More so than ever before in my entire life, I truly feel as though American society is crumbling. Am I a little over-dramatic with that statement? Perhaps. However, you’d have to be a very naive person not to notice the political divide that pulls both major political ideologies in this country further apart.
Mainstream media, both on the right and left, continue to profit off of their echo-chamber programming and propaganda. Our elected representatives, perhaps our president most of all, use their power to turn the citizenry against each other. It certainly seems to be working.
The continued demonizing of those with differing ideas has turned political discourse into a mudslinging competition. It is far harder to have civil political discussion without offending or angering people.
For the record, I don’t think this devolution of politics started with Donald Trump as the liberal media suggests. Trump is a symptom of a much deadlier disease. The disease has no political affiliation. It is not Democrat nor Republican. No, this has been a slow, bipartisan process. But, that’s what makes this so scary. Few people are talking about it, nobody truly knows the cause, and the powerful in this country only care about their own successes.
I’ve already made my case for why the news needs to be as unbiased as possible. However, fixing the way we consume news and politics, a daunting task in itself, is not going to be enough to mend the wounds.
We need to be open to new ideas, listen to others and try to understand where they are coming from. Personally, I love having conversations with people that have different opinions. I learn from them, and hopefully (if I’ve done a good job), they learn from me too.
I consider myself a progressive, though I do gravitate toward the center on many issues. As a result of the venomous political atmosphere, I have felt the pull to become more and more liberal. Between random internet commenters throwing out insults and many conservatives declaring war on “liberal intellectuals,” it’s easy for me to want to pick a side.
Luckily, I don’t live in an echo-chamber. My primary news sources tend to be centrist. Politically, my mother leans right. My step-father is a life-long Republican, and he is an avid supporter of Donald Trump. My father leans left, but he generally gets most of his political opinions from me. My brother leans right, and considers himself a moderate Republican. I’m surrounded by people with different opinions, and, much to their dismay, I talk politics a lot. Though I admit I do get heated from time to time, I never stop trying to understand their varying perspectives.
I’m not telling anyone to debate extremists like Richard Spencer or Tariq Nasheed. I just think that we can all benefit from playing devil’s advocate every once in a while.
Honestly, at a time when Americans on the left and right declare each other enemies, it’s probably best to stay in the middle anyway.
Sources: CNN, Huffington Post, The Daily Caller, The Atlantic, Philip DeFranco
Since fighting broke out in March 2011, the Syrian Civil War has become one of the most complex and dire international crises of the 21st century. The conflict has been heavily politicized, but nobody on either side of the aisle seems to have a resolution. There are many justifiable causes for this hesitation, but I think I know the principal reason: there’s no faction truly worth supporting.
While there are many factions vying for power in the war-torn nation, there are really only four that really matter in terms of land control, population and military strength. The four are the Assad Regime, ISIS, the Free Syrian Army, and the Syrian Democratic Forces.
If you’ve been paying close attention to the Syria situation over the last couple years, than you definitely know of the first two factions that I mentioned. However, in the event that you don’t, I will give a rundown of each faction. For reference, this map of Syria based on faction control will be helpful to enhance your understanding.
The Assad Regime:
Bashar al-Assad has been the president of Syria since 2000. However, during the Arab Spring of 2011, the Syrian population began a civil uprising to demand democratic reforms, end civil rights violations, and halt government corruption. Assad did not react positively.
Assad made no changes, while protests calling for his resignation were met with often lethal force. Civil war quickly resulted, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight six years later. Anti-Assad rebels gained ground in 2011-12, but support from Iran, Russia and Lebanese Hezbollah kept Assad’s Regime afloat.
Assad and loyalist forces have routinely violated internationally recognized human rights, most notably in 2013’s sarin gas attack. The United States under both Barack Obama and Donald Trump have denounced and threatened the Assad Regime, but outside of Trump’s April 2017 missile barrage of a Syrian airfield, little has been done to directly harm Assad.
While I doubt the United States would ever come out in support of Assad, it’s not difficult to see why a “ceasefire” went into effect earlier this July. Though Assad is an obviously despotic autocrat who routinely violates international law, he is backed by Russia. A powerful ally like Russia dissuades the United States from doing anything about Assad, especially as he continues to fight ISIS in the region. Assad currently controls most of South and West Syria, including Damascus, Syria’s capital.
The Islamic State:
I assume you know exactly why the United States does not have a great relationship with ISIS. The Islamic State is undoubtedly the most horrific and dangerous faction in the Middle East. In fact, they are the only group in Syria that the U.S. military is actively fighting, and for good reason.
ISIS took advantage of the mass confusion and power vacuum in Syria, and seized territory extraordinarily quickly, peaking in late 2015/early 2016. There was even concern that they would take Syria’s most heavily populated city (pre-war), Aleppo in 2016. Their slaughter of the innocent makes them an easy target, even if they were not the initiators of the Syria conflict.
Though they have suffered numerous defeats as of late, they still control a very large portion of Southeast Syria. For more information on the origin of ISIS, you can check out my article on it here.
Free Syrian Army:
The Free Syrian Army was originally Syria’s best bet to defeat and oust the Assad government. Their main purpose remains securing freedom from the Assad Regime, and putting into place a less hostile government. In the beginning of the civil war, the FSA was primarily comprised of former soldiers of the Syrian Armed Forces. Military victories in 2011-12 have since been replaced with defeats at the hand of Assad and ISIS.
In 2013, the Obama administration approved plans to arm, train and fund the FSA. However, by the time aid was coming in, all momentum had been lost and the FSA was clearly on its heels. President Trump actually ended the CIA program assisting the FSA in early July.
If it were 2012, the FSA would be a great option. But since their early victories, there have been three major red flags that lead me to believe that supporting them would be a waste of time, money and effort.
Poor Leadership: Deserting has become commonplace and corruption is rampant in Turkey-based commanding officers. The FSA lacks discipline and cohesion.
Lack of Territory: Of the four major factions, the FSA has the least amount of land. Their two largest areas of control are also not connected.
Willingness to Work with Jihadists: While the FSA has been fighting ISIS for years, their willingness to work with the Al-Nusra Front (a jihadist group) shows democracy may not be high on their priority list.
Essentially, it comes down to the fact that the FSA has virtually no chance of victory. This Washington Post article details why fighters are leaving the FSA for other rebel groups in much more detail.
Syrian Democratic Forces:
Surely the faction with the word “democratic” is worth supporting, right? Yes and no. The U.S. currently supports the SDF, and for good reason. So, I’ll start with the positives.
The SDF is ethnically diverse; it is comprised of Kurds, Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Assyrians and even Westerners.
The SDF is backed by a number of of Western nations, including the United States. There have even been operations in which U.S. Special Forces have had boots on the ground to assist the SDF.
Their primary targets are jihadist groups, namely the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State.
So, they’re an ethnically diverse, democratic, U.S. backed fighting force whose primary purpose seems to be to fight ISIS. Sounds perfect. Unfortunately, it’s not.
Before the SDF was formed in 2015, the main fighting force in Northern Syria was a group of Kurdish fighters called the YPG (People’s Protection Unit). There’s nothing wrong with the YPG per se, but they represent the largest segment of the SDF, and hold a lot of power. Before joining the SDF, their end goal was to create an independent Northern Syria under Kurdish control.
The Kurds are one of the largest ethnic groups in the world that don’t have a permanent, internationally recognized state. Even though they should continue to work with the West in ridding the region of ISIS, I’m concerned about the fallout if they are successful. If the SDF and Western forces clear Syria of ISIS, the Kurdish fighters of the YPG may decide to return to their original goal.
While I personally have no problem with the idea of a Kurdish state, and I’m sure the West won’t, the Assad Regime certainly will. The geopolitical situation in the Middle East is extremely volatile, and the idea of a new nation dominated by Kurds could potentially set off a number of Arab nations. This issue is theoretical, but the risk of ending the conflict in Syria and replacing it with a new one is undoubtedly one that needs to be considered.
Sources: Washington Post, BBC, ABC, Syria.liveuamap, The Atlantic
Obviously, I assume that you know that the Islamic State is a terrorist organization. However, politicians and talking heads try to educate us without actually knowing who and what they’re talking about. My goal for this article is to let you know just what we’re dealing with.
The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), is a militant terrorist organization with the ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate. (A caliphate, like the Abbasid Caliphate in the medieval era, is essentially a kingdom ruled by Islamic law.)
Contrary to what a certain orange revisionist may have told us on the campaign trail a year ago, President Barack Obama did not create ISIS. Actually, the group has its origins in 2002 as a loose affiliate of Al-Qaeda. In 2004, under the leadership of Jordanian criminal Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the group formally joined Al-Qaeda as their militant wing in Iraq (dubbed simply as Al-Qaeda in Iraq or AQI).
However, the terrorist group under Zarqawi maintained goals and beliefs that were even too extreme for the rest of Al-Qaeda, specifically their hatred of Sunni Muslims, extreme tactics, and prioritization of internal enemies over the West. While the two groups formally split in late 2013 or early 2014, they largely operated independently for quite a while before that point (AQI even rebranded itself as the Islamic State in Iraq or ISI in 2006). If you’d like to read a more detailed analysis on the origin of ISIS go here.
The Rise of the Islamic State:
The Islamic State as we know it today really started after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took the mantle as leader in 2010 from a string of deceased predecessors, including Zarqawi. After years of decline, it was Baghdadi that truly brought ISIS to international recognition. The way I see it, there were three major events that allowed ISIS to seize power and for Baghdadi to assume the role as the most hated individual in the world.
The withdrawal of U.S. and Coalition forces from Iraq
The death of Al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden
The Arab Spring and Syria’s civil war
The withdrawal of the United States and its allies from Iraq left a massive power vacuum in the region. The government that we left had insufficient infrastructure and military power to stomp the Islamic State out. Since then, ISIS has wreaked massive havoc in the country.
The death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 signaled the symbolic demise of Al-Qaeda. The terrorist organization had been substantially weakened as it was and losing its figurehead felt like a death knell in the eyes of the international community. This left an ideological vacuum for ISIS to replace Al-Qaeda as the world’s boogeyman.
The mass political turbulence of the Arab Spring from 2010 to 2012 left both ideological and physical power vacuums throughout the Arab world. Many of the revolutions were peaceful, but in countries like Syria, violent resistance became the norm. The ensuing civil war in Syria, which neighbors Iraq, was the perfect breeding ground for ISIS to propagate.
What Makes them Dangerous:
In 2014, once ISIS had established itself in both Iraq and Syria, the group declared a Caliphate under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. For a short period of time, primarily in 2015, they probably felt pretty confident.
They controlled significant territory in both Iraq and Syria that was well connected over land. In early 2016, there was even a major concern that ISIS could potentially take the most populous city in Syria (pre-civil war), Aleppo.
Since then, ISIS has suffered numerous military defeats and lost territory, but the same principle still applies.
There were three primary causes that allowed the Islamic State to sew so much terror in such a short period of time. Singular purpose, extensive funding, and recruitment/propaganda.
Since 2014, the Islamic State has had one very clear goal over everything else: to establish an Islamic Caliphate. This common goal has allowed ISIS to be shockingly cohesive as an organization under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. As long as Baghdadi is alive, it doesn’t seem like that is subject to much change.
Furthermore, ISIS is very well-funded. In 2015, it is estimated that they made somewhere from $1 million to $3 million per day. Those numbers probably make ISIS the most well-funded terror group that the U.S. has faced.
What sets their fundraising strategy apart is how diverse it is. While internet donations from sympathizers abroad play a role, the international intelligence does a pretty good job curbing much online fundraising. Instead, through their conquest of much of Iraq and Syria, ISIS uses the resources that come from their territories.
Oil, extortion/taxation of the population, and captured banks are among the largest contributions to the group’s wealth. When you add the income gained from wealthy donors from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and other countries around the Middle East, it’s no surprise that ISIS doesn’t lack funding. For more detailed information on where ISIS gets its funding, go to this Washington Post article.
More than anything else, the Islamic State’s recruitment and propaganda strategies are extremely dangerous. Recruiting in the Middle East is easy enough. They promise freedom from Western oppression and a restoration of Islamic law to their territories. Their propaganda is Joseph Goebbels-esque in its distortion of reality and efficiency. Essentially, ISIS paints the West as the personification of evil and the Islamic State as a Muslim utopia. They reportedly also pay their fighters $400 a month.
As horrible as the situation is, it’s easy to see how a young, angry, unemployed man who lost a family member as a result of U.S. involvement in Iraq or under the brutal Assad regime in Syria can become disillusioned and see the Islamic State as an enticing option.
Even more dangerous is their recruitment tactics used abroad through the Internet. ISIS targets young, impressionable, lonely Muslims and manipulates them into believing their propaganda. In essence, they hone in on Muslims kids that feel like outsiders in Western culture. While this tactic hasn’t been very effective in the United States (as the government usually catches wind before anything happens), it is frightening to think that there are people in the U.S. that have tried to join ISIS.
Perhaps if we, as a country, could come together and make young Muslims feel welcomed instead of berated, alienated, blamed and banned, that tactic wouldn’t be so dangerous to our national security.
Sources: BBC, Washington Post, Stanford University, The Economist, Citizens for Global Solutions
During the 2016 election campaigns, the words “Citizens United” were brought up often, particularly by Senator Bernie Sanders. Those words represent the controversial Supreme Court decision on the case Citizens United v. FEC.
In 2002, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, sponsored by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI), was created to curb big (or soft) money in politics. The BCRA, also known as the McCain-Feingold Act, placed limits on the indirect campaign contributions (like political commercials) that could be made by interest groups, corporations, etc. In essence, the law limited the influence that money could have on politicians and restricted the power of the very wealthy in regard to elections.
Leading up to the 2004 election, progressive filmmaker Michael Moore advertised and released his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. The film was critical of President George W. Bush. Because the film’s release was so close to the election, the conservative non-profit Citizens United tried to suppress the film on the basis that it was in violation of the McCain-Feingold Act. However, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) ruled in favor of Moore, noting that the film and its promotion represented legitimate commercial activity. (Although the film actually had been advertised and released by the time the ruling was given.)
In 2008, now knowing that film was protected by the Federal Election Commission, Citizens United tried to air a film called Hillary: The Movie. The documentary on Hillary Clinton, who was running against Senator Barack Obama in the Democratic Primaries, was produced solely to criticize her. The United States District Court ruled against Citizens United on the basis that the film violated McCain-Feingold because its purpose was only to undermine a political candidate. In response, Citizens United brought the case to the Supreme Court.
The question that the Supreme Court needed to answer was whether or not McCain-Feingold’s restrictions on campaign finance violated the First Amendment right of free speech. The way I see it, the question was answered in two parts. The first issue was whether or not spending/donating money is a form of free speech. The second was whether or not corporations/special interests are protected under the First Amendment.
Ultimately, in 2010, the Supreme Court answered the question in a 5-4 decision favoring Citizens United. The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, ruled that McCain-Feingold’s restrictions on independent campaign expenditures were unconstitutional. Kennedy was joined by Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. They contended that restrictions on corporations and unions to spend money independently of political campaigns violated the First Amendment. So, spending money is considered a form of free speech and corporations/special interests are protected under the First Amendment.
John Stevens wrote the dissenting opinion, which was joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
For a more detailed overview of the decision, go here.
Effects of Citizens United v. FEC:
For the sake of transparency, it is my opinion that the Supreme Court’s ruling has been a disaster in American politics. Keep in mind, the “B” in BCRA stood for “Bipartisan.” McCain-Feingold was a rare bipartisan achievement where both Democrats and Republicans were satisfied. While many of the law’s vital provisions are still in effect, its range has been decreased significantly.
Now, corporations have free reign to fund super PACs that spend hundreds of millions of dollars to support political candidates and parties. Such a money-rich environment is perfect for the establishment of a quid pro quo (trade-off) system in which the wealthy few (who already possess massive economic power) influence many of our elected representatives to act against the interests of their constituents and country.
The public opinion on the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC supports my argument well. In 2010, a Washington Post-ABC poll showed that 8 in 10 people opposed the decision. That number included 85% of Democrats, 76% of Republicans, and 81% of Independents. A Gallup poll showed that 76% of Americans thought there should be limitations on the amount of money that corporations and unions can contribute.
Overturning Citizens Unitedv. FEC remains a prominent talking point in many political circles. The Democratic Party actually has the reversal of Citizens Unitedv. FEC as a major part of its platform. Many Republicans condemn the decision as well. Even Donald Trump has criticized the decision in the past.
The decision made in Citizens United v. FEC was an ironic misstep by the Supreme Court. In an attempt to protect free speech, the Supreme Court actually undermined the weight of the people’s free speech. Now, they need to do their best to win back the faith of the American people. Considering the recent news surrounding John McCain, it would be a step in the right direction if his attempt to protect our democracy was honored.
Sources: MSNBC, CBS News, HillaryClinton.com, BernieSanders.com, The Washington Post, OpenCongress.org Archives, Oyez.org Archives, Gallup
The Electoral College has been the subject of intense scrutiny since Donald Trump’s victory last November. However, I remember hearing debates on the Electoral College well before the age of Donald Trump.
While the abolishment of the Electoral College has become a staple in a number of left-leaning circles, I don’t think that this is an entirely partisan issue. A 2016 Gallup poll showed that just 47% of Americans support the Electoral College, even after Trump’s election. While those numbers did show a sharp increase from 35% in 2011, I would not be surprised if that number has shifted a little bit over the last seven months.
While polls suggest that the majority Democrats support an election system based on the popular vote, Republicans do not support such a system, at least not in such great numbers. In 2011, before our politicians (on both sides) became partisan obstructionists, polls suggested that 54% of Republicans supported the popular vote. Now, it is only 19%. Obviously, something has changed. A rare bipartisan issue has become shockingly partisan.
Regardless, this is an issue that many Americans feel pretty strongly about. After all, the current system has allowed two out of the last three presidents to lose the popular vote. So, what are the arguments in favor or against the Electoral College? Obviously, such a long-standing and complicated political issue has far more than two sides or easily digestible point. But, generally speaking, these are the main two sides that I see:
For the Electoral College:
The Electoral College is not anti-democratic, and, for the most part, the system has generally worked well throughout our history. While it has its issues, the presidents that we have elected have done a good job making the United States among the most advanced civilizations in human history. To destroy among our oldest institutions undermines the legitimacy of previous elections and administrations and the ideology that the country stands for.
Furthermore, the United States is not a direct (or pure) democracy. We are a democratic republic and a representative democracy. While I could potentially see a direct democracy (where the people ultimately make all the major decisions), the reality of the matter is that such a feat would have been virtually impossible in the 18th century. It was actually Alexander Hamilton that said, “Real liberty is never found in despotism or in the extremes of Democracy.” This sentiment was held by the vast majority of our founding fathers.
The Electoral College, even with all of its flaws, is designed to protect us from popular autocrats that fool the people into voting against their own interests. When the founding fathers made the Constitution, there was a genuine fear that such a possibility could occur. So, they created a system that would act as a safeguard. While the power has been used by individuals before, it has never changed the actual outcome of an election.
Against the Electoral College:
As of now, there is too much power in the hands of the states and electors. After all, two of our last three presidents were elected without securing the popular vote. This indicates that there is a serious discrepancy between the will of the people and the power of the states.
The only votes that truly matter are those in swing states. Presidential candidates spend an uneven amount of effort in states like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania because they know that these are ultimately the states that will decide who wins. Candidates can effectively ignore the states that don’t follow their party’s ideology. To a lesser extent, the same concept is true in states with small amounts of electors. So, if you’re a struggling citizen of Rhode Island, don’t expect a shout-out from anybody next election cycle.
The bigger issue concerning the Electoral College seems to be that the citizens in the nearly 40 states that consistently go red or blue every year essentially cast votes that don’t really matter. Because the electoral system is set up as winner-take-all in 48 out of the 50 states, a presidential candidate effectively only needs 50.1% of the vote (could actually be less) of a state to secure all of the electors’ votes. In this line of thinking, if you voted for Hilary Clinton in Florida in 2016, your voice wasn’t heard. In essence, a conservative in liberal California has little reason outside of pride to vote. The same is true for a liberal in conservative Texas.
I believe that the best solution to this predicament is modeling the voting process in every state after the hybrid systems used by Maine and Nebraska.
In Maine and Nebraska, those in the minority receive a voice. Simply put, electors in those two states choose based on the popular vote of their districts. While gerrymandering is an issue that absolutely needs to be addressed in their system, it allows the minority party to be heard. The two electoral votes designed to represent the state’s two senators defer to statewide popular vote.
These hybrid congressional district systems, while imperfect, would be an improvement over the current Electoral College if applied to all 50 states. It allows the Electoral College to continue to act as a safeguard against tyranny, while giving the people better representation.
I’m not going to pretend like I have all the answers. Personally, I am not a fan of the Electoral College. I actually lean more toward abolishment. However, above everything else, I want a compromise. At the very least, there needs to be a reward for those in the minority party that perform their civic duty. So long as that issue is addressed, I believe that most of the Electoral College’s critics will be somewhat satisfied.
Sources: Gallup, American Government: Power & Purpose, NPR, Adam Ruins Everything: Why the Electoral College Ruins Democracy
In a time where news is more accessible than ever before, public trust in American mass media is at an all-time low, according to Gallup polls:
You don’t have to delve into the farthest corners of the internet to hear people question the reliability of news sources like CNN, Fox News, and The New York Times. The lack of public trust in the mainstream media is among our society’s biggest problems. According to the Washington Post, a public that does not trust the media can (and has) turn its attention to partisan sources that reaffirm their previously held beliefs. Breitbart, The Blaze, The Huffington Post, and our president’s off-the-cuff 3 a.m. tweets are a few good examples of this.
In my opinion, the day where I, a self-proclaimed progressive, cannot have a polite conversation about a political issue with an educated conservative friend is the day democracy truly dies in this country. Hopefully that day never comes, but I do not like our current trajectory.
So, how do we as citizens help combat the spread of misinformation and ensure that the facts receive attention?
Do not take any one source as fact, do your own research and fact-checking.
Be wary of information and stories shared on social media, anyone can write a false article and share it.
Look past the headline, click-bait titles entrap many into spreading misinformation.
Support independent journalists and media companies that prioritize presenting facts first and opinions later.
Challenge your preconceived ideas and beliefs; it is perfectly fine to change your opinion when new information is presented to you.
Here at Into the Cesspool, my mission is to try and make sense of complicated political issues, represent all sides of the story (to the best of my ability), and offer my opinion after all of the facts have been presented.
The political cesspool that is modern news will not be easy to navigate.
Good thing I brought a snorkel.
Sources: Washington Post, Forbes, Gallup, Politifact, The Philip DeFranco Show, The Daily Caller, Media Matters