After the Election: Time to Stop Settling for the Lesser Evil

Click here to read the rest of our election symposium.

There was a lot less dancing in the streets this Election Day than in 2008, when the nation celebrated the election of the first African-American president. But progressives can nonetheless feel great relief at the re-election of Barack Obama.

A far-left charge against those of us who rallied to support the incumbent was that we were fearful and lacked imagination. I plead guilty. I was fearful of energized conservatives eager to have the country run by an asset-stripping vulture capitalist. I was fearful of the vast waves of SuperPAC money that flooded Pennsylvania, where I live, with ads crucifying anyone who would challenge the goodness of the coal industry.

Probably because of my lapsed subscription to the Weekly Standard, I received a robo-call last week from Dick Morris, urging me to donate money to his favorite cause: none other than the infamous group Citizens United. Conservatives, Morris’s recorded voice intimated, not only had a chance to oust Obama; they had an opportunity to “decimate the radical left.” At that point, I was concerned that we had become fearful too late.

At the same time, I do not have illusions about what the White House will deliver in the next four years. Those who refused to vote for Obama may have been wrong if they argued that “there is no difference” between the two main parties, but they are surely correct that the Democrats have pushed dangerously to the right and that the left is hitched to them at its peril.

I supported voting for Obama on the grounds that social movements are stronger when they can battle against tepid centrists in office than when forced into rear-guard battles against elected conservatives with a rabid desire to attack unions, curtail reproductive rights, and shred the social safety net. Taking on Democrats, we can be bolder, more imaginative, less reactive. Moreover, people are less tempted to think that changing politicians will be an adequate remedy.

Doug Henwood (who is perennially crotchety but often right, too) put it this way:

I would prefer that Obama win the election—not so much because he’d be so much better than Romney on policy but because he will disappoint so many of his loyalists that it would be good for radical politics. Instead of people bellyaching about McCain’s awfulness, as they would have had he won in 2008, we got Occupy.

The presidential election is the realm in which social movements have the least power. Yet there’s a reason why, every four years, we are drawn into not particularly productive debates about it. The established parties spend billions to promote the contest. The media treats debate between the two parties as the beginning and end of political exchange. And, most important, for large numbers of people throughout the country, choosing a favorite and casting a vote during a presidential election represents a peak of democratic involvement.

The challenge for progressives is to change that—to foster and highlight the long work of extending democracy into daily practice. This is where realists who voted to avert Republican rule and radicals who abstained should agree.

For my part, I’m glad at the election’s outcome, and also glad to move on. On Election Day, opting for the lesser evil was the right call. The rest of our days, we have common cause with those who refuse to settle for evil.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy. He can be reached via the website

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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.