America has had a tyrant like Trump before: We fought a revolution to get rid of him

Published: Salon (July 4, 2016)

As America celebrates its 240th anniversary, the Donald Trump campaign confronts us with the vivid possibility that our democracy could look vastly different if he’s elected.

No, I’m not implying that Trump is another Adolf Hitler. You don’t need to be a latter-day Fuehrer to hold positions antithetical to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. That said, when you look at Trump’s avowed ideology, it becomes apparent that he has inadvertently aped the very tyrant whose reign prompted the American Revolution in the first place… King George III.

To understand why, let’s look at three of the grievances identified by the Continental Congress in 1776:

“He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

The Naturalization Act of 1740 was hardly an ideal immigration law, at least by modern standards, since it only extended to Protestants and (under certain circumstances) Quakers and Jews… and definitely not Catholics. Nevertheless, the statute held that any foreigner who resided in one of the American colonies for at least seven years without being absent for more than two months would automatically become a citizen. Considering that subsequent scholars extended the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation that “all men are created equal” to groups excluded by the founding fathers (including African-Americans and women), it stands to reason that we can do likewise with the importance of the rights of immigrants. When Trump demonizes undocumented Mexican immigrants who come here in the hope of creating better lives for themselves and their families, or when he threatens to bar all Muslims from coming to this country because of the terrorist acts of a small minority, he puts himself at odds with our formative document.

“He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.”

When Trump attacked U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel for being Mexican-American, he was rightly condemned as a bigot. That said, his comments also revealed a disturbing tendency to violate the doctrine of judicial independence that has been essential to curbing executive power. Trump’s comments about Judge Curiel weren’t just racist; they also contained the implicit threat that he would defy the court if it attempted to act against him during his presidency. Similarly, Trump has promised to “open up the libel laws” so that he can sue his critics, an act that would require him to disregard the entire judicial system when it attempts to protect citizens’ right to free speech. Combine these statements with his basic lack of knowledge about the structure of our Constitution, and it becomes disturbingly clear that Trump doesn’t view himself as beholden to the judiciary.

“He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.”

When Trump was told that the military would be obliged to disobey his orders if he told them to kill terrorists’ families (which violates international law), he ominously replied that “if I say do it, they’re gonna do it.” Like his comments about Judge Curiel, Trump’s response here belies a belief that upon being elected president, he would quite literally be the end-all of political power in this country. Bear in mind, this answer came from the same man who admitted that he might have supported interning Japanese-Americans during World War II. Although Trump’s supporters may be voting for an authoritarian, our government was formed in large part to prevent tyrants from using the armed forces to actively violate civil authority and civil rights.

Although this article has criticized Trump for violating the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, that doesn’t mean he would be the first president to do so. I’m sure that liberals, conservatives and everyone in between can point to past presidents and policies that they believe were similarly disrespectful to the intent of our founding document. Nevertheless, there is a spirit of overt radicalism to Trump’s campaign that has no parallel in American political history. Even the most overzealous conservative critics of Barack Obama or liberal critics of George W. Bush would have to concede that, despite their shrill declarations that these men would destroy our freedom, they at the very least put on the pretense of wanting to preserve the American way of government.

Trump, by contrast, seems to view himself and his movement as something fundamentally different. He wants to “make America great again” through the imprint of his own personality. To do this, he is telling the people that — as Thomas Jefferson wrote — “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” To do this, he says, we simply need to put him in power. This makes it all the more cruelly ironic that Trump has so much more in common with the tyrant we overthrew than the freedom fighters we celebrate today.

What the end of the NSA’s bulk phone record collection really means

Published: The Daily Dot (December 2, 2015)

It’s official: The NSA was legally required to terminate its bulk phone record collection program this week. That may not provide much comfort if you happen to use the Internet (and particularly if you communicate using social media)—but it’s a major win worth acknowledging.

If you’re wondering why the government can still monitor what you do online but can’t access your phone records (at least not without permission from your cellular service provider), the reason is a little complicated. Although the National Security Agency has collected phone records since terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the public wasn’t made aware of this practice until the Edward Snowden leaks almost 12 years later. Shortly thereafter, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuitclaiming that the program was unconstitutional, resulting in a two-year legal battle that ended when an appeals court ruled that the NSA’s actions were indeed unjustified.

“Such expansive development of government repositories of formerly private records would be an unprecedented contraction of the privacy expectations of all Americans,” explained Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch. “We would expect such a momentous decision to be preceded by substantial debate, and expressed in unmistakable language. There is no evidence of such a debate.”

Within weeks of this decision, the Senate failed to pass a bill (the USA Freedom Act) that would have reauthorized and reformed Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which had been provided the NSA with a tentative legal foundation for their surveillance activities. Although a separate bill was passed in the summer allowing the NSA a 180-day transition period, the clock finally ran out on the illegal phone collections last week, with the Justice Department announcing that “final temporary reauthorization of the Section 215 bulk telephone metadata program in the U.S.” had expired.

That said, neither the circuit court ruling nor Congress’s various measures (or lack thereof) has any impact on NSA spying besides monitoring and collecting cellular phone data. One program that will remain untouched is PRISM, the notoriously secret initiative implemented in 2007 that empowered the NSA to collaborate with the FBI to directly access user data from major tech companies like Apple,Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, AOL, Skype, and YouTube. Today, information acquired through PRISM accounts for one out of every seven intelligence reports. Moreover, as The New York Times discovered less than two weeks ago, the NSA managed to develop alternative methods for acquiring online data after a different surveillance program (known as Stellarwind) was forced to shut down.

Making matters worse, many experts believe the NSA has loopholes aside from Section 215 that it could utilize to allow even more expansive online spying—or a return to phone data collection. For example, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act allows the government to gather intelligence on non-citizens that the government argues can be “reasonably believed” to be outside the United States.

Despite the inclusion of “minimization procedures” to prevent the unintentional acquisition of information about U.S. persons, many civil liberties groups are concerned because the NSA frequently refuses to disclose how it received information that it later uses to build its cases. As Hanni Fakhoury of the Electronic Frontiers Foundations wrote last year: “FISA surveillance was originally supposed to be used only in certain specific, authorized national security investigations, but information sharing rules implemented after 9/11 allows the NSA to hand over information to traditional domestic law-enforcement agencies, without any connection to terrorism or national security investigations.”

Another loophole exists in the form of Executive Order 12333, which was issued by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Ostensibly created so that “all reasonable and lawful means must be used to ensure that the United States will receive the best intelligence possible,” Executive Order 12333 grants broad powers to intelligence gathering agencies when it comes to how they perform their duties. “Unlike Section 215, the executive order authorizes collection of the content of communications, not just metadata, even for U.S. persons,” wrote former State Department employee John Napier Tye, who specializes in Internet freedom issues, in a Letter to the Editor at the Washington Post last year.

Although people in the United States cannot be intentionally targeted without a court order, Tye points out: “[I]f the contents of a U.S. person’s communications are ‘incidentally’ collected (an NSA term of art) in the course of a lawful overseas foreign intelligence investigation, then Section 2.3(c) of the executive order explicitly authorizes their retention. It does not require that the affected U.S. persons be suspected of wrongdoing and places no limits on the volume of communications by U.S. persons that may be collected and retained.”

None of this means that the expiration of the NSA’s phone record collection program should be dismissed. As the ACLU noted, the mere fact that the NSA suffered any kind of setback is in its own right significant. Staff attorney Alex Abdo pointed out that “this historic victory represents the first time that Congress has scaled back the NSA’s surveillance of Americans since 1978.” Just as importantly, it reveals that ordinary citizens who use the Internet to inform their fellow citizens of controversial government activities still have the power to make a difference—not merely by spreading information, but by ultimately influencing public policy.

At the same time, this is an issue that requires a nuanced reaction rather than a blanketed one. Just as it would be myopic to diminish the importance of what has already been done, so too is it naive to overlook the considerable work that remains. Because PRISM still allows the government to collect personal information on the Internet, and various loopholes could potentially permit a return to phone spying as well, the past could very well repeat itself. Although part of the unprecedented surveillance program exposed by Snowden has been dismantled, an even larger part of it remains untouched.

In a sense, the NSA scandal could be viewed as a metaphor for the complex times we occupy today. Tempting though it may be to react to certain news stories with either an overwhelmingly positive or negative response, the truth is that many of our nation’s biggest problems can’t be solved in one fell swoop. As a result, the only effective way to fully confront these issues is to simultaneously appreciate the significance of progress when it is made—while always remaining mindful when it still isn’t nearly enough.

2 Ways We Need to Redefine ‘Masculinity’ in American Foreign Policy

Published: Good Men Project (July 7, 2015)

American foreign policy has long been governed by ideas of masculinity. Now it’s time to evaluate what that has meant for our nation – and how we should redefine “masculinity” in the future.

 

Why do we equate “masculinity” with “aggressiveness” when conducting our foreign policy?

“In the aftermath of September 11 Bush enacted a highly masculine ideology through his treatment of the press and emphasis upon two masculine themes–strength and dominance–and that this approach facilitated wide circulation of his masculine discourse in the press.”

Even without summarizing the rest of the article, it isn’t hard to remember the tropes of machismo that Bush demonstrated throughout his presidency: The “you’re either with us or against us” rhetoric, the cowboy swagger, the retrospectively ironic aircraft carrier landing in front of a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished”… all used in the service of waging two wars to avenge a terrorist attack whose perpetrator remained at large (and quite comfortable) in spite of them. Seven years later, when President Obama was being criticized for not using the military to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine and various Islamic extremists in the Middle East, his manhood was inevitably drawn into the discussion. This choice quote from conservative columnist David Brooks neatly summed up the thinking (which, he noted, he does not entirely share):

“Let’s face it, Obama, whether deservedly or not, does have a — I’ll say it crudely — but a manhood problem in the Middle East. Is he tough enough to stand up to somebody like Assad or somebody like Putin? I think a lot of the rap is unfair but certainly in the Middle East there is an assumption that he’s not tough enough.”

To quote President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Cross of Iron speech, which is as relevant today as it was in 1953: ‘Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms in not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.’

Just as Bush was viewed as more masculine for waging war, Obama has had his masculinity called into question for not being militant enough.
Although these arguments were being made about 21st century presidents, Americans have always sought to promote “masculine” foreign policies. In her 2000 book “Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars,” historian Kristin L. Hoganson explored how a desire to assert our manhood on the national stage ultimately resulted in America’s declaration of war against the Spanish Empire in 1898, despite the reservations of President William McKinley. A few years earlier, in her 1993 essay “Wars, Wimps, and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War,” Carol Cohn reviews how gendered (and inherently subjective) terms like “wimp” and “pussy” are frequently used to disparage presidents who are perceived as being ineffective in foreign policy, again reinforcing the notion that Americans need to be “masculine” if they want to remain powerful on the world stage.
Without delving into the historic atrocities caused by this cult of masculinity, let’s briefly look at the price of our various military ventures since 2001:
– We have spent more than $1.6 trillion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, our military actions against ISIS, and the Pentagon’s slush fund.
America and its coalition partners have lost nearly 3500 lives in the Afghanistan war and more than 4800 lives in the Iraq war.
– More than 210,000 civilians have been killed by the American military in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq alone.
– To quote President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Cross of Iron” speech, which is as relevant today as it was in 1953: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms in not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”
In short, it seems like it’s time for a new definition of masculinity vis-a-vis the shaping and implementation of American foreign policy. I propose three guidelines:
 
1. Masculinity should be associated with pragmatic maturity, not the use of brute strength.
Few would dare accuse President George Washington of not being manly… yet one of his most important policies as president was keeping America out of the war between the British and French empires that raged on during his administration. Despite being fiercely criticized for this decision, Washington believed that America needed to be responsible in how it conducted itself on the world stage, arguing that free states “will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.” Although he conceded that “so far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith,” he insisted that “the great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.” While this course may not be particularly idealistic, Washington believed that it would save American lives, avoid costly military projects, and secure America’s place on the international stage by keeping us out of foreign entanglements which did not directly concern us.
In short, he understood that a manly foreign policy isn’t one that is quick to get involved in foreign wars, but rather one which recognizes the practical and moral importance of not meddling in other nations’ affairs and valuing the lives and tax dollars of our own citizens.
Obviously the conduct of foreign policy isn’t a simple matter. Sometimes the line between what threatens us and what merely seems threatening can be very blurry (see the build-up to our involvement in World War II), and now that we’ve become part of an international community (even serving as the host nation to the UN), it would be unrealistic to call for a return to Washington-era isolationism. At the same time, any definition of masculinity worth respecting must promote being responsible with the lives and material resources of other people, just as it cannot countenance acts of bullying.
2. We need to recognize that a “masculine” nation behaves honorably toward its neighbors.
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Back in 1893, President Grover Cleveland refused to annex the island kingdom of Hawaii after an independent report determined that its legitimate government had been overthrown by American sugar plantation owners for their own financial gain. His response?
“I suppose that right and justice should determine the path to be followed in treating this subject. If national honesty is to be disregarded and a desire for territorial extension, or dissatisfaction with a form of government not our own, ought to regulate our conduct, I have entirely misapprehended the mission and character of our Government and the behavior which the conscience of our people demands of their public servants.”
What’s particularly noteworthy about this statement is that it addressed two of the most common arguments used by neo-imperialists (i.e., corporate leaders who support military actions against weaker nations to advance their business interests): Namely, that we should invade other countries either because it will make America stronger (“a desire for territorial extension”) or because we have a righteous crusade in our corner (“dissatisfaction with a form of government not our own”). The problem with these positions is that they both rely on a “might makes right” line of reasoning, one that can be easily revealed simply by applying the Golden Rule: Would we think it okay for a stronger nation to conquer us simply so it could expand its power? If another country felt that our government and/or way of life was immoral, would we accept it if they used their military power to force us to change?
Obviously the conduct of foreign policy isn’t a simple matter. Sometimes the line between what threatens us and what merely seems threatening can be very blurry (see the build-up to our involvement in World War II), and now that we’ve become part of an international community (even serving as the host nation to the UN), it would be unrealistic to call for a return to Washington-era isolationism. At the same time, any definition of masculinity worth respecting must promote being responsible with the lives and material resources of other people, just as it cannot countenance acts of bullying.
The former imperative involves learning to be mature; the latter, learning how to behave with honor. Both are core ideals by which every man should subscribe in his private life. Our geopolitical actions shouldn’t be any different.

The TSA can’t find hidden explosives because the security state is failing you

Published: Daily Dot (June 2, 2015)

A recent internal investigation revealed that the Transportation Security Administration failed 95 percent of its security checkpoint tests. When the Department of Homeland Security made 70 attempts to smuggle explosives and weapons past the citadels of American airport security, they succeeded 67 times.

This is part of a larger pattern of post-9/11 incompetence, one in which we grant increasing, often invasive power to government agencies in the name of national security, only to find out that they aren’t coming even remotely close to doing their job well.

It’s stupid, it’s embarrassing, and it needs to stop.

We can start with the TSA. Because they are defined not only as a law enforcement institution, but also as a regulatory agency, the TSA essentially gets to make up their own rules. As a result, they are constantly mired in scandal: Instead of destroying the images of our naked bodies taken by their scanners, TSA agents were often found to have kept them (it’s best not to imagine why).

The TSA has also been caught cheating on supposedly confidential security tests, with supervisors alerting their workers in advance to avoid getting bad marks. And as recently as last April, two TSA workers were fired for singling out “hot men” to be groped at their checkpoints.

The TSA essentially gets to make up their own rules. As a result, they are constantly mired in scandal.

How does this pattern of corruption get larded with the grease of incompetence—you know, the kind that leads to the aforementioned 95 percent failure rate?

It’s simple: The methods used by the TSA to protect us don’t make any damn sense. In Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, which is widely considered to be the safest in the world, potential terrorist threats are thwarted because security agents are trained to focus not on searching through luggage, but on studying the subtle nuances in body language, facial expression, and eye contact that indicate a passenger has something to hide.

“Raphael Ron, a former director of security at Ben Gurion for 5 years, calls the passenger-oriented security system more focused on the ‘human factor,’” explains Daniel Wagner and James Bell in International Policy Digest, “based on the assumption that terrorist attacks are carried out by people who can be found and have been stopped through the use of this simple but effective security methodology.”

As a result, Israel doesn’t use sophisticated X-ray machines (instead relying on old-fashioned metal detectors) and spares its patrons any invasive searches of their personal property. It may sound simple, but it works: By understanding the nonverbal cues given off by men and women with nefarious intent, the largest airport in a nation notoriously targeted for attacks is safer than the one which assumes that simply throwing money at the problem will make it go away.

Of course, the TSA’s corruption and incompetence is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to America’s post-9/11 epic fails.

Even more shameful is our use of “enhanced interrogation”—the Bush Administration’s favorite euphemism for torture—which not only violates the Geneva Conventions, but has been proved not to work. According to a Senate report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and interrogation program, inmates who were tortured either failed to provide any kind of intelligence or simply fabricated information that was, inevitably, useless.

The TSA’s corruption and incompetence is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to America’s post-9/11 epic fails.

“The most effective method for acquiring intelligence from detainees, including from detainees the CIA considered to be the most ‘high-value,’” the report found, “was to confront the detainees with information already acquired by the intelligence community,” as well as by offering inmates personal incentives to rat out their fellow terrorists.

Torture, on the other hand, not only fails because it pressures its victims into saying anything that can make their suffering stop; as neurobiologist Shane O’Mara explained in a paper for Trends in Cognitive Science, “the use of such techniques appears motivated by a folk psychology that is demonstrably incorrect.”

O’Mara continues, “Solid scientific evidence on how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions (such as planning or forming intentions) suggests these techniques are unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of that intended by coercive or ‘enhanced’ interrogation.”

Not surprisingly, there is no evidence that the CIA’s torture tactics ever yielded information which prevented a terrorist attack.

Finally, we can look at the National Security Agency’s infamous phone record collection program. Although former acting CIA director Michael Morell famously argued in an op-ed for the Washington Post that the program “has the potential to prevent the next 9/11” and “needs to be successful only once to be invaluable,” it has failed to meet even the absurdly low standard that it set for itself.

Despite clearly violating Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights, a study analyzing 225 terrorism cases in the United States after the September 11 attacks determined that the bulk data collection “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.” Instead, as a study by the New America Foundation (a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank) reported to the Washington Post, the majority of thwarted terrorist attacks were stopped by “traditional law enforcement and investigative methods [which] provided the tip or evidence to initiate the case.”

Not surprisingly, there is no evidence that the CIA’s torture tactics ever yielded information which prevented a terrorist attack.

If there is a common theme linking the failures of the TSA’s security measures, the CIA’s use of torture, and the NSA’s wiretapping program, it is that each policy ignores the existing body of knowledge on what would keep Americans safe and instead relies on our most reactionary impulses. There is an undeniable appeal to the idea that we can stop the bad guys with state-of-the-art scanners that can spot any weapon no matter how well hidden, that we can defeat terrorists by applying an old-fashioned “beat the truth out of them” technique, or that we can thwart future attacks through the sheer technological might of America’s intelligence apparatus.

The problem with this mentality, aside from its obvious moral implications, is that it isn’t reinforced by the facts. Our warrantless wiretapping of ordinary American citizens hasn’t made us any safer, our torturing of Muslim detainees hasn’t yielded valuable information about the whereabouts of past terrorist actors or the plots of future ones, and as the TSA’s recent 95 percent fail rate makes clear, all the sophisticated technology in the world won’t protect our airports if the personnel operating that machinery aren’t trained in deciphering human nature.

America has already made it clear to the world that our security state has lots of brawn. If we want to actually make our country safer, we need to start adding some brains as well.

4 surprising reasons Rand Paul might be the liberal candidate you’re looking for

Published: Daily Dot (May 29, 2015)

At a time when the Republican Party has developed a reputation for voting and thinking in lockstep, it is worth noting that Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul has a surprisingly bipartisan appeal, which is becoming an important part of his growing presidential campaign. In the wake of an Internet-breaking filibuster on the Patriot Act, the outspoken National Security Agency critic has “reached out to African-American Republicans, spoke to a group of moderate Republicans, and held a news conference with House Democrats,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

But targeting liberals will be an important part of the Web-friendly candidate’s campaign (who even has his own subreddit), and indeed, Paul’s libertarian platform shows a great of overlap with the left, with a number of stances that could appeal to Democrats. Of course, it remains to be seen whether this constitutes genuine conviction or political pandering on his part—after all, Paul would hardly be the first president to get elected on promises he doesn’t intend to keep.

Rand Paul might not win, but as these four policies show, he’ll certainly shake things up.

1) The Patriot Act

Perhaps Paul’s most conspicuous break from GOP tradition occurred last week, when he filibustered the extension of the Patriot Act, a piece of legislation passed during George W. Bush’s presidency that significantly expanded America’s security state in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks. As Paul tweeted at the time:

Thanks to the 11-hour filibuster, Paul has earned the scorn of Republicans like pundit Bill Kristol, who derisively referred to the Kentucky Senator as a “liberal Democrat” for agreeing with progressive House members Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) on that and a number of other issues. The fact that Paul’s filibuster had bipartisan support almost certainly didn’t help his cause among GOP stalwarts, although they tended to depict his maneuver as either grandstanding or paranoid.

Of course, the Senate was forced to adjourn without extending the bill, so Paul’s filibuster has been at least a temporary success.

2) The prison-industrial complex

Paul has also emerged as the Republican Party’s chief (and arguably only) prominent critic of the growth of America’s prison-industrial complex. During the Ferguson, Mo., riots last year, Paul not only condemned the violence of the police officers, but managed to frame what he called “the militarization of local police precincts” as an issue of big government run amok—deftly blending a liberal stance with conservative reasoning.

“The outrage in Ferguson is understandable—though there is never an excuse for rioting or looting,” he wrote in an editorial for Time. “There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace, but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response. The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action.”

More recently, Paul extended this condemnation to include the likely Democratic presidential nominee next year, Hillary Clinton. “Your husband passed all the laws that put a generation of black men in prison,” he said on a CBS radio talk show last week, referring to measures that nationalized a “three strikes” policy and toughened crime laws that disproportionately target racial minorities. “She’s changing her tune now. She’s changing her tune because people like me have been speaking out against these injustices.”

3) He wants to end the War on Drugs

It’s important to recognize that, unlike strict libertarians, Paul refuses to take a stand on whether marijuana and other narcotics should be legalized. At the same time, he is a leading sponsor of the CARERS Act, which would amend the Controlled Substances Act so that the federal prohibition on marijuana would not apply to those who grow, sell, and/or use it for medical purposes.

More importantly, he has argued that the federal government shouldn’t be getting involved in enforcing drug policy at all, instead leaving that matter to the individual states. “Just end that war on drugs and make it a much more local situation, more community oriented,” he explained in a 2000 appearance on the show Kentucky Tonight. “There’s probably a lot of savings in that.”

He elaborated on this in 2014 during an interview with Bill Maher, promising to do “everything to end the war on drugs” in large part because it disproportionately targets racial minorities and the poor:

Our prisons are full of black and brown kids. Three-fourths of the people in prison are black or brown, and white kids are using drugs, Bill, as you know… at the same rate as these other kids. But kids who have less means, less money, kids who are in areas where police are patrolling. … Police are given monetary incentives to make arrests, monetary incentives for their own departments. So I want to end the war on drugs because it’s wrong for everybody, but particularly because poor people are caught up in this, and their lives are ruined by it.

4) He opposes mandatory minimum sentencing

In a stance that he shares with a growing number of conservative activists, Paul has spoken out against mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which require judges to impose harsh penalties on low-level drug offenders. Once again, he frames this position in the rhetoric of racial oppression. “If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago,” Paul pointed out. “Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the war on drugs.”

Last February, Paul reached across the aisle to achieve meaningful reform on this issue, working with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to promote the Justice Safety Valve Act, which allows federal judges to give sentences lower than the mandatory punishment when they feel that the required minimum violates standards for fair punishment laid out elsewhere. In a statement issued for the press, Paul contextualized his argument through the lens of federalism, declaring that “the federal government should get out of the way, and allow local and state judges to do their jobs.”

Despite Bill Kristol’s characterization of Paul as a secret liberal, the truth is that his seemingly left-wing positions have more to do with a relatively consistent application of his anti-government ideology than they do with any covert progressivism. Not only does Paul rationalize his opposition to the security state or prison-industrial complex by using the rhetoric of small government, but whenever liberal ideals require an interventionist state—such as with health care reform or social welfare programse—he has reliably come down against the leftist position.

Indeed, Paul isn’t even absolute in his ostensible libertarianism, as he still opposes same-sex marriage and has yet to speak out against the voter suppression laws being passed by Republicans throughout the various states.

Nevertheless, it is both notable and admirable that a Republican presidential candidate with Paul’s high profile has been willing to go against the grain of his own party’s ideals on so many important issues. It may seem like a betrayal for liberals to give him credit where it is due here… but it would be a far greater betrayal for us to not do so.

5 ways Republicans can reboot their brand in the Internet era

Published: Daily Dot (May 28, 2015)

In his new book, Taking a Stand: Moving Beyond Partisan Politics to Unite America, Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul declares that the GOP brand “sucks” and is “broken.” From those big declarations, he goes on to discuss his personal affinity for nature (describing himself as a “tree hugger”) and his ability to find common ground with racial minorities (mainly through his opposition to the growing prison-industrial complex).

All of this is well and good insofar as Paul’s political ambitions are concerned, but what relevance does it have to the GOP’s future in the digital era? Let’s look at some ways that the Republican Party can become relevant as the Baby Boomers hand off the future to a new generation of engaged voters.
1) It needs to stop being viewed as staunchly conservative

Shortly after the 2012 presidential election, an ABC News/Washington Post poll asked Americans: “Why the Republican Party has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections?” Despite Mitt Romney’s lackluster candidacy, only 38 percent of the respondents cited “needs a better leader” as the party’s chief problem; a clear majority, on the other hand, simply stated that the GOP was “too conservative.”

This is a particularly noteworthy statistic because, less than a quarter-century ago, the inverse could have helped explain the Democratic Party’s presidential woes. After all, Republicans managed to win five of the six presidential elections from 1968 to 1988 largely because the Democrats had been effectively painted as too liberal.

The Democrats remained trapped in that cycle until the 1992 presidential election, when they nominated an avowed centrist (Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas) who tamed the strident grassroots base that had produced both dud nominees (Sen. George McGovern in 1972, Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988) and polarizing national leaders (Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988).
2) Stop swimming against the tides of history on LGBT rights

Supporting LGBT rights isn’t simply a moral imperative; from a practical political standpoint, it is also a tactical necessity. A clear majority of Republicans under the age of 30 support same-sex marriage, reflecting the larger seismic shift in public opinion that has occurred within the last few years.

Before 2010, national support for same-sex marriage lingered in the mid-to-low 40s, with more Americans opposing than supporting them. Since 2011, however, that dynamic has been reversed, with Americans consistently supporting the freedom to marry. Indeed, the number of pro-same-sex marriage Americans hasn’t dropped below 50 percent in three years, with the latest survey finding it at an all-time high of 60 percent.

Whether conservatives like it or not, Americans are characterizing the struggle of marriage equality as an important civil rights movement and understandably don’t wish to be on the wrong side of history. So long as the GOP brand is associated with tolerance for intolerance, it will be that much harder for men and women of goodwill to identify with it.
3) Stop alienating Latino voters

Pundits realized a long time ago that Latino voters were going to be a key swing bloc in future presidential elections. It’s hardly a coincide that the only Republican presidential candidate from 1992 to 2012 to do reasonably well with Hispanic voters was also the only one to win the popular vote—George W. Bush in 2004.

According to the last census, there were 50.5 million Latinos residing in the United States as of 2010, an increase of 43 percent from the previous decade (when they numbered 35.3 million). In fact, 56 percent of America’s population growth from 2000 to 2010 came from the Latino community.

Yet mathematical logic notwithstanding, Republicans are still struggling to shed their rigid opposition to immigration reform, a stance that aligns them against the 66 percent of Latino voters who consider immigration reform to be a top priority.
4) Apply your big government ideology consistently, such as with the prison-industrial complex

Although Republicans like to cast themselves as the party of small government, there have been glaring inconsistencies between their rhetoric and the causes they choose to champion. As a libertarian think tank the Cato Institute pointed out, police officers in Ferguson, Mo., blatantly disregarded fundamental constitutional guarantees like the right to private property or peaceful assembly… and, indeed, treated ordinary American citizens like bystanders in a warzone.

This is symptomatic of a larger “big government” problem, namely, that America has turned into a bona fide prison state. As the American Civil Liberties Union reports, the United States has 25 percent of the world’s prison population (despite having only 5 percent of its total population), has had its total number of prisoners rise by 700 percent since 1970, and currently keeps 1 out of 99 adults behind bars (1 out of 31 are under some form of correctional control).

Considering that conservative intellectuals like to root their ideas in classical philosophy, it is hard to imagine a better illustration of the observation by the ancient Roman historian Tacitus: “The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.” Yet with the exception of Rand Paul, nary a Republican can be heard denouncing the Big Brother actions of our government when it comes to the prison-industrial complex.
5) Don’t settle for mediocrity

To explain this point, it is necessary to turn to the earliest chapters in the Republican Party’s history. Founded in 1854 as a vehicle for uniting the various factions opposed to the expansion of slavery into America’s newly acquired western territories, it rose to national power with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860—that is, the election that triggered the Civil War—and maintained an unbroken lock on the White House for the next 24 years.

As the issues of the Civil War and Reconstruction began to fade from national consciousness, Republican leaders found themselves without a coherent ideology or cause to unite their followers. The final Republican president of this dynasty, Chester Arthur, was even chided for this by one of his “mysterious lady friends” (likely a prostitute) in a letter dated from 1882:

What is there to admire in mediocrity? Why do you take such comfort in half measures? Does it never strike you that there must be back of them only half a mind—a certain half-heartedness—in fact, only half a man? Why do you not do what you do with your whole soul? Or have you only half of one?

These words are just as applicable now as they were 133 years ago. The Republican Party of today remains the party that formed around Ronald Reagan during his transformative election in 1980—socially conservative, economically plutocratic, and internationally bellicose.

Those stances may have garnered votes at a time when our political consciousness was dominated by the Cold War, rampant crime, and the post-New Deal welfare state, but it is increasingly out-of-touch in an era when the American military has notoriously overextended itself (see the Iraq war of 2003-2011), police brutality against racial minorities regularly makes the news, and our economy was brought to the brink of collapse because Wall Street ran rampant.

This isn’t to say that conservative ideas can’t be relevant in the age of Twitter. That said, the Republican Party definitely needs to overhaul its brand in order to start trending in the right direction.

 

Why Rand Paul can win

Published: Daily Dot (May 27, 2015)

While Rand Paul’s name often appears on lists of leading Republican presidential nominees, his well-known libertarian streak is often cited as a prime reason why he most likely won’t be nominated. His National Security Agency opposition might make him popular on the Internet, but he’s the definition of a wild card.

Make no mistake about it: If history serves as a reliable precedent, the nomination won’t go to Paul. Indeed, the last non-establishment candidate to head the Republican national ticket was Barry Goldwater, whose upset over Nelson Rockefeller occurred more than 50 years ago (in the 1964 election). That said, there is a plausible path to victory that lies ahead for Paul, and it is worth exploring.

We can start with the fact that Paul, if not quite a libertarian himself, has long been described as “libertarian-ish” —and the Internet has long been a hotbed for libertarian activity. Back in 2007, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), father of Rand, shocked the political world by raising more than $6 million in a 24-hour period using an Internet-based fundraising tactic known as a “moneybomb,” wherein his campaign tapped into a nationwide network of grassroots supporters who shared his outspoken libertarian ideals. Despite minimal mainstream news coverage, this groundswell of online libertarianism was good enough to net Paul Sr. more than 1.2 million votes in the 2008 Republican presidential primaries. By 2012, that number had risen to more than 2.1 million.

In addition to helping him inherit some (if not all) of his father’s base of libertarian true believers, Rand Paul’s libertarian-ish stances on ending domestic spying, reforming the criminal justice system, and legalizing medical marijuana have made him one of the Republican Party’s most attractive candidates for Internet-savvy young people. Back in 2013, the Wall Street Journal characterized Paul’s 13-hour filibuster on the military’s drone program as an attempt to “fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms,” an assumption that Paul gleefully embraced in a subsequent editorial for the millennial news site Mic (where this author was working at the time) that proudly proclaimed, “I believe a Republican Party that is more tolerant and dedicated to keeping the government out of people’s lives as much as possible would be more appealing to the rising generation.”

For Paul to be nominated in 2016, he would need to maintain his bedrock of support among libertarian-leaning conservatives and young Republicans, even as he simultaneously makes sufficient inroads among traditional conservatives dissatisfied with the other candidates to pull off majorities in the early primary states—a tricky feat, no doubt, but hardly an impossible one. After all, his father placed a close third in the Iowa caucus last election, and Paul himself is currently leading in New Hampshire among Republicans under the age of 45. If mainstream Republican voters find themselves unable to unite behind a single establishment candidate by early 2016—and polls have consistently found them split between the likes of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker—then Paul’s clear edge among libertarians, and potential advantage among young voters, could be enough to propel him to the top of the GOP ticket next year.

“I believe a Republican Party that is more tolerant and dedicated to keeping the government out of people’s lives as much as possible would be more appealing to the rising generation.”

From there, of course, the challenge for Paul is getting elected.

This would also not be inconceivable, particularly to anyone familiar with the working-class voters who abandoned their traditionally Democratic Party allegiance to vote Republican in the 1980s, the so-called Reagan Democrats. “Resenting both the rich, who they believed to be virtually tax exempt, and the poor, who received welfare,” writes James Pontuso in the conservative Web journal First Principles, “many middle-class workers believed that the Democratic Party no longer represented them and so cast their votes for Reagan, whose pro-family and limited government policies appealed to their sense of values.” In light of Hillary Clinton’s well-known weakness with this demographic, Paul could win over these voters through his unique ability to be convincingly anti-Wall Street (which tends to support Clinton) while maintaining his party’s traditional conservative attitude on issues like affirmative action and welfare.

Paul could also pose a threat to Clinton from a quarter that has heretofore been unshakably Democratic—the black vote. On the surface, Clinton would seem to have insurmountable advantages with the African-American community: No Republican has won more than 15 percent of the black vote since 1964 (when the GOP nominated Sen. Barry Goldwater, who opposed that year’s landmark Civil Rights Act), and her husband Bill Clinton has long been especially beloved within the black community. At the same time, she has not benefited from the same enthusiasm that tends to greet her husband, while Paul has taken a host of positions specifically tailored to earn their support. He was outspoken in opposing police brutality in Ferguson, Mo., calling for America to “demilitarize the police,” and has condemned America’s prison system (which has the largest incarcerated population in the world) for being “full of black and brown kids because they don’t get a good attorney, they live in poverty, it’s easier to arrest them than to go to the suburbs.” As recently as last week Paul scathingly condemned the Clintons for supporting draconian anti-crime legislation that had put “a generation of black men in prison.” As Rev. Al Sharpton noted, “if [Paul] becomes the candidate… and if you don’t get a huge black turnout saying ‘We’re afraid [of him],’ that could be a pitfall for Democrats.”

Of course, none of these arguments are meant to be definitive. It is entirely possible that the Republican Party will follow tradition and nominate Bush, Walker, Rubio, or another neoconservative candidate with “safe” conservative stances on the major economic, social, and foreign policy questions of our time. Despite being held in suspicion by large portions of the grassroots base, quintessential establishmentarians like John McCain and Mitt Romney were nominated in the last two election cycles, and it is entirely possible that the same thing could happen again in 2016.

At the same time, the prospect of a Paul nomination—and with it, a Paul election—is not so outlandish as to be safely disregarded entirely. By speaking to a wing in his own party that has yet to produce its own nominee, and reaching out to voting blocs that haven’t supported a Republican in years, Paul has significant advantages that could ultimately put him over the top.

If nothing else, 2016 will shape up to a very interesting election year.

It’s time to kill the PATRIOT Act

Published: Daily Dot (March 26, 2015)

It’s doubtful that the PATRIOT Act will be repealed in this legislative session, but make no mistake about it: Dispensing with this bill, one of the more pernicious legacies of the post-9/11 erosion of American civil liberties, is long overdue.

First, here’s an introduction to the measure that could theoretically pull this off: the Surveillance State Repeal Act, which was sponsored by Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Thomas Massie (R-KY). If implemented, it would do more than simply repeal the PATRIOT Act; after all, getting rid of that one bill won’t eliminate National Security Agency spying and other surveillance state activities anyway (especially since the PATRIOT Act is already set to expire in June).

As such, the SSRA would also revoke the 2008 FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Amendments Act, a spying law used by the NSA to justify collecting millions upon millions of private online communications. It would also reform the secret court that oversees our spying apparatus, add further protections for whistleblowers, and prohibit the government from requiring technology companies to include “backdoors” in their products.

Naturally, this last detail has won some powerful Silicon Valley firms to the anti-NSA agenda. Companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, Wikimedia, and Mozilla joined civil libertarian advocacy groups in issuing a letter to the White House urging “a clear, strong, and effective end to bulk collection practices under the USA PATRIOT Act,” “appropriate safeguards in place to protect privacy and users’ rights,” and “transparency and accountability mechanisms for both government and company reporting, as well as an appropriate declassification regime for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decisions.”

Although these businesses recognize the importance of protecting America from domestic and foreign terrorist threats, they object to “the scope of the United States’ surveillance and bulk collection activities,” particularly that which has come to the public’s attention since the Edward Snowden leaks.

Indeed, revelations about the scope of American online surveillance have actually undermined faith in the digital revolution. “The Internet is global, and as a global leader, the U.S. helps set the standards for acceptable behavior,” writes Sascha Meinrath in the Christian Science Monitor. “Mass domestic and foreign spying legitimates the same behavior by other regimes while simultaneously creating a perverse incentive to create a more fractured global communications system.”

Elaborating on this last point, Meinrath wrote a piece in the New America Foundation’s Weekly Wonk which explained that the ongoing international movement to disconnect from American internet hegemony can be linked to a post-Snowden backlash that “is being fueled not by democracies that oppose American ideals, but rather by allies that resent Washington’s betrayal of its own overarchingly positive vision.”

Unfortunately, the political smart money still says that the SSRA will probably fail, if for no other reason than Washington is notoriously reluctant to risk being viewed as soft on terrorism. Although President Obama could set things off on the right foot by revoking Executive Order 12333—a relic from the Reagan years that would be the last foothold used by the surveillance state to continue its current scope of spying if the SSRA was actually passed—the reality is that the unprecedented Republican obstructionism toward Obama’s agenda could guarantee a right-wing backlash against the measure by simple virtue of him taking a step to push it forward.

The fact that the SSRA isn’t likely to pass, however, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate it. Understanding the political dynamics and policy implications of the SSRA can help guide us toward a future in which the civil liberties infringements of yesteryear remain a thing of the past.

Unfortunately for supporters of the PATRIOT Act and NSA surveillance programs, there is little evidence that either of those programs have actually made us safer. “Almost every major terrorist attack on Western soil in the past fifteen years has been committed by people who were already known to law enforcement,” writes Mattathias Schwartz of The New Yorker, later adding: “In each of these cases, the authorities were not wanting for data. What they failed to do was appreciate the significance of the data they already had.”

What’s more, the oft-repeated line about the NSA having thwarted 54 terrorist attacks with its spying program has been decisively debunked, leaving supporters of domestic surveillance without the sweeping and concrete pattern of accomplishment necessary to justify continuing their program.

Without a clear-cut case for their necessity, the only notable legacy left by these measures is their unconstitutionality. As the ACLU explained in a 2010 article about the PATRIOT Act (one that, notably, was written before Edward Snowden’s leaks made its points even more relevant), the measure violates the First Amendment by “by prohibiting the recipients of search orders from telling others about those orders, even where there is no real need for secrecy” and “effectively authorizing the FBI to launch investigations of American citizens in part for exercising their freedom of speech.”

Similarly, it violates the Fourth Amendment by allowing federal authorities to “conduct a search without obtaining a warrant and showing probable cause…that the person has committed or will commit a crime” and by “failing to provide notice—even after the fact—to persons whose privacy has been compromised.”

This brings us to the other, and by far most important, reason why the SSRA should be celebrated: By simple virtue of being brought to the House floor, it demonstrates a long-awaited effort by our legislators to reconcile the security needs faced by 21st century Americans with the ideals of our founding fathers. Even though this effort is almost bound to fail, it represents a coming sea change; it might seem like too little, but it’s never too late to get it right.