The shift in US Civil Society

When Joe Biden was chosen as the Democratic Party nominee, many young progressives were disappointed as he was an establishment politician with moderate views and willing to cut deals with Republicans. People were relieved when he defeated Donald Trump for the Presidency in November 2020 but they expected Obama era fiscally conservative policies to resurface. It’s important to understand how the neoliberalism of Obama and Biden became an intrinsic American phenomenon towards the end of the twentieth century.

The rise of the New Right and the Conservative Movement in the US led to the landslide victory of Ronald Reagan in 1980-81. American civil society at the time opposed large scale government intervention in the economy., The widespread assumption was that government regulations increase unemployment and tax cuts for companies allow them to invest more in human capital. Many Americans also believed that low deficits would lead to low inflation. This ideology started fading gradually as trickle-down economics proved ineffective as wealth was never passed from rich to poor. Simultaneously people started noticing that increased deficit spending doesn’t always lead to high inflation. 

One hundred days into the Biden administration, we see a shift from the moderate Democrat who was expected to compromise with Republicans on various issues. He had campaigned on giving stimulus checks to the lower middle class as a part of his American Rescue Plan. Most progressives were skeptical about Biden coming through on his campaign promises. But surprisingly he drafted the most comprehensive anti-poverty legislation since the New Deal of 1933. 

New Era of Social Democracy

In the Joint session of Congress, Biden’s speech made it crystal clear that he was the antithesis of Ronald Reagan. He laid out groundbreaking government spending programs. The American Families Plan will invest in future generations and could cut child poverty by 50%. Finally, an American President has openly declared that trickle-down economics has failed as a policy position. The post-Reagan era embraced the neoliberal agenda by making minor adjustments. The early signs under Biden are that the US is on the path of becoming a social democracy which seemed impossible at a certain point.

Social democracy is not socialism or democratic socialism as it does not hinge on collective ownership of means of production but rather a more equitable distribution of goods and services. It allows markets to grow but uses tax spending policies to fund social welfare in areas such as  education, healthcare and childcare. This is the biggest expansion of government in the US since 1968, when Lyndon B Johnson was in office. Biden needs to follow in Johnson’s footsteps to get most of his agenda passed. Like Biden, Johnson was a moderate from the South. The Southern Democrats were mostly opposed to any kind of civil rights legislation, due to the strict segregation laws in the South. After Kennedy’s assassination, the black community lost all hope as their fate was in the hands of a southerner. Johnson surprised many by passing not only key civil rights and voting rights legislation but also crucial healthcare programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Currently, in the US, the most important pieces of legislation is the For the People Act, which not only makes it easier for poor people to vote but also removes dark money from politics. Along with this policy reform, universal childcare and infrastructure are the most important policies that Biden must pursue. 

The Legislative Hurdles

The principal obstacles to Biden’s agenda are some conservative Democrats and all Republicans in the Senate who will block any legislation through the filibuster. It allows the Senate to debate bills for as long as possible. Sixty votes are required for cloture in order to end debate. So if there are less than sixty votes to end debate the legislation is blocked by the minority. It was previously only used to block civil rights legislation, but nowadays all legislation can be blocked in this way. Johnson’s success was based on his ability to use his influence and powers of intimidation to break the Southern filibuster. Republicans at that time were open to working with the other side. After Donald Trump’s polarisation, any Republican working with Democrats will be classified as ‘too liberal’. The only way Biden can successfully create some version of social democracy is to abolish the filibuster and pass legislation with a simple majority. With a split senate, Conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin are standing in the way of this measure. The path to social democracy lies in the hands of a minority in the legislature. That is why Biden needs to use his lifelong political experience and keep fighting for the agenda he has laid out. This will be one of the toughest challenges after the first hundred days of his presidency.

Will Lula De Silva’s Return to Politics Stop the World’s Most Dangerous Man?

On 10 March 2021, many Brazilians felt a ray of hope when ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula De Silva’s corruption charges were quashed by a Supreme Court judge on the technicality that Lula was tried by a court which did not have jurisdiction. Brazil has been in turmoil since the COVID-19 outbreak due to the actions of a fascist dictator. The Lula judgment opens the way for him to challenge President Jair Bolsonaro. With a divided Workers Party (Partido dos trabalhadores) it was difficult for someone to pose a real challenge to the incumbent President. 

Why is Jair Bolsonaro one of the world’s most dangerous men

On 1 January 2019, many political analysts in Brazil and around the world believed that the country would experience democratic backsliding under Bolsonaro. His Vice-President Hamilton Mourao had always flirted with fascism by praising Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, claiming the military coup prevented a communist takeover. Bolsonaro and Mourao had strong support from the evangelical community, especially the Pentecostal Church, which believed that Bolsonaro was the only person who could save them from the PT’s socially liberal policies. The common people had lost trust in the Worker’s Party due to their various corruption scandals. They wanted a change in leadership at the national level. Little did they know their actions would have dangerous consequences.

One of the crucial issues which Latin America is facing right now is the annihilation of the Amazon rainforest, one of the world’s greatest allies in combating climate change. Indeed, it covers 9 separate states in Latin America and its massive collection of flora absorbs 5% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Additionally, it is crucial in controlling greenhouse gas emissions across Latin America. Since 2019, the fires which rampaged through these rainforests have led to a worrying decrease in carbon absorption. This immense reduction of the forest could have disastrous consequences such as aggravating the global climate crisis. The long-term effects of these fires coupled with deforestation would also lead to social and economic instability across the whole region. 

In August 2020, Bolsonaro dismissed the Amazon fires as a “lie”. His persistent denials of the situation have prevented foreign governments and NGOs from finding a solution to the crisis. He claims that domestic and international environment advisors are violating Brazil’s sovereignty in their efforts to preserve the region. 

Investors are pledging to withdraw 2 trillion USD worth of economic aid from Brazil in response to the constant repression and denial of the Amazon crisis, which could result in a complete disaster. The destruction of the Amazon would imply a huge setback in tackling the global climate crisis. 

In addition, during the COVID-19 pandemic Bolsonaro’s denial of science and dismissiveness towards health experts has led Brazil down a dangerous path.  He discarded mask-wearing and lockdown restrictions, as it was more important for him to keep the economy going. But Brazil has one of the highest Covid death tolls in the world. During most of the pandemic Bolsonaro also rejected purchasing vaccinations, even claiming that he wouldn’t get one himself as “the Pfizer vaccine might turn people into crocodiles”. But his view on vaccines has taken a U turn with Lula’s return to politics. He now embraces the vaccines claiming that they are the weapon out of this crisis. This illustrates that Lula’s presence in the opposition has him threatened.

Can Lula save the country from anti-intellectualism?

Despite Lula being a strong opposition candidate in the upcoming elections, he still remains a polarizing figure in Brazil. The Brazilian evangelical community and the traditional conservatives are against the old-fashioned left wing of Brazil, and Lula also lacks favour among political centrists. The analogous situation would be Donald Trump facing off against Bernie Sanders in the US Presidential Election. 

Lula’s annulled conviction could still be challenged in another court as he has not been cleared of any wrongdoing yet. The key to his possible presidential run would be addressing the ongoing pandemic, making people trust in science and facts about the threat of this virus. He needs to move the people away from the alternate reality Bolsonaro created. With the rate infection still increasing in the country and Bolsonaro’s refusal to impose restrictions, this could be the wiggle room Lula needs to truly contend. He should also reach out to the Amazon indigenous communities who are struggling to survive with their homes burning in wildfires. 

Hence, preservation of the rainforests and getting the pandemic under control should be Brazil’s top priority. Only time will tell if Lula can be a messiah for the Brazilians who have suffered multiple crises over the past two years. Lula’s return to politics could be Bolsonaro’s Kryptonite. Lula undoubtedly will face many hurdles before next year’s election. If he chooses to serve the needs of the people over money and power, he stands an excellent chance of victory in 2022.

Policy Brief Issue 1: March 2021

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The Myth of the “Eco-Terrorist”

“Eco-terrorists  and animal rights extremists are one of the most serious domestic terrorism threats in the U.S. today”. These words are found in a 2008 FBI report on environmental extremism. Specifically, groups such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) were identified as the main culprits in a new kind of domestic terrorism: eco-terrorism. 

‘Eco-terrorism’ has been conceptualised as acts of violence carried out with the intent to disrupt or prevent activities considered harmful to the environment. The ALF, ELF and various small and loosely organised environmentalist groups were responsible for a string of arson attacks in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Today, the perceived threat from environmental extremists is once again occupying the minds of those in power. 

How is it that these so-called ‘terrorists’ came to be thought of as one of the most serious domestic threats in the US, given that to this day these groups have never killed anyone? Homeland security agencies in the US and Europe were immensely concerned with any potential threats after 9/11 and saw these arson attacks as the beginning of a broader and far deadlier eco-terrorism campaign. The term ‘green scare’ was coined by environmentalist groups to describe this hysteria over eco-warriors. The phrase was used to draw a parallel with the ‘red scare’ of the 1950s in which the threat of communist infiltration was radically exaggerated and led to mass arrests. During this green scare, dozens of ALF/ELF members were arrested, and millions of dollars were spent on surveillance and prosecution. Eventually, these ‘eco-terrorists’ faded from the headlines, the attacks on property decreased, and homeland security agencies turned their attention elsewhere. 

But there has been renewed focus on these ‘eco-terrorists’. In 2018 a new group grabbed the headlines in the UK for their use of disruptive and headline-grabbing protest tactics: Extinction Rebellion (XR). XR and Youth Strike for Climate protests sprang up across the country, demanding that the climate crisis be taken seriously by those in power. This rattled the UK government. In 2020, the British counter-terrorism police branded XR as “an extremist ideology”. For a short time official police counter-terrorism documents listed XR next to neo-Nazi organisations such as the National Front. Addressing a police conference in September 2020, Home Secretary Priti Patel claimed that “XR poses a threat to the UK’s way of life”. Such rhetoric is redolent of the language used to discuss groups such as al-Qaeda, Islamic State or George Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’. The British government is clearly interested in framing XR and other environmentalist organisations as ideological extremists with the capacity for violence. But is this accurate? Is there a genuine possibility that the new terrorist threat will be from eco-terrorism?

In reality, environmentalism has been mainstreamed. The Youth Strike for Climate are mostly children, and while XR’s tactics are disruptive the average XR activist is hardly radical in their approach to environmentalism. In fact, XR has expended considerable energy in “depoliticising” environmentalism, by rejecting ideology, and framing the climate crisis as something “beyond politics”

It’s true that recently there has been something of a ‘call to arms’ for environmentalists to escalate their tactics. In his recent book How to Blow up a Pipeline, Andreas Malm believes now is the time to do precisely what his book title implies; turn to violence – specifically the destruction of private property. However, scholars working on extremism broadly agree that causing bodily harm or murder is fundamentally at odds with the ethics of environmentalism and that we’re unlikely to see this change in approach. 

It’s impossible to know what the future holds for environmental activism. Perhaps the violent elements of the environmentalist movement will remain on the fringe. Perhaps as the climate crisis becomes more desperate, so too will the tactics of those seeking to defend the natural world. For now, the ‘eco-terrorist’ remains a myth which authorities around the world deliberately propagate to avoid responding systematically to the climate crisis.

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The Erbil Rocket Attack


On Monday 15 February 2021, the biggest attack in months occurred in the Kurdish region of Iraq. 14 rockets were fired against the US coalition base at Erbil airport, which was established to support Iraq in defeating ISIS. The rockets hit residential areas and damaged civilian properties. As a result, one foreign contractor for the US military was killed and at least 9 civilians were wounded.  

The Iraqi President Salih and Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi, the Kurdish President Barzani, as well as several Arab states, the EU and the US strongly condemned the attack, with the US accusing pro-Iranian militia forces of being behind it. The Iranian-backed Shia militia group “Saraya Awliya al Dam” claimed responsibility for the attack and did not hold back from threatening the US with possible retaliation.

Iran denied the “suspicious rumours” regarding its involvement and claimed that it has no intent to disrupt Iraq’s stability and security. The Islamic Republic used the usual narrative concerning the Iraqi people being involved as they do not want any US presence in their country. Despite Iran’s claims of innocence, these attacks mirrored those in 2019 and 2020, where it retaliated against the US on Iraqi military bases, launched rockets on Baghdad’s airport and the Green Zone near the US embassy, aiming to force all US troops out of the country and thus remain the sole hegemon on the ground. 

Shia cleric and militia leader Al-Sadr himself described the attack as an attempt to undermine people’s trust in the upcoming elections and to prevent Pope Francis’ planned visit to Iraq in March. The Kurds further saw the attack as a possible attempt to harm their relations with the US. It is also likely that the Iranian regime is playing the coercion card to make the US lift its sanctions and return faster to the nuclear deal. 

In the end, the attack has merely heightened the already unstable position of Iraq. On the one hand, armed militias have been dominating the country; on the other, ISIS, can now regain its foothold more easily. It is highly concerning that the reckless militias signalled their readiness to attack anywhere at any given time. Erbil used to be the safest place in Iraq, but that too has changed. The new US administration under President Biden now faces its first test on Iraq, which will be crucial in determining its priorities for the country and the Middle East in general. 

For now, the White House has planned to increase NATO troop numbers in Iraq and to cooperate with the Iraqi and Kurdish authorities in the investigation of the Erbil perpetrators, who shall be held accountable. The US government also stressed “its right to respond.” At the same time, a response could lead to further escalations, with Iraq caught in the middle of the tensions between Tehran and Washington.

It is time that both states find a common ground to resolve their disputes without continuing to put Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity at stake. And it is equally important that Iraq tackles its internal challenges to regain its strength and ensure a secure and stable nation for its people; free from regional intervention.

The US needs a National Introspection

On 6 January 2021, 800 people stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. So far, more than 135 people have been charged. Call it what you will – an insurrection, a riot, a terrorist attack, a failed coup or rather meekly, a protest – chants of ‘Stop the Steal’ from the pro-Trump mob (with clear linkages emerging among extremist groups such as the Proud Boys, Three Percenters and Oath Keepers) echo through live footage shared on Twitter of wrecked media equipment, FBI reports of pipe bombs, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent account of lasting trauma. Passing more anti-terrorism laws will do very little to engage with the realities of white supremacy – issues at the heart of the United States’ founding that urgently demand proper recognition, reparations and work towards reconciliation. 

These events have reignited calls among lawmakers for a more expansive means to address terrorism-related activities, including widening the targets of surveillance and creating a new category of crime, ‘domestic terrorism’. Signed declarations such as The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights outline major concern with such demands, fearful of more anti-terrorism legislation exacerbating existing frameworks rooted in bias, discrimination and a denial of fundamental rights such as due process. 

Highlighting the political and discriminatory choices within anti-terrorism programmes, Adama Bah shares her story of harassment as a Muslim post-9/11. Accused of being a potential suicide bomber in 2005, aged sixteen, “when I hear people say, ‘we need to expand the war on terror or create new laws’, it’s an insult to me because, for some reason, they found the laws to detain me and accuse me of terrorism”. Though released after six weeks in a juvenile centre, Adama was subject to a 10pm curfew, an ankle bracelet for three years, and put on a no-fly list in face of deportation to Guinea, where she had not lived since age two. Eventually granted asylum on grounds that she would face forcible circumcision if deported, Adama notes how “history shows that having anti-terrorism laws just affect people like myself”. 

4th April 2019. Sign outside the United Methodist Building, across from the Capitol – reads: ‘No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve God and White Supremacy’

Although calls such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s for a 9/11-like commission to examine the causes of the events on January 6th are a necessary start, the storming of the Capitol should not be treated as exceptional. Instead, these events reflecta storm brewing over the past four years and since the Civil War of 1861-65.

As columnist Fintan O’Toole puts it, the imagery of “rampaging savages desecrating the neo-Roman Capitol” serves a rather reassuring role in deflecting from the real issues at the heart of this debate. Unpacking the role of Trumpism in inciting the violent attack on the Capitol, O’Toole draws attention to its construction coinciding with the increasing contradictions faced by the Republican Party. Most poignantly, such imagery implies the deep-rooted racism of a few, while sustaining an illusion of a democratic, anti-racist majority. Whilst Trump may have brought together and helped brand a crowd of ‘great patriots’, this is nothing new. 

Expanding state powers in a supposed effort to combat white supremacy inherently strengthens the very institutions that continue to harm minorities. Moreover, an event-driven reaction feeds into the storming of the Capitol as an exceptional moment in US democracy. Such processes serve to obscure, distract and deny the systemic racism at play, alongside the tragic inevitability of the violence and hatred shown on January 6th being repeated on a wider scale soon enough. 

So what is an appropriate response? A national reckoning may seem intimidating and idealistic, yet much important work has already begun. It’s a matter of listening and engaging. All around Capitol Hill we are reminded of the realities on which the US was founded. The Capitol Building itself was constructed by enslaved African Americans. Further down the National Mall, The National Museum of African American History and Culture reminds us of the brutality endured by some and not others in the country’s founding. Drawing attention to the generational struggles that have come with a legacy of enslaved ancestors traded as property sheds powerful light on the multi-faceted traumas of African Americans over the past 400 years.

Neither do we have to look very far today to see how pain and violence persists among those structurally marginalised. The Colour of Coronavirus Project highlights, for example, how Indigenous Americans have suffered almost double the number of deaths of White Americans per 100,000. The US’s response to COVID-19 has exacerbated inequality among already vulnerable communities – what the Brookings Institution has referred to globally as the ‘Inequality Pandemic’. 

The events on January 6th are thus more a question of whether the US is ready to engage with the deep contradictions at the heart of claims to be ‘the world’s greatest democracy’. First and foremost this should start with holding Trump and a long list of Republican Party members of Congress to account for their role in inciting violence. But we need to go much further. There needs to be an interrogation of how the storming of the Capitol was ‘allowed’ to happen, with necessary recognition that white supremacy is systemic and endemic. With political will, this crisis of white supremacy – amplified by the events on January 6th – provides a vital opportunity for lawmakers to take an active role in prioritising education, dialogue and national introspection. 

Photo credits: from the author.