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Pa. gerrymandering ruling moves college into competitive 7th district

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court released a new congressional map on February 19th. The map was a remedy the Republican-majority Pa. General Assembly gerrymandering that occurred under the 2011 Pennsylvania Congressional Redistricting Act. The Supreme Court created a new non-partisan map that allows districts to follow the standards of being contiguous, compact, equal in population, and adhering to the redistricting criteria in the state constitution. Under the new map, Swarthmore is in the 7th district, whereas it was previously in the 1st district. The redistricting means that Swarthmore students now have an opportunity to make an impact in the upcoming midterm elections.

In January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the old congressional map as unconstitutional. The court ordered the Republican-controlled legislature and Democratic Governor Wolf to negotiate a new map that overturned the 13-5 tilt to the Republicans for congressional seats in the state. The negotiated map was never created and Republicans submitted independent maps.

“The legislature didn’t hold any open hearings or [do] anything at all until two days before the deadline and at the last minute, the Republican majority leader and Speaker of the House just drew their own map and they didn’t consult other Republicans, let alone Democrats,” Ben Stern ’20, president of the Swarthmore College Democrats and deputy campaign manager for U.S. congressional candidate Mary Gay Scanlon, said. “It was basically the same map and of course Governor Wolf rejected it.”

The Republican legislators claimed that the court had over-exercised its power to favor Democrats. Some have called for impeachment of justices. Republicans have also attempted to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This is so complicated because whichever way you spin it, it seems as though the map is favoring one group over the other,” Jorge Tello ’20, president of the Swarthmore Conservative Society, said. “From what I know about it, the original map was already favoring the Republicans. I see how it can look like a politically motivated act no matter how you draw the map.”

According to Justin Snyder ’21, whose family lives in Wallingford, a neighboring community to Swarthmore, the new map is more logical. He also stated that the negative reactions to the redistricting are in anticipation of the upcoming elections.

“I think that [Republicans of the congressional delegation] are just very upset that the map is going against them with the elections coming up,”  Snyder said. “I think they don’t want the maps to be different because these politicians probably would’ve had a better chance with the old map.”

According to Dylan Clairmont ’21, secretary of outreach for Swarthmore College Democrats, the redistricting created a more level playing field for local and state politics by correcting the gerrymandered districts that the Republican legislature drew after the 2010 census.

“Before redrawing the map, [Pennsylvania] used to be so skewed to the Republicans,” Clairmont said. “I think it’s better that we don’t have local politicians thinking through how they can link two populations together while excluding another group.”

“The districts here prior to the court ruling were heinously gerrymandered,” Stern said. “It was one of the worst cases of politically motivated gerrymandering in the country.”

Snyder also believes that the redistricting made a better map that not only makes things more fair, but also is more logical.

“I believe my district is a little smaller than it was before,” Snyder said. “I was in District 1 before and now I’m in District 5 which is much more of a fixed shape that actually makes sense.”

According to candidate Mary Gay Scanlon the redistricting did a good job with resolving the partisan gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. However, she wishes the process had been done differently.

“I’m certainly thrilled that [the redistricting] happened because the state had been badly gerrymandered to distort our electoral process,” Scanlon said. “I wish that it could have been done with the cooperation of the legislature because it is their job, but they screwed up and they didn’t take the opportunity to fix it.”

While the Pennsylvania Supreme Court drew the new map — a job normally done by state legislature — the map followed non-partisan criteria by the Pennsylvania state constitution. While the Democrats are likely to gain three new seats, the claims that the new map is now favoring Democrats are contested.

“I think it’s natural that the people that say that this is judicial overreach are Republicans,” said Stern. “Prior to the redistricting decision, 15 congressional seats are Republican while 5 are Democrat because of partisan gerrymandering. I think the prediction after the elections are 10-8 which you could say is advantageous to Democrats, but even then, Democrats still have less seats than they should have proportionally at the state level.”

The efforts to remedy the gerrymandering in Pennsylvania and negative responses to the redistricting both point to the upcoming midterm elections and the political ramifications of a new map. Swarthmore is now in the 5th District, which encompasses all of Delaware County and is now a safely Democratic district.

“I could definitely see Swat having an impact on the upcoming elections,” Tello said.

According to Clairmont, the college is an important voting group in a new district that is now more competitive amongst Democratic candidates after the redistricting.

“It’s important that students, if they can, vote here with the exception of maybe people who live in swing states since absentee ballots don’t really get counted until months afterwards,” he said. “Swat is a useful resource for candidates and we can, in turn, help pick a candidate that represents our beliefs instead of just going for a liberal Democrat.”

Swarthmore Democrats have been tabling at Sharples for several candidates, including Scanlon, to sign their petitions in order to get them on the ballot, in addition to other political activism initiatives.

According to Stern, Swarthmore College Democrats have been in the process of writing up policy platforms, especially regarding immigration, with other groups on campus to send to Democratic candidates.

“We can say that if [the candidates] don’t meet these policy asks of us, we will vote for the more progressive candidate,” Stern said.

The redistricting and ability to gain approximately 3 seats for Democrats not only increases voting power for students, but also incentivizes candidates to appeal to this demographic.

“In an election with so many candidates, [sending out a platform] can actually make a big difference because we’re now in a pretty safe Democratic district, so Democrats in this race are practically rushing to be the most progressive. They’re not running on this centrist, moderate platform trying to win against a Republican in suburban Pennsylvania,” Stern said.

As expressed by Scanlon, students should take seriously the opportunity to vote and exercise citizen engagement.

“I’m a civics and elections junkie. You don’t get to complain if you don’t vote,” Scanlon said. “I think it’s really important that students, if you can vote, that you do get engaged and understand the issues. Clearly people here [at the college] are smart and engaged.”

Students of the college who can vote are able to do so in a significant way for a new district especially in the midterm primaries since they fall during finals on May 15th.

“We used to be in a silly district that snaked up to Philadelphia where Republicans never ran, so our vote was basically meaningless,” Stern said. “Now, there’s an open wide primary in the 5th District and it’s great that we have some political power. Especially since districts are small and people don’t vote in midterm general elections to begin with and even fewer people vote in primary midterm elections. It’s such a small voter turnout that a college campus of 1500 students can actually have a pretty big impact.”

Brief: P.A. redistricting likely to amplify Swarthmore students’ voices in midterm election

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Under the 2011 Pennsylvania Congressional Redistricting Act, the Republican-majority Pa. General Assembly moved Swarthmore out of the 7th district, of which it had been a part for over 75 years, and into the 1st district, grouping it with reliably Democratic Philadelphia suburbs. Outside of a district so gerrymandered it has been nicknamed “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck,” the cutout of Swarthmore now outlines Goofy’s left arm, and at the neck of the peninsula-like shape that envelops the town, the 1st district is no wider than ½ mile.

According to Philly.com, the 7th district was 52.8 percent Democratic voters and 47.2 percent Republican before redistricting, while the new Congressional lines created a 51.8 percent Republican majority. Republican Patrick Meehan has represented the district since 2011, but will not be running for the 2018 midterm elections. The New York Times reported on Jan. 20 that Meehan used taxpayer dollars to fund a sexual assault settlement with a former aide he called his “soulmate.”

On Jan. 22, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania issued an order stating that the Congressional district lines drawn in 2011 “clearly, plainly and palpably” violate the state constitution. The decision was made on the “sole basis” of the state constitution instead of relying on the national Constitution, as did recent gerrymandering cases concerning Wisconsin and North Carolina. On Feb. 5, Justice Samuel A. Alito rejected GOP lawmakers’ appeal to the Supreme Court for review of the decision.

The General Assembly is scheduled to submit the new congressional map to Governor Wolf on Friday. The court decision stipulates that it will create a redistricting plan itself–an unprecedented move–unless Wolf approves the plan by Feb. 15. Based on Swarthmore’s historical inclusion in the 7th district as well as the tenuously incongruous shape of the map around the Swarthmore area, the new map is likely to re-incorporate the town of Swarthmore into the 7th district. Pa. is one of the few states in which Congressmen can run for office outside of their district of residence, the district will be more competitive than it has been in years as candidates contend to fill incumbent House member Republican Patrick Meehan’s soon-to-be-vacant seat. This all comes at a critical time, when Democrats seek to flip 24 Republican seats in order to win back the House under Trump. There are 18 congressional districts in Pennsylvania, 13 of which are currently held by Republicans; according to reports from The New York Times, a more nonpartisan map would make three of these seats likely to swing Democratic. Adding to the chaos is the vacancy of Bob Brady’s seat, a House Democrat who has represented the 1st district since 1998. His retirement, announced on Jan. 31, followed the release of court documents from a still-ongoing F.B.I. investigation in November 2017 concerning a $90,000 payment Brady made to one of his opponents during his 2012 campaign.

In addition, for the first year in many years, the competitive primary falls during finals, so registered Swarthmore students will be able to vote in the primary without having to request absentee ballots. As the Phoenix reported on Nov. 16, Swarthmore student turnout had a major role in the results of local elections, when two Democrats were elected to the Delaware County Council, which had not had Democratic members for over 30 years.

“In Pennsylvania as a college student, our vote probably matters more than nearly anywhere else in the country,” Ben Stern ’20, president of the Swarthmore College Democrats, said. “Especially in 2018, because we have a vulnerable governor and a senator and new highly contested Congressional elections.”

The Phoenix will follow-up with news following the expected release of a new map on Feb. 15.

Why the president should take Introduction to Economics

in Columns/Opinions/Uncategorized by

One of President Trump’s favorite activities is bragging about how great his administration has been for the economy. While the economy is currently on an overall upswing, Trump has no business taking credit for all of the gains he and his administration claim were due solely to their takeover of the executive branch.  In addition, these gains aren’t nearly as great as he makes them out to be, and anyone who has taken Introduction to Economics would quickly realize these claims are not entirely grounded in fact.

In September, Trump tweeted that “virtually no President has accomplished what we have accomplished in the first 9 months,” describing the economy—his economy—to be “roaring.”  

Claiming that the, at the time, nine month duration of his presidency saw the highest stock market growth in history, Trump hit a wall. Market Watch claims the best nine-month period for stock market growth was actually between April and December 2009, when the S&P soared 46.7 percent.  

Additionally, according to MarketWatch, “the market was better than it is now about 46 percent of the time while Bill Clinton was president, 34 percent under Barack Obama, and 14 percent under George W. Bush.”

Over the summer, Trump announced that “we have our most jobs ever in our country” and that “we have the highest employment numbers we’ve ever had in the history of our country.” Both of these claims are meaningless due to the fact that population has more than doubled in size since 1950.

Instead of expounding statistics that can be explained away by population growth, economists would rather consider the ratio of employment to population.

As the population continues to increase, the labor force does as well. However, the labor force is actually growing more slowly than it in the recent past due to the lack of baby boomers in the workforce. According to the Washington Post, “In 2016 the labor force participation rate for Americans ages 25 to 54 hovered around 81 percent, but it peaked in 1997 at 84 percent. Economists frequently analyze this rate as an indicator of the health of the job market. The higher the number, the healthier the market.”

There are many nuances the Trump administration chooses to ignore when referencing statistics related to employment. For example, one could choose to analyze the labor force participation rate for people ages 25 to 54, which measures the number of people who are both employed and unemployed against the entire U.S. population. There is also an overall labor force participation rate. This includes all Americans ages 16 and up while also incorporating both people who might be unemployed while in school and people aging out of the labor force.

Recently, Vice President Pence has been taking his cues from Trump, regurgitating his boss’ statements, and claiming the transfer of power to their leadership to be the cause of some unprecedented economic upswing.

During a speech at the Tax Foundation on Nov. 16, Pence, as evidence for his braggart statements about the Trump administration’s supposed great economic success, claimed that “there are more Americans working today than ever before in American history.”  

The American economy has been recovering from the Great Recession since 2009, yet Trump and Pence enjoy publicizing the idea that their administration has single handedly turned it all around.  Additionally, instead of acknowledging the Federal Reserve’s role in getting the economy out of the recession, spurring the highest period of economic growth in history, Trump chooses to criticize the organization and its leader. During the campaign, Trump claimed that “the Fed [created] a ‘very false economy,’” whatever that means. However, now that this “false economy” is having some success, he is now claiming it to be his own, taking credit for the effects of Fed policies and those of the Obama administration which he relentlessly mocked and attempted to refute.

There are two possible scenarios at play here. The first is that Trump, despite his continuous boasts about being an expert in the field of business, needs to brush up on his Economics 001 and should enroll in an introductory course at a local university; DC has plenty of options. The second, and admittedly more likely, option considering our President’s impeccable and proven track record as a liar, is that he comprehends the basic economic concepts that his statements clearly violate, and is operating under the impression that the American public does not, that he believes only a very small percentage of the words coming out of his mouth, and refuses to admit otherwise.

Anti-pipeline candidates elected with help from Sunrise

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Sunrise lead a successful effort to elect opponents of the Mariner East II pipeline, currently under construction, to township boards in Chester County. Four officials who won last Tuesday’s municipal elections promise they will enforce local ordinances designed to protect community members from the dangers of a high-pressure natural gas pipeline.

The pipeline connects the Marcellus Shale formations of Western Pennsylvania, an area rich in natural gas, to a shipping terminal in Marcus Hook, a town nine miles from Swarthmore. Petroleum manufacturer and distribution company Sunoco intends to export much of the natural gas to Europe.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission approved the pipeline in 2014, but there is currently a lawsuit being reviewed by an intermediate appeals court in Harrisburg arguing that local townships can assert zoning control. The Commission has banned drilling in West Goshen Township until a hearing regarding the site of a valve scheduled for April of next year. Sunoco started construction on the valve earlier this year, but a judge halted construction, arguing the property was not covered by an earlier agreement.

Sunoco’s parent company, Energy Transfer Partners, announced Wednesday that completion of the project would be pushed to the second quarter of 2018 despite the fact that 99 percent of the pipeline will be in the ground by the end of 2017, according to Stateimpact NPR. The delays are due to regulatory disputes with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection over the practice of horizontal drilling. The project has ninety reported drilling fluid spills in forty locations, NPR said. In one case, the company had four spillages in less than a week at its East Goshen drilling operation, and the DEP must decide whether the company has violated soil erosion permits.

If the pipeline can be held up by the courts, costs may be high enough to justify scrapping the project. In the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, for example, the government halted construction on federal land when it angered the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The resulting delays cost the owner of the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, $450 million.

“Now that we’ve elected township supervisors that are committed to enforcing the ordinance, it should be able to hold up the pipeline,” said Jeremy Seitz-Brown ’18, a leader of Sunrise. “The more these things can be delayed, eventually people can want out.”

Sunrise, founded this year, is an extension of a previous group at the College called  Mountain Justice. The group focuses on divestment, grassroots organizing, and anti-pipeline activism to pursue the broader goal of stopping climate change. The group drove nine students to knock on doors the Saturday before the election in West Goshen and Uwchlan townships, where there were four anti-pipeline candidates running. Sunrise partnered with Food and Water Action, a political advocacy group supporting clean water and sustainable energy, which spent $40,000 on the election, Philly.com reported. The election saw anti-pipeline majorities on the Board of Supervisors for each township.

“We talked to voters that were very supportive but needed that extra push, needed someone to contact them to get them to the polls,” said Seitz-Brown. “It feels good when you know you’re the difference.”

Construction on the entire pipeline was held up in August by an emergency order blocking horizontal drilling practices used by Sunoco after it contaminated residents’ water wells. In one case this summer, 15 households in Chester County were without water for weeks after Sunoco punctured an aquifer, said Stateimpact NPR.  The company reached a settlement with environmental organizations requiring it to better notify residents, improve its geological evaluation techniques, and offer to test the wells of nearby residents.

Olivia Robbins ’21 emphasized the importance of prioritizing environmental concerns in policy.

“The environment ought to be weighed most heavily because it will have the longest lasting impact,” she said. “The economic concerns that develop out of environmental travesties end up being far greater than the economic incentive.”

The closest the pipeline runs to the college is about three and a half miles. Its impact zone, which is identified as a 1,300-foot radius around the pipeline, includes 105,419 people and a total of 40 public and private schools. Middletown High School in Dauphin County is only seven feet away from the pipeline, making an emergency evacuation almost impossible should there be a leakage. It also crosses through four environmental justice areas dominated by poor and minority communities, reported Fractracker.

“The first thing you need to think about is who the economic benefits are going to be allocated to,” said Robbins. “ I care a lot if Chester, which is a pretty impoverished area in general and one of the most under-resourced school systems, didn’t get a huge economic benefit. From my understanding of the pipeline, it’s not.”

Chester County Charter School for the Arts is located 419 feet from the pipeline, enrolls 98 percent Black and Hispanic students, and will likely receive little tax benefit from the pipeline. Philly.com reported the terminal at Marcus Hook will contribute an additional $4.8 million in property taxes next year, raising property taxes for the site to $7.1 million. While Chichester schools will receive $5 million, only an additional $700,000 will go to Delaware County, a county with a tax revenue of $353 million making little impact on other school districts.

FracTracker Alliance, an anti-oil and gas research organization, reported 4,215 pipeline failures since 2010 resulting in 100 reported fatalities and 470 injuries. The property damage exceeded $3.4 billion.

Although the election itself happened in Chester County, this victory is one for Delaware County residents as well. With the pipeline currently held up in court until April, and opponents of the pipeline pledging to enforce local zoning laws, the completion date looks to be far away.

Record Swattie Turnout Helps Democrats Win Local Elections

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On Nov. 7, Democrats came out victorious as Brian Zidek and Kevin Madden won two seats on the Delaware County Council. This was the first time in over 30 years that Democrats have secured seats on the Council, which has historically been Republican dominated. Many community members were involved in helping campaign for the Democrat candidates as signs that read “Zidek Madden Vote Nov 7th: Bring Sanity Back” were dispersed throughout the County. The Swarthmore College Democrats parallelled these efforts by campaigning on campus to students; their efforts were rewarded when Swarthmore College student voter turnout was the highest ever for a local election.

Taylor Morgan ’19, president of Swat Dems, was approached by the County Democrats and candidates after their win and thanked for the student turnout.

“I heard from the people at the polling place, and also at a victory party at the Inn later that night, from the County Democrats and the candidates, that this year was the most significant turnout of Swarthmore students for local elections. All the candidates came up to me at the victory party that night and were thrilled at the engagement and involvement of Swarthmore students canvassing, voting, and in other ways supporting their candidacy,” said Morgan.

Swat Dems’ efforts started way before election day and extended past the college campus. According to Morgan, the organization’s strategy was to provide information about the election, both about the campaigns of the different candidates, and on the logistics of the voting process, in order to actually help students to go out and vote on Nov. 7.

Before the election, Swat Dems worked to enable students not only to vote, but also be involved in the campaigning process.

“I brought in two canvassing trainers to campus and hosted about 19 students who got trained to do paid canvassing. Secondly, we had a ‘Get Out the Vote’ operation which consisted of phone banking; canvassing around campus; dorm storming, which consisted of putting voter day information under the doors; tabling in Sharples to sign people up to drive shuttles; and to volunteer for campaigns,” said Morgan.

On the day of the election, Swat Dems were joined by the Sunrise Group and the Swarthmore Conservative Society to coordinate efforts to get people out to vote. President of Swat Conservatives Gilbert Guerra ’19 said that his group abstained from endorsing specific candidates but still believed it was important to get out and vote.

We joined in the Get Out the Vote effort by advertising it on our social media accounts and by tabling on the day of the election,” said Guerra.

Swat Dems also tried to incentivize students to go vote through food trucks.

“I researched two Black-owned businesses in the area, and I found two food trucks with the help of Andy Rosen, who is the chair of Swarthmore’s Farmer’s Market called Plum Pit Bistro and Catering, and The Sweetest Rose Cupcake Company. So we incentivized students to go vote through food catering. We encouraged students to get on the volunteer shuttles behind the food trucks before or after they were getting their food. And I think this really channeled a lot of students to get in the car and go down the street to vote,” said Morgan.

Morgan was also able to get community members to volunteer as drivers through connections from previous local campaign work.

“I was able to secure 17 local drivers who functioned as volunteer shuttles throughout the day, who used their personal time and vehicles to just drive Swarthmore students back and forth from the polling places,” said Morgan.

Morgan was hesitant to call the Democrats gaining seats a victory but is still optimistic about the future.

“I’m hesitant to call it a win because that implies that the challenge leading up to Tuesday is over, but on the contrary it has just begun. Delaware County, the college, and the community members have been facing complete obstruction and this is due to the Republican Machine. But now, we actually have people who recognize a lot of community needs and crises that are happening locally, that are at the table, and they can at least impart change that has for so long been obstructed. So to me, the ‘win’ means that there is a more likely chance that people will be able to access these changes, not necessarily that these changes will come,” said Morgan.

Morgan described the ‘Republican machine’ as a product of gerrymandering, which is the manipulation of district boundaries to provide advantage to one political party.

“Our district is the most gerrymandered district in the country. This is largely due to the regime of Republican machine in Delaware county. In college courses, Delaware County is held up as an example of what gerrymandering is and the dangers of it. And so the people that were elected, named Brian Zidek and Kevin Madden, have come out publicly against gerrymandering and have actually supported legislation that works at dismantling it. Also, Delaware County has the only for-profit prison in the state of Pennsylvania, and this is due to [Republican backing over the years],” said Morgan.

Peter Foggo ’21, a Democrat, decided to partake in local politics because of this Republican machine that Morgan described.

“I decided to participate in the local elections mainly because Delaware County has historically been controlled by Republican officials, but after the outrage following the most recent presidential election, I think that a lot of people in Delaware County realized that change was not only needed, but a realistic goal,” said Foggo.

Yasmeen Namazie ’19 echoed the importance of local politics bringing change to greater political platforms.

“I went out and voted because I understand the significance of local elections and their power in informing federal policy outcomes. After the Trump election, the Republican stronghold in the Senate and House has created a shortage in Democratic influence. As a Democrat, I want Democrats in local leadership to regain the House in 2018 and reverse the draconian policies implemented by the Trump administration: reinstate DACA, fund Planned Parenthood, repeal the travel ban, etc,” said Namazie.

Morgan hopes that this recent success will motivate students to get more involved in future democratic processes.

“To the group as a whole, I think that precisely because there was such a clear link between student engagement and victory, maybe students will be more likely to be involved in the future. And maybe, exactly this will kind of change the way students see the significance and effect of local politics,” said Morgan.

One year later, an ode to the immigrant

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I have never been more acutely aware of the color of my skin, the home country of my immigrant parents, or the gender I identify with, as I was on Election Day of last year. Growing up in an all-white town, surrounded by symbols of wealth and privilege, I had spent the bulk of my adolescence attempting to refute the notion that I was brown. As the only Sikh student at my high school, I wanted to flee the stereotypes which colored the lenses of the the students around me. Growing up in the US as a second generation Indian, I wanted to be white more than anything. I dressed like the white girls at my school, hiding behind my sleeping bag of a North Face parka and covering my brown ankles with white high-top Converse sneakers, spending late nights studying at Starbucks, and emphasizing how I was born south of Chicago—not in India, unlike the rest of my family—at every opportunity I got. The students of color at my high school were few and far in between; the handful of Indian students were mostly male and probably just as fearful of acknowledging their brown skin as I was.

I realized, slowly, that I could cheat on my faith, in a way that my turbaned brother and father could not. Dressed in my white-girl camouflage, I could slide through the halls without drawing attention to myself as a Sikh woman of color; my brother couldn’t, and still cannot, fill up his car’s gas tank without being spit at by a white man as he was told to go back to where he came from. It was easy for me to pretend that I was independent of the immigrant identity of my family members.

It took me years to embrace my culture, faith, and origins with pride. I now feel ashamed of myself and how embarrassed I once used to be during school-wide events, hoping desperately that my turbaned father would not attend and that my mother, with her moderate Indian accent, would not speak up. It pains me deeply to think that I once found the people who I idolize and worship the most so humiliating to my existence. Coming to Swarthmore and finding a community of both international and domestic students who not only took pride in where they came from and what they looked like, but also actively promoted greater opportunity and advancement for the communities and groups that they represented, I gained a greater appreciation for the immigrant story. I started listening more carefully to the stories of my own parents, who left India and arrived to the US with the equivalent of seven US dollars; the retellings of my mother, who worked three jobs at a time under the table to make extra cash; the narrative of my brother, whose turban was ripped off from his head in middle school, who would go on to preach the values of patience, tolerance, and kindness to me when I’d angrily tell him to fight back with the same level of vitriol.

In the wake of the election, with anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment at all time highs given Trump’s condonation, I learned to find solidarity between myself and other women of color. I looked to my father, who escaped from the corruption of India’s democracy in progress to come to a country where democratic institutions, values, and principles are still, to this day, upheld, and found solace in the company of other first and second generation students. He reminded me to not lose faith in the American democracy, or in the institutions that would serve to counteract the potential damage an incompetent and unfit president could inflict. With this being said, he and I both recognize that the US is currently exhibiting the lowest degree of social mobility in all of American history and some of the highest levels of economic inequality in the world; in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory one year ago, it is near impossible to have blind faith in free markets and democratic institutions, the most fundamental underpinnings of American society.

However, this past Election Day, one year after what I considered to be the D-Day of American democracy, Hoboken, New Jersey elected its first Sikh mayor, Ravi Bhalla. Prince William County, Virginia, elected its first openly transgender state legislator, Danica Roem. Helena, Montana elected its first black mayor, Wilmot Collins, a refugee from Liberia. A refugee from Vietnam, Kathy Tran, became the first Asian-American woman elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates, and the House of Delegates also elected its first two Latina female members, Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala. The elections of 2017 show us that when constituents mobilize at a grassroots level, collectively organize, turn out to the polls, and demand change, we create a government that starts to look more like the diverse America that I have come to be so proud of, where individual identities and differences are celebrated. I was disheartened to find that so many of my peers had ignored their civic responsibility by choosing not to vote this past Tuesday, assuming the election was unimportant and didn’t deserve their attention. This lethargy and complacency was precisely what led to poor voter turnout on behalf of Democrat voters in 2016, and contributed to an ultimate Trump victory. There is true and tremendous promise in the future of the American democracy, but—like my conservatives across the aisle have preached for years—we must pull ourselves up by the bootstraps to create it.


Mueller Monday: A new national pastime?

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This Monday, Paul Manafort was indicted on twelved counts, including conspiracy against the United States. This, of course, is part of the investigation led by special prosecutor Robert Mueller into potential collusion between Donald Trump and the Russian government to influence the election in favor of the Republican candidate. The indictment along with George Papadopoulos pleading guilty to lying to the FBI signal that Robert Mueller’s investigation is gaining steam, a good sign for those, including myself, who think that it is likely that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to take down former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

My own reaction to speculation from news sources that an indictment was coming on Monday morning made me feel like the question of “who is getting indicted” better fit on the title of a game show. It felt fun, despite the fact that the very sovereignty of the United States is at stake in the investigation. After making a few great jokes on Twitter, including one encouraging Special Prosecutor Mueller to release indictments on days that were more fit for popping bottles of champagne, I wonder if my reaction to the news is problematic for the democratic institutions and norms that I hold dear, especially since it can be argued that making light of Donald Trump contributed to his election. I remember laughing incredibly hard at Trump while watching one of the presidential debates in LPAC, and I shudder at how naive we all were. In laughing off then-candidate Trump, we underestimated Trump’s insidious potential. Could we be laughing away the very freedom to vote a president out of office by joking about the investigation that we hope will take him down?

Or, is laughing at Trump and company flounder in the face of the serious allegations they face a kind of retribution for the stupidity of this presidency? Or is it useful as a coping method in these troubled and uncertain times? Or is Sarah Huckabee Sanders just too roastable for us to not make fun of her blatant lies and even worse metaphors for tax reform?

To answer these questions, I want to start with the fact that there is no good metaphor for tax reform. I almost feel bad for making fun of Huckabee Sanders until I remember that she chooses to peddle the daily lies coming out of the Trump administration despite being qualified for several other jobs, like director of communications for Doofenshmirtz Evil Incorporated or as a press director for Satan. Laughing at the fools running our country makes it hurt less, and helps the anger not overcome my rational senses. Sending pointed tweets at the press secretary makes me feel better when I want to scream into an abyss.

The Trump circus deserves to be ridiculed, because honestly, they suck. They’re bad people with bad political views who are actively trying to make this country worse for poor people and marginalized group in order to appeal to a mythical silent majority and improve profits for CEOs and pharma bros. I realized that my initial fear regarding using humor to attack the Trump administration was too cautious, now that Trump holds the most powerful position in the world, the only way out is down. While America certainly has a lot left to lose, Trump can be taken down from the tallest tower. Laughing at him makes him angry, and an angry Trump is even easier to take down. As the investigation ramps up, the Trump family will likely keep their inner circle tighter as their world crumbles around them. In the meantime, laughing at them will be the best medicine.

Using humor in the face of the monstrosity that is the Republican president will show the Grand Old Party that the American people do not take their president seriously, which will  make it even harder for them to get their agenda through Congress. As long as moderate Republicans think that the President is to laughable to be associated with, their agenda will continue screeching to a halt in one of the world’s most revered legislative bodies. Making jokes about the president will distract him from advancing his poisonous agenda, and can bring us the joy we deserve after surviving every painful day of a Trump presidency.

I’m looking forward to the next Mueller Monday. I have several drafts of Tweets for each potential indictee, because all eight of my active Twitter followers and I deserve a good laugh.

Stephen Walt: Foreign policy-wise, Trump is much of the same

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Phi Beta Kappa lecturer and foreign policy expert Stephen Walt offered harsh criticism of the American foreign policy establishment last Thursday, Oct. 26. In his talk, titled “Where is U.S. Foreign Policy Headed?” Walt argued that foreign policy under president Trump is still commandeered by the pre-existing bipartisan foreign policy establishment; the administration now pursues long-standing, already flawed policies in an erratic and incompetent manner pursued by Trump.

Walt is a professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He authored three books, including The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, which created a media storm. The New York Times called it “ruthlessly realistic,” while others accused it of anti-semitism.  

In his talk, Walt argued that the foreign policy establishment — or the ‘blob,’ as he refers to it — is to blame for decades of failure in global affairs. He referenced the US policy of ‘liberal hegemony,’ defining it as a foreign policy that actively tries to promote the basic principles and ideals of liberal democracy. The policy assumes the US is an indispensable nation, and that it should try to use its power to spread democracy, whether peacefully or by force.

Walt outlined changes in international power dynamics over the past thirty years. China’s power has steadily increased, the relationship between the US and Russia is at its worst since the Cold War, and the Middle East is in turmoil largely due to US efforts at regime change.

According to Walt, the election of Donald Trump, whose policies represent a repudiation of the grand strategy pursued since the Cold War, proves that the American people want change. However, the change in his foreign policy is in how Trump himself acts, not in policy.

Walt blames the establishment for the state of US foreign policy. Although Trump ran on the premise that foreign policy in the US is “a complete and total disaster,” he doesn’t follow through on the policies he supported during the election. McMaster replaced Flynn, Trump said in an interview that NATO is no longer obsolete, he ordered a cruise missile strike in Syria After Assad uses chemical weapons, and he announced 5,000 more troops will be deployed to Afghanistan. According to Walt, these are many of the same actions Hillary Clinton would have taken if she was president.

“In a competition between Donald and the establishment, the establishment is winning,” he said.

Apart from criticizing the policies in place, Walt also listed the policies the US should pursue. The US should reduce or eliminate its military role in Eastern Europe, since Russia isn’t an existential threat to either the EU or the US. Trump should take a harder line with China to prevent it from becoming a regional hegemon and let Russia take the lead in Syria. The US shouldn’t have special relationships with any Middle Eastern powers, and should refrain from pursuing nation-building experiments.

Student reactions to these ideas were mixed.

“[Walt] underestimates Russia’s willingness to take risks given the threat it perceives from NATO and its declining global influence,” said Irina Bukharin ’18. “Although Professor Walt’s views most likely differed from the average Swattie’s, it was really encouraging to see so many people come out to hear his views.”

Frank Kenny ’20 was also unsure about one of Walt’s stances.

“I was surprised to hear him argue for a more interventionist approach when it comes to foreign policy dealing with China,” Kenny said.

Associate Professor of Political Science Dominic Tierney offered a different analysis of post-Cold War US policy. He questioned Walt’s harsh criticism of the establishment, considering the failure of Trump’s anti-establishment agenda. The Trump administration and all its missteps don’t seem to endear Walt to the establishment, like they do with many Americans.

“Instead, [Walt] seems to be sticking to his guns,” said Tierney. “While I think a lot of people look at the Trump administration and think that the establishment is looking better every day, by comparison to some of the blunders that we’ve seen.”

The failure of US foreign policy over the past thirty years, said Tierney, doesn’t have it’s roots in the establishment, although they have blundered.

“If you look at the bigger story of American foreign policy, it’s actually been fairly successful over the centuries and even since WWII, so I’m not sure that the American establishment is the fundamental problem here … that suspicion has been reinforced by the trump administration because it is explicitly anti-establishment and has made very serious mistakes,” he said.

According to Tierney, the deeper reason for these foreign policy gaffes is that America has no one to challenge its power like it did during the Cold War.

“Countries the with kind of power that the US has had since the end of the Cold War in history have rarely acted in restrained and measured ways,” he said.

Despite having controversial views, Walt filled the room with students engaged in

meaningful deliberation, and encouraged reexamining widely-accepted points of view.

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