Political parties often act as informational shortcuts. Voters’ lives are busy. They do not have the time to research the political views of every candidate that runs for office. Parties fill this void. With parties, voters do not need to know who is running for city council. All voters need to know is the candidate’s political allegiance. In the minds of most voters, the U.S. Democratic Party is liberal and the Republican Party is conservative.
But what if there is no clear ideological difference between the two parties?
Two sides of a coin
This is not an entirely hypothetical question. When a report was published in 1950, there was little difference between the Republican Party and Democratic Party. Each party had conservative, moderate, and liberal wings.
This pattern persisted well beyond the 1968 election when conservative southern Democrats broke from the Democratic Party and joined the Republican Party. Few political science reports are as prophetic as the aforementioned “Towards a More Responsible Two-Party System.”
It was written by the American Political Science Association’s (APSA) Committee on Political Parties and was published as a supplement to the American Political Science Review in 1950. The report was prophetic not because it was visionary, but because its recommendations were followed, and those changes helped bring about the partisan brinkmanship that is prevalent in U.S. Congress today.
Illustration by Lyne Lucien
The effects of that brinksmanship have been devastating.
For instance, in 1980 Democratic members of U.S. Congress included Larry McDonald and Shirley Chisholm, who were on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. McDonald was member of the John Birch Society, a conservative small-government advocacy group, while Chisholm was the first Black American congresswoman and the first Black American to run for president. Yet both McDonald and Chisholm were members of the same political party. As a result, according to APSA, “members of Congress, though elected as the candidates of one party, may be sharply divided on basic national issues, and particularly upon the programs called for in their party’s national platform.”
To solve this problem, the APSA suggested in this report that the Democratic Party and Republican Party become ideologically pure. Liberals should be Democrats and Conservatives should be Republicans.
In this idealized world, the party in power would rule and implement policies consistent with its national platform. The opposition, on the other hand, would act as “the critic of the party in power, developing, defining and presenting the policy alternatives which are necessary for a true choice.”
Parliament or gridlock
Over time, the APSA’s recommendations were adopted. By the 1990s, the Republican Party became overwhelming conservative while the Democratic Party became overwhelmingly liberal. But the benefits of partisan parties that the APSA report predicted were never realized. Instead of producing more responsible parties, ideological purity produced gridlock, brinksmanship and a rapid decline in civil discourse.
There is nothing inherently wrong with ideologically pure parties. In fact, they have worked well in parliamentary democracies such as Great Britain. The problem is that ideologically pure parties work efficiently in parliamentary systems where the legislative and executive branches of government are fused. Unlike most democracies, the United States has a presidential system with independent executive and legislative branches. To understand why this is important, one must look at the role ideologically pure parties play in parliamentary democracies such as Great Britain.
Illustration by Lyne Lucien
Partisan parties are a core feature of British democracy. When elections are held the party that wins the most seats controls the government. The party that loses the election becomes the leader of the opposition. Because the party in power controls all the levers of government, the opposition has little influence in running the government. The only way the opposition can implement its agenda is by winning the next election. Every move made by the opposition is done with elections in mind.
Because elections are the only path to power, the opposition focuses on bringing the government down. It does this by blocking bills to fund the government, passing votes of no confidence, and attacking the policy proposals of the ruling party. The opposition can criticize the government, but that is the extent of its effectiveness until the coming election.
This is not the case in the United States. The U.S. has a presidential system with a separate legislative and executive branch. In such a system, divided government becomes inevitable. In his book Why Parties: The Origins and Transformation of Political Parties in America, political scientist John Aldrich wrote that the recommendations made by the 1950 APSA report reflected an “idealization that fits more readily with a unified, essentially unicameral assembly that combines the legislative and executive branches and that is elected all at once
It fits poorly with a government designed around the principles of separated by intermingled powers, with officials elected at different times from differently defined constituencies for the Madisonian purpose of making ambition check ambition.” In short, when ideologically pure parties are placed in a system of checks and balances, the results are catastrophic.
Take the presidency of Barrack Obama.
When Obama was elected in 2008, he believed that he could end the partisan divide in Washington. Republicans refused to cooperate. They were more interested in making Obama a one-term president than in helping him succeed. At first, their opposition hardly mattered. During Obama’s first two years, the Democratic Party enjoyed commanding majorities in both the House and Senate and could govern without Republican participation.
The situation changed in 2010 when voters gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives. Determined to undo Obama’s legacy, Republicans embarked on a policy of hostage taking that was unprecedented in the history of Congress. In 2011, House Republicans gave Obama an ultimatum: support a $100 billion cut in social spending or Congress will refuse to raise the debt ceiling. Previously, Congress regularly voted to increase the debt ceiling because raising the debt ceiling has nothing to do with increasing debt. Instead, it is an acknowledgement that the United States will pay its bills and not default on its debt. Failing to increase the debt ceiling is like ordering a pizza and then refusing to pay for it.
Illustration by Lyne Lucien
After much arm twisting, an agreement was reached on the night of April 8th, mere hours before the April 9th deadline. In exchange for raising the debt ceiling, Obama agreed to $38 billion in budget cuts. In an interview with Fox News’s Neil Cavuto shortly after the vote, then Senate minority––now majority––leader Mitch McConnell claimed that the debt ceiling deal set the template for the future:
In the future, Neil, no president—in the near future, maybe in the distant future—is going to be able to get the debt ceiling increased without a re-ignition of the same discussion of how do we cut spending and get America headed in the right direction. I expect the next president, whoever that is, is going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again in 2013, so we’ll be doing it all over.”
After the debt-ceiling fiasco, Republicans banked on winning the presidency and control of the Senate in the 2012 election. Instead, Obama was re-elected and the Republicans lost seats in the Senate. The only bright spot for Republicans was that they kept control of the House. Despite losing the 2012 elections, House Republican decided to employ the same brinksmanship tactics used during the 2011 debt ceiling crisis.
In the Fall of 2013 House Republicans gave Obama another ultimatum: repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or they would shut down the government. Unwilling to repeal his crowning achievement, Obama refused to compromise. As a result, the federal government shut down from October 1 through October 16. Realizing their recklessness, the Republicans ultimately caved in, but the episode did lasting damage and made America’s political system a laughing stock.
Governance in duality
The events described above may sound like the actions of a deranged, out-of-control political party. But what the Republicans were doing was exactly what any ideologically pure opposition party would do in a Westminster style parliamentary democracy.
The APSA report neglected to consider two other aspects of American government. First, the United States has a federal system, not a unitary system. States’ governments are not passive, acting on behalf of the federal government; rather, they are the implementers of federal policy. The Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, can make regulations on the amount of CO2 a power plant can release. That rule, however, will only be successful if the states are willing to help enforce it. Moreover, important policy is often determined at the state and local level.
Illustration by Lyne Lucien
Second, the United States has midterm elections. Two years into a president’s term, all members of the House and one third of the Senate is up for reelection. In almost all midterm elections, the president’s party loses seats in Congress. Since 1842, there have been forty-four midterm elections. In all but three of them (1934, 1998, and 2002), the president’s party lost seats in Congress. Making matters worse, thirty-four states elect their governors during a midterm election, while only eleven states hold their gubernatorial election in a presidential year.
In 2010, Republicans gained six gubernatorial seats and picked up 680 state legislative seats. Since there were no liberal Republicans among those elected, Obama had no Republicans he could work with. As a result, the United States had two sets of governments that were completely at odds with each other. Republican governors thwarted the establishment of state-based health exchanges, refused to accept Medicaid money under the health care law even though accepting funds would save the state money, and, more generally, did everything in their power to undermine Obama’s agenda.
Party or policy?
Supporters of the APSA report might question the conclusion that its recommendations were deeply flawed, pointing out that legislative obstruction has always occurred. During the Harry S. Truman’s presidency, for instance, he proposed a sweeping economic program called the Fair Deal. Among other things, the Fair Deal called for full employment and the establishment of universal health care.
Truman, however, could not convince Congress to support him, and his Fair Deal crumbled. The Congressmen who most strongly opposed Truman’s Fair Deal were not Republican, but Southern Democrats. In cases like this, what does it matter if a conservative Democrat is obstructing legislation instead of a Republican? Isn’t it obstruction regardless of which party commits it?
This is a good question.
Illustration by Lyne Lucien
From the 1940s till the 1960s, conservative Democrats repeatedly blocked civil rights and other progressive legislation favored by their more liberal colleagues. But what is remarkable is that, despite the tensions between the conservative and liberal wings of the Democratic Party, the conservative Democrats never threatened to shut down the government or default on the nation’s debt.
In other words, a conservative Democrat might hold up major legislation on civil rights, universal health care, or environmental protection, but they will continue to vote for bills that fund the government. The conservative Democrat will do this because they know that elections will not necessarily lead to the election of more like-minded individuals. Democrats may gain seats in an election, but the loss of Republican seats is no guarantee that the newly elected Democrats will be more uniformly conservative or liberal than the Republicans they replace.
A broken system
Today, Republicans control the presidency, both chambers of Congress and most of the governorships and state-legislatures. Despite this, brinksmanship tactics have already entered the governing process. Recently, president Trump threatened to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, unless Congress agreed to fund his cherished border wall with Mexico. In response, some Democrats proposed shutting down the government unless Trump rescinded his threat.
Trump’s presidency is a frightening prospect, and the 2018 midterm elections will undoubtedly carry more weight than in years past. At the same time, one should worry that the Democrats will use the same brinksmanship tactics once used by their Republican counterparts. Even dislike of President Trump does not allay that fear. If the only way to run government effectively is to have the presidency and Congress controlled by the same party, then all one can say is God help us.
The historical context behind America and “shithole countries”
February 13th 2018 | Chicago | Xavier Ward
Illustration by Lyne Lucien
The Trump administration is hardly a stranger to controversy. It has run the gauntlet of accusations of racism, collusion with foreign governments, obstruction of justice, public misinformation, authoritarian rhetoric, and most recently: using a slur to describe an entire continent and two other countries.
The Emperor has no clothes
Yet, Trump himself has — despite swaths of public acrimony and an abysmal public approval rating — remained largely unscathed. The Republican controlled House and Senate have made it easier for Trump to say and do as he pleases with no more than media scrutiny.
His latest mishap came during a private meeting on immigration, in which he allegedly branded the African nations, El Salvador, and Haiti as “shithole countries”, questioning why we should allow immigrants from these places and suggesting that we try to attract people from countries such as Norway. He had just met with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg the day before these disparaging remarks.
Moreover, Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin claims that Trump used the word “shithole” repeatedly throughout the meeting. The story has been broadly confirmed from multiple sources.
Photograph by Jonathan Ernst (Reuters)
Trump denied using the slur against African countries and claimed he never said anything derogatory towards Haiti, touting a “wonderful relationship with Haitians” in a tweet on January 12th.
He did, however, admit to using “tough” language in the meeting.
The African Union’s spokeswoman, Ebba Kalondo, told the Associated Press that they were alarmed by Trump’s comments. “Given the historical reality of how many Africans arrived in the United States as slaves, this statement flies in the face of all accepted behaviour and practice.”
The United States also has a complicated record with Haiti. If Durbin’s account of the meeting is true, which now seems to be the case, then the President must understand the United States’ historical role in upholding devastating conditions there.
Duvalier and the United States
When discussing the difficulties that Haiti faced for many decades, one would be remiss not to talk about how the U.S.’s complicity, and (at times) support, of the Duvaliers perpetuated those impoverished conditions and the murder of Haitian nationals.
François “Papa Doc” Duvalier came to power in 1957 on a black nationalist and populist movement. Shortly after, he became “President for Life” in a sham election in 1964 and ruled until his death in 1971.
After his death, he was succeeded by his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who ruled until 1985 when a rebellion unseated him and he fled to France, only to return in 2011.
“In his first speech on October 22, 1957, President Duvalier promised government unity, reconciliation, and financial redistribution. However, within weeks, he began to destroy all past or potential opposition in order to centralize power in himself and remain in power” — according to Dominican Republic and Haiti, a Library of Congress report.
Diagram by The Economist
“President Duvalier reigned supreme for fourteen years. Even in Haiti, where dictators had been the norm, François Duvalier gave a new meaning to the term. Duvalier and his henchmen killed between 30,000 and 60,000 Haitians,” the report read.
All the while, the U.S. was supplying roughly $15 million in aid to Haiti, most of which would line the pocketbook of Mr. Duvalier.
That aid was not cut until his sham election in 1962.
“By 1961 Duvalier had received US$40.4 million in foreign assistance, mainly as gifts from the United States,” the report states. According to that same report, former U.S. President John F. Kennedy cut the aid after Duvalier refused to diverge what it was being used for. Still, he secretly received U.S. funds, and after Kennedy’s death, aid money began to flow openly again.
All the while, the Haitian people languished. Following his death, his son was no kinder; Jean-Claude had come into a fortuitous — albeit violent — political situation.
Shortly after coming into office, he declared Haiti would always be an aid to the U.S. in its fight against communism, and the relationship between the two continued as it had before.
A legacy of death and violence
“Bolstered by the U.S., the regime operated with impunity. Government funds were embezzled and siphoned out of the country, which later enabled Duvalier to live well in exile. Poverty, environmental decline, and poor health conditions in much of the country went unaddressed,” The New Yorker’s Laurent Dubois wrote of the situation, shortly after Jean-Claude’s death in 2014.
While Jean-Claude boasted of an economic uptick due to foreign companies setting up shop in Haiti, thus branding it the “Taiwan of the Caribbean,” the anguish endured. Political opponents were imprisoned, tortured, or exiled. Those fortunate enough to escape to the United States set up communities, and there the anti-Duvalier sentiment boiled, but American aid to the dictator who was living up to his father’s namesake persisted.
It was not until 1985 that he was ousted in a military rebellion and fleeing to France the following year. In 1987, former President Ronald Reagan ordered the remaining U.S.-based assets of the Duvalier family frozen.
Photograph from Bettman/Corbis
Nonetheless, the U.S. government’s seeming affinity for the dictator did not stop there.
Despite Jean-Claude’s legacy of destruction, he resurfaced from exile in France in 2011, shortly after the devastating earthquake. It was seemingly a slap in the face to Haitian citizens who had suffered under him. While a court did decide he could be charged with crimes against humanity in February 2014, he died October of the same year.
In 2011, around the time Jean-Claude resurfaced, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed for the presidency of Michel Martelly, whose rule just ended in 2016.
Martelly’s presidency paled in comparison to the authoritarianism of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, but he did utilize the power structure put in place by them for his own benefit, welcome Jean-Claude’s son into his regime, and do so with blatant U.S. support.
The United States has a habit of sticking its nose into dictatorships and failing governments.
Take the Arab Spring for example. One could argue that the U.S.’s intentions were noble, but its track record of successfully changing the tide in other countries is lackluster at best and near-criminal at worst.
The story is no different in Haiti. If Trump did indeed brand Haiti a “shithole”, then his administration should also acknowledge the United States’ role in making it one.
On June 1st, US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement. It was not necessarily unexpected given his previous train of Obama-era policy reversals, but nonetheless his decision was met with widespread criticism from politicians, environmentalists, and business leaders around the world. Yet, his own party members have either continued to praise the decision to withdraw or remained silent on the issue.
For the political party that has heralded global climate change as a non-issue, natural fluctuation in the climate, or – as the President has said – a “myth” conjured by the Chinese, this response, much like the President’s decision, was unsurprising.
According to Article II, The agreement aimed to keep global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels, decrease greenhouse gas emissions in a way that does not halt food production, and carve a financial pathway consistent with those aims.
Nearly all scientists – at an overwhelming 97% of peer-reviewed studies – agree that global climate change is real. Through recent research, we have been able to tie human activity and industrialisation directly to this unprecedented global rise in temperatures.
Diagram from NASA
Ever since the second industrial revolution, planet Earth has been facing the most dramatic rise in climate change and pollution that human civilisation has ever witnessed.
Now, with the new millennium’s rapidly increasing trends of globalisation and consumerism, the threat of reaching a “tipping point” caused by positive feedback loops in the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) looms dangerously close.
Since its establishment in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has continuously upgraded its synthesis of the scientific community’s opinion, most recently stating that it is “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause” of climate change due to the anthropogenic release of GHGs.
Failing to meet the Paris Agreement’s vision could result in a range of catastrophic consequences, including failing crop yields, melting glaciers, decreased water availability, damaged coral reefs, rapid extinction, and extreme weather events.
So, knowing all this, why were Republican lawmakers under the Trump administration elated at the decision to withdraw from this agreement? What element are we missing from this equation of facts?
Lobbyism is the likely answer. After all, the oil industry’s campaign donations and close relationships with the GOP are no coincidence. They are the manipulators of a deliberate and long-standing strategy to undermine climate science at every opportunity, and the results thus far have been disastrous.
Yet, it was not so long ago that a Republican, not a Democrat, ran a presidential campaign with a pro-environment agenda. As The New York Timesreported shortly after the president’s decision to withdraw from the accord, it was Republican Senator John McCain who had run against former President Barack Obama on a climate change platform in 2008.
Photograph from Democracy Now!
McCain touted himself as the man who stood tough on climate change in the face of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. And more recently, he suggested that America should uphold the Paris Agreement, citing the death of the Great Barrier Reef as a symptom of global climate change.
He has since been diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of brain cancer. Unfortunately for the 81-year-old senator and Vietnam War veteran, treatment options are limited. However, he is not alone as a Republican in the fight against climate change.
Other politically vocal Republicans – politicians or otherwise – have also articulated concerns about climate change. In March, 17 Republicans introduced a resolution to the U.S. House of Representatives acknowledging climate change as a real, man-made phenomenon.
“We want the caucus to act as an ideas factory for climate change solutions,” said Carlos Curbelo, Florida Republican Congressman who co-chairs the Climate Solutions Caucus. “We will be modest at first, but I think you’ll see more and more ideas.”
Nevertheless, when Trump decided to withdraw, Republicans were largely united in their praise of Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement.
When did that become a trend among Republicans? And why must Republican politicians either oppose climate change or remain silent on the issue?
When his decision was made public, Trump cited the “draconian” nature of the agreement, stating that it set in place arbitrary climate goals that hurt U.S. workers and businesses.
Photograph from C-SPAN
“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” the President said in his speech. He then stated that he would personally call the leaders of Britain, Germany, France and Canada to reassure his commitment to trans-Atlantic relations and tell them that he wished to negotiate a better deal for Americans.
Only minutes later, however, the leaders of France, Italy, and Germany issued a joint statement stating that the climate standards set in place by the Paris Agreement were non-negotiable.
Withdrawal from the agreement marked a victory for former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, who both reportedly urged the president to withdraw behind closed doors.
Coal is doomed
The isolationist and job-centric justification that Trump gave for his decision, all while decrying the empirical findings of climate science, is in-line with much of the other rhetoric witnessed during his campaign and throughout his early days in office.
On the campaign trail, Trump gave an impassioned decree to the people of Pennsylvania that he would bring coal workers back to the mines and steel back to Pittsburgh.
The rough-and-tumble industries that built the area are now struggling, and many of the workers in the formerly lucrative industries spend their days sending out résumés rather than hauling coal or refining steel.
Photograph by Mark Lyons
Still, his lavish campaign promises struck a chord with workers seeking to remedy a dying industry. Just enough to get their votes. It’s no coincidence that Trump won Greene County, Pennsylvania by a whopping 40 points, where John McCain and former President Obama nearly tied in the presidential election.
Coal jobs are projected to their lowest numbers since 1978, and roughly 30,000 jobs have been lost in the past few years. Withdrawing from the Paris accord will not bring jobs back to these industries, and therein lies the issue with his justification for leaving.
According to a survey from The Solar Foundation, jobs in the solar industry have soared in past decade, showing aggressive job growth since 2010 with around 260,000 Americans employed in that ecosystem.
The only energy industry that still employs more than solar is oil & petroleum, which constitutes 38% of the country’s energy workers.
Trump’s commitment to job growth may seem noble at the surface level, but the reality is that the industry is dying. Human workers are being replaced by machines, old methods are being swept aside by new technology, and mines all across coal country are closing.
Photograph from WindEurope
Despite the apparent facts, Republican lawmakers still praised the President’s decision to leave this historic agreement with 195 countries committed to fighting climate change together.
In the Trump era, U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is the archetype of the Republican establishment. He was a vocal critic of Donald Trump on the campaign trail, and even rescinded an invitation to speak at a major event in his home state of Wisconsin after tapes emerged of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women and entering their changing rooms during a pageant.
However, when Trump actually secured the votes he needed to claim the office of the President, Ryan said that Trump had done a great thing for the Republican establishment by giving them control of all three branches of government.
Time is running out
Since he took office in January, the Republican establishment has grown ever more congruent with Trump’s agenda. Whether it is for fear of voter backlash or out of general unwillingness to break from establishment ideology, the GOP continues to add fuel to the fire of Trump’s rhetoric against climate science.
The result is a nation filled with people who are in denial of the facts: climate change is the greatest existential threat our species has ever faced. Politics can always change, but the environment only has one chance.
A recent article in The New Yorker painted a troubling and vivid portrait of the opioid crisis facing many areas of the nation. In her piece, Margaret Talbot details a number of graphic overdoses that have taken place in West Virginia, the U.S. state with the highest rate of opioid overdoses per 100,000 people (39.3). What is the cause of this phenomenon, and what can be done to alleviate it?
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2015, there were more than 52,000 Americans killed by drug overdoses – or one every 10 minutes.
According to The Economist, about 33,000 of those can be attributed to opioids, the most common of which are prescription painkillers and heroin. While major cities feel some of the weight, it is actually areas such as Midwest America and Appalachia which are being truly devastated by this crisis.
In certain parts of the country, including Talbot’s focus of Berkeley County in West Virginia, overdoses are a daily occurrence. They seem to be taking place almost anywhere and at anytime. “Many addicts are collapsing in public – in gas stations, in restaurant bathrooms, in the aisles of big-box stores”, writes Talbot.
Graphic by The Economist
The number of overdoses has shot up dramatically around the country over the past several years as heroin has started to be laced with powerful prescription medications such as fentanyl. In the 21-country area surrounding Toledo, Ohio, there were only 8 overdose deaths in 2010. In the first six months of 2016, that same number was 127 deaths.
The burden placed upon paramedics has been so extreme that even entire teams of paramedics working 24-hour shifts are unable to reach every overdose in a timely manner. In those cases where they do, the main course of action is to administer a potentially life-saving dose of Narcan – a drug used to counteract the effects of an opiate overdose. Classes are now being offered to average citizens in areas with high overdose rates so that they know how to administer the drug themselves should the situation arise.
The issue can be traced, at least in part, to the explosion in powerful prescription medications in the United States. In 1991, the number of opioid medications (Oxycontin, Vicodin, etc.) supplied to pharmacies was 76 million. In 2011, that number was 219 million.
Perhaps even more telling is the fact, according to The Economist, “in 2002 one in six users took a pill more powerful than morphine. By 2012 it was one in three.” Pharmaceutical companies and doctors have begun scaling back the prescriptions for painkillers, but that has turned people already hooked on opiates towards drugs like heroin instead, which is substantially cheaper than any prescription opioid.
Photograph via Getty Images
Certain officials, such as Governor Hogan, have pledged money and attention to the issue. Even U.S. President Donald Trump commented on America’s “terrible drug epidemic” during his speech before Congress in February, and in one of his few positive moves he set up a commission on drug addiction and offered $500 million to combat the problem.
Making matters worse is the aforementioned fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller that is 50 times more powerful than heroin. The result is a dramatic increase in fatal overdoses in a number of states. In Maryland, Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency after the combination of heroin and fentanyl killed 1,468 Maryland residents in the first nine months of 2016, a 62% increase from previous year.
It is not as if this is a problem we are mentioning for the first time. Highly regarded publications, including those cited in this article, have offered enormous spaces devoted to discussing this enormous issue.
Among others, The Economist firmly advocates the decriminalization of all drugs to replace America’s deeply-flawed policy of prohibition with a focus on health treatment and safe use centres:
Banning drugs is not just ineffective, it is also counterproductive. Fentanyl is a nasty substance, but prohibiting all illicit drugs, whether they are new or established, prevents the research that could distinguish between those which are more and less harmful. It also leads to topsy-turvy outcomes. Marijuana, which cannot lead to overdoses and which can be used as an effective pain-relief medicine, is classified by the federal authorities in America as a more dangerous drug than fentanyl, which is used in very controlled doses by cancer patients and abused fatally across the country.
It takes guts to legalise drugs when so many are dying from them. But it is better that addicts take safe doses of familiar substances under sanitary conditions than for them to risk their lives enriching criminals. Switzerland followed the legalisation path after a heroin epidemic in the 1980s, treating drugs as a public-health problem. Since then drug-taking and drug-related deaths have fallen. America should follow suit.
Every day that passes, 78 Americans die from an opioid overdose. And every day that passes without real solutions to this very real problem, those deaths will linger over the heads of those that have seen the problem, acknowledged it, and then decided to mire in inaction and rhetoric.
US foreign policy and the birth of neo-conservatism
July 26th 2017 | Indiana | Russell Hall
Graphic by Eva Bee
When former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski died on the 26th of May, liberals mourned his loss and praised his accomplishments. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter called him a “superb public servant”. Barack Obama offered similar praise, stating Brzezinski’s “influence spanned several decades, and I was one of several Presidents who benefited from his wisdom and counsel”.
This reaction is hardly surprising. An early opponent of the Iraq war and a critic of unilateral military intervention, Brzezinski was a hero for many on the left. In a 2012 interview with CNN, Brzezinski blasted Republican presidential candidates, stating “I literally feel embarrassed as an American when I see those people orate”.
When asked to comment on Republican claims that “America is number one, this is an American century, we should just assert our power”, Brzezinski replied: “The last three Republican presidents [said] God chose America and history commissioned America to be playing that kind of role. And that kind of rhetoric is just divorced from reality to the point of absurdity, actually to the point of danger for us.”
Photograph via The White House
But Brzezinski might not deserve our praise. The tragic fact is that his policies under Carter paved the way for the neo-conservative nightmare that has wreaked havoc across the globe. In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected president on a promise to make human rights “the soul of our foreign policy”. It was a revolutionary statement, an acknowledgement that the Soviet Union was not the only source of evil in the world. America was as well.
In the name of freedom, America had overthrown freely elected governments in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964), and Chile (1973), provided military aid to repressive regimes guilty of genocide, and defended pro-American dictatorships when criticized by human rights groups. At the time, it looked as if America would finally move towards incorporating human rights as the cornerstone of its foreign policy.
In retrospect, Carter’s mistake was to appoint Brzezinski as his National Security Advisor. A Cold War hawk, Brzezinski saw the world as a game of chess – on one side was America, and on the other the Soviet Union. All other countries were the pawns of these two powers. If a pro-American dictatorship fell in Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, or South Vietnam, it was the work of the Soviet Union.
“According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahideen began during the 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. But the reality, closely guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention. […] The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: we now have the opportunity of giving the USSR its Vietnam War.”
When asked if he regretted supporting Islamic fundamentalism, Brzezinski replied: “What is more important in world history? The Taliban, or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Moslems, or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
Since the end of World War II, U.S. foreign policy had been based on the idea of containment. America was propping up anti-Communist dictatorships in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, but avoided overthrowing governments that were already aligned with the Soviet Union.
Although the US did try to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, Castro had not officially declared Cuba to be a Marxist-Leninist state until after the incident. While hardly humanitarian, the strategy of containment placed a restraint on American military power. It forced U.S. policymakers to use diplomacy instead of military threats when dealing with Communist governments.
Photograph via The National Archive
By waging war directly against established pro-Soviet governments, Brzezinski ushered in a new and more aggressive form of foreign policy known as ‘neo-conservatism’. Harry Targ, a professor of International Relations at Purdue University, defined this as the belief that the United States “has the right and responsibility to impose its wishes, its vision of government and public policy, and its institutions on the world. If people resist […] the United States should impose its domination by force.”
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 only increased the appeal of neo-conservatism. As the last remaining superpower, the United States used its military power to remake the world in its image. So far, the consequences have been deadly. Besides the lives and money lost from failed military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States’ decision to dominate the world has only increased anti-American sentiment in the modern age.
Human rights vs. hegemony
Are we being too harsh on Brzezinski’s foreign policy decisions? Could one argue that American interventionism was necessary against the threat of fascism from the USSR? Considering the implications of hegemonic stability theory and the 21st century’s resulting success as the most peaceful era in the history of humanity, that may be a valid justification.
One might also argue that, by historical standards, Brzezinski’s views were simply a reflection of what most members of Carter’s cabinet were thinking – but that would be a false conclusion. In fact, one of Brzezinski’s biggest critics was Cyrus Vance, who was Secretary of State at the time. Moreover, Carter’s campaign manager Hamilton Jordan once said: “If, after the inauguration, you find a Cyrus Vance as Secretary of State and Zbigniew Brzezinski as Head of National Security, then I would say we failed. And I’d quit.”
Diagram by The Economist
Mr. Jordan did not quit, but he was right. The moment Carter became president, the two men battled for influence. Unlike Brzezinski, Vance shared Carter’s belief American foreign policy should be guided by human rights. As the Carter presidency wore on, Vance grew increasingly frustrated with Brzezinski. In his 1983 memoir Hard Choices, Vance wrote:
“I supported the collegial approach with one critical reservation. Only the President and the Secretary of State were to have the responsibility for defining the Administration’s foreign policy publicly. Despite his stated acceptance of this principle, and in spite of repeated instructions from the President, Brzezinski would attempt increasingly to take on the role of policy spokesman. Eventually, as divergences grew wider between my public statements and his policy utterances, Brzezinski’s practice became a political liability, leaving the Congress and foreign governments with the impression that the Administration did not know its own mind.”
In time, Vance was marginalized and his influence began to wane. He finally resigned as Secretary of State following the failed operation to rescue American hostages in Iran, an operation he opposed but Brzezinski had supported. Near the end of his life, a reporter asked Vance how he wanted to be remembered. He answered: “I hope for being a reasonably decent, honest person who tried to do some things for the country that might have lasting effects and create a better life for a large number of people.”
Revisionist historian William Appleman Williams, in his iconoclastic book The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, wrote that “the tragedy of American diplomacy is not that it is evil, but that it denies and subverts American ideas and ideals”. The same could be said about Brzezinski. As a refugee from Poland, he was a statesman for those who were still living under Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. To the rest of the world, however, he was a hypocrite. Throughout his life, Brzezinski criticized the Soviet Union for denying the citizens of Eastern Europe the right of self-determination, yet he refused to acknowledge what America did in Latin America and other third world countries.
By subverting Carter’s commitment to human rights, Brzezinski not only helped create the neo-conservative monster that haunts us to present, but also prevented America from becoming the humanitarian superpower that it has always claimed to be.
A tale of Scottish independence and social democracy
June 7th 2017 | Indiana | Russell Hall
Photograph by Mark Runnacles
When British Prime Minister Theresa May decided to dissolve parliament and hold snap elections, headlines everywhere predicted the fall of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. While Labour is set to win a greater share of the popular vote than it did under Ed Miliband in 2015, the implosion of the anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the exodus of its supporters to the Conservatives has made it likely that the Tories will emerge with a commanding majority.
The greatest victor of a Conservative victory, however, would be Scottish independence. A cause once reserved to those on the fringe, the movement has recently merged into mainstream thought. A Conservative victory could lead to Scottish independence and the breaking of the United Kingdom, especially with the prospects of a Brexit which was opposed by 62% of the nation.
The great myth many have about Scottish nationalists is the idea that it is made up of a group of naïve ‘Braveheart-loving radicals’ who cannot get over the fact that Scotland voted to join England over three hundred years ago. To understand the rise of Scottish nationalism, one must also understand the fall of Scottish Labour.
Diagram by YouGov
The Labour Party was once a force in Scottish politics. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, Labour’s commitment to social democracy and economic fairness made it the party of choice among left-leaning Scottish voters. This changed when Tony Blair was elected leader of the Labour Party in 1994.
A self-proclaimed moderate, Blair abandoned Labour’s commitment to social democracy and embraced the neo-liberal economic policies of Margaret Thatcher. Blair was as good as his word. After Labour’s landslide victory in the 1996 General Election, Blair completed the privatization of British Rail, cut welfare aid for the disabled, and embraced deregulation of the financial system.
Quest for independence
Labour’s shift to the right alienated Scottish voters. Sensing opportunity, the Scottish National Party (SNP) embraced the social democratic policies that Labour had abandoned.
Most importantly, the SNP linked social democracy to Scottish independence. If Scotland wanted to become a social democratic paradise, it had to separate itself from the rest of Britain. Its efforts paid off. In 2007, the party pulled off a historic upset, winning a plurality of seats in the Scottish Parliament. Four years later, the SNP won a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament.
Photograph via The Herald Scotland
This defeat was short lived. In the May 2015 general election, the SNP solidified its control over Scotland, winning 56 of the 59 Scottish seats in the House of Commons. Labour lost 40 seats to the SNP, ending its long-standing fortress of control over Scotland. A second independence referendum seemed inevitable. The only question left was that of time.
Dizzy with success, the SNP, in agreement with then Conservative UK Prime Minister David Cameron, held a referendum on Scottish Independence in September 2014. Despite a last minute surge in support for the yes campaign, the measure was defeated — with 45 percent voting yes and 55 percent voting no.
The Corbynite revolution
Then, something unexpected happened. In September 2015, Labour Party voters elected Jeremy Corbyn as their leader. A self-described democratic socialist, Corbyn promised to end austerity cuts to public services, renationalize the railways and public utilities, increase taxation on the wealthy, liberalize immigration laws, oppose military intervention, support unilateral nuclear disarmament, and take serious steps to address climate change. In short, Corbyn sought to return Labour to its social democratic roots.
Photograph by Peter Nicholls (Reuters)
Unfortunately, most Labour Party MPs did not share this view. Despite being elected party leader by landslide margin, most Labour MPs refused to acknowledge him as their leader. From the moment Corbyn was elected, his fellow Labour MPs plotted to oust him. The most blatant example came in June 2016 when Labour MPs passed a vote of no confidence in Corbyn by 172 to 40 followed by a leadership challenge by Owen Smith. Corbyn would go on to win the re-election with 61.85% of the vote.
A Corbyn government may be the greatest threat to Scottish independence. As much as the SNP claims to love Corbyn, in reality, they are frightened by him; if Corbyn wins, it will show Scottish voters that social democratic change is possible from within the United Kingdom. In the words of British journalist Jonathan Cook, a Corbyn government would be a “return to the kind of compassion-based politics that once made sense to large swathes of the public — before neo-liberalism worked so hard to persuade us that we live in a jungle in which only the fittest should survive.”
General Election 2017
A Labour government under Corbyn appears to be unlikely. Disorganized and divided until recently, Labour may yet again be crushed by the Conservatives who purport to represent a “strong and stable” government for the upcoming and rather unappealing task of Brexit negotiations.
If that is the case, Theresa May would continue to be Prime Minister, and Scottish resentment with the London government would grow. Worst of all, Corbyn would be sacked and replaced by a more conservative colleague. Angered by Labour’s retreat to the right, Scottish voters would come to the conclusion that the only way forward is through independence, especially in light of Brexit.
However, in recent polls, Labour has been steadily closing the 24% gap that was initially separating it from the Tories just over a month ago. Some of the most optimistic results now show the possibility of a vote share with CON 41% to LAB 40%, which would likely result in a Labour-led coalition of the left.
Diagram by The Guardian
Needless to say, this would be a dramatic turn of events for both Labour and Scottish interests. Ultimately, it seems that the election’s results will depend entirely on youth voter turnout. The higher the turnout, the more Labour will have to gain from its millennial and middle-class support across the United Kingdom.
Nevertheless, even if the Conservatives win, the Scottish independence scenario may face resistance. May herself has vowed to prevent a second referendum on independence, arguing that she would “never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious union”. Such language not only fails to win the hearts and minds of Scottish voters, but it also serves to remind Scottish voters that they do not control their own destiny, something the SNP will be more than likely exploit.
In the end, the real loser of a Conservative victory would not just be Corbyn and social democracy, but also the very idea of a United Kingdom. Unless British voters embrace Corbyn, I fear that Scottish independence will be inevitable somewhere down the line.
How patriotic populism empowers authoritarian politics
March 11th 2017 | The Hague | Melih Uzun
Photograph by Getty Images
Ever since Donald Trump was elected into office, critics have been suggesting that it is an indication of the global rise of right-wing populism, with similar rhetoric set to emerge victorious in European countries as well. The upcoming elections in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV) tops the polls, could prove to be a major trial for this hypothesis.
Islam and integration
Geert Wilders is arguably one of the most polarising figures in Holland. He is infamous for his outspoken anti-Islam views and has been a constant source of controversy for over a decade. The numerous death threats he has accumulated over the course of the years have even led him to require full-time police protection.
Besides religion, he is also often accused of inciting hatred against ethnic minorities – especially the local Moroccan community – over issues related to violence, crime, and lack of integration. In 2014, his Freedom Party held a meeting in The Hague that was illustrative of the polarising rhetoric adored by many, while leaving others trembling with indignation.
Having asked his audience whether they wanted to see more or less of the European Union and Labour Party, both questions were met with chants of “less, less, less”. He then went on to ask them whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans and – upon hearing them chant the same answer once again – ensured his supporters that he would “get it done”.
Photograph by Fabrizio Bensch
Hundreds of people filed police complaints and he was tried for charges of incitement to discrimination. Wilders was finally found guilty (but not penalised) in December – a decision which he vowed to appeal against.
Wilders enjoys the support of a substantial part of the population. However, he is also widely criticised for his evasive tendencies, for his preference of bold statements over elucidated plans (his election manifesto is just a single page), and for shying away from settings which would allow his agenda to be questioned.
He has withdrawn himself from public debate on two occasions, the most recent of which was caused by a feud with a media outlet. The hosting TV station had contacted Wilders’s brother earlier for an interview, which angered the PVV politician. Wilders, however, maintains that the boycott is a matter of principle, claiming that his privacy was violated and rejecting any allegations about him “dodging” the debate.
Make the Netherlands Ours Again
As much as Wilders is accused of being evasive towards the media, British journalist John Sweeney managed to land an invitation to interview him for BBC Newsnight. Upon meeting Wilders at the House of Representatives, he was quick to ask him a frank question: “are you going to do to Holland what Mr. Trump is doing to America?”
Wilders rejects the notion that he is merely a Dutch copy of Trump, but he has admitted that there was “indeed, a patriotic spring going on”. He considers Brexit to be a turning point, where Brits supposedly reclaimed their country “even though the political elite made sure to scare the people away from voting in favour of leaving the European Union”. The same applies to the US, where “despite all the rhetoric of the elite, Mr. Trump won the election”.
Furthermore, Wilders confirmed his admiration of Trump by stating that he hopes to “repeat the same thing, because once again, the people want to be in charge again”. According to his vision: “It’s not only America first; it’s also Holland first, and that’s what I’m trying to accomplish.”
Photograph by Yves Herman
In an attempt to gauge his stance on threats of terrorism other than those stemming from radical Islam, Sweeney asked Wilders what the biggest loss of Dutch lives (by terror) has been in the last few years. His response was that the Netherlands have been “lucky not to suffer the kind of attacks that Germany, France, Belgium, and even the United Kingdom” have faced.
Wilders was caught off guard by Sweeney’s prompt mention of flight MH17, referring to the Malaysia Airlines plane that was shot down near the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, killing everyone on board. The lives of 193 Dutch citizens were lost that day, and Russia remains the prime suspect – despite denying any such allegations. Sweeney hinted at this attack to illustrate why he believes Wilders might be obsessed with “one element of the spectrum” (Islamic extremism) while ignoring more pressing issues such as “Russian fascism”.
Wilders chuckled slightly and asserted that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with freedom. Therefore, he says “the Islamisation of Dutch society needs to be stopped, or we will cease to exist”. His critical outlook on Islam is reflected in the PVV’s ideology, which is further characterised by staunch Euroscepticism and nationalism.
These ideas became apparent once again in Wilders’s rebuttal of Sweeney’s concern about slogans like America First or Holland First, which he considers reminiscent of the zeitgeist of Europe at the brink of the Second World War. Wilders dismissed this as fearmongering by politicians to distract from the establishment of “another totalitarian institution, which is called the European Union”.
Fake news and fake Parliament
The BBC journalist was clearly taken aback by Wilders’s characterisation of the EU as a “totalitarian institution”, but perhaps remarks like these need not come as a surprise from somebody whom he likened to Donald Trump – a man who is no stranger to stirring up controversy.
By his own admission, Wilders admires Trumps victory against the “political elite”. This quintessentially populist pretence of aligning with the people as opposed to the elite seems to be a part of both of their success formulas.
Experts attribute Trump’s popularity to his unconventional ways that distinguish him from the archetypal politician. Despite being a billionaire, Trump won the hearts of millions of ordinary Americans by presenting an eccentric anti-establishment alternative to the tired, old, sophisticated-sounding candidates people had grown increasingly sceptical about.
Photograph by CNN
Likewise, the fact that Wilders is one of the longest-serving Members of Parliament doesn’t keep him from condemning the “political elite”, whom he deems to be ignorant of the life of the average Dutchman. On one occasion, he even denounced the National Assembly and its MPs altogether, calling it a “fake Parliament” that does not represent the will of the people.
Wilders’s position to lecture an elected parliament on democracy is questionable at best, as he is de jure the only member of his Freedom Party, allowing him to single-handedly dictate their entire policy agenda.
This statement bears another striking resemblance to Trumpisms, and more specifically to his unfounded denunciation of various media as “fake news”. Both politicians evidently see no issue in arbitrarily delegitimising institutions such as media outlets – or even the House of Representatives.
What makes this most worrisome is that this mindset, when sufficiently empowered by populism, could lead to dangerous forms of authoritarian politics. After all, if there is any common ground between the regimes of countries like China, Russia, and Turkey, it would be their aversion to voices of dissent.
Patriotic spring or Democratic autumn?
Whilst some may argue that it is a bit of a stretch to compare populists like Trump or Wilders to real authoritarians, there is much more to it than meets the eye.
In fact, concerns that have been raised thus far are arguably just the tip of the iceberg; an investigation initiated by the Dutch Bar Association uncovered a multitude of proposals from the PVV’s one-page election manifesto that were found to be detrimental to the rule of law.
Their programme was found to be at odds with EU and International Law (including the United Nations’ Refugee Convention), as well as the Dutch constitution, as it intends to endanger freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of education, and the right to a fair trial. One cannot help but wonder if Wilders was being ironic when he named his party.
Diagram by Peilingwijzer
His disdain for the establishment runs much deeper than his attack on parliament suggested, because his objection goes far beyond feuds with fellow MPs. He has publicly accused judges and prosecutors of being politically biased against him and his party, which is a straightforward denunciation of the entire justice system and the separation of powers.
There is no apparent limit to the lengths Wilders would go to in order to play the victim of an arbitrarily defined set of forces and institutions – or rather the “political elite” – who are unanimously set on conspiring against him and his beliefs.
With just a few days to go until the elections, Wilders’s popularity in polls appears to be stagnant, but his Freedom Party may still win up to 28 out of 150 seats. The PVV is matched with the governing Conservative Liberals (VVD), who have a fair chance at retaining the largest number of MPs, despite a projected decline from their current 41 seats.
However, the sitting government is a coalition of Liberals and the Labour Party (PvdA), and the latter is set to face an even sharper decline from 38 to a projected 14 or even 9 seats. Other parties who are expected to receive a considerable amount of votes on March 15 include the Christian Democrats (CDA; ~19 seats), the Liberal Democrats (D66; ~18 seats), the Green Party (GL; ~16 seats) and the Socialist Party (SP; ~14 seats).
Europe marches on
Most mainstream parties have vowed to exclude the Freedom Party from coalition talks. This offers consolation, as it seems their vision for the Netherlands will never see the light of day.
However, given the distinctly fractured state of Dutch politics, forming a coalition without the PVV might also prove to be a challenge. Furthermore, excluding Wilders from government will undoubtedly add fuel to the fire, contributing to his narrative of fighting for the neglected common man.
This seemingly prolific narrative, as employed by Donald Trump, may pave the way to a milestone for the Freedom Party in this election, as well victories for other right-wing movements like Le Pen’s Front National. But only time will tell if this patriotic spring, as Wilders calls it – a staggering resurgence of nationalist and populist rhetoric – will lead to an actual victory in the name of freedom.