Obama’s Incomplete Liberalism

Contrary to what everyone who loved—or hated—his inaugural address seems to think, President Obama has yet to demonstrate that he is determined to launch a new liberal era.

The big speech did gesture in that direction. Obama declared, in the style of FDR, that “our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” The line about equality being “the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” was a welcome salute to three of the most prominent civil rights movements in American history. And not since Lyndon Johnson has a president spoken about poverty with such apparent conviction and specificity: “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

But to believe that Obama has truly revived the great tradition of egalitarian reform is to neglect the distinction between two species of modern liberalism: that which promotes the equality of rights and that which works toward a greater equality of opportunity and wealth. The latter, the social variety, emerged from the class tumult of the Gilded Age and inspired such key New Deal measures as Social Security, the WPA, and the National Labor Relations Act. The former harks back to the abolitionists and early feminists; it demands that the promise of individual liberty be extended to every American, regardless of their skin color, national origin, gender, or whom they happen to love.

Most contemporary liberals support both types. But since the 1950s, they have devoted more time and passion to fighting for individual rights—and American society has gradually warmed up to the idea as well. Liberal politicians, spurred by mass movements, did away with legal segregation and immigration quotas created by “Nordic” supremacists back in the 1920s, abolished the barrier between male occupations and female ones, won access for disabled Americans, and are moving ever closer to legalizing same-sex marriage. The scrapping of overt job discrimination did help boost the fortunes of non-whites and women of all races, of course.

Yet the goal of economic equity for the majority of working Americans now seems farther away than at any time since the Great Depression. Anyone who follows the news knows the basics: beginning in the late 1970s, productivity has shot far ahead of wages, the lion’s share of wealth growth has gone to the 1 percent while the wealth of the bottom 60 percent has declined, the real value of the minimum wage is lower than it was during the Carter administration, and the percentage of union members in the private sector is roughly where it was when William McKinley was president. The real unemployment rate is well above 10 percent, while the poverty rate is 16 percent, the highest it has been since LBJ declared a “war” on poverty almost half-a-century ago. Only federal entitlement programs keep it from rising much further.

What does Obama intend to say or do about these festering failures of politics and policy? Very little, it seems.

In his inaugural speech, Obama wisely observed that “individual freedoms ultimately require collective action.” But in touting his second-term agenda, he has so far said little about what sort of collective action he has in mind. It’s striking how seldom he mentions labor unions, the only collective institution through which workers can act on their own to improve their lot. Conspicuously missing from that trio of freedom movement locations evoked in the inaugural was a reference to any one of the union triumphs that enabled millions of Americans, many without a high-school degree, to develop “the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.” Perhaps Obama just decided that “San Francisco” (as in the 1934 general strike) or “Flint” (as in the 1936 sit-down strike that established the United Auto Workers) would disrupt the polished cadence of his address. But nor has he made any protest against the attempt by conservatives, in the courts and Congress, to stop the National Labor Relations Board from functioning at all.

What the president did say about helping the poor was beautiful. But he seems to have no plan to fulfill the hope he raised for an initiative, however modest, that could lift “that little girl” and millions of children like her out of poverty. Absent a hike in the minimum wage, or a jobs program for the long-term unemployed, or funding for failing public school systems, Obama’s rhetoric will soon be just a faint, sour memory. Right now, the best opportunity for the impoverished girl cited by Obama to emerge from the ranks of the poor would be to join the military when she turns seventeen. It’s not quite what LBJ meant by a “war on poverty.”

I realize the political barriers to enacting any measures to reduce economic inequality are high. Nearly every Republican in Congress would vote against both a hike in the minimum wage and a new stimulus bill that aimed to create jobs for some of the unemployed. The current GOP views the protection of union rights, once hailed by such GOP leaders as Richard Nixon and George Romney, as akin to “class warfare.” Since the collapse of the Occupy movement, there is no viable, visible grassroots movement to advocate the cause of “the 99 percent.”

But Obama and the Democrats are championing other issues that will be no easier to win. The farther we get from the date of the Newtown massacre, the harder it will be to pass a sweeping ban on assault weapons. The president devoted eight solid sentences to climate change in his inaugural address. But if a carbon tax gets a vote in either house of Congress while Obama’s in the White House, it will be a major achievement.

Last week, in TNR, Alan Brinkley observed, “for many years, liberals ignored economic and social inequality—certain that their efforts would fail. As in the nineteenth century, the twenty-first century has produced the greatest inequality in the history of our nation. That is why Obama’s speech sent many people talking about liberalism again—happily for many, outraged for others.” I am glad liberals are now confident enough to reclaim their good name. But we shouldn’t be happy until they embrace and act on the full meaning of their creed.

Cross-posted from the New Republic.

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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.