The “Ground Game”

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Among the many ways the mass media devalue democratic politics is their habit of talking about a “ground game.” By describing grassroots organization as a top-down effort in manipulation, no different from the “air game” of TV commercials, this ugly phrase conceals the reality of what happened on Tuesday.

The Obama campaign in the swing states, in 2012 as in 2008, was a mass mobilization on a scale that American politics has not seen in a long time. I saw it in action in Danville, Virginia, an old mill town where I was sent as a volunteer for the last few days of the campaign.

A long summer of voter registration and an intense focus on personal contact with marginal voters paid off on Election Day. First-time voters, more than a few in their forties and fifties, flocked to the polls. Obama carried the city with 60.5 percent of the vote, 1.5 percent more than he received four years ago.

This outcome required an intense effort. Scores of local volunteers were on the streets, knocking on doors and talking to neighbors. The national campaign sent in organizers, of course, and rented an office, but the real work was done within the community. (Only on the last weekend were there a half-dozen volunteers from out of town.)

Voters and activists alike understood what the election was about. Marginal voters—many of them so little attuned to politics that they weren’t sure, the weekend before Election Day, which candidate for Senate was the Democrat—knew exactly what was meant by “the 1 percent.” Among white voters, the affluent went overwhelmingly for Romney; Obama supporters were mostly found lower down on the economic spectrum.

This politicization around class issues has immense potential for the future. It is hard to say how the forces stirred into action this year might express themselves next. It might be a continuation of the campaign organization—emails have already gone out to volunteers saying that the movement will continue—or something independent could emerge.

Either possibility depends on the president’s leadership. By running a class-based campaign like nothing this country has seen since at least 1948, he made himself the embodiment of the fight against plutocracy. If the fruitless search for compromise at almost any cost resumes, a moment of opportunity will pass. But if he uses his second term to fight for the values he was elected on, Barack Obama can be a transformative president in terms of class as well as race.

Benjamin Ross is author of The Polluters: The Making of Our Chemically Altered Environment. He is an environmental consultant in Washington and has been an expert for community groups in lawsuits over cleanup of chromium manufacturing sites.

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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.