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The Illusion of the American Election

By: Atmanah Parab

As a kid, I don’t remember thinking much about politics. The founding fathers with their cherry trees and boat rides across freezing rivers seemed more like mythological characters than people to me. Their lives, their impacts, and their paradigms for existence were far separated from the world I lived in.  I was far more preoccupied with demolishing pancakes and watching fireworks with my family on the 4th of July than to even truly consider my own country. It seemed then that the United States had been around forever. I could not conceive of a world without the structures I knew. Understandable; I was, after all, a kid. In addition to this, my parents, Indian citizens, had little interest in American politics or any desire to express their political will in a country that had not yet become their own. As I learned and grew, things started to change. 

In middle school, I learned about the birth of democracy in Greece where pebbles and urns were the first ballots and ballot boxes. I learned about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and wondered if I would know if and when the political and social structures around me were crumbling or whether I would live to see the death of an empire. At this point, I still saw American politics as something far different than I do now. Politics to me was: the structures of government, neat checks and balances, and flow charts that showed a bill becoming a law. None of the grey areas, chaos, or high stakes that politics can have in real life. I was aware that there were two parties. I watched the presidential and vice-presidential debates, rooting for Obama wholeheartedly because I believed in the presidency and the “good” of the Democrats and American government in general. 

 But as I’ve come to learn through high school debate, many political science courses, and existing as a human being in the United States, this sh*t is kind of messed up.

 Why do politicians seem to value winning the electoral game over making a truly positive impact on the lives of their constituents? Why do we not have universal healthcare, a commitment to education or science, and the blood of the Global South on our hands? And most currently relevant, why on earth are our elections the way they are? Why are we always stuck choosing between the lesser of two evils and two parties only? Why does the electoral college still exist?

You see, now that I’m 20, the founding fathers have suffered a mighty fall from the mythological. I now recognize them as the creators of a purposefully restrictive and exclusive political structure. As much as living in the United States in 2020 is vastly different than in the late 18th century, the decisions made  based on the context of life then are still applied to the America that I live in now. This leads to many of the problems that plague American electoral politics.  The way that parties and candidates function within the American political sphere is neither beneficial to their constituents or democracy at large, however, the kicker is that this behavior is necessitated by the structure of American electoralism. 

The first and often overlooked component of the maelstrom of misrepresentation we find ourselves in is the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system. This is something so inherent to the process of American electoralism that when I first learned that there were alternatives, my mind was blown. FPTP is a form of plurality voting where the candidate that accrues a majority of the vote wins the election regardless of which percentage of the vote was won. For example, if three candidates A, B, and C are running for mayor and A wins 35% of the vote and thus the seat. However, B and Cs vote shares account for 65% percent of the vote. Meaning that the elected candidate was only truly representative of 35% of the electorate. Under FPTP, candidate A winning is fair and obvious as the single candidate with the most votes, but this is not a highly representative system. Alternative electoral systems either allow for ranked voting, ensuring that the votes of citizens are not wasted beyond their first preference, or have an increased emphasis on proportionality, and take into consideration vote shares. The reason this matters is because the majority of large-scale American elections, supposedly built on the ideal of democracy and representation, occur through FPTP. Even if we take aside the electoral college (which simply compounds these issues) there is a fatal and obvious failure at achieving true democratic representation even simply on the level of the winner-take-all mechanism of FPTP. 

Unfortunately for us and proponents of true representation, the effects of the electoral college cannot be overlooked. Probably the most maligned feature of our current electoral system is the electoral college. Pew Research Center polls consistently show that the majority of Americans would like to abolish the electoral college and yet it exists. We are taught that the electoral college was a compromise made to assure the voices of less populated states would not be silenced by areas of high population concentration. There is a barely veiled vested interest in reducing the potency of the public vote in the electoral college, especially given that at the time it was put into action, less than 6% of the nation’s population fit the requirements to vote. In modern-day America where the population is increasingly concentrated in either smaller geographical areas (metropolitan areas) or spread thin across vast swathes of land, the electoral college results in the votes of some being worth far more than others. A vote in Wisconsin is worth sixty-six Californian votes. 

However, because the Electoral College is a part of the Constitution and amending it to a more representative form of election such as a national popular vote or ranked-choice voting would result in a complete transformation of power in the political sphere, there is a hesitance for those in power to allow such a change. While people may vote, it is land that speaks. The electoral college creates an inherent imbalance in the value of different regions and it shows in the attention that candidates give to key issues and the lack of care dedicated towards uniquely urban issues. 

This matters because regardless of how voting potency is distributed, a majority of Americans are facing a dilution of their power as citizens and voters. The electors for a given state are obligated to vote for the candidate elected by popular vote in their state even if the margin that the candidate wins by is extremely slim. All electoral votes for a state going to a single candidate winning by a slim margin is a gross misrepresentation of the citizen will. In addition to this, people of color tend to stay in urban and metropolitan areas adding to the generalized institutional racism inherent in American society. The victories won through this electoral system are only perpetuated by office-holders who use their authority to gerrymander and disenfranchise. 

This combination of electoral systems leads to a huge and forceful oversimplification of the country’s policy preference. It is also the reason why voting for the third party is a risk.  Often third parties stray from mainstream/centrist politics and advocate for “radical” change which puts off a fair chunk of American voters. Any votes for third party candidates are likely to have the electoral effect of simply detracting from the vote share of one of the two main candidates rather than winning any elections resulting in what political science scholars call a ‘wasted vote’. This isn’t fair to the citizens of the United States or the political process because it effectively shuts down anything outside of the main two parties and devalues progress simply for the maintenance of power and electoral control. While all our votes do matter, we have to get real and wonder how much they matter and whether it is fair that things are the way they are. 

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The USPS and the Delivery of Democracy

By: Atmanah Parab

The spread of the Coronavirus has forced a reevaluation of society at large for many. Among the myriad of questions being asked, one that stands out is: what is an essential service? What is a service so valuable that its provision trumps protection of health, safety and the bottom line? With an election, medicine deliveries and affordable shipping on the line, the USPS emerges as an example. Due to the fact that it is a service of massive value to Americans, its dissolution could be another nail in the coffin of American democracy. 

In the era of online communication, physical mail can feel antiquated and maybe even unneeded but the reality is that physical mail and services like the United States Postal Service are of vital importance to the function of the nation. However, the future of the USPS is highly uncertain between the unprecedented attack of COVID-19, restrictive legislation that weakens its functionality and the general neglect and dismissal from the Trump Administration. Not everything can be run as a business where the primary standard for value is profit and avoiding debt, and the USPS is one of the only egalitarian services offered by the United States government. 

As an article from The Economist puts it, the USPS is suffering “one acute and two chronic” ailments. The “acute” one being the exposure of USPS employees to Coronavirus resulting in tens of thousands of quarantined workers and in some cases, death. In addition to this, the threat of COVID-19 and the limitations placed upon the normal operations of businesses have resulted in less mail, exacerbating the trend of consistent financial losses by the USPS. 

The “chronic” issues with the USPS are structural and widespread patterns in function, that have only been worsening over time. First, the decline of first-class mail –“the most popular and economical way to send standard postcards, letters, large envelopes, and small packages”–is one of the most obvious issues for the USPS. With the advent of the internet, it is less efficient and more costly to communicate through mail. Second, the USPS has struggled as its services are gradually outpaced by technology but the agency is one of the most favored parts of the United States government. Despite being clearly valued by Americans, legislation and financial regulation has served to punish the USPS for its struggle to stay afloat and limit its function even further. An example of a bill passed in 2006 that requires the agency to provide for retiree healthcare up to decades in advance, this places a great deal of financial stress on the agency. 

There has been a historic movement to defund or privatize the USPS and orient its structure towards generating a profit rather than providing service the way it does. However, if the USPS and its status has been an issue warranting concern for decades, why is its current status so precarious? A recent and alarming continuation in this vein are the rhetoric espoused and actions taken by the Trump Administration in regards to the USPS. In the past month or so, Trump has gone from dismissing the USPS as “a joke” to blatantly admitting that the defunding of the USPS will have a derailing effect on the 2020 election to the random removal of mail processing machines in key states. When economic supplement funds were allocated to businesses and government entities alike to soften the blow of COVID-19 through the CARES Act, the proposed infusion into the USPS was cut down and debt relief was denied. In addition to this, the newly appointed Postmaster General has implemented several changes that have contributed to further degradation of services, “Internal Postal Service documents obtained by The Washington Post show that postal employees have been barred from working overtime hours and instructed to leave mail behind if it is processed late.” 

However, the point at which these delays become especially terrifying and apparent is when the 2020 election is concerned. Due to COVID-19 the safest way to cast a ballot (and hopefully the most popular way) is to mail it in. However, if the USPS is being purposefully hindered to the point of delay during regular volume mail traffic, the election could be a set up for disaster. It is also worth noting that due to the hyper-politicized nature of discourse about the coronavirus that people more likely to use absentee ballots as opposed to showing up to physically vote lean towards certain party identifications and demographics. These specific inclinations follow existing trends of wherein certain populations (conservative, older, rural etc.) are more likely to vote and not have their votes suppressed through the disproportionality of the electoral system, voter ID laws and systematic disenfranchisement. What’s worse is that there is an existing precedent of mail-in-ballots being arbitrarily discounted. That being said, to counter this effect and ensure democratic expression, voters who wish to vote by mail-in-ballot must be conscious of delivery times and send their ballots off far in advance. Other advice floating around the internet advises the determined voter to drop off their mail-in-ballots in person and to go as far as to get in contact with election supervisors to minimize the effects of Trump’s attacks on the USPS. 

Beyond the 2020 election, the USPS is integral to the function of this nation. Certain rural communities and regions are only brought mail, medicine and deliveries due to the USPS’s extensive service network. The absence of this agency or weakening to the point where more and more offices are forced to shut down will actively end chains of communication and medical delivery in places like Alaska. Even private alternatives such as UPS and FEDEX are significantly more expensive and often hand off their “hard to deliver” items off to the USPS as a national connector. In the absence of the USPS small businesses will likely suffer most with the lack of affordable delivery services. It is truly unfortunate but, the USPS, one of the largest forces that works to equalize a country that seems to be fracturing at the seams is now under attack.

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The Puzzle of the Sari and Indian Womanhood

By: Atmanah Parab

When I had six yards of fabric wrapped haphazardly around my body, hands clumsy and unsure of which step to take next. I wondered, was now the time for a YouTube search? I also wondered whether my cousins would laugh if they could see me at that moment. 

When my mom had helped me put the sari on just two days prior, the fabric had slipped through her fingers like magic and laid precisely where she wanted it to, the result of years of experience. Eventually, with the help of several safety pins, two or three friends, and the aforementioned Youtube video, I strolled out of the house, sari somewhat intact. I felt a sense of pride as that was the first time I’d put on a sari on my own without my mom’s assistance. 

When I was seven years old, I remember gasping in awe as my mom showed me a newspaper clipping of an article about her and her sari collection. In 1997 when my mother and father moved into a small apartment in Ontario, CA, they were some of the first Indian people in the city. The article featured pictures of my mom doing her laundry in the apartment complex laundry room wearing a shiny green sari. The luster and hue of the fabric in stark contrast with the neutrality of her background despite the fading from age.

When I was just a little older and living in India, I marveled at my grandmother who wore a sari almost every day of her life. Uncomfortable in pants of any kind, she lived her life in a balancing act of fabric and friction. In it, she couldn’t run or jump but she could work in the kitchen, walk around the neighborhood and take her afternoon naps without even a grumble of discomfort. 

When I tried on my first sari at thirteen, I was shocked and confused when I didn’t instantly look like my favorite Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone. The saris present in the movies certainly tell a story of womanhood but it is one altered by the need to appeal to lust. Featuring prominently in Bollywood movies is not the Indian woman and her sari but almost a costume of them. Blouses are reduced to bejeweled bras and the front of the sari is pushed off to the side to expose a flat stomach. There isn’t anything wrong with choosing to wear a sari that is decidedly sexy, but the use of such saris almost exclusively in songs or scenes where a female in a movie is to be highlighted as attractive runs counter to the true significance of saris to the Indian woman. 

The sari is not just an item of clothing, it is an institution. Indian women wear the sari as a form of expression, but the sari itself tells a story of the woman who wears it. Traditionally, a girl is bought her first sari after her first period, a sign of her transition into womanhood. She is taught how to wear it by the other females in the house and can now wear it on special occasions. 

Buying a sari is an event in itself. There are as many variations to the sari as there are languages and subgroups within the Indian subcontinent. Not only that, locales are known for saris in special fabrics, colors and patterns. The way a sari is draped around the body is also a matter of regional preference. All this versatility and identity wrapped up in a length of fabric. 

Upon setting foot into a specialty sari store in Kerala, two states over from where my family lives in India, we were greeted with a bustle of activity on arrival. Sitting around a large table laid out with a veritable competitive bracket of potential purchases, we chatted and exchanged stories while sipping on complimentary sodas. The four women in my family including me, did not leave the store until each of us had two or three saris each in a sampling of the local flavor. Simply the mode of shopping makes the experience feel heavier and more substantial than running to your local Forever 21 for a dress. 

However, for some the cost of donning sari is higher than just the rupees or dollars on the price tag. For Indian transwomen, life is incredibly difficult, outwardly using femine presentation such as saris and having other people be aware of their identities often leads them away from their homes and communities to the “hijra” communities that are mired by poverty and kept afloat by coerced sex work. However, these communities are often the only places where they can be accepted for who they are. In an interview with the Diplomat, Shreya, a transgender woman living in Mumbai, spoke to her experience, “We leave our families, the security and safety of our homes, only to plunge into poverty and destitution. All this so that we can wear a saree.”[1] There are risks to being authentically feminine, to wear something like a sari that for many woman is an unquestioned given.

To be a woman anywhere is complicated, marking a balance between what is perceived as femininity and what is seen as “other”. As a symbol of womanhood and femininity in India, the sari is not just beautiful fabric draped about the body free from the complexities of history and society. It is history, it is womanhood, it is femininity. Uncovering the secrets of a sari as I’ve learned go far beyond a Youtube tutorial. 

[1] https://thediplomat.com/2020/01/what-does-indias-transgender-community-want/

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Family and Fear v.s. Peace and Love

By: Atmanah Parab

I’ve had to reacquaint myself with many aspects of living at home since quarantine started. Whether it be abiding by my parent’s mandatory household vegetarian days or my sister stealing my fancy moisturizer.  Bhajans played at frankly inconsiderate volumes that wake me up before my 10:30am alarm. The smell of dinner, pervasive and yet somehow welcome at the same time. All small changes I’ve reincorporated into my daily routine.   

One heavier thing I’ve had to get used to are the twice-a-day calls to Mumbai to check on my grandfather. In 2016, my grandfather had a severe stroke that resulted in paralysis from head to toe of the left side. Since then, the structure of my family’s life has changed to include trips to India whenever financially possible to check on him. A part-time ward boy was appointed to take care of my grandfather’s medical treatment but after the death of my grandmother, the ward boy and his family had to move in full-time to make sure someone was always looking after my grandfather. 

This brings us to the current date. In the time of COVID-19, movement is limited and fear is unending. For the first few days of quarantine, I spent my days in a bubble. I was annoyed and bored as only those privileged enough to be complacent can be. My immediate family was safely at home and non-immunocompromised, as long as we stayed inside, this crisis would blow over soon.

This facade of peace was shattered by the realization that while coronavirus was spreading rapidly in the United States, it was also spreading in Mumbai, where the rest of my family is. 

I see a field of matches and fire, unencumbered, engulfing them all in the blink of an eye. In my fearful mind’s eye, Mumbai feels like this grid of matches. The first thing to understand is that Mumbai is not a city of easily recognized structure. It is a civilization built into the sea and reaching for the sky to hold its bustling population. Pavement dwellings built from a hodgepodge of materials with hammered tin roofs are often a two-minute distance from brick and mortar buildings oozing from the humidity, and those yet, are ten minutes from sleek high-rises with balconies to clap from. That is, if you’re not counting the worst traffic you could imagine. One thing is evident in this organized chaos, Mumbai is a city of its many, many people. It is incredibly common for multiple generations of a family to live in one house, after all that is the way my family has lived for decades back. In an area like this, social distancing poses a glaringly obvious challenge. 

The second thing to understand is that in some eyes, my father has failed in his most important duty. As the only son of a relatively traditional Indian family, it is a part of his duty to take care of his parents in their old age. The roles he plays and how they conflict are only thrown into sharper relief with financial pressure to perform at his highest capacity, make sure his daughters and wife are safe and to make sure that his father is being cared for, over the phone with no way of physically going over there. All he can do is make sure to check in as much as possible and take care of his father through the phone. Some calls are sadder than others, there are days where even the smallest movements normally possible through physical therapy are simply too much for my grandfather. On other days he can’t seem to remember any of us. On the worst days, he’s unwell and fragile and the distance between California and Mumbai seems too far to help. 

Kishore is the name of the ward boy who takes care of my grandfather. Him and his family now live in the same flat that my grandparents had inhabited for the past 20 years. In the words of my mother “it was God’s grace and our good karma that we found him”. In the past few months, their stay in our family flat has brought a new wave of excitement: Kishore’s wife recently gave birth to a baby boy. In the midst of one of the most widespread public health crises and in a house that was previously a makeshift hospital room, new life was breathed in. It was in sleepless nights and coordinating with doctors to make sure that she received the best care that the news impacted my household here in the states, but in the days since the birth, my parents have added cooing at the baby sleeping soundly into their daily routine. A bracing reminder that no matter what, life will go on and family and love can still bring joy. That we as human beings can still be here for each other and fight for each other from a distance. 

The coronavirus is a physical threat, with many psychological side effects: fear, anxiety and guilt. At this time, the only real certainty is uncertainty and it’s hard to find silver linings when the world feels as if it’s been thrown into chaos, but despite whatever has happened and whatever will happen, humanity has the capability to look out for each other and to love. So the next time my father Facetimes India and I get to see my grandfather’s face, more delicate and sallow than I’ve ever seen it in real life, I’ll remember that it is our luck and love that keeps him alive. Though he will be struggling to remember me and wave at the phone, it’s another day that he’s safe and for now that will have to be peace.