Make American Aspirations Grand Again

Partha Chakraborty-

Partha Chakraborty

Why is Nikki Haley still in the race?  The question has been asked repeatedly in recent days, especially by the wannabe-King who desperately wants his coronation to happen yesterday, and his cronies.

Never mind that she has the same number of Republican delegates (17), this time in her first run for US Presidency, as he did this time in his first run for the highest office. Never mind that she has been asking for the right – and obligation – for a one-on-one from day one, and now she has earned it. Never mind the next primary is in South Carolina, her home state, the state that had already sent her to the Governor’s mansion twice. Or that, she was the first woman, and the first person of color to be so elected. She needs no introduction in the state, neither does her opponent, but she is the daughter of the soil, and the other is a usurper from NYC, nee Florida.

Never mind that the usurper is perennially tied up in ‘chaos’ – as Haley likes to put it in a diplomatic understatement – and mired in legal imbroglio that might see him behind bars ahead of the general election. Never mind that in a head-to-head contest against the incumbent, Haley wins by head and shoulders.

Haley’s parents came to the US as educators, a commonly used path to legal immigration for South Asians, and settled in the tiny community of Bamberg, South Carolina. They opened two highly successful boutique clothing stores where Haley had her first job – helping her mother in bookkeeping. She graduated from Clemson University – where she also met her future husband Michael Haley – with a degree in accounting in finance. After a stint in corporate life, Haley joined the family business, and concurrently served in many roles at county, state and national levels at business associations, Republican organizations, and various fund-raising efforts. Haley entered politics in 2004, running in State House against the then-longest-serving legislator at the state in a bruising contest that she won; ran unopposed in the 2006 reelection and was re-elected again in 2008. She ran for the Republican nomination in 2010 gubernatorial election, won the primary in a runoff, and was elected Governor. She ran for re-election in 2014 against the same Democratic candidate and won a second time but resigned mid-term after being selected to serve as US Ambassador to the United Nations in 2017. After a tenure marked by forceful defense of US interests in an increasingly murky labyrinth at Turtle Bay, she resigned in December 2018 craving a personal break. In February of 2023, she announced her run for the Republican presidential nomination, being the first woman of color to do so. Michael Haley was a former foster child and is a Major with the South Carolina Army National Guard, currently deployed overseas. The couple have two adult children and take care of Nikki Haley’s aging parents.

What is remarkable is that Haley has taken in strides setbacks and slights that are bound to happen for any newcomer in an established society, especially in the reddest of the Southern states. Haley has never been an identitarian, her own identity is her personal badge of honor, not to be brandished and abused in quest of power or money. She does not dwell too much over stories of being passed over because of her identity, her selling point is that she went back and made herself be reckoned with at the next higher level of achievement, and so on. She is not afraid of the fight, her five-inch heels have pushed quite a few egos under them, both as a politician domestically and as UN Ambassador. She worries about taking care of her aging parents, her husband in deployment, and her children’s well-being in the same minute she retorts with data and cogent analyses impromptu. She is known to be a tireless worker who devours policy books and asks pointed questions, she is not one to swim in a word soup without saying anything, even though her UN Ambassadorship required plenty of that to succeed.

Faced with the unique challenge of diminishing her opponent without alienating his rabid followers, Haley has hit a barrier. One month from the South Carolina primary, she is underwater, even though a month is an eternity in politics. What Haley needs is a message that resonates with everybody, and contrasts against the alternative in a “morning in America” fashion.

Haley needs a narrative told better, and repeated in every forum. That narrative is the narrative of American Aspirations.

In one single generation of an immigrant American family, the daughter is a serious contender for the position of the most powerful person on the planet, the first woman ever. Before her fiftieth birthday she raised two children, finished two terms as a State House member, 2 terms as a State Governor, and a tenure as UN Ambassador; she juggled work and family with a husband in uniform, she managed a successful small business till her political ambitions pushed her away. She climbed the state-level political hierarchy without being a member of any of the two dominant identities.

If that is not a fabled American success story already, what is?

Amb. Haley has a tremendous opportunity to appeal to what America was about in the first place. A place of opportunity. Irrespective of where you are from and how you came here. Regardless of your race, ethnicity, color, origin, sex, or religion. All are created equal by the Creator. That is the promise of America that drove everybody who came here willingly and is still coming by the millions. A ‘shining city on the hill’ where hard work, perseverance and a wee bit of luck can create heroes from zeroes. Haley’s personal story is a great narrative that we need to hear, repeatedly, till we start seeing ourselves in her image, in our dreams.

I will end with the story of a gentleman I met last weekend. Circumstances of our interaction put him in an unflattering light – I was volunteering at the dinner service for a Skid Row homeless center and there he was in line, waiting. His clothes obviously have seen better days, wrinkles and grime on his caramel skin make it nearly impossible to see the thick stubble under his chin. In his hand he was holding a cat-carrier that was kept immaculately clean, inside was a tiny white thing waiting for her milk to come up. The contrast between the cat-carrier and his outward appearance could not be more jarring.

Someday I will have an apartment as clean as I keep her carrier, the gentleman said. “That’s my American Dream you know,” he added for a good measure. In that moment I realized he was no different than you and I; no matter how striving the grind gets, twinkle in our eyes still look out for the days of our lives, however far that may be.

I see the same twinkle in the eyes of Nikki Haley, the same American Dream at work. The promise of America – for every tired soul washing up on its shores – is most manifested in the achievement of sons and daughters of immigrants and refugees. Kissinger achieved the most any could given structural limitations. I see Haley carrying forward the mantle of Gen. Colin Powell, a personal hero. Gen. Powell was proud of his identity, he would amuse myself by blasting reggae music in his office to the bafflement of visitors, but he was the opposite of a race-baiter, no different than Haley. Powell could be the US President, but for some unforced errors; the aspiration remains unfulfilled. [President Obama, another personal hero, was not raised in an immigrant/refugee household, even if he did spend a good part of his early life outside of the US.]

It is up to Haley to make the final leap into the White House, the grand aspiration we had in Gen. Powell.  It is up to her to Make American Aspirations Grand Again. I am rooting for her.



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