America’s Forever Wars
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The wars on drugs, terror, and culture hold us back from an era of renewal. Union ForwardRead More
America is a nation at war.
Generational change and the ascendance of new visionary leaders is a timeless hope.
In 2008, President Barack Obama extolled the idealism of young people as the core of his faith in the Union and its future. Today, many Americans long for a future that embraces the visionaries who have been cast out by the present system.
Gen Z Americans have a distinct perception of the war on terror having grown up hearing about it from those who watched the Twin Towers collapse.
They have a distinct perspective on the war on drugs, launched decades before their time. Perhaps most importantly, they have only known a culture at war with itself.
The generational reach of the wars on drugs and terror speaks to the inestimable human suffering and institutional damage they have caused.
The United States military has waged war against international terrorism for more than 20 years. Since 2001, the Pentagon and a select handful of private defense contractors have enjoyed flushes of funding to the tune of trillions of dollars.
The end of the war in Afghanistan was not followed by a reduction in military spending.
Instead, defense spending rose 5 percent in 2022 compared to the previous year. The U.S. ranks first in defense spending globally—$740 billion in 2022—while the next thirteen countries spent a combined total of $727 billion on their military budgets.
U.S. policy on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has awarded contracts to the same interests who advocated for long-term intervention in the Middle East. The veterans who served in the war on terror, meanwhile, struggle to see a government that cares for their welfare.
On the home front, 20 percent of the 1.9 million Americans who are behind bars are there for drug offenses.
The war on drugs lives on decades after it was launched by President Richard Nixon, keeping parents and siblings behind bars for the crime of possessing a small amount of drugs.
A handful of states continue to enforce the criminalization of cannabis, upending the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans each year.
In the 21st century, the movement to uphold cannabis prohibition is led by pharmaceutical companies and the private prison industry. The emerging marijuana industry is viewed by many pharmaceutical companies as a threat to their business, incentivizing them to keep the industry locked out of the market in the states they can.
Drawing a stark contrast with cannabis, prescription opioids led to the deaths of more than 13,000 Americans from overdoses in 2021. An intense focus on cannabis prohibition obscures the explosive threat of fentanyl, as well—which was responsible for 71,000 fatal overdoses in 2021—and reflects a broader misunderstanding of the reality of the drug problem in the U.S.
Finally, American society is captured by a culture war that pits one tribe against the other, eroding our shared national identity and leading our politicians to infer that our centuries-old experiment in self-government may have reached an impasse.
U.S. policy is increasingly representative of the interests of elite defense and pharmaceutical executives who have found it to be desirable that society remains factionalized and distracted from holding them accountable.
A culture dominated by combativeness, resentment, and suspicion has long been fueled by American media and our leaders.
Liberals and conservatives are encouraged to deplore one another while the people, regardless of their ideology, are losing representative power in government to elite interests.
American government has grown increasingly subservient to the interests of wealthy corporations at the expense of the people. Reforms which aim to expand the representative power of the people in government are imperative to repairing the institutional damage caused by hostile policy approaches which only reflect the interests of a select few.
Horizonless war on every front melts the principles that institutions were founded upon, and profit-driven news frightens Americans into seeing enemies everywhere they look.
While older generations remember the country before the rise of polarization, Gen Z Americans have grown up in an increasingly insecure, factionalized, and militarized environment.
To unlock an era of healing and renewal for our country, an end must come to these three battlegrounds.
The Forever Wars
The United States’ 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan was a chaotic end to a chaotic war.
In the weeks and months following September 11, 2001, Americans developed a nebulous sense of patriotism ad national unity behind a mission to root out terrorists that could execute another attack. U.S. leaders projected strength and resolve against the vague new threat facing the country.
It was clear that the individuals who were behind the attack and their supporters would be the target of U.S. military action. What would follow this cardinal goal was less clear. A mandate to root out terrorists that have the potential to strike the homeland can be interpreted in a great number of ways.
The question of what to do after an invasion has succeeded presents a whole new slate of questions.
From the start, the scope of the war as proposed by the Bush administration was more than a measured operation to catch Osama bin Laden.
In a televised address following the attacks, the president announced a global alliance dedicated to peace, by any means necessary:
“We will make no distinction between the terrorists and those that harbor them.
America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world. And we stand together to win the war against terrorism.”
The U.S. promised to go well beyond mere retaliation, ultimately pursuing a decades-long policy of eliminating terrorist groups that were deemed a threat to America’s interests in the Middle East.
After overthrowing the Taliban regime in just two months, the Bush administration gradually committed to a prolonged presence in the region and a series of wars that would spiral out of his and his successors’ control.
The Afghanistan War would be waged by three more presidents before its unwieldy end.
Years later, the Trump administration would approach America’s relationship with the Middle East from a more transactional perspective, with oil being the payment that the U.S. is due for our defense of the region against terrorism. As early as 2013, Donald Trump was lamenting that the U.S. had “left Iraq without the oil.”
America’s 21st-century presidents have shown a deference to the interests of the military akin to the behavior which President Dwight Eisenhower famously warned against in his 1961 farewell address:
“We can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.
We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
The mystifying danger of unpredictable terrorist threats fueled an incredible overreach by the military industrial complex in shaping U.S. policy since 2001. Accusations of being friendly to terrorist interests effectively quieted those who feared the implications of the military’s growing political power.
In 2003, the Bush administration infamously launched an invasion of Iraq under false pretenses. Nearly 500,000 Americans were deployed to bring an end to the regime of President Saddam Hussein.
The same year, a group called the Iraq Body Count (IBC) was founded by volunteers in the U.S. and the United Kingdom who “felt a responsibility to ensure that the human consequences of military intervention in Iraq were not neglected.”
The IBC has documented 288,000 total violent deaths as a result of the Iraq War, and estimates between 65 and 73 percent of those killed were civilians.
Congress’s constitutional authority to declare war was eroded by authorizations for military use that handed the president broad powers to unilaterally wage war against the ambiguous threat of terrorism.
According to research from New America, U.S. drone strikes in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen have killed between 7,130 and 9,953 people. An estimated 15 percent of those killed—between 1,040 and 1,504 people—were civilians.
Less than a month after formally ending U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, the Biden administration launched an airstrike in the country’s capital of Kabul that killed ten civilians, including seven children and one aid worker.
The end of the war did not mean the end of civilians being recklessly killed by drone strikes.
Brown University’s Costs of War Project has estimated the global war on terror’s price tag to be $8 trillion, with at least 900,000 dead including soldiers, civilians, journalists, and aid workers.
The institution’s research did not include indirect deaths caused by internal displacement and turmoil, though American University professor and Costs of War board member David Vine estimated the number of indirect deaths to be at least 3.1 million people.
America’s longest war sent trillions of dollars into the pockets of defense contractors, left potentially millions dead, and diverted public attention from domestic issues.
To add insult to injury, the Taliban swept back into power upon our departure as if we had never been there. As President Joe Biden’s withdrawal from the country unfolded, nearly two-thirds of Americans believed that the war had not been worth fighting.
The question is whether the armaments industry has usurped political power at the expense of the average American’s representative power in government.
The Founding Fathers warned their country against entangling itself in foreign affairs, and to focus rather on maintaining peaceful relationships based on free trade with other nations.
In his 1796 farewell address, President George Washington named foreign entanglements—alongside political parties becoming engines of institutional destruction—as a key threat to the domestic stability of future generations:
“The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.
Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?”
In his 1801 inaugural address, President Thomas Jefferson promised that a pillar of his administration would be a policy of “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
The world, and America’s role in it, have undoubtedly undergone tremendous change since our earliest presidents clashed over their visions for the republic.
The post-World War II surge of globalization and centuries of technological innovation have connected the world in a way that was inconceivable to the authors of the Constitution. The advent of globalization brought with it the emergence of international terrorist groups.
Not even Eisenhower in the 1960s would deny that a permanent armaments industry is imperative to U.S. security. The question is whether that industry has usurped political power at the expense of the average American’s representative power in government.
In 2021, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, The Boeing Company, and Raytheon Technologies received a combined $138 billion in federal defense contracts. Colorful interpretations of military objectives and an ever-expanding Pentagon budget raise serious questions as to whether the pursuit of national security has transformed into a more expansive operation.
The September 11 attacks presented the nation with the enigmatic challenge of rooting out terrorism that could conceivably strike the homeland again. Fear of another attack fueled rampant military spending, leaving the country thoroughly entangled in affairs that have diverted the attention of U.S. leaders from worsening domestic conditions.
The Founders distinguished between military and economic involvement in the world, positing the latter to be of greater concern.
In the 21st century, the U.S. would do itself a favor by reducing the scope of its military activities and the accompanying transfer of vast sums of money into the hands of private defense contractors.
Washington and Eisenhower both chose to end their time in office with just that recommendation.
The War on Drugs
In the early 1910s, a wave of prohibition swept the U.S. and prompted 29 states to criminalize cannabis.
Federal legislation followed in the 1930s which aimed to implement new taxes and regulations that would prohibit cannabis use in practice.
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 formalized this prohibition at the national level and classified marijuana as a Schedule I substance, which is defined as a drug with high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use.
In June 1971, President Richard Nixon declared drug use to be “public enemy number one” and increased federal funding to drug control agencies, thus beginning the official war on drugs.
This war on drugs evolved into a policy of mass incarceration as the Reagan administration ramped up its enforcement.
Today, the U.S. has an incarceration rate of 573 per 100,000 residents, the highest in the world. Drug offenses represent the leading cause of arrest, and 87 percent of drug law violations in 2020 were for personal possession.
The total number of incarcerated Americans has increased five fold since 1970. Rising prison populations as a direct result of the war on drugs pushed federal and state governments to lean into privatizing prisons.
Although less than 8 percent of incarcerated Americans—approximately 150,000—are held in private prisons, these institutions are among those leading the opposition to marijuana legalization.
Jeremy Burke, a senior reporter with Business Insider, chronicled the forces behind the anti-legalization movement to be pharmaceutical companies, prison suppliers that cater meals to facilities, and casino magnates.
Legalization is undesirable to the business models of each of these industries, and they are taking steps to prevent prohibition policies from collapsing nationwide.
Pharmaceutical companies and casino magnates view the sprouting marijuana industry as a risk to their profits. The pharmaceutical industry, specifically, fears that their own THC-based products will suffer in a more competitive market.
In 2016, Insys Therapeutics gave $500,000 to Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, a group that opposes legalization. The company reasoned in an SEC filing that legalization could “significantly limit the commercial success of any dronabinol product,” a THC-derived product which they had just launched themselves.
Three years later, Insys filed for bankruptcy after paying $225 million to settle criminal and civil cases brought by the Justice Department which alleged that the company had bribed doctors to get them to prescribe Subsys, a fentanyl-derived product.
Rather than protecting Americans from harm, prohibition seems to obscure the danger of drugs that, unlike cannabis, can be fatal.
As the country embraced tough-on-crime policies in the name of reducing the harms brought about by drug use, fatal overdoses indeed decreased throughout the 1980s. The following decade, however, saw that trend slowly reverse, and the turn of the century saw the numbers skyrocket for the first time.
Since 1999, fatal overdoses involving opioids (prescription opioids, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl) have increased more than eight fold. Staggeringly high rates of opioid prescriptions in the U.S. fueled a crisis of addiction and overdoses that are now manifesting in synthetic, untested opioids.
The prescription rate of opioids in the U.S. has fallen from its peak in the early 2010s, though fentanyl is responsible for the deaths of nearly five times more Americans today than opioids ever were. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl, specifically, has skyrocketed in recent years and was responsible for 66 percent of fatal overdoses in 2021.
A lack of regulation leaves Americans to rely on the word of a friend or a dealer that their product is not laced with other substances, including fentanyl. A system that incarcerates rather than rehabilitates is functioning just as one would expect it to.
The twin crises of mass incarceration and skyrocketing overdoses have caused immeasurable, irreparable pain to millions of American families.
The beginning of the war on drugs followed a turbulent decade in American politics. A number of infamous assassinations rocked the Union, including President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, and the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.
The Vietnam War and the civil rights movement forged a popular counterculture which was resoundingly anti-war, anti-establishment, and pro-drugs. The 1960s saw the civil and political liberties of black Americans expanded to a greater degree than the Union had ever achieved.
After President Nixon’s 1971 declaration of war on drugs, the influence of the war on American culture would continue to be amplified until the early 21st century.
The application of the war would prove to undermine many achievements of the civil rights movement in practice. The use of mass incarceration to enforce marijuana prohibition has been and remains targeted towards black Americans.
Across all 50 states, black Americans are 3.6 times more likely than white Americans to be arrested for marijuana possession despite similar usage rates of the drug.
Racial disparities vary by state, though the most extreme cases—Montana and Kentucky—arrest black citizens nearly 10 times as much as white citizens for marijuana-related offenses.
The lowest racial disparities, in Colorado and Alaska, still result in around 1.5 times more arrests for black citizens. Young black Americans are less likely to see a country righteously progressing towards justice than they are to see a country that has incarcerated their friends and family.
Early 20th-century Americans learned through experience the damaging effects that alcohol prohibition had in terms of public health and fueling the economic power of criminal groups and actors including Al Capone.
A century later, we are again coming to grips with a similar crisis to our society’s health and welfare.
The legalization of cannabis today will not make up for the incalculable harm that prohibition has caused, but the amount of healing that it could lead to cannot be understated.
The father who smoked a joint after work could live with his young children again. All those who have lived with a criminal record for the offense of getting high with their friends could see that erased. Many who are addicted to opioids could find cannabis to be a far less problematic pain reliever.
Fatal overdoses have snowballed in one of the war’s most acutely-felt legacies. Drug users and addicts for decades have been treated as criminals to be punished rather than parents, siblings, and friends who ultimately had their lives ruined more by the U.S. government than by drugs.
In 2017, the CDC reported that “more than 191 opioid prescriptions were dispensed to American patients,” and that “more than 11.5 million Americans reported misusing prescription opioids in the past year.”
Annual fatal opioid overdoses in the U.S. have remained steady between 11,000 and 15,000 since 2010, while cannabis has yet to cause an overdose death.
Fentanyl, on the other hand, represents the most potent threat of overdose. Causing fewer than 10,000 deaths per year until 2015, the drug was responsible for 71,000 overdose deaths in 2021. Since 2015, deaths caused by cocaine and methamphetamine have also risen nearly three-fold and six-fold, respectively.
Legalizing a safe alternative to these lethal substances and ending the criminalization of personal drug use are paramount to opening the door to national healing.
Seeing our fellow brothers and sisters fall victim to fatal overdoses casts a shadow over those individually affected and over our culture at-large.
President Joe Biden’s recent pardon of all federal convictions of marijuana possession extended to roughly 6,500 Americans, or 14 percent of all those in local, state, and federal jail for drug offenses. This is a deeply meaningful step for those six thousand people, but it does not address the underlying problems that caused them to wind up behind bars.
Similar to the rise of the military industrial complex, pharmaceutical companies have achieved political power at the expense of the American peoples’ representative power. Elite interests work to prevent or slow the process of healing from the war on drugs, all while promoting prescription opioids to the public that are unquestionably more dangerous.
Political reform as a response to the war must reflect the principle of expanding the representative power that the average American holds in government.
The glimmering hope of the 21st century, however, is the movement among U.S. states to charge ahead of the federal government and end prohibition.
In all, 19 states have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and an additional 18 have legalized the drug for medical use. 2 states have decriminalized it, while just 11 still criminalize its use.
In 2020, Oregon voted to become the first state in the Union to decriminalize possession of all ilicit drugs. Citizens of the western state will have services more readily available, and gone is the threat of criminal prosecution for personal drug use.
A number of U.S. cities have decriminalized naturally-produced psychedelics, or declared them to be at the bottom of law enforcement priorities.
Psychedelic use has seen a renaissance in the 21st century, and the latest research seems to suggest an enormous therapeutic potential related to addiction, existential distress, and depression.
A federal commitment to ending the war on drugs remains necessary to providing relief for the Americans living in prohibition states, including the nearly 30 million residents of Texas. However, it is the power of the states, not the federal government, that is forging a sea change in U.S. policy.
The legalization movement, which has now swept nearly half the country, has taken a powerful step towards ending this war.
Political reform as a response to the war must reflect the principle of expanding the representative power that the average American holds in government.
The Culture War
Republican and Democratic voters in 2022 each believe the other side to be immoral, dishonest, and closed-minded.
In their domination of the political realm, the two legacy parties have engineered a culture that pits their tribes against one another.
Private interests, including defense and pharmaceutical companies, benefit from a political environment that is beholden to partisanship. An intense focus on ‘culture war issues’ which divide the left and right distracts legislators and reporters from the core issues that fuel cultural resentment in the first place.
On its face, America looks to be a nation split into two tribes bent on achieving power at the expense of the other.
The pandemic exacerbated these partisan tensions by throwing the wrench of a novel virus into a deeply polarized media environment. Amid the chaos of 2020, the loudest voices were given free rein to dominate the national conversation.
Polarization that had already reached unprecedented levels exploded. Americans have become keenly aware of the precarious state of our system of government.
As the previous and former presidents dominate news cycles decrying threats to the republic, the popular narrative misses the most important element in the story.
Since the Great Recession of the late 2000s, a growing plurality of the American people have been independent of any political party. Today, that number is 43 percent, while both legacy parties struggle to reach 30 percent.
The narrative of a nation divided in two warring tribes misses the largest bloc of voters that don’t affiliate with either tribe. It fails to mention that the ruling parties each represent about a quarter of the public, making them minority parties.
America is not a nation split in two warring tribes. It is a nation led by two minority parties bent on ensuring the other does not win power.
Traditional media outlets and social media platforms benefit financially from controversial, outrage-driven content, shaping them into useful idiots for partisan actors.
In 2016, Donald Trump is estimated to have received nearly $6 billion worth of free media coverage by generating a stream of shocking headlines.
Since that election cycle, Americans’ trust in the media has trended downwards, particularly dropping off a cliff among Republicans. Deepening polarization fueled by the pandemic only cemented a growing sense that traditional media has diverged from the principles of honest, truthful journalism.
A media landscape that is warped by financial incentives is bound to produce warped journalism.
Reporting that honors the truth but casts a light on an issue that is inconvenient to the parent company’s sponsors is frowned upon. An incessant focus on partisan brawling prevents people from making earnest points about the unrepresentative nature of the modern U.S. government.
Americans today are offered reporting that seeks to emphasize and breathe life into a culture war being fought by two minority political factions.
A shift in our thinking about the culture war is thus key to ending it. The tribal combat that we all watch play out on cable news and social media is the work of one minority party desperately trying to grasp to majority power against another doing the same thing.
A majority of Americans do not believe their political opponents to be immoral; yet a majority of the players in the two minority ruling parties seem to.
The legacy parties locked out competition from the nearly half of Americans who don’t affiliate with them, and then gerrymandered states which they controlled to eliminate competition from the other tribe.
A key challenge in the country today is expanding representation.
A spiteful culture war has worked methodically to erode the principles of our institutions. Voting reforms including ranked-choice voting and non-partisan primaries look to be promising first steps towards renewing our commitment to representative government.
The Forward Party, launched in late 2021, is seeking to lead a coalition that is dedicated to the goal of expanding representation and expanding the number of parties in power.
Voting reform is the key to unlocking our system from two-party rule, according to the party’s leaders.
Since 2016, Alaska and Maine have passed ballot measures to implement ranked-choice voting, and Nevada voters will decide in a referendum this November whether to implement the reform.
Reforms that expand choice and competition in elections open the door for legacy party candidates to be challenged by the broad coalition of Americans who are not represented by them.
46 percent of Americans are not simply disinterested in politics. They are disillusioned by the legacy parties.
Ranked-choice voting can reduce the third party spoiler effect by allowing voters the option to rank an independent candidate first and major party candidate second, ensuring their vote will be heard no matter what.
Non-partisan primaries place all primary candidates, regardless of party, into the same election rather than holding one primary per party. The top four or five finishers advance to the general election, and they are reflective of the parties that the voters want to choose from.
Expanding representation for the American people demands that reform advocates tackle the various ways in which our society has been warped by special interests.
A voting system that incentivizes candidates who are loyal to their party before their country must be reformed or else challengers from outside the elitist system will be confined to playing a rigged game.
In November 2022, only 9 percent of elections to the U.S. House are expected to be highly competitive. An additional 19 percent are deemed somewhat competitive. That leaves 72 percent, almost three-quarters, of House elections non-competitive.
Candidates are no longer awarded in the general election for deal-making in office, because for the vast majority of officials, the only credible challenge to their seat comes during the party primary.
Modern U.S. representatives are beholden to the partisan and elite private interests which hold tremendous sway over the outcome of a given election.
Washington, D.C. has allowed special interests to shape U.S. policy to be more militant and cruel. The pharmaceutical industry spends its riches dominating both television advertising and political campaign contributions, while the military industrial complex similarly seeks to ensure that the unbounded wars will not end under Democratic or Republican leadership.
U.S. troops left Afghanistan, but our missiles kept launching.
Empowering the people to hold more sway over elections than the profiteers who rule the legacy parties is key to reviving our representative democracy. Ranked-choice voting and open primaries can help to unlock the electoral system for challengers outside of the major parties to compete.
Achieving the basic power to compete fairly is a key first step to challenging the entrenched rule of legacy parties.
Gen Z Americans have not witnessed their famed representative democracy at work.
They have watched two entrenched parties sit in power and accrue wealth, all while national conditions worsened and U.S. elections grew increasingly unstable.
Extending the promise of the American dream to Gen Z demands an end to the militarization and polarization which continue to dominate the 21st century.
The Constitution was written with the idea in mind that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” as expressed by either James Madison or Alexander Hamilton (the original author remains unknown) in Federalist Paper No. 51.
In the transient state of American politics in the 2020s, there exists a space for a coalition of the nearly half of voters who do not affiliate with either legacy party to end the two-party system.
The Forward Party is aspiring to build that coalition as the two ruling parties show no apparent indications of an intent to shore up the foundations of our representative democracy.
Voting reform is a compelling first step to releasing our government from the grips of partisanship. Transitioning to a system that requires multi-party coalitions to pass legislation would eliminate the power to pass legislation along party lines, excluding a landslide congressional majority.
America’s system of government was designed to be reformed and changed with changing times. It was designed to be responsive to the will of the people, not Washington elites who spend decades in power.
The Constitution made no mention of political parties, though the Founding Fathers feared that a two-party system posed a great risk of descending into partisanship that would erode the principles of liberty and representation.
The ruling parties have, malignantly or negligently, allowed partisanship to infect the halls of power.
Legacy party elites wage ideological war against one another while disregarding their core responsibilities to maintain peace and prosperity. Most Americans have no interest in reading tribalistic propaganda or congressional Twitter spats.
The American people are not at each others’ throats every day. Traditional media just spends every day highlighting the minority of us who are.
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