An Election Won With Class

Soon after Barack Obama won a second term with surprising ease, Pulitzer-Prize-winning artist Clay Bennett depicted a wealthy, white-haired man staring grimly at his television screen while around and behind him four servants, white and black, go about their jobs with big smiles on their faces.

For many Americans on the left, the outcome of the 2012 election brought more relief than satisfaction. They had supported and some had campaigned for Barack Obama and other Democrats because they were horrified by the prospect of a nation ruled and ruined by Mitt Romney and his GOP. But a president whom four years ago they had hoped would begin a new era of far-reaching reform now seemed just another lesser evil, albeit one who had managed to thrash a right-wing coalition whose economic ideology harked back to the glory days of Calvin Coolidge.

Bennett’s cartoon, however, suggests that something more significant had occurred. Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for re-election in 1936 and 1940 had a Democrat campaigned so explicitly in defense of the interests and values of the hardworking majority against the amoral designs of the rich and corporate few.

His ads blamed Romney for making big profits by laying off wage-earners, while the president gave speeches attacking “you’re-on-your-own” economics and the years of inequality that have resulted from it. Democratic candidates for the Senate in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Massachusetts who echoed these arguments—and added a strong pro-union message—won their races against well-funded opponents as well.

Of course, other big issues also helped Obama succeed and his party boost its majority in the Senate. Each of those Senate candidates strongly backed reproductive rights and marriage equality. Still, a clear-eyed resentment of class privilege yoked to right-wing causes played an essential part in their victories.

How can American leftists, in their fractious yet feisty state, build on this rhetorical triumph? By doing whatever we can to force the Democrats to convert their rhetoric into policies. The Occupy movement may have declined, but, as Todd Gitlin argues in this issue, it should inspire “a persistent, independent movement capable of winning tangible…reforms that change lives and encourage newcomers to join.” The list of winnable acts could include a truly progressive tax system, establishing the right to join a union as a civil right, and securing affordable health coverage for all who live in the country, whether or not they are citizens. The 2012 election demonstrated that a party cannot win if it is viewed as the defender of the 1 percent. Now, we have a chance to draw on that wisdom to nudge the United States toward becoming a more egalitarian society.

-Michael Kazin


Want to read our Spring issue for free? Sign up for our newsletter by March 31 to receive a full PDF when the issue launches.


The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.