House Divided: We the People Must Stand Together Against Divisive Rhetoric

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.

Whether it’s Hillary Clinton calling half of Donald Trump’s supporters “deplorables”, Representative Mo Brooks essentially blaming Bernie Sanders for the June 14 shooting on Republican party members, the Huffington Post telling cis white men upset at the news of Trump’s trans-ban in the military that they aren’t doing enough, or virtually all of the president’s tweets, it is easy to see the divisive rhetoric that permeates contemporary American politics.

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

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What is “Citizens United,” and Why is it a Problem?

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. 

Background:

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 Ruling:

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 United v. FEC remains a prominent talking point in many political circles. The Democratic Party actually has the reversal of Citizens United v. 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: Anti-Democracy or Institutional Safeguard?

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.

The Compromise:

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

 

 

Why Delve Into the Cesspool of Political News?

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:

Gallup Poll.png

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.

As people find themselves in these echo-chambers, their partisanship toward specific issues becomes stronger and their likelihood to have a reasonable conversation with the other side diminishes. And so, political discourse between right and left grows ever more venomous. For more on that topic, you should check out Chris Cillizza’s 2014 article on the increasing divide in American politics.

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.

Between CNN being accused of staging news, Sean Hannity of Fox News pushing conspiracy theories as actual news, and Forbes misrepresenting independent news sources like Philip DeFranco all within the last month, it does not look like mainstream media is going to change any time soon.

So, how do we as citizens help combat the spread of misinformation and ensure that the facts receive attention?

  1. Do not take any one source as fact, do your own research and fact-checking.
  2. Be wary of information and stories shared on social media, anyone can write a false article and share it.
  3. Look past the headline, click-bait titles entrap many into spreading misinformation.
  4. Support independent journalists and media companies that prioritize presenting facts first and opinions later.
  5. 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