US ELECTION 2016

Hillary Clinton, above the law

The American justice system and Donald Trump

August 12th 2016 | Chicago | Xavier Ward

Photograph by Financial Tribune

During the 2016 US Presidential Election, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email server has been one of several hot button issues. However, it may be the one that is ultimately glossed over more than any other in the face of her bombastic, demagogic competition.

Clinton has been criticized from both the left and the right. Republicans have gone so far as calling her deliberately dishonest and a criminal, while more left-leaning Democrats have used this as a chance to offer their candidate of choice, Senator Bernie Sanders, a second chance — unfortunately for him, to no avail.


A serious threat to national security

As it stands, Hillary Clinton has officially clinched the Democratic nomination, and she will face no retribution for her failures. This, however, does not make the situation any less interesting.

The FBI investigation began in March 2015, when it was uncovered that her and her staff had been using a private email server, which could have created serious security problems were the server to be hacked.

Clinton’s email server was hosted in the basement of her home in Chappaqua, NY, although this information was not disclosed to the State Department at the time. After its stay in her home, the server was then moved to New Jersey, and then to Denver, where it was finally investigated.

While it is highly irregular for Clinton to have her own server, the investigation concluded that it was not actually illegal. And while many claim that her server was undoubtedly hacked by foreign actors, the forensics showed otherwise.

Photograph by CNN

Whether the server was breached or not, it is difficult to deny that its mere existence posed a real security threat. The question then becomes: why was what Hillary Clinton did so wrong? And what does it say about the United States’ criminal justice system?

The FBI investigation’s final recommendation was not to move forward with any criminal prosecution against Clinton. However, it did shed light on her actions, stating that her private server was a legitimate security risk and calling her “extremely careless”. In a statement addressing the conclusion of the investigation, FBI Director James Comey announced that the FBI identified 7 separate email threads which contained information which had been classified as “top secret”.

Using a private server for such sensitive emails is in fact illegal, and could have given foreign states or actors access to information that could put US national security into a state of turmoil.


Gross negligence, but somehow not criminal

Despite these findings, the FBI’s decision not to recommend charges against Clinton was justified by the lack of evidence that her actions had been intentional, as well as the lack of any evidence that the server had actually been compromised.

During his statements, Comey did say that Clinton had demonstrated gross negligence, and provided evidence which proved that her amended statement that she had “never knowingly sent or received classified emails” was a lie. This is damning information and, by all rights, she could have faced charges, but she did not.

Although Hillary Clinton’s political tenure is riddled with inconsistency, the criticisms against her never seem to stick. A few years ago, she claimed that her private jet had landed under a thicket of sniper fire in Bosnia, yet a video of the landing shows her smiling, waving, and shaking hands with children upon arrival. Despite having clearly engaged in dishonesty, she simply shrugged it off as a misstatement.

Photograph by John Moore

Clinton seems to be bulletproof from the public’s acrimony, and many critiques of her wrongdoings are immediately labeled as false or exaggerated, when it is clearly not the case. Perhaps this is a product of her Correct the Record campaign, which set out to create thousands of fake accounts on social media in order to push the narrative in her favor.

Her history of foreign policy decision-making is perhaps the most damning of all her missteps. Her attempts at state-building in the Middle East have played a direct role in the rise of extremist groups such as ISIS, and she has found herself in league with donors from the Persian Gulf who, while supporting terrorist organizations, were also benefactors of the Clinton Foundation.

During her husband’s tenure as president, she pushed him away from intervening in a genocide in Kosovo to push her healthcare agenda. So why is she fit to be president?


Above the law, or above Donald Trump?

Comey’s testimony illustrated one thing very clearly: Clinton is too big to jail. One could speculate about the multitude of reasons why she was not charged, but the answer is rather simple.

Some have tried to do so by claiming that she has deep-seeded ties to intelligence officials and lies snugly in the pockets of the FBI, whilst others believe she has orchestrated some other grand scheme to avoid the reprisal of the American justice system.

Ruminating on these political motivations would be a fool’s game, and would also be ignoring the larger issue. What this situation really highlights is the way in which the US justice system treats such matters. US politics is somewhat of a “members only” club. Those who are deeply entrenched in it are hard to criticize, and even harder to reprimand. Hillary Clinton is a perfect example of the systematic “armored plating” that exists all over the country.

Photograph by John Moore

Truth be told, in any other election, this may have had more severe consequences for Clinton, but Donald Trump is the best case scenario for her. Throughout the process of the election, his unbridled sexism, racism and mobilization of hate-filled Americans has made him an easy target and a person that this country simply cannot elect. Thus, it is the moral duty of free thinking Americans to keep him out of office, no?

That’s what a majority of Democratic voters would have you believe, and to a certain degree they are right. This dilemma is further explored in Bernie or Bust (TSH).

But, alongside the American justice system, this election cycle has also highlighted the shortcomings of the long-defended American two-party system. Freedom of choice has become the freedom to pick between a sociopathic businessman who represents authoritarian populism, and a self-serving career politician who represents corruption.

These are heavy accusations, but they hold true under any standard of intense scrutiny. Hillary Clinton may be the lesser of two evils in this election, but it is still important to understand who you are voting to lead our country when November comes around.

US Election 2016

Bernie or Bust?

The decisive embers of a progressive America

June 12th 2016 | London | Juan Schinas Alvargonzalez

Photographs by Mark Lyons, Jessica Kourkounis, and Jewel Samad

As the Democratic primaries come to an end, a significant movement has been brewing among Bernie Sanders supporters: Bernie or Bust.

Those who advocate this approach argue that if Hillary Clinton is to win the nomination, voters should either write in Bernie’s name, or vote for a third party candidate like the Green Party’s Jill Stein. A minority of them also believe that voters should turn around and support Donald Trump in order to prevent an “establishment” candidate like Hillary from clenching the presidency, but that debate is for another day.

This piece is neither an argument against Bernie, whose campaign has exceeded all expectations since last year (TSH), nor in support of Hillary. Rather, it is an evaluation of the Bernie or Bust movement.


The flaws in Clinton’s candidacy

At its core, the movement finds its roots in the view that high-ranking officials of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), referred to as the establishment, have forced the election in November to be between “the lesser of two evils”.

Bernie or Bust supporters believe that they do not owe any loyalty to the Democratic Party, and that they are entitled to vote for whichever candidate represents them best. In other words, #sheepnomore.

They also describe the Democratic Party as having engaged in electoral fraud and voter suppression. In their view, the allegations and evidence suggesting manipulation of the primaries, as seen in states like Arizona and New York, represents proof that party elites are bending the will of the people towards their establishment candidate.

Whilst no conclusive investigation has been conducted on this matter, their mind has already been made up.

Photograph by CNN

As far as Hillary Clinton is concerned, the movement has highlighted many aspects of her candidacy that appear rather visibly flawed in contrast to Bernie Sanders.

First, they point to her corporate fundraising networks worth billions of dollars and highlight possible undesirable effects that lobbyists could have on her future administration and policy decisions. This most notably includes her campaign contributions from the oil industry, as well as millions of dollars that she personally received for speeches to financial firms like Goldman Sachs, for which she still refuses to release the transcripts.

As a result, her campaign has been marred with public distrust in her relationship with Wall Street and the question of whether she would be able to regulate the financial industry adequately.

Second, they allocate partial blame to her for the negative consequences of Bill Clinton’s policies in the 90’s, including the controversial 1994 crime bill which increased incarceration rates in the United States disproportionately for African Americans.

Third, they argue that her foreign policy decisions are as “hawkish” as her Republican counterparts. They point to her vote in support of the Iraq War and her actions as Secretary of State as evidence for this assertion.

Finally, they claim that the numerous inconsistencies and policy changes throughout her political career, whether regarding TPP or the minimum wage, show that she is willing to “flip-flop” in order to pander to the electorate and gain more votes.

This suggests that she may not always keep her promises, especially with regards to progressive policy commitments that she made in response to the threat of Bernie’s campaign.


A matter of principle

To many Bernie supporters, Clinton is the epitome of the political elite, a candidate that is overly friendly with corporate lobbyists and inevitably influenced by multinational companies and rich individuals.

They see a United States that is controlled by big money interests, and a middle class that has been shrinking as a result of it. To them, Hillary Clinton is the representative of an America that they want to avoid, rather than a “Future to Believe in”.

Photograph by Matthew Gore

One of the movement’s key objectives is to bring the Democratic Party back to what they view as its rightful place in the political spectrum, the centre-left. They argue that the party has moved towards the right in the last few decades, and that therefore US politics does not have a truly progressive party to represent them.

Hillary Clinton is undoubtedly centre-right in the eyes of Europeans, but now it seems she may even be too centrist for many Bernie supporters. The argument follows that if Hillary wins the presidency, the country will continue to see the Democratic Party shift even further to the right, whereas a Bernie presidency would have a long-lasting progressive influence.

The Bernie or Bust movement doubles down on this idea, arguing that a Trump presidency would be so disastrous that from its ashes and through the movement that is growing at the moment, a genuine progressive party would emerge – a prospect they consider unlikely if Hillary won the election.


The Bernie campaign’s effect

It is important to note at this point that Bernie’s campaign has had a significant impact on public opinion, especially among his supporters.

During her tenure as Secretary of State between 2009 and 2013, Hillary Clinton’s favourability varied between 56% to 62%. It currently holds at 41%. Since Clinton has been in politics for more than 35 years, she is on record about most of her ideas and voters have had plenty of time to research her positions and character (having also run for the Democratic nomination in 2008).

Her decline in popularity can be seen as a result of both the Republican apparatus having demonised her in the wake of both legitimate and cooked up scandals like her FBI email investigation and the Benghazi attacks in 2012, as well as Senator Sanders’ campaign narrative.

Diagram – Hillary Clinton’s approval ratings

Bernie’s message offers a binary version of politics in the United States, an “us vs them” paradigm, which allows him to point out the evils of American politics without being considered complicit. This is further aided by his undoubtedly honest character and the steadfastness of his opinions.

His campaign against what he considers elites that control politicians, and a government that serves the wealthy, has turned Democratic voters against Hillary Clinton. To them, she represents all of these evils and more.

By no means is there a lack of arguments against Hillary Clinton, but clear heads do not always prevail during political campaigns, and especially one with such a strong narrative and polarised voter base.

One might wonder what Hillary’s likability would have been if Sanders had fixated less on her Wall Street speeches (which he was initially reluctant to bring up) and more on her policy flip-flops.


If not pro-Hillary, then anti-Republican

The Bernie or Bust movement has rightfully shined the light on some of Clinton’s disagreeable aspects. However, if Bernie’s supporters are revolting against a plutocracy as they say, then they should not stay at home in November.

If the United States is a plutocracy, it is quite clear whose fault that is. It is not the mere consequence of an elite class plotting to screw over the middle class. It is a direct result of misguided economic policies and regressive social ideology adopted by conservative administrations, at both the state and national level.

Bernie points out that the level of inequality is extremely high. It was Reagan’s administration that gave immense and disproportionate tax cuts for the rich in the 80’s and set inequality on an upward trajectory. It is also Kansas’s Republican governor who did the same in 2014, even though trickle-down economics had already been disproved many years ago. It is Republicans that have cut social programs to help the poor such as Medicare and food stamps.

Photograph by Tom Williams

He argues that Wall Street’s reckless behaviour was the cause the financial crisis. It is still part of the Republican Party’s platform today that deregulation of financial markets is beneficial for the economy.

He talks about campaign finance regulations and the corrupting influence of money on politics. It is Republicans who want to appoint a Supreme Court judge like Antonin Scalia, who himself voted in favour of “Citizens United v. FEC”, resulting in the complete removal of limits on political donations.

He argues for universal healthcare and points to the power of insurance companies over government. Republicans not only oppose universal healthcare, but they want to actively repeal the arguably modest scheme that is Obamacare.

He opposes the United States military apparatus and reckless spending. Republicans want to increase military spending and advocate for its frequent use in international operations.

He wants to give a path to citizenship to all illegal immigrants in the country. Republicans want to deport them.

As a campaign message, it may be easier to portray the state of affairs in US politics as the consequence of a greedy elite of officials and corporations, but it must also be understood as the consequence of several decades of flawed policies.

Bernie or Bust voters may rightly believe that Hillary Clinton has too many flaws to gain their vote. Yet, if they really do want to end corruption and elitism in US politics, a Republican, even if he is a muttering buffoon with an anti-establishment agenda, should be the last person they want to see in office.


Democratic platform or Trump presidency?

The Bernie or Bust movement is thus presented with two options: (a) vote for Hillary and attempt to influence the Democratic Party’s platform, or (b) vote against her and endure four years of Trump presidency for the opportunity to fight again in 2020.

Not voting for Hillary in November would inevitably result in a Trump presidency. However, the movement argues that Trump has proven himself to be as ineffective as he is inconsistent. The chaos that exists within the Republican Party, together with expected wins by Democrats in mid-term elections, could be enough to make a Trump presidency powerless and thus with little negative consequence. Then, after four years, the progressive movement would be able to take over the 2020 election and cement a permanent foundation.

The problem with this option is that Trump has aligned himself with very conservative officials, and he is running as the Republican nominee. So even if he himself is not as regressive in real life as his colleagues, the institutions that will carry him to the presidency and help him run the country definitely are, and they will want to see their policies turn into reality.

Photograph by Charlie Neibergall

The other option is to influence the Democratic Party platform and push Hillary towards the centre-left. Sanders has already been given some influence over policy at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia this July, and there is growing pressure on Clinton to pick progressive hero Senator Elisabeth Warren, a darling of the Sanders movement, as her candidate for Vice-President.

Bernie’s voters would rejoice at the idea of influencing the Democratic candidate, her future administration, and the party platform to introduce their ideas of economic, social, and environmental justice. However, the problem with this option is that the Democratic establishment might not be willing to change it self so easily in order to accommodate Bernie Sanders’ concerns.

If Bernie or Bust voters find themselves unable to trust the Democratic Party to fulfil their progressive objectives, their decision becomes rather complicated.


The November trade-off

There is no doubt that Bernie voters have raised legitimate issues about Hillary Clinton, but come November, he will most likely endorse her candidacy against Donald Trump in the general election.

Some of his supporters must now decide whether they will vote against their conscience and try to influence the party platform, or go through a Trump presidency in the hope of a better Democratic Party in the next election.

Is the cost of a Clinton presidency really higher than that of a Republican one, or does the importance of Supreme Court nominations for progressive legislation supersede all other considerations?

Catalan Independence

Catalonia declares itself a sovereign state

The past and future of Spain’s north-eastern separatism

January 17th 2016 | Barcelona | Martin Rogard

Photograph by AFP

In recent months, the possibility of an independent Catalan Republic has been rapidly materialising.

The election of a separatist coalition by a slim 51.7% majority on September 27th was shortly followed by the passing of a resolution on October 27th, by the regional parliament, which declared “Un Estat Català Independent”, essentially declaring Catalonia a sovereign state. Growing political salience for independence has pushed political parties to form a majority coalition in the regional parliament called Junts pel Sí, or ‘Together for Yes’, which now claims it has the electoral mandate for secession.

However, although separatists won a majority of seats, they did not receive a majority of the popular vote. Due to the way constituencies are divided, just under half of the electorate actually voted for the pro-independence coalition.


Spanish reaction

In light of these developments, Spanish president Mariano Rajoy maintains that “Catalonia is not going anywhere, nothing is going to break”.

In fact, the independence resolution was immediately followed by an extraordinary meeting of the Spanish Council of Ministers, which approved an appeal to the Constitutional Court for the nullification of Catalonia’s parliamentary ruling.

In its report, the advisory body suggested that “there is sufficient legal basis” to challenge the claim before the Constitutional Court since it “disregards the core of the Spanish Constitution by declaring disobedience to the sovereign Spanish state”. Whilst such quarrel between regional Catalan and federal institutions has not been infrequent in the past, the pressure for independence has been rapidly escalating in the midst of national elections.

Diagram by The Economist

This rising tension is difficult to ignore when walking the eclectic streets of Barcelona. A couple of days ago, a middle-aged man who was standing with a separatist flag in front of the Town hall told me that an independent Catalonia had been the dreams of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, but that it would now be him, his children and grandchildren who would finally see it happen.

In his mind, the current “oppressive” and “corrupt” Spanish Monarchy is fighting the same losing battle as the Spanish Empire had with its former colonies. “We, Catalans, are no different than Columbians or Cubans” alliterated the interviewee


Historical roots

When did this zeal for separatism actually begin? And why?

Well, the Catalan separatist movement can be traced back to the creation of the Estat Català revolutionary movement in 1922. Historically, Catalonia has always been a notorious critic of unitary and monarchical power, advocating for greater regional autonomy and a Republican nation-state.

When a Second Spanish Republic was attempted in 1931, the independence movement died down with the creation of the self-administrative ‘Generalitat de Cataluña’, still under Spanish authority, but enjoying unprecedented levels of self-rule. In fact, when the Civil War erupted, following Franco’s coup in July 1936, Catalonia was actually one of the strongholds in defense of the Spanish state.

As described by George Orwell, who fought in Barcelona, the ‘Generalitat’ in 1937 was a place of “no boss-class, no menial class, no beggars, no prostitutes, no lawyers and no priests”.

Photograph by AFP

Today, Catalonia remains disconnected with some of the most traditional Spanish values in its commitment to progressive politics. Such cultural differences are mirrored in their use of the ‘Catalan’ as the official regional language, instead of Spain’s ‘Castellano’.

Having won the conflict, Franco immediately reinforced national unity, thus curtailing the region’s autonomy. Under the dictatorship, separatist movements were silenced, but Catalonia remained tacitly critical.

In 1975, after Franco’s death, the proclamation of a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic sparked a revival of the independence movement, which continues to this day.


Economic considerations

Recently, ‘Junts Pel Si ’ has been arguing for independence so that Catalonia is no longer required to provide funding for other regions as part of the fiscal redistributive policies imposed by the Spanish government.

In keeping all tax revenues to itself, the Generalitat would enjoy a larger budget for infrastructure, education, and healthcare, estimated between 5% and 9% of GDP. As such, the past seven years of fiscal austerity have intensified the population’s eagerness to secede, demanding a different recipe for economic growth.

On the other hand, being a part of Spain allows it to export local products such as its ‘Cava’, a form of sparkling wine, anywhere in Spain and in the EU. Catalonia greatly benefits from Spain’s membership to the European Union, which offers low export costs, consistent tourism, and infrastructure funding to the region.

Photograph by David Ramos

As a result, the economic argument for independence is entirely dependent on Catalonia’s ability to negotiate favourable relations with the Spanish state and the EU on a bilateral basis if it becomes a sovereign state.

Such issues are reminiscent of similar conflicts in Scotland, which faced many of the same debates over the last few years. Indeed, while EU accession laws may grant temporary membership to a seceding territory, any new member must be unanimously vetted by all member states, including Spain, which puts separatists in an awkward bargaining position.


Corruption and democracy

Beside the long-term explanations for Catalan independence, it appears that the recent escalation in separatism has been catalysed by an ongoing democratic crisis in Spain, and Europe in a wider context.

Indeed, for the past ten years, the Spanish political landscape has been plagued with corruption scandals of illicit party funding, such as the infamous ‘Bárcenas affair’, tax evasion scandals, and abuses of executive legal immunity provisions. The Monarchy has also been engulfed by scandals as Spain’s former King Juan Carlos I engaged in elephant hunting in Botswana, as well as the ‘Urdangarín affair’, which found him accused of embezzling large sums of public money.

If the general lack of transparency, rule of law and accountability of public officials has resulted in great dissatisfaction for the general electorate, this has been exacerbated even further for Catalans.

Photograph by Paul Hanna

This democratic crisis can be statistically illustrated by a Transparency International report, which found that 74% Spaniards felt that their government’s efforts to fight corruption are ineffective. An even higher percentage of people felt that from 2007-2010, the level of corruption in the country had actually increased.

According to the independent NGO, the most corrupt institution in Spain are the political parties. The mistrust of established political parties has created an electoral vacuum in Spain, which rapidly gave rise to newer parties such as the socialist and anti-austerity Podemos, and the mostly neo-liberal Ciudadanos.

Both parties call for profound political reform, and stand to the respective political left and right of the two largest parties, PSOE and PP.


Un Estat Catala independent?

The rise of new parties, coupled with general mistrust of institutions in Spain, have produced largely fragmented results in the national elections held in December 2015, crippling the ability of any party to form a coalition government.

In fact, many in Spain now believe there will a re-run of the elections, and a large portion of the electorate seems to be calling for political change.

In Catalonia, this surely means the independence movement will continue pushing forward until serious political reform is achieved.