Is America Ready for Democracy?

Is this country ready for democratic elections? That’s a question we often ask about countries emerging from despotic rule or civil war. But it’s a good general question; it invites political introspection and collective self-criticism. With regard to our own country, there are reasons to worry.

First reason: the extent of inequality in American society. We have very old egalitarian commitments, but “under bad government,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in his Social Contract, “equality is only apparent and illusory; it serves only to keep the pauper in his poverty and the rich man in the position he has usurped.” Republican government would work, Rousseau thought, “only when all have something and none too much.” But that is not our condition in 2012, after three or four decades when government, if not always “bad,” has never been good enough. Historically, democratic political movements have been the work of “rising” social classes with rising expectations (like the famous French bourgeoisie of 1789). The grinding poverty of too many Americans today and the looming threat of impoverishment faced by too many others produce low expectations and political passivity, making democratic engagement very difficult.

Second reason: the power of the people with “too much” has been greatly augmented by recent Supreme Court decisions that allow our richest citizens to invest vast amounts of money in the candidates, parties, and causes they favor. The result is something very like an oligarchy—defined by Ernest Barker in his edition of Aristotle’s Politics as “a government of the wealthy…a plutocracy.” Aristotle regarded oligarchy as a perverted constitution, narrowly directed to the class interest of the rich. We aren’t there yet; countervailing class interests can still find expression in American political life. But the tendency toward oligarchy is certainly stronger than it has been at any point in the last seventy-five years. And the opposing forces, which have to count on numbers since they cannot count on riches, are harder and harder to mobilize—for reason number one.

Third reason: the collapse of the willingness to compromise that has always been critical to the success of democratic government. There are probably many explanations for this collapse, but the explanation with the greatest reach is simply the growing confidence, arrogance even, of the defenders of inequality and oligarchy. They believe they are winning and see no need for compromise. And that view, which may be strategically correct, undercuts the ongoing negotiation between Right and Left, between conservatives and liberals, that democracy requires.

When this issue of Dissent appears, the presidential and congressional elections, the great democratic festival, will be only weeks away. I don’t think that we are ready.

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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.