Four Myths Surrounding American Minor Parties

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George Collins 

Scouring political comments sections is never good for the body or the soul, and yet I find myself reading endless virtual tirades every single day. It seems my passion for politics can override my concern for my mental and emotional health sometimes.

An increasing plurality of Americans now believe that another party is needed in the American political system. The whirlwind of the 2016 election spiked interest in such a prospect last year, but the sentiment has not died one year after President Donald Trump’s victory. A September, 2017 Gallup poll indicated that 57 percent of Americans believe a competitive alternative is necessary in electoral politics (I hesitate to use the term “two-party system” since too many similarities between the Democrats and Republicans exist for any reasonable distinction to be drawn). This amounts to 77% of independents, 52% of Democrats, and 49% of Republicans in favor of a new contender.

Desire for a new political party may be at an unprecedented high, but minor parties have been participating in all levels of electoral politics for decades with varying degrees of success. One might never know this when following corporate media, as the standard narrative paints third party electoral participation as nonexistent beyond “vanity” candidates for president that appear every four years. This story’s appearance is an inevitable piece of every presidential election cycle, as predictable as Wolf Blitzer’s stupefying lack of personality or right-wing outrage over holiday cups. Minor party voters are demonized as belonging to some privileged upper-class that can afford to “throw their votes away” at best, or aid an opposing candidate at worst. Such condemnation reached new levels of lunacy following the 2016 election result when Green Party voters faced accusations of falling for Russian propaganda as part of the neo-McCarthyist hysteria that maintains a chokehold on mainstream American political thought.That sound you hear is my soapbox slamming on the ground. It would take an entire book to disprove the lies thrown about regarding third party dynamics in the United States, but we’ll keep the list short. Here are four common myths about minor parties that I hear or read all the time, and my responses to them.

Much of my experience in the minor party politics has taken place in the Green Party. Thus, most of the examples I use in this piece will focus on their effort and progress. However, it is important to note they are far from the only smaller party instigating change at local and state levels. Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant is one such shining example, as are the string of electoral victories won by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in the 2017 elections.With that acknowledged, awaaaaay we go!

 

1. Minor party candidates have no chance in hell of winning.

Strong start here, as I’m not actually disputing this one on the presidential level where this talking point is applied the most. A specific set of circumstances has to be in place for someone like Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson or Green candidate Jill Stein to take home the gold, and that sequence of events likely will not happen in the absence of proportional representation a la a parliamentary system of government at the national level.  However, the rationale behind most minor party support in the presidential election isn’t about winning the presidency.

Rules and regulations on down-ballot races in individual states leave minor parties with no choice but to participate in the race. The majority of state election laws require political parties to field presidential candidates in order to qualify for down-ticket appearances, meaning Libertarians cannot even run for small offices without Johnson’s candidacy, Greens cannot run without Stein’s candidacy, etc. This applies for the next four years until the next presidential election when that party must run another presidential campaign. Not participating in the national race would mean four years where minor parties have literally no opportunities to run for offices or build coalitions anywhere in the state in question due to the absence of a presidential candidate in the prior election cycle. When considering that only a handful of states lack such restrictions, sitting out the presidential race is incompatible with building a strong network of grassroots support. Minor party small race candidates are screwed without them.

So you either want minor parties to start local and build their parties from the bottom up, or you want them to sit out the presidential election. You can’t have both under the current system of election laws.

There are other benefits to be drawn from the national visibility that a presidential contender brings, and this is especially true for smaller political parties that lack the large donor backing of the two major camps. For example, 5% of the national popular vote qualifies a party for federal matching funds, and 15% awards them a spot in the televised debates which means wider exposure of their platform. The benefits of these milestones are huge for candidates in local and state races who gain better access to resources and voters.Johnson enjoyed a fair amount of exposure and support in 2016, the foundations of which were laid during his run in 2012. That limelight boosts down ticket Libertarian candidates’ chances of winning smaller races. In my own state of Washington, Libertarian candidates contended for the Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, and Attorney General positions that year. These are much harder to contend for without the visibility that a presidential candidate brings to the party. The Libertarians have steadily increased their total number of held offices in the United States over the course of their existence, as have the Greens and the relatively new DSA. All of these gains have been supported by the national visibility of presidential candidates (save for DSA, who first appeared in electoral races in 2017).

Would it be better for third parties to focus all their resources on winning these smaller races to build a larger foundation? In an ideal world, yes. Unfortunately, the current system of laws does not allow for such an allocation of resources. Don’t like it? Work to change the laws in your state.
2. Minor parties only show up every four years and do no meaningful work in between AKA “I would gladly support them if they would only RUN”.

Amazing what a quick Google search can churn out these days. Minor parties may not be pushing candidates at the rate of the Democrats or Republicans, but to suggest they never run for smaller offices (and never win to boot) is ludicrous. As mentioned above, the Libertarians and Greens have been gaining seats nationwide every election year since their founding with substantial gains seen in both 2016 and 2017. Each party has also been seeing exponential increases in registered voters with over one million new Greens registering in the past year alone.In the case of the Greens, candidates for positions all up and down the spectrum can be found across the country. Greens litter city councils, school boards, and county commissions in several states, and places like California, Arkansas, and more have seen Greens serve on their respective state’s House of Representatives. Two Greens currently hold seats in the Maine House of Representatives. New York saw a Green city council candidate garner 30% of the vote in a solid Democratic district in 2017 and Greens took over the city council of Hartford, Connecticut the same year. The entire Green candidate collective spans hundreds upon hundreds of contenders, and the Libertarians top them by another several hundred in generally higher positions. DSA saw several electoral victories in city council and school board positions in 2017, and Seattle city councilmember Kshama Sawant has held her seat as a member of the Socialist Alternative party since her original election bid in 2013.

In addition to the symbolic significance of holding these seats, minor party officeholders often spearhead progressive legislation that later gains momentum at the national level. The country-wide Fight for $15 campaign to raise the federal minimum wage has its roots in Sawant’s successful push to pass such an increase in Seattle. The Sanctuary City movement to protect immigrant families from illegal privacy invasions was started by Green mayor Rob Davis of Davis, California. Solar power is now one of the fastest-growing job sectors of the American economy due to Green legislation and activism at the local and state level that subsidized solar power companies and enabled them to expand. It is questionable whether any of these developments and many more would have appeared had these minor party candidates not won these seats and exerted their leverage given the opposition these measures faced from major party officeholders.

Critics demand to know what took so long for these victories to be achieved. True enough, the significant increase in total number of minor party officeholders in smaller offices is a relatively new phenomenon. But it is important to keep in mind that even the smaller races are several times harder for third parties to win on account of state laws hampering their efforts. When Green Pennsylvania state senatorial candidate Carl Romanelli worked to get his name on the ballot, he was required to collect 67,000 signatures. The main party candidates were required to amass 2,000. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, it cannot be argued this is a balanced system for enabling third party candidates to build that base everyone keeps screaming at them about. It becomes more frustrating when one realizes that the primary way to scrap these laws is to elect people into office who would vote to repeal it, but that’s difficult to do when these very laws keep those people from winning small races. Ballot initiative or referendum can be an alternative, as with the Maine ballot initiative to allow for state-wide ranked-choice voting implementation that was passed in 2016, but these can be vetoed by sitting officeholders depending on state laws. See the problem here?

I never understand when people claim that no grassroots action occurs within the smaller parties given how easily this information can be accessed. Maybe no Libertarians, Greens, Constitution Party members, etc. are running in your state, but if that’s your idea of an adequate sample to assess the quality of a party at the local and state level in general then my father the stats professor would like a few words with you.
3. Third party supporters are disproportionately white/privileged.

This may be true in the case of groups that carry more of a right-wing slant in their philosophies such as the Libertarians or the Constitution Party. I do not know those numbers and cannot speak to their standings.

I hear this claim vaulted at Greens constantly though, and a clarification of the speaker’s intentions is needed before addressing it. If one means to say, in the context of the 2016 presidential election, that Hillary Clinton performed better among voting people of color than Stein, then yes, that is accurate. However, if the point is that Green Party supporters in general are disproportionately white, that’s where the argument falls apart.

Reuters data released early last year demonstrated that support for Stein among POC was completely proportional to national voting blocks in last year’s race, meaning the number of POC supporting Stein relative to the number of whites doing so fell in the same ratio as the national distribution of POC voters. Other credible polling agencies’ results reflected this same trend. It is statistically inaccurate to claim that the Green Party base is disproportionately white. This ties into a larger racist narrative that seeks to erase the contributions of POC to political movements of historical significance. POC activists do endless amounts of grassroots work every day, a large part of which includes support for smaller party candidates at all levels of government during election years.

The Green Party was the first political party in American history to nominate two women of color for its presidential bid with the ascension of Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente in 2008. Socialist Alternative member also Kshama Sawant bears referencing, as Asian-Americans are one of the least represented racial groups in American politics. This is not to mention the countless black and Latino candidates that ran as Greens, DSA members, socialists, and under many other banners in both 2016 and 2017. Further than that, we can find thousands of activists outside the strict political realm whose efforts complement the progressive legislation that rises to national conversation. Claiming that the support base for these candidates and causes is comprised mostly of rich white people obfuscates the political and social accomplishments of people of color.

The claim has major problems when applied to class as well. Stein performed better among lower-class millennials making less than 50,000/year than Clinton did with considerable overlap in the “will not vote” category. She performed better proportionally among working class voters than Clinton at the time of election. 2000 Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader had more success with individuals making less than $15,000/year than he did with any other demographic.

Self-proclaimed radical queer leftie Morgana Visser framed the core problem with the privilege misconception better than I ever could: “…and because I am afraid of Donald Trump, I am expected to vote for Hillary. As if I am not scared of Hillary Clinton as President. But I am; in fact, many marginalized people are rightfully horrified of Hillary Clinton.” Such fears were confirmed when Clinton performed worse among blacks and Latinos in 2016 than Barack Obama did in his 2012 reelection campaign.

Regardless of how much one agrees with the sentiments expressed by Visser and others, the idea that marginalized people have no presence in Green party support bases is at variance with reality and, funnily enough, an expression of privilege.
4. Minor party candidates can only act as spoilers and are directly responsible for George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

It is astounding how widely believed this is even after all these years. Where do I even begin with this one?Let’s start with 2000, when it is often claimed that then Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader cost Democratic contender Al Gore the white house. For starters, people seem to forget that Gore won the popular vote that year; the Electoral College is what handed the keys to George W. Bush. This circumstance was reached in Florida after a wild ride of 18 counties not reporting recounts, Gore only requesting manual recounts in four counties that were expected to vote Democratic anyway and not requesting any in counties expected to vote Republican, the decision by the Florida Secretary of State to enforce the mandatory recount deadline, and, most importantly, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to override the Florida Supreme Court’s issuing of a statewide manual recount.

Nader carried no influence whatsoever over these happenings. None of it. The closest thing he could have done was force the automatic recount with his presence, the argument being that such a process would not have been necessary had he not run. The problem with such an assertion is that Nader’s largest pull in the state of Florida was 4% of the independent vote, the voting demographic least likely to affect the overall count. People who claim that Nader cost Gore the election often fail to take all of this into account, instead relying on abstract and arbitrary reasoning that includes no analysis of how state-level popular voting actually works.

Suppose Gore lost the popular vote in 2000, would Nader be culpable then? The answer would still be no. 12% of Florida Democrats voted for Bush in that election. If only 1% of those Democrats voted along their own party line, Gore would have easily won Florida outside of the margin that triggered the automatic recount. That’s without even mentioning the roughly half of all registered Democrats who did not even cast a vote in the first place. Further exit polling showed that an overwhelming majority of Nader voters in the state of Florida would not have participated in the election had Nader not been an option. One might call this reasoning “what-aboutism”, but these are based on statistics and reliable voting tendencies, not mere speculation.

Fast-forward to the wake of 2016 and such accusations are flying again. Green Party forums are littered with people screaming about how Jill Stein put Donald Trump in the white house. Yet again, statistics and verifiable trends in voting behavior suggest otherwise. Once again, the Democratic candidate won the popular vote but failed to capture the electoral college. A greater chunk of Democratic voters cast their ballots for Trump than they did Stein. Half of the eligible voting population did not participate in the presidential election at all, and exit polling demonstrated yet again that minor party voters were more likely to abstain from voting altogether if their selected candidate was not an available choice. The people who vote directly for a candidate are always the ones most responsible for that candidate’s success. We hear all the time that a vote for Johnson, Stein, or whomever else is an indirect vote for the opposing major party’s contender. Indirect votes do not exist. They just don’t. You might have a case in a mathematical sense if every person who ultimately votes for a minor party candidate explicitly pledged to support somebody else in the event that their final choice was not an option, but good luck finding such a scenario throughout the entirety of American history.

Ulterior motives and poor management of a needlessly complex system is what cost Al Gore the 2000 presidential election, not Ralph Nader or any one of the other equally-influential minor party candidates of that election year that nobody seems to remember as conveniently. Donald Trump’s victory is better explained by proletarian rage unleashed after decades of neglect on the part of the neoliberal philosophy that swept the Democratic Party with the Bill Clinton presidency, not Jill Stein or Gary Johnson, not Russian interference, or any of the antics of former FBI director James Comey. All of these excuses serve only to distract from systemic problems that would weaken the elite behind the two major parties if they were solved.

One can hold whatever opinion of American minor parties and their voters they want to, but it is dishonest to suggest they are primarily responsible for the consequences of basing a society on profit over people. I’ll step off the soapbox now, as I must go shopping to make some American tottie scones.

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You can read more of George’s Ungagged Analysis here

Life in the Empire Part 2: Bringing the Media Giant Down

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George Collins 

In the first installment of this series, I lamented the nonexistence of a strong anti-war movement in the United States despite the need for one being greater than ever. The amount of destruction abroad that continues to murder civilians and foster resentment towards American imperialism rises with each new presidential administration, yet much of the American electorate remains silent. What little noise does surface comes from fledgling organizations formed within the past year such as 2016 Green Party Vice Presidential nominee Ajamu Baraka’s Black Alliance for Peace. The larger efforts historically stem from the libertarian wing of the populace than anywhere else, giving libertarians a step above progressives in being progressive.

 

But if there is anything I despise more as a political writer and broadcaster than a systematic problem going unaddressed, it is the swarm of people all too eager to point out these problems and spout all the answers while providing none of the solutions. I will not be one of them. In this piece, I’d like to reflect on the roots of past anti-war efforts and explore how the same driving forces behind them could be revived or replicated for today’s American left.

 

Two primary examples come to mind when considering mass resistance to American imperialism in modern history: the Vietnam War and the Second Gulf War AKA the Iraq War. These two periods of anti-war protest differed in multiple ways, and those differences shaped how the American people interacted with their government in challenging United States imperialism. Some of these differences were more influential than others in determining how those interactions took place, but the media world serves as the connection between all of them. Analyzing how media outlets large and small handled war propaganda, and the citizens’ collective response to such presentations, offers crucial insight into how the anti-war resistance rose in response to each armed conflict.

 

Of the two wars listed above, the Vietnam War carries the more infamous legacy among the majority of Americans. The resistance to the invasion of Vietnam has been well-documented in the decades since the war’s conclusion, and many events associated with that resistance stand out as some of the most famous moments in American history. The Mahayana Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in protest of the treatment of Buddhists by the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government; champion boxer Muhammad Ali being stripped of his heavyweight title after refusing to enlist because “no Viet Cong ever called me nigger”; the eruption of college campus protests organized by such student groups as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); the violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention in which journalist Dan Rather’s skull was almost cracked open by security personnel. These events and more are as familiar to Americans as the flag raising at Iwo Jima or Washington crossing the Delaware.

 

How did those events come to be so significant? Through a media machine that served as an unauthorized fourth branch of government enlisted by the citizenry to keep the other three branches in check. Like most progressive movements, the initial waves of protests against the war stayed relegated to smaller gatherings facilitated by organizations like SDS. The availability of information contradicting the government’s claims of success and the willingness of large media figures to spread such information enabled that fervor to grow into a movement of national strength and scale. Information and images contrasting with official government accounts began leaking like a broken nose, and the average American’s trust in their beloved government began to falter on a national scale for the first time in modern American history. It culminated with the famous 1968 CBS broadcast when Walter Cronkite, hailed as “the most trusted man in America” at the height of his career, reported on national television that the generals he met with in Vietnam were no longer confident in a victory. The sentiment that the entire war effort was fruitless graduated from the independent media circuits to mainstream television in that crucial moment. The resulting shockwave through the nation was so fierce that the federal government’s counterpunches were powerless to stop it. It destroyed President Lyndon Johnson’s standing among the American people and he abdicated the presidency in 1968 on the certainty that the voters would rather elect a jar of mustard.

 

Understanding the power of the media to shatter the federal government’s wall of propaganda and reverse public sentiment in less than five years involves examining the various entities’ experience with the concept of mass media itself. Television as a widespread staple of American homes on the national level had barely reached its tenth birthday in the middle of the 1960s. Prior television availability consisted of regional stations that had nowhere near a national broadcast reach, and the 6,000 or so homes that owned a tube watched programs based on the preceding network radio format. This meant less emphasis on spectacle and more on simple information delivery. News anchors were shoved on screen to sound like Steven Wright afflicted with crippling depression before departing in favor of audio-based programming reminiscent of the prime radio programs of the 1940s. Investment in television as a major medium of communication by media giants like NBC and CBS in the early 1950s grew the Tube faster than staph on an unwashed wrestling mat, and half of all U.S. homes owned televisions by 1955.

 

New inventions that reach the scale and influence of television in such a short amount of time are difficult for governments to control. Predecessors to the Johnson Administration had been given the time and experience necessary to control radio narratives detailing World War II and the Korean War. Independent radio circuits existed at those times, but their meager reach could not even wrinkle the skeleton of the national radio behemoth tethered to the U.S. government’s lifeline. Television offered a communication medium independent of government influence in most respects, and the unprecedented rapidity of its growth did not allow sufficient time to implement the same controls placed on the radio industry. Thus, by the time the Vietnam War was in full power mode and dissenting information began to be released, a Johnson Administration inexperienced with this new medium stood no chance of stopping the momentum. It lacked the time and resources necessary to consolidate the young and ambitious television networks in such a way that it could shape the narrative before Americans’ eyes the way it had done with radio in the decades prior.

 

This principle helps explain why conquering the propaganda around 9/11 and the resulting invasion of Iraq many years later would be more of a challenge for the next generation of anti-war progressives. Thirty years passed between the end of the Vietnam War and the second Gulf invasion. This provided the time and proficiency necessary for the federal government to establish the media control it lacked in the Vietnam years. Several pieces of legislation consolidated media outlets into a smaller group of owners and removed regulations on ownership in any given political unit. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 stands as the most blatant example. The law destroyed any barriers to merging that existed, allowing larger companies to buy out smaller competition faster than a Conor McGregor knockout. Prior to the Telecom Act, merging between media conglomerates could only take place under specific circumstances, and companies could only own one media outlet per municipality even if a merge took place. Newspapers, radio, magazines, and television all began to fall under a shrinking roster of owners as the competition the bill (allegedly) sought to create evaporated overnight.

 

The Vietnam War machine had little experience controlling widespread media dissemination, and they needed to navigate a climate without the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that consolidated power among media conglomerates down to a handful of entities. The Iraq War machine, by contrast, juiced itself to the gills on deregulation of information spread and was much better-equipped to handle the attacks from the fourth branch. The reliable watch dog of the establishment had been through a thirty-year training camp to become that same establishment’s armored attack dog.

 

But even that wasn’t enough. Even in the face of this new and improved propaganda machine, Americans still brought the giant down and recognized the invasion of Iraq as the colossal failure it was. It only took two years for the Iraq War to become a contentious election issue that no politician wanted any attachment to. George W. Bush’s legacy became tainted in the same way Lyndon Johnson’s had in the 1960s. How did Goliath fall a second time, even with the years of preparation and power consolidation?

 

Turns out Goliath wasn’t the only beast pounding horse meat and whey protein all those years.

 

Think back to Walter Cronkite being named America’s most trusted man at the peak of his career in the Vietnam years. Who on American television qualifies for such a title today? On a more fundamental level, who qualifies to even be compared to somebody like Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow in 21st century American media, or late-20th century American media for that matter? This is somebody accepted as a reliable source by an overwhelming majority of news consumers regardless of political affiliation and who carries a flawless record of fact-checking.

 

Can’t think of one? Neither can I, nor can most of us in the world of professional journalism.

 

Thirty years is a long time for groundbreaking domestic events to take place, and many such events in that wide period of American history eroded confidence in the government to a level below Satan’s wine cellar. Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal serves as the most potent example as Americans learned their government was capable of committing profound deceit to tamper with the election process, something as sacred to the principles of the U.S. as ammosexuality and apple pie. Many Americans may have suspected this prior to the events of the 1972 election, but few were ready to admit it even to themselves. Trust in the government shattered and has never recovered in the decades since.

 

Paralleling the government’s fall from grace was rising skepticism among Americans concerning the news media, the same media that instigated the outrage over Vietnam. Consolidation of media outlets and the companies owning them blurred the messages across networks together. The rise of figures like Roger Ailes fanned the flames of political extremism by promoting antagonistic rhetoric around the clock on a level never before seen in the country. This new breed of programming sought not just to convince you your side was correct, but that all dissenting voices were inherently evil and must be destroyed. The aforementioned consolidation of media outlets thanks to Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996 threw ownership of 90% of all types of American media outlets to a total of six companies, and more possible mergers such as one proposed between CBS and CNN threaten to reduce this number further every year.

 

These changes did not escape the notice of American news consumers. Us Americans may not always identify the right issues to expend our energy combating, but we can still identify a turd in a chocolate box if given enough cues. By the dawn of the 21st century, most of the country chose to avoid large media networks out of cynical skepticism that what they were watching was pure advertising. The rise of the Internet as the next generation of information delivery also contributed to this phenomenon as people began to abandon desires for objectivity in favor of what financial journalist Matt Taibbi termed “information shopping” or the deliberate seeking out of narratives to confirm one’s own viewpoints above all else. This mass skepticism of the media’s truth-telling capabilities caused the Iraq War media machine to crumble after only being active for two or three years. The government spent thirty years building a mechanized world champion kickboxer only to discover the opponent across the ring brought an EMP grenade.

 

People began noticing the widespread contradictions in the government’s narrative on the reasons behind the invasion of Iraq and the progress being made in the campaign. One minute our intelligence agencies had identified the terrorist cell harboring Osama Bin Laden, next minute they didn’t know where he was. One day we had taken Baghdad, next day we were still fighting to secure the city. Dick Cheney’s former ties to oil giant Haliburton became known but were never reported by mainstream news networks. The mythical Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that dominated pre-invasion coverage never surfaced despite the government’s continued insistence that they existed. The 9/11 hijackers were confirmed to originate from Saudi Arabia, yet few reporters or journalists on any major network used this information to ask why we had invaded the wrong country. Those few that did were booted out the door without a second thought.

 

By 2003, the weight of these conflicting stories crushed the government’s credibility in legitimizing the Iraq invasion, and the media machine they relied on to distract from these inconsistencies had lost its influence over the American public long before any 9/11 truther could scream about jet fuel and steel beams. Two years was all it took for Americans to shake off the double vision caused by one of the greatest tragedies in the country’s history.

 

The original question I set out to answer here concerned what is missing from the American left today to replicate these successful anti-war efforts. Why has it taken so long to pressure our government into pulling out of Afghanistan after almost two decades of occupation? Why are so many on the left supporting the war in Syria despite multiple United Nations investigations concluding that no chemical weapons have ever been used by the Assad regime? Why are supposedly “progressive” Democrats in Congress calling for armed conflict with Russia and Iran with no electoral consequences from their voter bases? Why is being pro-war still an acceptable position not met with genuine questions about that candidate’s sanity?

 

In examining the above history of the respective Vietnam and Iraq War protests, a common trait among the resistance emerges: skepticism. The Vietnam era taught Americans how to question the government through the rebellion of the fourth branch: an active and independent media circuit concerned first and foremost with bringing the truth to every home. The Iraq War propaganda campaign morphed this circuit into a monstrosity spewing misinformation around the clock, but it was brought down by organic skepticism of both the government and the media fostered by decades of scandal and media consolidation. For better or worse, Americans became conditioned to question everything, even if what they were questioning did not need to be questioned.

 

The American left has lost its ability to be skeptical. Instead of calling for investigations of chemical attacks in Syria, media figures associated with mainstream leftist politics applaud the Trump administration’s reckless abandonment in handling sensitive armed conflicts. Instead of calling on media outlets to scrutinize government narratives and ensure the truth is being told, viewers offer no reaction when anchors and reporters thoughtlessly regurgitate the statements of intelligence agencies and military spokesmen. Publications once heralded for their unshakable journalistic integrity like the Washington Post and New York Times continue to insist Russian agencies hacked the French presidential election even though French President Emmanuel Macron himself claimed no such interference occurred months ago. An increasing number of states are coming forward with evidence their voting systems were not hacked despite the government’s cries of hysteria. Basic levels of quality investigative journalism would have prevented these instances misreporting, but the skepticism and calls for accountability needed to punish these outlets for their blatant dishonesty is nowhere to be found.

 

This lack of pressure from the left wing could have originated from President Trump’s open wars with the media and intelligence agencies alike. His avid usage of terms like “fake news” and “the deep state” inadvertently forged an unholy alliance between these inherently conservative institutions and the American left who would rather be shot in the head than be seen in alignment with Trump on a single issue. Trump’s assault on the media may be immoral and dangerous in the context of maintaining a free and fair press, but his antagonism does not render these institutions trustworthy nor should the left regard them as worthy allies. The CIA and FBI are not our friends and never have been. These agencies harbor a long and racist history of stamping out dissent through means up to and including blatant murder. CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, The Washington Post, and other corporate media outlets are not reliable sources of information given their connection to big money interests, and choosing to ignore those conflicts of interest to appear cleansed of anything Trump-related is a grave miscalculation.

 

We on the American left must rehabilitate our ability to be skeptical and recognize that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Trump is despicable in almost every possible way, but his charges against corporate media and the evil deeds of American intelligence agencies at home and abroad carry varying levels of truth to them. Restoring our ability to recognize this distinction and translate it into informed action would reignite the anti-war left, and the refined presence of the Internet and mass media sharing could amplify the effectiveness of such efforts to a level even the Iraq War resistance could not have achieved. My suggestion is to seek out the independent media outlets that continue to tell the truth on a matter of principle. Empowerment of these sources and wider sharing of the truths they provide are what can turn smaller anti-war organizations like Ajamu Baraka’s Black Alliance for Peace into the megaforces needed to make being pro-war an unacceptable position among elected officials and media figures alike.

 

Students for a Democratic Society is now the oldest and largest student organization in the country and it had its roots in anti-war activism. Through the power of media and critical thinking on the part of the electorate, we can create another generation of such groups and leaders. We at Ungagged are up to the task. Come join us and be a part of revolutionary history.

Life in the Empire Part 1: Where is the American Anti-War Movement?

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George Collins 

Ask any American who experienced the assassination of John F. Kennedy what occurred in their lives that day, and they will be able to recall every detail: where they were, whom they were with, what they ate for breakfast that morning, all as fresh as if it took place only an hour prior. Ask Americans who experienced the fateful morning of September 11th, 2001, and you will see the same phenomenon. I happen to belong to the latter group.

 

Young George was in third grade when the twin towers fell. My parents would sometimes inform me of events on the morning news before we headed to school. Much of it constituted local happenings with the occasional national issue they thought I could comprehend. I would soak in this information and then forget much of it by the time class began a couple hours later. The usual morning update took place that day. My mother explained to me that two airplanes collided with these gigantic buildings in New York City, and that people all over the country were paralyzed with fear. She left it at that, as the complex implications of the geopolitics behind international attacks are often lost on eight-year old children. I filed the information away to be forgotten a couple hours later, and we travelled to school like any other day. The realization that this news was more than just another insignificant tragedy somewhere in the country arrived the moment I strolled through the classroom door. All of my peers were discussing the same story I heard that morning, which had never occurred with my other morning news reports. More significant to my childhood mind was the fact that all the adults in the school expressed concern, sorrow, and other strong reactions to the tragedy. The message was loud and clear by the time of the morning bell: something massive had taken place, enough to catch the attention of every adult inside and outside the school, and we would be hearing about it for years to come.

 

News of the United States’ numerous armed conflicts in the wake of the tragedy permeated the rest of my K-12 education. The school began receiving the kids edition of Time magazine the following year, and the publication never avoided the topic of the Iraq War and the political buildup surrounding the eventual invasion. The facts were simplified, and much of the corruption regarding Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the attack or the payouts for Haliburton never made those pages, but everyone stayed aware that the tides of war were on the horizon. One teacher even took the time to talk to us about the Patriot Act and the various ways it violated our constitutional freedoms. The 2004 election took place a few years later with the status of Iraq taking center stage as an election issue. The name Afghanistan surfaced with increasing frequency not long after that until it superseded Iraq as the primary recipient for American aggression. The roster expanded over the years to include many more countries filled with sand, oil, and brown people such as Libya, Syria, Yemen, and more.

 

Growing up in wartime is an experience common to my age group in the United States. We may have existed in a time when our military was not exhausting its bomb supply on civilians in West and Central Asia, but we lacked the political consciousness to understand the shift between the two eras. In 2017 at the age of 24, I still do not know the security of a peace-driven country where scapegoats and fear-mongering about innocent people I will never meet do not occupy some portion of the news cycle every day. Every American generation witnessed armed conflict, but those in my age group who knew the name Iraq before we learned long division lack one thing that most other generations saw in their political awakenings: a strong anti-war movement. This is even worse to me than the American empire’s imperialism itself.

 

Donald Trump’s ascension to power spawned a resurgence in activism throughout the United States. Early 2017 painted a hopeful picture for progressive politics in the country. The monumental Women’s March, the Sanctuary City movement, the March for Science, the boost in donations to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and related organizations, and other landmark happenings suggested the American left was awakening at last from the apathetic slumber fostered for almost a decade under former president Barack Obama. Yet one vital fervor remains absent: the anti-war streak. Amidst all the protests, new blood for political office, explosion in support for independent media, and other hallmarks of an active progressive movement, little to no energy can be found in resurrecting the national-level anti-war efforts that destroyed the legacies of presidents like George W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson.

 

The absence of anti-war sentiments puzzles me, as nothing has changed on a fundamental level across the Bush/Obama/Trump administrations when it comes to American imperialism abroad. Troop surges still occur every year in various countries across West and Central Asia, the U.S. military still constructs new bases abroad, and each administration surpasses its predecessor in launching drone strikes that kill a disproportionate number of civilians relative to the terrorist cells they intend to target. Many more examples of the American empire’s imperialistic expansion can be seen with every passing month.

 

The need for the kind of pressure felt by the Bush administration in the wake of the atrocities committed in Iraq never diminished, but somehow this fact escaped the left during the Obama years even though many of those same atrocities persisted or even escalated in an expanding roster of countries. Such facts are well known among average Americans, but we can’t seem to muster the courage to launch a nationwide movement to oppose the killing of children across the world while we sing the praises of anti-war movements of generations past. We praise figures like Walter Cronkite and Muhammad Ali for their bravery in risking their livelihoods to oppose the Vietnam War and tell ourselves we too would land on the correct side of history, but we have nothing to show for such rhetoric. One could argue the ordinary citizen has nowhere near the level of influence of either of those two figures, as we don’t all have heavyweight championship gold to forfeit as a show of solidarity. However, even community-level action can achieve significant strides in building national resistance, as other contemporary movements demonstrate every day. Even that level of action is missing in the anti-war wing of the left.

 

There are a few factors I can think of that may contribute to this particular apathy among American progressives. I suspect the primary culprit to be the support of these armed conflicts from alleged “progressive” figures. Many media outlets critical of Donald Trump applauded his decision to fire missiles into Syria even in the absence of an official United Nations investigation into the nature of the chemical attacks. Many claimed the move was his pivotal step into becoming more “presidential”. Brian Williams and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC both approved of the action with Williams displaying photos of the missiles and calling them “beautiful” while Maddow dedicated half an hour to explaining the efficiency of such missiles. Apparently the fact that real, innocent people were on the other end of those “beautiful” and “efficient” pile drivers was not worth mentioning in these segments. Democrats in Congress also expressed support for the careless attack. Those who did not, such as representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, faced intense vilification even in Democratic circles.

 

The response to the Syria strikes may be the most blatant example of this tone shift among “progressive” figures, but it is nowhere near the only one. The war-mongering rhetoric surrounding the United States’ relationship with Russia in recent months has seen several members of Congress calling the alleged tampering in the presidential election an “act of war”. North Korea entered the crosshairs next and the two nations along with Iran were the target of controversial United States sanctions that were condemned by our allies in the European Union. The bill even threatened to unravel the Iranian nuclear deal achieved by the Obama administration, but this irony escaped most Democrats in Congress because it was more important to rake in profits reaped from a war machine that never stops raging.

 

The current media and governmental climate does not foster any tolerance for an anti-war message among Americans without vitriolic accusations of unpatriotic treachery in a frightening revival of McCarthyistic tactics. Such stigma has never stopped progressives from fighting back in the past, but the anti-war drum suffers several puncture holes when leaders and media figures associated with the left begin siding with the same tyrant they claim to oppose. This blind following of such figures, however fraudulent they may be given their ties to establishment influences, can derail any momentum gained by a movement the establishment does not want to combat. Marches for women’s rights and scientific research can pass through the toll booth because they do not affect oil company and private military contractor profits that extend to members of Congress and the owners of major media outlets. By contrast, stopping wars in West and Central Asia that benefit no common American will be regarded as unacceptable in the corporate media’s eyes because it interferes with their conflicts of interest. Washington Post owner and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos works as a contractor for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for a reported $600 million. It is ludicrous beyond measure to suggest that CIA motives and propaganda do not influence the ways the Post reports on foreign affairs.

 

Flippant approval for these military advances is dangerous for another reason: it sends a crystal-clear message to the Trump administration that no repercussions will come from such actions. The reckless Syrian missile retaliation violated several international rules of war and destroyed any opportunity for the United Nations to enter Syria and determine what occurred in the preceding chemical attack. When silence follows from those entrusted to hold the executive branch of the government accountable as per the description of their jobs, nothing is off the table. The Trump administration now knows with certainty it can launch whatever military action it wants without any consequences for its power over the American empire’s iron fist, international laws be damned. Trump’s increased approval ratings following the strike are another byproduct of such irresponsible reporting, as it proves military action to be a surefire way to boost public approval of the presidency. This is a bad message to send to any president, but it becomes worse when considering the narcissistic tendencies Trump exhibits at every opportunity. Everybody expressed fear at the prospect of Trump launching a nuclear strike against North Korea, but nobody has demonstrated there would be consequences for his doing so. Beyond the possible discouragement from the generals in his cabinet, what is stopping him from throwing that knockout punch? Right now, nothing.

 

A strong anti-war movement needs to happen in the United States, and it needs to happen fast. In spite of my negative tone above, there is hope in me that the left wing can overcome the obvious deception peddled by people like Williams, Maddow, and the whole other brigade of right-wing war pigs we expect to push this narrative. After all, the precedent for such breakthroughs is less than twenty years behind us in history. Think of the timeline of events in the years following the 9/11 attacks: The country at large shook from the aftershock of the initial blow. Media heralded George W. Bush for emerging as a leader in a time of crisis. Support for an invasion of somewhere, anywhere, reached international levels when numerous countries in Europe expressed support for armed retaliation. Anchors and reporters lost their jobs for daring to oppose the idea that war was the solution including Phil Donahue of MSNBC and Pulitzer-Prize winning Chris Hedges of The New York Times. The famous phrase “you’re either with us or against us” dominated American consciousness and hate crimes against Arab-Americans rose 4,000% in mere months following the attack. Despite all of this, the American people eventually pierced the wall of misinformation and propaganda and began to sway public opinion back to the side of saying no to war in West Asia. The war in Iraq was regarded as a colossal mistake by the time of the 2004 presidential election, only three years after that fateful day in 2001.

 

What changed their minds, and can those catalysts appear today when confronting jingoistic rhetoric surrounding Iran, Russia, and other nations designated as enemies by the military industrial complex? I would like to think so, and I will investigate these questions in the next installment of this series.

 

Part 2 Coming Soon