth discussing—maybe the world would be a better place if more eyes were on the global poor than on a U.S. presidential debate—but that is a separate question. For all its negative consequences, the global obsession with American politics is not without reason. And until the global order is disrupted, the obsession is likely to continue.
Gaurav Kamath is a staff writer at ALMA MAG. He hopes his degree in philosophy will get him more than a job at McDonald’s, but that is still a working hypothesis.