Event Recap | The Rohingya Crisis: Racism, Politics and a Fragile Transition

More than 650,000 Rohingya people have fled the Rakhine State of Myanmar across the border to Bangladesh since a security crackdown began in August 2017. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson referred to the actions of the Myanmar armed forces as ethnic cleansing. This is the fourth wave of forced migration of the Rohingya population since the country began its democratization process in 2011. Dr. Jacques Bertrand, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, discussed the roots of this crisis and what might happen next at the SMU Tower Center Jan. 10.

Roots of Racism

To understand the resentment and hatred the Burmese feel toward the Rohingya, Bertrand argues we first need to understand colonial Burma. The British Empire began to colonize Burma in 1824.

Rohingya Crisis

Dr. Jacques Bertrand gives a lecture at
the SMU Tower Center Jan. 10.

The Rakhine state was the first land to be annexed into the empire, and therefore experienced the highest levels of immigration of people from British India. These Indians became landowners and then continued to hire more Indians to work their land. The Burmese responded to the influx of Indian immigrants with a growing sense of nationalism and xenophobic sentiments.

Burma gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, and according to Bertrand, it was during this period that the Muslim Indian population in the Rakhine State identified themselves as Rohingya. The Rohingya enjoyed credibility in the democracy of the 1950s, but lost all their rights under the military regime of Ne Win in 1962. Ne Win attempted to remove all Indians from Burma in 1963-1964, claiming that they were foreigners and remnants of colonial rule. The Rohingya were then excluded from citizenship with the adoption of the 1982 citizenship law. By this law, residents had to prove they were living in Burma before colonial rule (1824) to gain citizenship. The law only recognized 135 ethnicities as national races, excluding several other minority groups from citizenship as well.

The first of the modern raids against the Rohingya was from 1991-1992, during which 200,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh. However, as stated earlier, there have been several waves of the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar since the democratization process began in 2011.

Understanding the Crisis

Bertrand laid out four key aspects that he felt are essential to understanding the Rohingya crisis.

1. Deep Historical Racism. The racism dates back to colonial Burma, as described above. Also important to note, Bertrand says, is the involvement of Buddhist monks with spreading these sentiments. Monks, who are highly revered in Myanmar, have demonstrated against the Rohingya and Muslims in general, helping to fuel the already-present xenophobic feelings in the Burmese people.

2. Myanmar and the Politics of Ethnicity. Sixty-five percent of the population are Burmese. To be Burmese means to be both Burman and Buddhist. Bertrand argues that the country’s biggest problem, at every step of its development, is its exclusion of the numerous ethnic minority groups the country is home to, and has been home to for centuries. They need to find a constitutional settlement with the groups, he argues. The 2008 Constitution maintains the 135 national races established in the 1982 citizenship law. Without a broader, more inclusive, sense of nationalism, the country will remain in conflict with the unrepresented groups.

3. Rakhine Nationalism. The Burmese government claims the Rohingya people are Bengali, not Rohingya. They entered Burma illegally under British rule. They can’t acknowledge Rohingya as an ethnicity because that would give them a legal status in the country and provide them with access to citizenship and other rights. Rakhine nationalism plays a role in the crisis because, even though the Rohingya were one third of the Rakhine population in 2015, the nationalist movement within the state continues to gain force and push the Rohingya further north. This has forced them away from the coast, and as a result has taken away fishing, which had become the group’s main mean of survival.

4. Aung San Suu Kyi and the armed forces. Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of a Nobel Peace Prize and leader of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy, was given the title State Counsellor in 2016. Although the position gave her control over the president’s office and several departments including the foreign ministry, she still has limited control of the military, which is accused of carrying out the ethnic cleansing. Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for not pushing back against the armed forces enough in the wake of the crisis.  However, Bertrand pointed out that she has a tight rope to walk between pushing for promised democratic reforms, and not pushing too hard, causing the military to take back full control of the country.

What could happen?

Bertrand ended his talk with two possible resolutions to the crisis, and the challenges that go along with both.

Repatriation. In the past, repatriation of the Rohingya back to Myanmar has resulted in returning to even fewer rights. In this case, the majority of the Rohingya villages have been burned down. They will likely return to no citizenship, will lose their property, will not be able to vote, and will have to withstand continued racism.

Resettlement. There is a policy vacuum in South East Asia, Bertrand said, because few countries have signed the Refugee Convention. This means there’s no regional framework for refugees, and that the Rohingya would not get any rights that come with a refugee status. Instead, they will continue to be viewed as illegal immigrants. As far as resettlement outside of Asia, Bertrand said that with the refugee crisis of the last few years it is hard to imagine Europe would be welcoming. And, with the immigration crackdown in the United States, he predicts very few will be able to resettle there either.

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Event Recap | Asia’s Nuclear Challenge: North Korea, China, & the Role of Extended Deterrence

North Korea has developed nuclear capabilities that the United States assumed was out of reach for the isolated country in such a short period of time. Its advancement has changed the dialogue of policy toward the country for both the United States and China. Ken Jimbo, associate professor at Keio University, visited the SMU Tower Center to discuss Asia’s nuclear challenge in the first event of the semester Jan. 8.

Why is North Korea so Persistent?

asia's nuclear challenge

Professor Ken Jimbo gives a presentation at the Tower Center,
“Asia’s Nuclear Challenge,” Jan. 8.

There are two pathways for North Korea to achieve its ultimate goal of regime stability: assured self-defense or economic development. Both China and Vietnam were able to jump-start their economies by opening them up, at the very least, to foreign direct investment.  Jimbo pointed to the internal struggle in North Korea between fundamentalists, like Supreme Leader Kim Jung-un, and internationalists, who argue for opening up the economy like Kim Jung-un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek.  Jang was ordered assassinated by Kim in 2014, and Jimbo argues that his internationalist beliefs could have been the reason for his death sentence.

Considering Kim’s violent animosity toward the internationalist mindset, economic development is therefore not an option to secure stability. North Korea then must be able to defend itself for the Kim family to stay in power. Kim Jung-un has determined that becoming a nuclear state and achieving complete deterrence is the only way to do this.

Failed Negotiations

Negotiations with North Korea peaked in 2005 after the Six-Party Talks led to a joint statement promising the United States would not use conventional or nuclear weapons against North Korea if they dismantled their nuclear program. But these negotiations collapsed in 2007. Jimbo argues that negotiations failed because of the trust gap between North Korea and the U.S. North Korea saw Saddam Hussein executed in 2006 even though he was not pursuing a nuclear weapons program like the United States’ intelligence had thought. It also later saw Muammar Gaddafi lose power and die in 2011 after agreeing to give up Libya’s nuclear weapons program.

These examples confirmed to North Korea’s regime that they must become a nuclear state before entering any negotiations, and that there’s nothing to gain strategically from giving up their nuclear weapons.

Jimbo argues their goal is to have three layers of deterrence:

  1. A capability to reach South Korea and the U.S. forces stationed there.
  2. Put Japan and Guam, and the U.S. forces there, in reach.
  3. Be able to reach the U.S. homeland.

Why is the third layer necessary? North Korea doesn’t believe the U.S. is committed to its alliance with South Korea and Japan. According to Jimbo, Kim Jung-un believes Korea and Japan will be abandoned in a crisis — although Jimbo clarified he thought the alliance is sound and that both South Korea and Japan would be defended as promised.

However, North Korea still has a lot of work today before fully satisfying its third layer of deterrence. (To see for yourself, test out its capabilities on NUKEMAP. The Sept. 3 test was estimated to be 250 kilotons.)

Trump Ends Strategy of Patience

The Obama administration adopted “strategic patience” as its policy toward North Korea, which President Trump slammed and loosely translated as “doing nothing.” Since taking office, Trump has made two big changes in policy toward North Korea. First, he is putting pressure on China to do more, and second, he announced that if diplomacy fails, all options, including military options, are on the table.

Jimbo has reservations about the effectiveness of Trump’s policies. Military intervention, while possible, would be extremely difficult and costly, especially when considering the U.S. allies that have everything at stake — South Korea and Japan. Furthermore, China’s pressure has its limits. China doesn’t want to push the regime too far and cause a crisis and subsequent flow of refugees from North Korea into China.

Remaining Policy Options

There are two remaining options for the United States and China to handle this challenge, according to Jimbo. The first, what China and Russia are pushing for, would be a double freeze. This would mean that North Korea stops developing its weapons program and the United States stops its military exercises in the South. However, as Jimbo pointed out, this option is unacceptable for the alliance.

The second option, and the better option, Jimbo argues, is long-term deterrence and containment. This option means entering negotiations with North Korea to end the arms race. North Korea’s goal of 100 percent deterrence is unattainable. No matter how many missiles it develops, the U.S. will improve its capabilities to counteract any advancements. It is essential for the U.S. to make North Korea understand this. North Korea could (possibly) achieve 50 percent deterrence through its nuclear program, but then the other 50 percent of security should come from negotiations with the United States.

Related reading from the blog: The North Korean Missile Crisis

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Experts: The ‘Trump Bump’ in the stock market is real. But it’s not helping Trump.

Tower Center Experts Harold Clarke and Marianne Stewart authored a post for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog with Paul Whiteley. The essay, “The ‘Trump Bump’ in the stock market is real. But it’s not helping Trump,” looks at data collected since Trump’s election to determine whether or not he really his the source of the stock market’s recent upward trend.

Read their analysis here.


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Center Spotlight | Idean Salehyan

Tower Center Associate Idean Salehyan has several research interests, all centered around domestic political conflict. The Tower Center sat down with him to talk with him about his latest projects and goals. Salehyan is Associate Professor of Political Science  at the University of North Texas and the co-Director of the Social Conflict Analysis Database project (SCAD).

What have you been working on most recently?

Center spotlight Idean Salehyan

Tower Center Associate Idean Salehyan
on a hike outside of Oslo, Norway.

Most recently I’ve been looking at protests and repression dynamics. I’m part of a project called the Social Conflict Analysis database. We look at Africa, North Africa, and parts of Latin America to understand when protests turn violent and when the government decides to step in and repress protesters, and so I have a couple of papers along those lines. One is focused on when and under what conditions governments repress nonviolent protesters. When is nonviolent protest met with lethal force? And another paper is looking at electoral protests and which elections are more likely to lead to mass protests and violent contestation of the outcome.

I’ve had this longstanding interest in forced migration and refugee studies, so I am also in the process of guest editing a special issue of the Journal of Peace Research on the global migration crisis focusing on Syria and the Middle East refugee crisis.

What have you found most interesting?

Interesting or depressing? What keeps me motivated is the actual people who are affected. This is not just an academic pursuit. A lot of us are interested in what we do because, even though we conduct research as good social scientists, we have a normative commitment to the people we’re focusing on. Unfortunately with refugee crises, there’s always the next one. When I was in graduate school it was Bosnia and Kosovo, now it’s Syria, then it’s Burma, and in the next year it will be something else. As long as there’s people who are forced to flee their homes because of persecution or violence, there will be a need for this research to hopefully impact policy in a positive way.

How do you cope with studying such heavy topics?

It’s easier for me than for the people I study. As a social scientist, you do this sort of objective research, I deal with mostly statistical analysis, so it does become a data-oriented process where you can look at statistics and write results, and so on, so I think it’s the opposite issue. For me, anyway, and for a lot of people who do work on conflict and civil war, it’s not how do you divorce yourself emotionally from the populations you study, but it’s how do you bring the humanity back?

What do you do to bring the humanity back in?

We have migrants and refugees all around the DFW area. If you go and talk to people, you can hear their stories. At same time, my parents were political refugees from Iran. That’s a personal “in” to the research. More generally I work with nonprofits and NGOs that are working on refugee resettlement. As academics we tend to be three steps removed from these conflicts, where as the NGOs and the nonprofits are dealing face-to-face with these people. So I try to keep an in with those organizations and talk to them whenever I can.

Is there an issue or topic you are most passionate about studying?

The refugee and forced migration issue because of my personal background. My parents were immigrants and they saw the Iranian revolution and the effect it had on our family. I have family in London now, and Germany, here. I have the most personal stake in that issue.

And then seeing stories of people fleeing Syria or the Rohingya refugee crisis — I don’t know what it’s like to lose my entire family, the town I grew up in, all my possessions and live in a refugee camp. Those stories hit especially hard. If I was to pick one thing it would be the refugee issue; I keep coming back to that. Even if I branch off to other things, I keep coming back to the refugee and forced migration issue.

What inspired you to become an academic?

It was actually someone that Jim Hollifield (Academic Director of the Tower Center) and I know really well; it was Wayne Cornelius. I was an undergraduate at the University of California at San Diego and I was studying political science. I thought I was going to go to law school like every other political science major. The more I studied law and learned what a legal career meant, I thought, “that’s kind of boring.”

Then I took Wayne Cornelius’ politics and immigration class. He had so much passion for the topic and he knew it so well, and I just knew right then that I wanted to pursue a master’s and potentially a PhD. So what I did between undergraduate and graduate school was I worked for Wayne Cornelius at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, to get my feet wet and see if this was what I want to do. I also did an undergraduate thesis on U.S. and Canadian refugee policy. Then I just had a passion for research — and for teaching too.

Is there an accomplishment or paper that you are most proud of?

I’m most proud of my PhD students who go out and get jobs. That’s an awesome feeling. I publish books, you get awards, that’s wonderful — you get a plaque and people applaud and that’s it. But when I see my graduate students who are now getting jobs, I have a lifelong relationship with them because they’re now colleagues. I see them at conferences and stuff and I’m like, “You were in my class.” So that’s a reward that keeps giving.

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TC Associate’s Book Wins Rosenberg Prize

Congratulations to Tower Center Associate Erin Hochman! Her latest book, “Imagining a Greater Germany” (Cornell University Press, 2016), won the Hans Rosenberg Book Prize. The award was presented by the Central European History Society for the best book published in 2016. Hochman is a historian of Modern Germany and Austria and is an associate professor at SMU.

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Event Recap | The Impact of the U.S. Leaving the Paris Agreement

US leaving Paris Agreement

Jonah Busch, Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development, gives a lecture at the SMU Tower Center Dec. 8.

Jonah Busch, Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development, gave a lecture at the SMU Tower Center on the impact of the U.S. leaving the Paris Climate Agreement Dec. 8.

The Paris Agreement is a universal global climate deal that allows each country to determine its own pledge to reduce carbon emissions, with the goal to limit climate change to below 2 degrees Celsius. The agreement, first established at the Paris climate conference in 2015 and ratified in 2016, is now signed by every country (except for the United States) and has been ratified by 170 countries. President Trump announced the United States withdrawl from the agreement in June.

Brief Background on Climate Change

Busch opened his talk with an introduction about science of climate change and its global impact. Perhaps most importantly, as the planet becomes warmer, natural disasters become more devastating. This means larger forest fires, bigger hurricanes, the sea level will continue to rise, and more.

Busch also presented graphs that illustrate the costs of climate change. They showed developing countries carry more than 75 percent of the costs, while developed countries, until recently, were responsible for a vast majority of emissions. He recognized that while the costs of global warming are increasingly dire, it’s a complicated problem because of all the comforts and benefits society has gained since harnessing fossil fuels for energy.

Effect of U.S. Leaving the Paris Agreement on the Agreement

Busch argued that the effect on the agreement itself would be negligible, since it is an international agreement that is moving forward without the United States.

Effect on the U.S. Government

The impact of leaving the agreement on the U.S. government is devastating, Busch says. The Trump administration has rolled back all of the protections President Obama issued through executive action, such as regulations on drilling and limitations on emission levels. The new leader of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, is skeptical of human contribution to climate change and the research behind it and is also rolling back regulations on polluters. Busch adds that Rick Perry, now Secretary of Energy, once vowed to abolish the department he now leads (though he’s since said he regrets saying that) adding to the direness of the situation.

Effect on Cities and States

Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement has had an energizing effect on local governments, according to Busch. With the inaction of the federal government, many state governors and city mayors have pledged to do their part to keep up with the Agreement and then some. More than 30 states have adopted renewable portfolio standard policies and California along with most of the North East has cap and trade policies. Cap and trade policies place a cap on the total amount of emissions businesses can have, allowing businesses that have reduced emissions to below the cap to sell their surplus to another business that isn’t able to meet the cap.

Effect on Other Countries

Leaving the agreement has led to two reactions from other countries. According to Busch, most other countries are still holding up their end. Some countries, such as China and India, are stepping up to fill the leadership vacuum with ambitious pledges going well past the expected minimum. Other countries, such as Turkey, have said that if the agreement isn’t a priority for the U.S., it’s not a priority for them. While countries haven’t left the agreement, Turkey for example, has stopped efforts to ratify it in its country.

Pessimism vs. Optimism

To conclude his talk, Busch laid out cases for both optimism and pessimism in regards to fixing climate change. He said there’s reason to be pessimistic because there’s not enough time to completely reduce the heating of the planet to less than 2 degrees Celsius. If Earth does warm by even this much (and it’s predicted to warm by 3.5 degrees) then humans will be in uncharted territory. While humans have survived on an Earth three to five degrees cooler, humans and their crops have never seen a planet two degrees warmer.

He said there was also reason to be optimistic because markets are changing. Natural gas is now cheaper than coal, and as renewable energy becomes more cost efficient, consumers and corporations will eventually follow the most cost-efficient path to renewables.

For further reading, check out Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken, or Busch’s latest book, Why Forests, Why Now?

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Scholar Spotlight | Getting Students Involved in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

The Tower Center interviewed HCM Tower Scholar Isabelle Gwozdz about her senior year practicum as an intern with the Embrey Human Rights Program and her involvement in establishing the SMU Chapter of the Student Alliance Against Human Trafficking. Gwozdz is majoring in political science with minors in history, French and English, and will graduate in May.

Tell us about your experience with the Embrey Human Rights Program.

It’s been pretty awesome. I’m not a human rights major or minor, but it’s something I’ve been interested in and so I thought it would be cool to have that experience for my practicum placement. I’ve been focusing on human trafficking because the Human Rights Symposium in September featured people from the Dallas area who had been trafficked. Because that was my first big event with the Program, I continued to focus on that issue for my practicum.

What are some of your responsibilities?

My efforts are focused on how to connect with the student body. Usually the only involvement the Human Rights Program sees is from students majoring or minoring in human rights, so it’s been hard for them to break into different groups.

We also founded the SMU Chapter of the McCain Institute’s initiative to end domestic human trafficking. They have chapters on college campuses nationwide. It’s been really exciting and also a lot of work to get off the ground.

What about that first event drew you into the issue of human trafficking?

I attended the survivors panel. They had four local women come speak about their experience with human trafficking and it was really interesting to hear them. One of the women, which is what really hit the issue home from me, was trafficked to college campuses. She was trafficked for fraternities, which is so terrible. That’s when I realized that this happens on campuses so it needs to be my focus: How to get the campus involved in anti-human trafficking. That was the “aha moment” for me.

What do you hope to accomplish with the SMU Student Alliance?

The goal is to create a lasting presence on campus. This semester we are trying to secure our status on campus and expand our membership.  Next semester we are going to start having events. We will have a Human Trafficking Week and we’re going to invite survivors to come back and talk specifically to the student body. We want to do an action like visit a women’s shelter or make blankets or something, and we also might screen a documentary. I’m excited because even though my placement is almost over, I’ll get to be a part of that next semester.

What was your favorite part of the Tower Scholars Program?

Scholar Spotlight Isabelle Gwozdz

HCM Tower Scholar Isabelle Gwozdz with Texas Rep. Kevin Brady.

I really enjoyed our trip to D.C. That’s when I feel like my cohort really bonded. Before I felt like we were class friends, but after that trip and this semester, even without a class, I see them more because we go out of our way to see each other. That trip was an incredible experience — and it was my first exposure to that world. We sat down with Congressmen Pete Sessions and John Ratcliffe, and then I ended up going back and interning on the Hill that summer. It inspired me to apply for internships.

We met with so many people and they were on all different sides of the policy. It was so cool to see how many people are involved in the policy-making world  and we didn’t just have one perspective, we got to have all of their perspectives, and we were actually there with them.

What do you hope to take with you from the program?

Already it’s taught me so much. It’s a general life skill to take what you learn in a classroom and actually apply it. The Tower Scholars Program has really taught me how to use everything we learn in the classroom and apply it in real life situations. Even if I don’t go into policy, that set of skills I can use in whatever field I go into.

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Jeff Engel weighs in on tax reform and Flynn’s guilty plea

Tower Center Senior Fellow Jeff Engel was interviewed on Fox 4 about what the future holds for the recently passed tax reform bill, and for the Trump administration dealing with the newest advancement in the Russian investigations: Flynn’s guilty plea.

“It’s not only about who doesn’t like a tax cut, it’s who really wants to keep talking about scandal when of course the American people want the country moving forward with legislation,” Engel said.

Watch the interview here.

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Event Recap | Explaining Russia’s Contradictory Policies Toward the U.S.

Russia's contradictory policies toward the U.S.

Kimberly Marten speaks at the Tower Center Nov. 28.

Russia proved it understands American politics through its successful election interference campaign in 2016. Russia also proved it has a sophisticated knowledge of U.S. public opinion through its carefully disguised, yet effective, social media posts that have both Facebook and Google scrambling for solutions to fake news. However, Russia has also made moves suggesting it’s clueless to American interests and motives. Kimberly Marten, director of the Program on U.S.-Russia Relations at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, visited the SMU Tower Center Nov. 28 to explain why Russia is so inconsistent. She has four theories.

To help understand the theories, Marten laid out Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two goals. To maintain power for as long as possible, and to go down in history for making Russia great again.

Theory one: Putin has psychological biases and makes all of the decisions.

Marten argues that Putin’s background in the KGB enforces his view of the U.S. as an adversary, and fuels his fear of internal revolt. As a judo black belt and hockey player his style of fighting is tactical rather than strategic. This means he wants immediate success and doesn’t necessarily consider the long view. In this theory, Putin’s spontaneity is what leads to some of Russia’s spot-on decisions, as well as to others, as Marten said, that appear utterly “bone-headed.”

Theory two: Nobody dares contradict Putin.

For this theory, Marten referenced Saddam Hussein’s leadership in Iraq leading up to the U.S. invasion in 2003. It is now clear that Hussein’s advisers warned him to give up the rouse of possessing weapons of mass destruction. They told him the U.S. would invade, but he refused to listen. She argues the same situation could now be true of Putin and his advisers. While Putin isn’t known to murder dissidents as Hussein was, he does have the ability to exclude them from the patron-client system he controls. This power could leader to a culture of non-dissent.

Theory three: There are internal rivalries in Putin’s network.

This theory suggests Putin is influenced by those in his inner circle. Groups such as those responsible for arms sales, like Rostec CEO Sergey Chemezov, stand to benefit from foreign conflict. Chemezov has financial interest in supplying weapons to Syria, Iran and Turkey. These arms deals have increased tensions between the U.S. and Russia. Conflict also gives the siloviki (high-ranking politicians who were KGB men or military officers) an expanded mission and keeps the Russian military distracted from domestic politics. However, on the other side, the finance and commerce sectors benefit from international cooperation. These conflicting interests result in a push-pull effect that could be causing Russia’s fluctuating actions.

Theory four: Russian intelligence officers have gone rogue.

There is a blurred line between Russia’s intelligence and politics, unlike in the United States. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, money was in short supply from the government. Russia’s intelligence merged with private commerce in order to make up the difference, and the merging never went away. This suggests, Russian intelligence officers could be working to please the highest bidder rather than serving the nation’s interest.

An upsetting conclusion

Marten left the audience with an upsetting conclusion: U.S. policies have no effect on Russia’s actions. She argued everything in Russia happens internally, behind closed doors, without consideration of research or expert analysis.

For further reading, take a look at Marten’s latest article in New Republic.

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TC Experts Discuss Viability of Austerity Politics in UK

Tower Center affiliates Harold D. Clarke and Marianne Stewart authored an article for the London School of Economics and Political Science blog about the viability of austerity-based politics in British general elections. They argue the rhetoric isn’t attractive to important young voters.

Read the article here.

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