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Congressional candidates debate gun policy at forum

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On Monday, April 30, Delaware County United for Sensible Gun Policy held a forum at the college for candidates running in the 5th congressional district primaries on May 15th. The forum, which lasted about two and a half hours, was held to allow constituents to hear the candidates’ positions on topics such as gun lobbying, gun laws, and gun ownership.

There are currently eleven candidates running in the upcoming representative primary on May 15. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in January that the old congressional map, created under the 2011 Pennsylvania Redistricting Act, was excessively gerrymandered. The Court released a new, non-partisan map on February 19. Delaware County, in which Swarthmore is located, was previously split between the 1st and 7th congressional districts but now lies in the 5th congressional district, according to the new map issued by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The incumbent representative for the 5th district is Republican Patrick Meehan, who announced that he would not seek reelection after the New York Times revealed that Meehan had paid out a sexual harassment settlement to a former staffer. Currently, ten candidates are running in the Democratic primary while Pearl Kim is running unopposed in the Republican primary. With the new congressional map, it is likely that Democrats will capture the 5th district seat in the November general election.

Candidates present at the forum were Mary Gay Scanlon, Lindy Li, Ashley Lunkenheimer, State Representative Margo Davidson, Rich Lazer, Mayor of Chester Thaddeus Kirkland, Molly Sheehan, Larry Arata, and State Representative Greg Vitali. Democratic candidate Theresa Wright and Republican candidate Pearl Kim did not attend. The forum was moderated by Reverend Peter Fredrichs and there were four forum panelists: John Linder, Movita Johnson-Harrell, Kiera Caldwell, and Swarthmore Professor of Political Science Tyrene White.

Over the course of the forum, nine questions were posed to the candidates regarding the influence of the NRA and gun lobbyists, gun violence, illegal gun sales, and gun suicide as a public health epidemic. Other questions included how candidates would approach bipartisanship, and what policies candidates would support in order to decrease the number of mass shootings.

During the forum, each candidate emphasized their strengths and areas of expertise.

Molly Sheehan, a postdoctoral fellow at UPenn repeatedly spoke about her determination in overturning Citizens United, the Supreme Court case that allows corporations to spend ‘soft money’ on political campaigns.

“When we talk about gun violence, we have to address corporate welfare and gun manufacturer lobbying,” Sheehan said. “If you elect me, I will fight not only to overturn Citizens United so that the type of power that the NRA has will be obsolete but also full public campaign financing so that every person has the same power over their elected officials”

Mary Gay Scanlon, an attorney and former Wallingford-Swarthmore school board president, spoke about her past experience with bipartisanship.

“We had a couple of Tea Party members on our school board and we had to work with folks to get things done. It’s about finding common points of interest,” Scanlon said. “My father and grandfathers were hunters and it wasn’t just they’re sons that they passed down those traditions to. I think that that experience with people who have handled guns gives me a point of intersection to speak with folks.”

Larry Arata also shared how his experience as a public school teacher affected his views on guns.

“I worked twenty years in software sales and took a pay cut to be a teacher,” Arata said. “I’ve had two of my students shot and this is something that I’ve seen upfront.”

The Delaware County Democratic Party has not endorsed a candidate in the primary. The Swarthmore College Democrats announced on April 26th that they would be backing Mary Gay Scanlon.

Cassandra Stone ’20, a Deputy Field Director for Scanlon, thought that the forum was a good opportunity to hear the positions of all of the candidates despite being set on who she would vote for.

“I think this forum definitely made me respect some candidates more––and others, less,” Stone wrote in an email to the Phoenix (the thoughts expressed are her own and not on behalf of the campaign). “I also found that many of the candidates got off topic from the specific question at hand and started talking too generally about gun policy or super PACs.”

While the forum was focused on gun policy, many candidates also discussed the large influence of money in politics and on campaign funding.

Arata took aim at former federal prosecutor Ashley Lunkenheimer because her campaign is backed by a super PAC. Lunkenheimer revealed to philly.com that her mother is a major funder of the super PAC, which is called Progress in PA-05.

“One person shouldn’t have control over millions of dollars and have the ability to contribute unlimited amounts to one candidate,” Arata said. “The person that has the wealthiest family and is able to set up a super-PAC to fund their daughter’s campaign should not have the greatest influence.”

Though the focus of the forum strayed occasionally, constituents were given an opportunity to hear candidates’ thoughts on guns and to learn more about the candidates’ platforms in a crowded race.

Losing the Syrian refugee crisis

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They say you need to cut your losses and move on. If that’s the case, I have unfortunate news for those of us hoping to bring about some justice for Syrian refugees—we have utterly failed in persuading America. According to a poll conducted by NBC News, 56% of Americans disagree with accepting Syrian refugees and, contrary to popular belief, 35% of Democrats disagree with accepting Syrian refugees. There’s a problem here and it’s one that can’t be solved by appealing to what we as liberals might think.

There are two main views of the Syrian refugee crisis: Republicans call it a national security issue, and Democrats call it a humanitarian crisis. The former group would paint the crisis as one where terrorists and terrorist cells could infiltrate the United States while posing as refugees. They claim that the lack of strategies for proper identification of people coming in constitutes a threat to national security. Many Republicans have also proposed that preference be given to Christian refugees. The latter group relies on morality and American values to make their case. Many will hastily point out that the governors of the thirty-one states that have rejected—symbolically or otherwise—the admittance and resettling of Syrian refugees have no actual power to do so. Nevertheless, that doesn’t tackle the issue of whether or not we should be accepting them.

To better look at this, I must make a bold claim: there are few examples in the history of the United States that suggest Americans, in trying times for national security, support the triumph of decency or rights over security. We, as liberals, can quote Benjamin Franklin and warn that, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither,” but that falls on deaf ears for most Americans. The NBC poll referenced earlier also found that 81 percent of respondents favor extensive security measures, like bag checks, in public areas like malls and parks. For the majority of Americans, their rights may matter on paper and in theory but in reality, their safety matters most. Can you blame them? In the face of terrible bombings, terrorist threats, and horrific instances of gun violence, is someone’s right to free speech or the rights guaranteed to them by the Fourth Amendment going to seem more important than their desire to feel safe? Of course our rights as citizens matter but to many people those rights do not matter without the promise of safety from those threats.

According to Gallup, Pew Research Center, and CBS/New York Times polls, this disapproval of refugees is consistent with American history. Sixty seven percent disapproved of taking in refugees from Axis and Axis-controlled nations during World War II, 55 percent disapproved of Hungarian refugees in 1958, 62 percent disapproved of Indochinese refugees in 1979, and 71 percent disapproved of Cuban refugees in 1980. Am I saying that these people were right in refusing sanctuary to refugees? No. I am Cuban-American and it saddens me that people easily let their fear overpower justice for humanitarian crises. There was and continues to be great suffering in Cuba at the hands of an oppressive socialist regime.

If we look at history, however, we find that this is how Americans think. We desire security, and many believe Syrian refugees pose a security risk. Politicians know better than to go against their constituents and for this reason we will not see an adequate humanitarian response. Reports from Europe indicate asylum seekers’ refusal to assimilate to local values and implicate them in incidents of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and crime—this a public opinion battle that we are losing. Few Americans would say that the human rights of foreign refugees are as important as the right and desire of United States citizens to be safe. This is unfortunate; it’s also history.

In the battle for the view on the refugee crisis, the Left has lost handedly. The Right and its framing of the crisis as a national security issue has won and will continue to win. For us Democrats and liberals, the time to rethink our framing and our arguments is now. We need to appeal to the desires of the Right. While a majority of people continue to align with the views held by the Republican Party on issues of security, Democrats will get nowhere—and do no justice for refugees—by sticking to our hard-line views. We must move somewhat to center, reconcile with those that want security, and hope that new discourse can bring the other side to the center as well. Only then will discussion prevail and justice see the light of day.

It’s not Republicans, it’s lack of compromise

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If there is a consensus on anything in the American political landscape — one thing we can agree on — it is this: the Republican Party is in trouble. The rise of anti-establishment figures has brought it to a crossroads between being the party of American traditionalism and conservatism and the one that simply criticizes and castigates the government without offering solutions.

This has been especially prominent in the early stages of the 2016 campaign with the meteoric rises of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina. Each of them takes pride in being foreign to the political arena and claims their experience outside of politics is exactly what will propel them to enacting reform in the government. But they fail to go so far as to articulate how exactly they will do so. So much time is spent bashing and insulting the political process that they (and other Republicans) have lost sight of what their individual and party-wide goals are. Republicans have quickly become their own enemies, routinely bashing each other for not being conservative enough, of “giving into the radical liberalism of Barack Obama” (think Ted Cruz), and quite simply for not representing the principles upon which the Republican Party is built.

What they do not realize, however, is that the American public doesn’t know what those principles are anymore.

Gone is the Reagan conservatism that Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and so many others claim to admire. Despite the legitimate critiques to be made of his policies, what cannot be disputed is that President Reagan attempted to unite the country around his vision and used his conservatism as a medium through which he could relate to everyday Americans. Ask anyone over the age of 40 what they remember about Ronald Reagan; they won’t articulate their disagreement with or support for his supply-side economic policies or his immense, and seemingly inexplicable, defense spending. Rather, they’ll reminisce of a grandfather-like figure with a wry smile who calmly and smoothly made jokes at his own expense and boldly proclaimed, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Republican anti-establishment rhetoric started out as just that — words. Words that right-wing politicians looking to make names for themselves used to galvanize a small sect of the party without expecting popular support. However, after the 2010 Tea Party takeover of Republican congressional seats, the anti-establishment wing’s encouragement of government hate and inaction has become the new expectation of Republicans. And many Republicans have been unable to keep pace with this shift. Thus, there is a fissure within the party–a divide between the pragmatists who still seek to compromise and have substantive dialogue and the ideologues who wish to stifle governance to prove a point.

Take Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, for example. Both Florida conservatives, they pride themselves on staunch conservatism and unwavering opposition to Barack Obama. Governor Bush, however, has thus far had one of the most unexpectedly disappointing primary campaigns in recent history. He is undoubtedly a conservative Republican; he promises to cut taxes, hopes to reduce the size and scope of the government, and frequently blames the failures of the country on Democrats and liberal policies. Yet, his last name alone entrenches him so deeply within the Republican establishment that he has been unable to attract voters who might have once flocked to him in droves.

Although Senator Rubio shares many of Bush’s positions, he touts himself as an outsider and frequently disparages Republican leadership. In answering a question regarding his poor attendance in Senate votes during the CNBC GOP Debate, he attacked, “That’s exactly what the Republican establishment says…Why don’t you wait in line?” His inflammatory rhetoric seems to be working, further signalling the rhetorical shift within the party. He comes in at third in most major national polls, behind Donald Trump and Ben Carson, but his biggest win thus far came just this week as reported by The New York Times. Paul Singer, an influential investor and donor courted by numerous GOP candidates announced his decision to support Rubio, praising him as “an informed and assertive decision-maker.” The significance of a major donor’s choice to back a candidate who refuses to be associated with Republican leadership cannot be overstated, for it signals that divisive rhetoric and attacks on the establishment will continue as long as they are rewarded.

The chaos and uncertainty within Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives, is another cause for concern within the Republican Party. John Boehner’s ousting from the speakership and Kevin McCarthy’s subsequent failure to succeed him have been viewed as victories for the right wing, but they place the party in uncharted waters. In the wake of Paul Ryan’s ascension to the speakership, the more moderate Republican leadership will have a difficult time compromising with its increasingly anti-establishment caucus. Gaining the support of the far right as the nominee for speaker proved rather difficult for Ryan, indicating that negotiating legislation will be gruesome. Finding common ground with the other side will become even more difficult as representatives will be wary of being viewed as not conservative enough by the party and by their constituents.

At least from a campaign perspective, this all sounds great for Democrats, right? Political commentators and media pundits alike have claimed that the tumult and chaos within the Republican party may make the more placid Democratic primary candidates increasingly attractive. In my classes and discussions with fellow Swarthmore students, I have gotten the sense that many at Swarthmore perceive the disorder in the Republican Party to be reflective of a change in the political landscape. Being outspokenly liberal, many seem to believe that this chaos highlights what they already knew — that the views and beliefs of the GOP are simply wrong for the country. They also hope and believe that seeing Republicans’ inability to articulate a clear message will convince the country to support Democrats and more progressive ideas. Students at Swarthmore and the pundits are right in this: the Democrats seem like the adults. And what comes across as maturity might even win them the White House in 2016. But what then?

The truth of the matter is that, to address the country’s problems, the United States needs Republicans. This may not be a popular opinion here at Swarthmore, where complaints against Republicans and conservatism are more common, but politics goes beyond campaigning. There is actual governance that must be done. Even if Democrats take the White House in 2016, even if we have a President Clinton or President Sanders, it is unlikely that Democrats will take back Congress. Republicans will still make up a majority in Congress and have a commanding majority in many state governments. Additionally, more Americans still identify as conservative as opposed to liberal, 38% to 24% according to Gallup, a radical departure from ideologies at Swarthmore.

In order to govern and effect the change that is sought by members of both parties–tax reform, campaign finance reform, entitlement reform–Republicans must be willing and able to negotiate. They must begin the process of healing the divide within the party, for as long as they do not, the problems facing the country will remain.


Democrats and race: A lively debate

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My recent article on the history of the Democratic Party — whose inflammatory name was inserted not by me but by the Phoenix editors — must have struck a nerve. It generated not one but two full-length responses, one from Nate Urban and another from Jason Clayton. Neither response calls into question any fact that I presented, but both insist that I should have written on a different subject from the one I chose. Urban is right that civil rights issues of today deserve focus. But universities also have history departments. At any rate, Urban’s piece is more thoughtful than Clayton’s, so I’ll reply to his first.

Urban’s article is well-written, but I disagree with him throughout. Early in his counterargument he makes a curious assertion: “In 2015, no party should attempt to claim the moral high ground on slavery.” Why not? The Democratic Party is perfectly happy to claim the moral high ground on that issue and others. If you go to the website of the Democratic National Committee and click on the History section, you will find this opening sentence: “For more than 200 years, our party has led the fight for civil rights, health care, Social Security, workers’ rights, and women’s rights.” First of all, it’s patently absurd to say that Democrats led the fight for civil rights “for more than 200 years,” as I hope I made clear two weeks ago. In any event, the Democratic Party is eager to take credit for its purported accomplishments over the span of two centuries, regardless of the “differences between 19th- and 21st-century political parties.” When the facts comply, I see no problem with this, and I believe the Republican Party should be allowed to do the same. So, yes, in 2015 Republicans can take the moral high ground on slavery, seeing as they actually did lead the (literal) fight to abolish it and pass the Reconstruction amendments.

The bulk of Urban’s response is about voter ID laws, on which I published my own views in a previous article from the fall semester. His point seems to be that Republican support for voter ID laws must be evidence of racist intent. Yet the vast majority of Americans support these laws, including Democrats.  For example, a recent McClatchy poll found that 84 percent of Americans approve of voter ID legislation, along with 72 percent of Democrats and 87 percent of independents. Rasmussen found 78 percent overall approval, and the “Washington Post” 75 percent approval. The laws enjoy support across demographic groups; they are even backed by a small majority of blacks. Cherry-picking ugly comments cannot change this. Furthermore, there’s no evidence that voter ID laws suppress minority turnout, as I noted in my editorial on the subject. After searching meticulously through the data, scholarly studies conducted by both Columbia University and the Brennan Center for Justice were unable to find any evidence that voter ID laws affect minorities. Minority turnout sometimes increased in states with these laws, even exceeding white turnout.

I respect Urban’s views and I’ll try to profit from his example. I hope he’ll review his column and look into his mirror just as steadily as he asks me to look into mine. Now I’ll turn to Clayton.

I must admit, this is a pretty odd piece of text. I had trouble teasing out an actual argument to respond to. Clayton begins with two paragraphs in which he sounds like he’s congratulating himself for not fleeing in disgust when he spoke to a Republican in 2012. He confesses that his usual reaction to articles he disagrees with is to mock them with his friends at breakfast. He says this again later on, so we must assume that this snickering echo chamber is important to him, though it’s not clear why he thinks mocking others behind their backs is something to tell the whole college about.

Lest the reader wonder what any of this self-analysis has to do with the Democratic Party, Clayton then informs us that I should have written my article on a different subject — “conservative ideological goals or Republican Party policies.” He yearns for the golden days when Republicans “wryly acknowledged … part of the Republican platform was completely indefensible,” then issues a demand “that Republicans defend their platform.” Basically the whole piece is a snide lamentation that I didn’t demonstrate “some willingness to debate the issues.” Last I checked, there is more to politics than a set of narrow policy debates.

But if Clayton were actually interested in my views on “the issues,” he could have readily found them in articles I’ve published in this very newspaper (and in “The Swarthmore Independent”), which deal with such topics as divestment, voter ID laws, big business, the limitations of government, and the misleading rhetoric of politicians. Clayton doesn’t respond to any of these, but does take a bizarre swipe at my article on classical music, which is completely irrelevant to the matters at hand. His assertion that I am “complaining, without evidence, that liberals don’t like classical music because dead white men created it” reveals that he didn’t even bother to read the column, in which there is neither mention of liberals nor anything remotely partisan.

Clayton also tries to argue that Republicans are now attempting to “erase our country’s disgraceful history.” His example is the reaction to former Senator Mary Landrieu’s comment that “the South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans.” Taking Landrieu’s words cleanly out of context, Clayton acts as if her statement was some penetrating acknowledgement that Republicans are denying. He evidently didn’t read the whole quote, because in the real world she was just blaming President Obama’s unpopularity in the South on his blackness, rather than on his policies. Certainly this would explain how Senator Tim Scott, black Republican of South Carolina — bedrock of the Confederacy — won 88 percent of the white vote in 2014, a larger share than Lindsey Graham’s. Republican backlash against Landrieu’s comment had nothing to do with Jim Crow era laws or lack thereof. And on the subject of that disgraceful history, Clayton says I see it “as primarily the fault of Democrats.” He’s right, I do. I’m still waiting for his counterargument.

Sometimes Clayton just contradicts himself. For example, in one sentence he says that my article “promoted conservative views.” Two sentences later he says that it “didn’t promote a viewpoint at all.” Since he can’t decide for himself, I’ll tell him: the article isn’t about conservatism. My purpose isn’t to absolve the Republican Party or pretend it’s free of sin. I intend instead to bring to light an ugly guilt rarely discussed.

If the Democratic Party wants to use history to polish its image, as its national organization clearly does, it must also account for the uglier parts of its past. Now, I don’t expect the DNC to do this, but I do expect honest students of history to do it. Some Democrats I’ve talked to here at Swarthmore are willing to admit that their party’s past has racism in it, but they try to disown this ugly record by claiming that conservative Democrats migrated to the other party over race (a myth which I’ll discuss another time). The Democratic Party argues that its current platform, self-described as pro-civil rights and equality, is something it has long fought for. Yes, Democrats have achievements they can be proud of. But if the party wants to lay claim to that liberal ancestry, it must also acknowledge that some of those same exalted liberals also committed terrible acts of racism. If you claim it, claim it all. I’m willing to discuss the historical sins of the Republican Party; I do that frequently at this college. We’re obliged to talk about our history just as much as the other side. So I stand by what I said before: cut out the fantasies and talk about your past, Democrats.

Have we really sunk so low? A response to Philip Decker

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During my first week of classes at Swarthmore, I picked up a copy of the Phoenix, opened to the opinions section, and saw a column by Tyler Becker ’14 about “Mitt Romney’s Plan for America.” It was Fall 2012, the height of election season, and this was my first exposure to conservatives at Swarthmore. I thought his argument was absurd, filled with discredited Romney campaign talking points. I’m sure I made fun of his article to all my friends at breakfast. And throughout that semester, as Tyler continued to write columns promoting Romney’s campaign or (later) blaming Obama’s underhanded tactics for Romney’s loss, they continued to annoy and amuse me. So it’s strange that now, more than two years later, I find myself feeling nostalgic for Tyler’s columns. And while I’m sure some of that is merely rose-tinted glasses, I also think it says something about the evolving Republican Party, which — against all odds — actually seems to have become more extreme in such a short period of time.

The thing is, as much as I disagreed with Tyler’s columns, they did address the issues. My concerns with him were largely a matter of policy, not style. I eventually found out that Tyler was then the treasurer for a club I had joined, Swarthmore’s mock trial team, and it was easy to begin an honest exchange of ideas. We’d tease him about whatever argument he’d made that week — for example, his anger at Ohio governor John Kasich for accepting the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act — he’d respond, and soon there would be a serious discussion of the issues. Tyler’s arguments, both in person and in print, also seemed more strategically flexible than ideologically puritanical. He’d often concede a small point in order to strengthen a separate argument, or sometimes wryly acknowledge that, yeah, part of the Republican platform was completely indefensible.

So why this stroll down nostalgia lane? While reading Philip Decker’s column, “Historically, Democrats are the real bigots,” last week, I was struggling to figure out just what bugged me about it. I thought it was deeply misleading, it made me angry, I made fun of it to my friends, of course; but what about it did I find so objectionable aside from the fact that it promoted conservative views, and I am strongly left-leaning? Eventually I realized that what I grudgingly respected about Becker’s columns was exactly what so outraged me about Decker’s. This new column didn’t promote a viewpoint at all. It didn’t advance any conservative ideological goals, or Republican Party policies. It was nothing more than a giant accusation that the Democratic Party was hypocritical on matters of race.

And that got me thinking. We often talk about nostalgia for the Republican Party of the past, usually the moderates of the postwar era who promoted many policies that modern liberals would approve of. But reading Decker’s column, I find myself missing the Republican Party of three years ago. How pathetic is that? And certainly I don’t want to romanticize that era too much. I found the overwhelming majority of their principles and policies to be horrendous, as I do now. But I can’t help but feel like something has changed for the worse. There was a time, even during Obama’s first term, when an accusation of racism in the Republican Party merited a serious response. That response went a little something like this: “The Republican Party has an ugly history when it comes to race, but that has changed. We are a big tent and all are welcome. Now let us explain why we support restrictions on early voting.”

But now? When House majority whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) admitted to speaking at a gathering hosted by white supremacists in 2002, the Republican response was largely to make repeated references to Robert Byrd, just as Decker does. Of course, by the end of his career, Byrd’s voting record had a 100 percent approval rating from the NAACP, while Scalise’s most recent ranking was 21 percent (it has been as low as 5 percent). The actual policies promoted are irrelevant; what matters is the ability to accuse the Democrats of hypocrisy. Or what about when then-Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) noted “the South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans.” She said that racism was a thing. And Republicans demanded en masse that she apologize for this slander. In other words, the official Republican response to accusations of racism is now to deny it ever existed — in the same state where Scalise met with the white supremacists. Decker’s column makes no efforts to defend policies promoted by Republicans, nor does it address their current efforts to erase our country’s disgraceful history — a history he sees as primarily the fault of Democrats.

It’s possible I’m blowing these differences out of proportion. It’s possible that were Tyler Becker still a student at Swarthmore, he would applaud Decker’s column and disagree with everything I’ve written here. But I like to think he wouldn’t. I like to think that he’d try to defend the gutting of the Voting Rights Act on legal and policy grounds rather than by crying hypocrisy. I like to think that he’d devote his column to explaining his opposition to protests of commencement speeches rather than complaining, without evidence, that liberals don’t like classical music because dead white men created it, as Decker argued in his January 22, 2015 column. I don’t give the Republican Party of 2012 credit for much, but at least there was some willingness to debate the issues, even if only at Swarthmore. All in all, it’s unlikely that the Republican Party of 2012 really differs that much from the Republican Party of 2015. But these changes happen very gradually. If we don’t demand that Republicans defend their platform, then they will dictate the terms of the debate, and right now that debate is little more than a game of “I know you are, but what am I?” We deserve better.

Historically, Democrats are the real bigots

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Here at Swarthmore, Republicans are often called racist. Almost daily, I’m treated to cocky sermons about how the Democratic Party is the “good” party on civil rights. This view ignores the bloody, violent history of Democratic racism. Democrats of all kinds—liberals, too—committed the bulk of racial sin in this country’s history. Republicans have bigotry in their own past, but it simply doesn’t compare to the terrible crimes of the other party. Let’s go on a brief tour of American history so you can see what I mean.

Lyndon Johnson is credited with passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This bill was also filibustered by Democrats, and most of the nay votes were Democratic ones. In the Senate, 82 percent of Republicans voted yea, compared to 69 percent of Democrats; in the House, the breakdown was 80 percent to 63 percent. Among those voting nay were Democratic icons like J. William Fulbright, Richard Russell, Sam Ervin, and Robert Byrd. They all fought the bill just as they fought every other piece of civil rights legislation.

These Democrats’ hostility to blacks was part of a long tradition that began before the Civil War. Shortly after its founding, the Democratic Party consolidated a base constituency in Southern slave states. The planter class exerted disproportionate pressure over Congress and tried to expand slavery to the western territories. The South refused to respect the results of the 1860 election, tearing our country in two. Not all Democrats supported slavery, but there’s no denying that slavery was the Democratic Party’s system and the grueling war that abolished it was the Democratic Party’s fault.

During Reconstruction, unrepentant ex-Confederates made sure that freedom from slavery would be the only freedom blacks had. Nathan Bedford Forrest, delegate to the 1868 Democratic National Convention, became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and unleashed a wave of slaughter against blacks and Republicans. After the army withdrew from Southern states in 1877, Democratic legislatures immediately began segregating blacks from whites, denying the former their basic rights. Ignoring the Civil Rights Act of 1875, racist politicians segregated public works, restaurants, restrooms and countless other parts of everyday life. Poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and merciless intimidation stopped blacks from voting. By the 1890s Jim Crow weighed over the entire South and would remain for decades after. This “Solid South” was so heavily Democratic that Republican presidential candidates simply wrote it off as a lost cause.

When I mention this, I’m told that it was only the conservative wing of the Democratic Party that was committing these crimes, not the liberal wing that’s now the party’s core. This is false. Some of America’s worst racial offenders were progressive Democrats now lauded as forefathers of modern liberalism. Woodrow Wilson, for instance, was one of our most racist presidents. He filled his cabinet with Southerners. During his term all corners of government were re-segregated (Wilson’s explanations were “it is distinctly to the advantage of the colored people” and “I sincerely believe it to be in their interest”); civil servants used all kinds of techniques to reject black candidates. Southern states quickly took example, usually at the direction of Wilson’s cabinet: local bureaucracies purged their ranks of black workers or demoted them. During the First World War blacks fought in segregated units, and despite cries of injustice from black leaders, Wilson made no move to change the status quo. Indeed, the White House had a screening of Birth of a Nation in 1915, the first ever film to be shown there, and Wilson’s comment was “it is all so terribly true.”

Franklin Roosevelt, another liberal icon, also has a miserable civil rights record. While he served Assistant Navy Secretary under Wilson, his department was completely re-segregated. This gave Roosevelt no unease. As president, his first appointment to the Supreme Court was Hugo Black of Alabama, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan and opponent of anti-lynching legislation. Although New Deal policies did not intend to hurt blacks, they certainly did, and Roosevelt did little to stop it. The NIRA robbed work from hundreds of thousands of blacks and the TVA discriminated against black farmers, sometimes forcing them off their property. Roosevelt’s record really plummeted during the Second World War: as before, black soldiers fought in segregated units, and the government interned tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. The president’s personal life was not much better. At his home in New York black servants were forbidden to eat with white ones. He owned a Georgia resort that was for whites only, and black employees were obliged to sleep in the cellar. Roosevelt may have been a great president, but he was no champion of civil rights.

Government was not the only organ through which Democrats abused blacks. Unions, organizations then and now overwhelmingly Democratic, were openly racist. In 1906 W. E. B. Du Bois characterized unions as “the greatest enemy of the black working man.” Well into the twentieth century they were still trying to stop blacks from succeeding. Economist Ray Marshall notes that “in 1930 there were at least 26 national unions which barred Negroes from membership by formal means.” Many unions approved of minimum wage laws partly because they priced blacks out of the labor market (this was also an apartheid tactic). After Brown v. Board, unions opposing school integration started enlisting Klansmen. Even after the Civil Rights Movement, some unions continued to use informal methods to reject blacks. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party has much to be ashamed of.

I don’t pretend that there are no racist Republicans; there are. But the crimes of my party cannot be equated to those of the other. It was Democrats who fought for slavery; it was Democrats who instituted segregation; and it was Democrats who fought tooth and nail against its abolishment. No, most modern Democrats aren’t racist. But they have absolutely no right to be cocky about civil rights. It’s like a doctor who’s smug about curing one patient when he poisoned the previous twenty. Cut out the fantasies and talk about your past, Democrats.

Senate republicans depart from reality

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Over the past week, Swarthmore saw a departure of students leaving campus for spring break. On Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans seem to have experienced a similar phenomenon, leaving behind any appearance of rationality and common sense behind by authoring a letter to the government of Iran. Lead by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK.), forty-seven senators penned the letter, entitled “An Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” The letter argues that Iranian leaders should not negotiate an agreement on its nuclear development with U.S. officials, stating that any agreement would be constitutionally subject to the approval of the United States Senate, and then insinuating that President Obama’s administration could never receive this approval. At a basic level, the letter tells the Iranian government that the negotiations mean nothing because the Obama administration is powerless.

The ongoing negotiations have been among the more controversial issues in the political sphere this year. Just a few weeks earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress. The content of his speech has been a source of disagreement, but the circumstances surrounding its inception were even more controversial, as House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to speak without notifying the White House. Netanyahu advocated against a deal with Iran in his speech before Congress, and the letter penned by Senate Republicans is proof that at least some have taken his remarks to heart.

From its opening line, this letter leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of readers. It begins “It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system.” This patronizing tone continues throughout, as the leaders of this foreign nation are treated more like misbehaving children than a foreign power sitting on the other side of the negotiating table. While Iran’s actions on the international level can certainly be described as childish — in fact, this is a tame adjective — this tone gives the intention that the letter was less a serious foreign policy move than a mere political stunt, meant to pander to those at home who oppose such negotiations.

Placing this letter in the greater context of the ongoing negotiations is where it truly departs from the realm of rationality. The representatives of the United States are deeply engaged in negotiations with their counterparts from Iran. No agreement has been reached for Republican Senators to disagree with; instead, they’ve indicated blindly, and preemptively, that they have no interest in a deal. Releasing such a letter before a deal has been reached is shortsighted: Senate Republicans effectively served to reject an agreement whose terms have not yet been reached.

 More importantly, however, the letter serves to undermine the negotiating power of the United States. Pointing out the administration’s lack of unilateral power completely undercuts the ability of the negotiators to do their jobs. Senate Republicans are right — we do have a constitutional system that lays out how our government will handle agreements between our nation and others. However, that process begins back home once an agreement has been reached. What is best for the United States is undoubtedly for the most favorable agreement possible to be presented to this system, at which time Senate Republicans will wield their constitutional power. This letter undercuts our own negotiating power, handing the other side a huge advantage in one irrational, misguided action.

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