Big Dollar, Little Democracy

Republic Lost:
How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It

by Lawrence Lessig
Twelve, 2011, 381 pp.

Money talks. It is also a conversation stopper. Almost any discussion among progressives of what is really needed to solve the nation’s multiple crises typically ends in despair when someone says, “But they will not accept that,” they being the corporate rich and powerful, what a Texas friend of mine used to call Big Dollar.

Wall Street will not accept re-regulation. Health insurance corporations will not accept a public option, much less single payer. Energy companies will not accept a serious effort to reduce global warming. And so it goes. With the exception of social movements about which Big Dollar is indifferent (same-sex marriage) or mildly supportive (liberalizing immigration), progressive politics is on the defensive.

Money corrupts politicians through many channels: the hint of a future job or lobbyist contract when you leave office, invitations to exclusive dinner parties where you can network with the rich, a hedge fund internship for your daughter, a stock market tip. But, as Lawrence Lessig points out in this important book, all of this depends on your remaining in power, so nothing matches the importance of raising enough money to get yourself reelected. And nothing makes you more responsive to a lobbyist than the knowledge that he or she speaks for a potentially large donor to your next campaign.

Nowhere is the enfeeblement of the liberal vision more striking than in the issue of money in politics itself. The January 2010 Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has set off a tsunami of “super PAC” election spending protected by a fig leaf rationale that it be formally independent of a candidate’s campaign.

The decision is a dagger at the throat of what is left of the Democratic Party’s function as the progressive alternative in our two-party system. Yet the party leadership’s response has been pathetic—a tepid and unsuccessful proposal by Senator Charles Schumer of New York, himself a huge beneficiary of Wall Street contributions, to require that super PACs disclose the identity of their contributors.

Lessig, who teaches at Harvard Law School, is justifiably alarmed that campaign spending is destroying democracy, and he has written a sharp and accessible brief for radical reform. Although he falls just short of a credible solution, he moves us far enough along so that we can take the final steps on our own.

Money has always been important in American elections. Among its many manifestations, vote-buying at the polls and in the Congress and state legislatures was common in the nineteenth century, and, in some places, well into the twentieth. The result was a government that openly and shamelessly sided with capital against labor, until Franklin Roosevelt’s election.

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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.