Geopolitics

The reflection of political conflict and concord on world and regional maps

Problems Faced by Countries Directly Rooted in Conquest Empires

Several recent GeoCurrents posts have remarked on Nepal’s relatively low social and economic indicators, especially when compared with other environmentally and culturally similar regions in the southern Himalayas. Explaining why this is the case, however, has not been attempted. Nepal’s chaotic political environment and recent history of conflict no doubt play a major role. But could a deeper reason be lodged in the fact that the modern state of Nepal is directly rooted in the early-modern conquest empire of the Gorkhas? In such an empire, one group of people conquers and imposes its will on many other groups, creating profound resentment. Turning such a polity into a well-functioning nation-state, and especially a democratic one, can be a challenge.

To assess this thesis, it is useful to look at other modern countries similarly founded on relatively recent conquest empires. Although many countries could potentially be placed in such a category, I have limited it to eight states, including Nepal (see the map below). Each will be briefly examined here.

Ethiopia, in its currently geographical bounds, emerged in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the rapid conquests of the Kingdom of Abyssinia, or Ethiopian Empire, dominated by the Christian Amhara people. Although most of Africa was colonized by Europeans, quite a few of its peoples were subjugated by this indigenous empire. Not surprisingly, religiously and linguistically diverse Ethiopia continues to experience pronounced ethnic tensions, and has never successfully transitioned into a fully national state.

Saudi Arabia is a more recently created conquest state, emerging in the early 1900s. In 1902, the domain of the Saud family was limited to a small area near the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. Through a spectacular series of conquests over the next several decades, Ibn Saud had carved an extensive state that became known as Saudi Arabia. Although one could argue that Saudi Arabia was never an empire because its creation involved the conquest of other Arabic-speaking Muslim groups, the actual situation was more complicated. The austere Wahhabi sect that was, and still is, closely linked to the Saudi dynasty, was foreign to most of what is now Saudi Arabia. Especially to Twelver Shi’ites of the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia can still seem like an empire. But it is also true that generous social spending and rapid economic development have more generally transformed Saudi Arabia into a successful nation-state.

Afghanistan is directly rooted in the Durrani Empire, carved out by Ahmad Shah Durrani in the mid 1700s. A Pashtun project, the Durrani Empire forcefully brought many members of other ethnic groups, with different languages and cultures, under its rule. In the twentieth century, Afghanistan sought to transform itself into a national state in several different incarnations, with middling success. But Afghanistan’s continuing tensions and turmoil have some linkages with its imperial formation.

Modern Burma/Myanmar is firmly rooted in the Burmese Konbaung Empire and Dynasty (1752 to 1885). The first Konbaung ruler crushed the wealthy and sophisticated Kingdom of Pegu in southern Burma and subsequently almost wiped its Mon people off the map. Konbaung rulers went on the conquer the Shan states, Arakan, Manipur, and even Assam, severely threatening the British East India Company in Calcutta. Three Anglo-Burmese war followed, eventually reducing the entire empire to British imperial rule. But when Burma was reborn as an independent state in 1948, its leaders sought to reestablish ethnic Burman domination over non-Burman peoples, following Aung San’s pre-war slogan “our race, our language, our religion.” Ethnic rebellions immediately proliferated and continue to this day. Burma has never been able to turn itself into a solid nation state.

Iran has deeper and more complicated roots, but it was essentially formed by the Safavid Dynasty, which conquered the region that is now Iran, and more, in the early sixteenth century. The religiously driven Safavids turned Iran a Twelver Shi’ite country; today it is a Twelver Shi’ite theocracy. The Safavid state was a joint project of Turkic military power and Persian cultural and administrative capability, the combination of which continued to form the backbone of the Iranian state long after the Safavid Dynasty fell from power in 1736. Iran eventually turned itself into a relatively successful national state, but to its mostly Sunni Kurds and Balochs, and to many Iranian Arabs as well, it can still seem like a Persian empire.

Russian arguably became an empire in 1552, when Ivan IV (“the Terrible”) conquered the important Muslim state of Kazan, turning Russia into a multi-confessional, multilinguistic polity. Subsequent expansion brought many other non-Russian peoples under its imperial rule. Although the Bolsheviks rejected the very idea of empire, in many ways the Soviet Union that they created continued to function as an imperial state – as does Russia to this day. Ethnic conflicts, however, are not a major problem today. Crucial factors here include the fact that ethnic Russian form a solid majority (70 to 80 percent of the total population) and the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s political suppression.

China is the most complicated case. Its civilizational roots extend back for millennia, longer even than those of Iran. But the geographical expression of China today stems from the conquests of the Qing Dynasty and Empire in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Taiwan, viewed by Beijing today as an intrinsic part of its territorial domain, had never previously been under Chinese rule. The huge regions of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Manchuria all became firmly part of China owing to the power of the Qing. Ironically, the Qing were not themselves an ethnic Chinese but rather Manchus; their success in subjugating the vastly more numerous Han Chinese people resulted in their own demographic swamping and virtual disappearance as a people. Today, China forms a secure national state with relatively minor ethnic conflicts. Such stability stems from the demographic predominance of the Han people (92 percent of the population) and to the country’s rapid economic ascent. But to Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongols, and others, China can still feel like an imperial state.

Many other countries, including the United States, have some imperial roots and are treated as empires by some writers. But for the eight countries mapped above, imperial roots are pronounced. It is probably not coincidental that none of them has a successful history of democratic governance.

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The Amazing Linn Atlas Animates the Expansion of the Gorkha Empire, Showing the Political Fate of the Limbu People

When writing my recent posts on the expansion of the Gorkha Empire of Nepal, I was frustrated by the lack of maps on the topic. Although Wikipedia articles on such subjects are usually richly illustrated with maps, that is not the case regarding the history of Nepal. Other go-to cartographic resources also came up empty. Then I turned to YouTube and discovered the little-known but very impressive Linn Atlas. This historical map animation site focusses on Southeast Asia and environs, but goes as far afield as the expansion of the empire of Alexander the Great. Although one could criticize the Linn maps of South and Southeast Asia for portraying historical polities as neatly bounded unitary states, when they were usually somewhat spatially vague “mandalas,” with power dissipating with distance from the core, such an objection would miss the essential point: it is extremely difficult and often impossible to map such fluid political constructs. What the Linn Atlas does is done magnificently, with even microstates and their changing geographical expressions mapped at a level of detail that I would have thought unattainable.

I have extracted 2 frames from the Linn Atlas animation of the expansion of the Gorkha Empire to illustrate my point. The first shows the Gorkha polity when it was a tiny statelet, one of many ruled by the Khas people in what is now central Nepal. The second shows the situation when the expanding Gorkha Kingdom had completely surrounded the densely populated and pivotal Kathmandu Valley, then governed by three small Newar states. I have also used the Linn Nepal sequence to create my own map, which shows the expansion of the Gorkha Empire from 1743 to the time of its greatest territorial extent in 1814.

The initial frames of the Linn’s Nepal animation show the Limbuwan country as belonging to a kingdom called Vijayapur. (By 1771, however, this relatively sizable state is shown as having broken apart, its northern areas coming under the rule of an unspecified number of tiny Limbu kingdoms.) As “Vijayapur” is a Sanskrit term, one might assume that this state was ruled not by the Limbu people but rather by Hindus coming from outside the region. Professor Raja Ram Subedi, who taught at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, explained this complex situation in a brief undated article called “Historical Entity of Vijayapur State.

As Subedi noted, the Limbu and related Kirati peoples could defend their own tiny states: “The chieftains and people of Dasa Kirata were expert in archery, physical activities, military organization, building forts and agricultural works.” But they nonetheless came under the rule of a Hindu dynasty, the leaders of which were connected with the small state of Palpa located in what is now south-central Nepal. But as Subedi further explained, this did not entail the subjugation of the Limbu and other Kirati peoples:

Raja Vijaya Narayan Roy was an amicable as well as diplomatic ruler. He established cordial relations with the Kirata subjects…  . He made an alliance with Morey Hang, a chieftain of the Kirata, and appointed him as the minister (Dewan). With the help of the Kiratas, Vijaya Narayan Roy was able to repair the old fort of Bhatabhunge Gadhi and shifted his capital from Baratappa to that fort.

Subedi also noted that the Gorkha conquest did not initially change this situation:

After [the Gorkha ruler] King Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered Vijayapur, the separate entity of that state ended. But the privileges given to the Kirata chieftains tended to continue even after it was annexed to Nepal. Kiratas constituted majority in Vijayapur state. They set up local government. Only the sovereign power was vested in the center. Even after the unification of Nepal, local government tended to exist.

But as we saw in the previous post, local autonomy began to be whittled away in the mid nineteenth century and was eventually eliminated altogether, politically marginalizing the Limbu and other Kirati peoples.

Does Nepal’s historical origin as a conquest empire contribute to its modern political instability?  That will be the topic of the next GeoCurrents post.

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Nepal’s Paradoxes of Nationalism and Historical Development: Why the Nepali Language Is Not the Nepali Language and Gurkhas Are Not Gorkhas

The past several GeoCurrents posts have examined the Limbu and related Kirati peoples of eastern Nepal, asking why they are so little known, all but erased from the history of the region. The simple answer is what might be called the myth of the nation-state, which rests on the idea that the people of virtually all countries are firmly united by sentiments of national solidarity. Although Nepal today forms a reasonably coherent nation-state, achieving such unifying identity has been a prolonged and contentious process that has never reached full completion. It also entailed the conquest and political suppression of many formerly independent peoples. Not surprisingly, this process is downplayed if not denied in the national mythos of Nepal.

On the surface, Nepal has a reasonably high degree of common cultural grounding. More than 80 percent of its people are Hindu, with another nine percent following Buddhism. The national language, Nepali, is spoken across the country and serves as an effective common tongue, used in government, education, and the media. Nepali is the mother tongue of almost half the population, and that figure is growing.

But there is an interesting oddity concealed by the term “Nepali language.” The sixth most widely spoken language in the country is Nepal Bhasi, which literally means “Nepali language.” Yet this Sino-Tibetan Nepali language does not even belong to the same language family as the country’s Indo-European official Nepali language. Nepal Bhasi was the language of the original state(s) of Nepal; the names of both the country and its tongue were usurped by the Gorkha Kingdom (or Empire), which conquered and annexed Nepal in 1768. The modern country of Nepal, put simply, originated as a conquest empire, one that later sought to refashion itself as a modern nation-state. In so doing it has obscured the processes that brought it into being in the first place

The story of these extraordinary acts of cultural appropriation are not difficult to find, but they tend to be papered over. Consider, for example, the following passage, taken from the second paragraph of the Wikipedia article on Nepal:

The centrally located Kathmandu Valley is intertwined with the culture of Indo-Aryans and was the seat of the prosperous Newar Confederacy known as the Nepal Mandala. The Himalayan branch of the ancient Silk Road was dominated by the valley’s traders. The cosmopolitan region developed distinct traditional art and architecture. By the 18th century the Gorkha Kingdom achieved the unification of Nepal.

 

This passage is not incorrect, but it is misleading. The large, fertile, and strategically located Kathmandu Valley was the center of a smallish kingdom (or, at times, kingdoms) that had long been known as Nepal. Its dominant ethnic group, the Newar, spoke (and still speak) the Sino-Tibetan Nepali language, or Nepal Bhasa. The Newar were originally part of the Kirati group, which is now mostly confined to eastern Nepal. As a cosmopolitan trade-oriented people, the Newar welcomed other ethnic groups into their state and interacted with them extensively. Their language and culture were subsequently heavily influenced by Indic (Indo-Aryan) newcomers. Most of the Newar eventually converted to Hinduism (although about 10% follow Buddhism), and they adopted some elements of the caste system. To this day, the Newar “pride themselves as the true custodians of the religion, culture and civilisation of Nepal,” and they “consistently rank as the most economically and socially advanced community of Nepal.” But they lost their state and political independence in 1768, when they were conquered by the aggressive Gorkha Empire based to their west. The Gorkha spoke an Indo-Aryan language, and their kingdom was ruled and run by a Hindu military-administrative caste/ethnicity called the Khas, who had originated much earlier in the lowlands of India. Until the 1800s, they called their own Gorkha state Khas Desh (or Khas country). Later renamed the Chhetri, the Khas are Nepal’s largest group of people, forming 16.6 percent of the national population.

In 1743, under the leadership of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the Gorkha Kingdom began to conquer and annex its small neighboring states, thus effectively becoming an empire. After defeating the much wealthier and more sophisticated Newar states in 1768, Shah transferred his capital to the Kathmandu Valley and assumed its name – Nepal – for his expanding empire. (“Newar” and “Nepal” are actually variants of the same term, “Newar” being the colloquial form and “Nepal” the learned one.) Shah then went on to conquer dozens of other small states, first moving to the east to subdue the Kirati people, and then annexing many Himalayan statelets in the west. The empire that he founded later encompassed extensive lands in what are now the Indian states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

The language of the original Gorkha Kingdom was first called Khas Kura, after the ruling Khas caste, and was later referred to as the Gorkha language. In 1933 it was finally renamed “Nepali” by the state’s official publishing agency, which simultaneously changed its own name from “Gorkha Language Publishing Committee” to “Nepali Language Publishing Committee.” In 1951, the term “Gorkhali” (or Gorkha people) in the country’s national anthem was finally changed to “Nepali.” At this time, the appropriation of the term “Nepal” was complete.

It was not easy for the Gorkha Empire to defeat the Limbu people, who were well equipped to defend themselves. After a three-year war, a peace treaty was signed in 1774 that incorporated Limbuwan into the Gorkha Empire but allowed the Limbu people to retain extensive autonomy, thereby securing their loyalty. In the 1860s, however, new policies of cultural and linguistic suppression incited widespread Limbu rebellions against the state. In the early twentieth century, Limbu land rights came under attack. By the 1950s, the continuing erosion of local autonomy combined with assaults on traditional land tenure again incited insurgency. An ethnonationalist state agenda enacted under the slogan “one country, one king, one language, one culture” further angered the Limbu and other minority peoples.

 The expansion of the Gorkha Kingdom and the subsequent creation of the modern state of Nepal is generally portrayed positively as a process of national unification. One can make the case that it was a beneficial development that prevented the British East India company from gobbling up the many tiny states of the region. But the term “unification” might imply that it was a semi-natural process that brought together various peoples who already constituted a kind of nation in embryo. Seem from the perspective of the Limbu and other minority peoples, including the Newar, the creation of the modern nation-state of Nepal can be framed as less a process of unification than one of appropriation and (attempted) forced assimilation.

The expansionistic Gorkha Empire eventually come to blows with the British East India company. After the hard-fought Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-1816, the victorious British annexed roughly two-fifths of the Gorkha territory. (This annexation given rise to a rather feckless “Greater Nepal” movement that still hopes to reclaim these lost lands.) But unlike other defeated South Asian kingdoms that were transformed into dependent “Princely States” under the British Raj, Nepal essentially retained its independence. The British were so impressed by the fighting ability of the Gorkha soldiers, moreover, that they insisted on the right to recruit them for their own Indian army. These storied fighters, called Gurkhas, still play an important role in the militaries of the United Kingdom and several other countries; they also serve as U.N. peacekeepers. More than 200,000 Gurkhas fought for Britain in World War I. Some experts regard them as the world’s best soldiers.

But although the British continued to recruit Gurkhas, before long they were no longer actually Gorkhas. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, formerly called the Sepoy Mutiny, the British grew suspicious of high-caste Hindus, including the Khas who had formed the bedrock of the Gorkha army. According to the Wikipedia, military recruitment subsequently shifted to the Gurungs and Magars, indigenous Sino-Tibetan peoples who had been conquered by the Gorkhas. But the Encyclopedia Britannica (Fifteenth Edition) article on the Kirati Rai people tells a somewhat different story: “With the Limbu and Magar peoples, they supplied the bulk of the Gurkha contingent to the British Indian armies.”

 Nepal is a politically troubled country today, and its social-economic indicators lag well below those of other Himalayan polities, such as the independent country of Bhutan and the Indian states of Sikkim, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh. The historical processes outlined are a major factor in Nepal’s current plight.  

 

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Cannabis Legalization in the U.S. Elections of 2022

The 2022 midterm elections in the United States had mixed results for cannabis legalization. Voters in Maryland and Missouri approved legalization measures, easily in the first case and by a relatively narrow margin in the second (see the charts below). Missouri thus became the third solidly “red state” to allow cannabis consumption without a medical recommendation, following Alaska and Montana. Voters in Arkansas and South Dakota, however, rejected legalization, with a 56% “no” vote in the former state and a 55% “no” vote in the latter. The South Dakota vote took many by surprise, as just two years earlier a legalization referendum passed, which was later invalidated in court. South Dakota voters will again take on the issue in the fall of 2023, but indications for legalization are not positive. As reported by Benzinga.com, “a statewide poll conducted this summer revealed that South Dakotans’ general sentiment toward legalizing recreational marijuana has shifted over the past two years, signaling that a referendum on the issue this fall could fail.” At the federal level, meanwhile, congressional efforts to eliminate the de jure cannabis prohibition stalled out, yet again.

The failure of federal cannabis legalization, and in some states as well, seems to defy the general public will. Opinion polls conducted by a variety of organizations show overwhelming support. An October 2021 Gallup poll found that even 50% of Republicans favor full legalization, with Democrats and independents offering overwhelming approval (83% and 71%). Similar results have been obtained by other polling agencies. A 2022 CBS/YouGov poll found a 66% level of support for legalization at both the federal and state levels. According to this poll, Republicans overall narrowly oppose legalization (51% to 49%), but those below the age of 45 solidly support it (59%). A 2022 Pew survey found that only 10 percent of Americans think that cannabis should be illegal for all purposes. According to the same poll, Americans in every age bracket except that of the elderly (75+) favor full legalization.

Given these numbers, along with the fact that American voters are roughly evenly divided among Republicans, Democrats and independents, the persistence of federal anti-cannabis laws is difficult to explain. In this arena, seems that Congress is defying the public will. Quandaries also emerge at the state level. Even in deep blue Hawaii and Delaware, cannabis remains legal only for medical uses, and in several purplish states it remains fully illegal (Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Georgia). How can these results be squared with public opinion polls that shows overwhelming support for legalization?

A variety of factors are probably at play. Simple inertia probably plays a role, and as a result it seems likely that Hawaii and Delaware will opt for legalization before too long. More important, however, is the concerted opposition of anti-cannabis forces. A sizable minority of Americans is vehemently opposed, with many regarding marijuana as nothing less than the “devil’s weed.”* As is often the case, the desires a vehement minority can override the less passionate concerns of a substantial majority. It is significant that legalization has often occurred through popular referenda rather than through legislation, as legislators can be more easily swayed by interest groups than the voters at large.

But another factor may be involved as well. Legalization, it turns out, has often yielded discouraging or even disastrous results. With revenues much lower than expected, chaotic business environments, and a thriving black market, states like California demonstrate the potential hazards of a poorly formulated legal regime. As a result, some legislators, and many voters, may ultimately favor legalization, yet still reject whatever proposal is put before them, skeptical that it gets it right. These issues will be examined in much greater detail in later posts

*The term “devil’s weed” is used most often for Datura, or jimsonweed, which contains several powerful and poisonous psychoactive substances. For a religiously informed discussion of cannabis as the “devil’s weed,” see Marijuana – The Devil’s Weed?, by Dr. Joe Fawcett.

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The Precocious Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Tragic Love Story of Mem and Zin

In the massive scholarly literature on nationalism, a distinction is made between “modernist” and “primordialism” interpretations of the phenomenon. Scholars adhering to the former camp, who constitute the majority, generally argue that nationalism did not emerge until the late 18th century (with the French Revolution) or the early 19th century (with the rise of nationalistic romanticism). Some writers in the latter group, in contrast, argue that nationalistic sentiments can be dated as far back as ancient times, when they were supposedly found among such peoples as the Egyptians and the Israelites. (I have always found this debate somewhat sterile: some aspects of nationalism are indeed of long standing, but nationalism as a coherent discourse emerged more recently.) Almost all scholars agree that modern nationalism emerged in the West. Most trace its origin to Europe, although Benedict Anderson, arguably the most influential scholar on the topic, located its genesis primarily in Latin America. Despite the celebration that his work received, Anderson remained frustrated that other scholars tended to bypass his thesis on Latin America.

One particular form of nationalism, which we might call “state-seeking ethnonationalism,” is almost always traced to Central and Eastern Europe. In this formation, a stateless group of people with a common language and culture seeks to create its own country, either by uniting small states into a much larger ethnic union or by seceding from one or more multilingual empires to establish a new ethnonational state. In Europe, the Germans and Italians are commonly viewed as having pioneered this approach to nation-state formation. After Germany and Italy emerged as states circa 1870, and handful of ethnic groups located further to the east struggled for decades to create their own ethnonational countries. This process began to reach fruition after WW I, with the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires, and was finally completed (in Europe at least) after the Cold War, which saw the break-up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.

The national history of the Kurdish people, however, tells a different story, as ethnonational consciousness in some form seems to date back at least to the late 17th century. The Kurds at the time were divided between the multicultural Ottoman and Persian empires. Both empires were decentralized by modern standards, and several hereditary Kurdish statelets (emirates, or principalities) enjoyed considerable autonomy, especially in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But despite such local self-rule, the Kurds lacked anything like a state of their own, and some Kurdish intellectuals chafed under their subordination to the imperial rule of other peoples. As a result, an inchoate form of state-seeking Kurdish ethno-nationalism does seem to be traceable to the early modern period.

The key figure in early Kurdish nationalism was Ehmedê Xanî‎ (or Ahmad Khani), a poet, Sufi mystic, and intellectual, who lived from 1650 to 1707. His tragic love story, Mem and Zin (Mem û Zîn) is often regarded as the key work of classical Kurdish literature, and has even been deemed a “consecrated Kurdish national epic.” Based on a true story from the fifteenth century, Mem and Zin centers on two ill-fated lovers from rival clans, and thus bears superficial resemblance to Romeo and Juliet. The inability of the two protagonists to unite in life is usually interpreted as an allegory of the inability of the Kurds to unite and thus gain freedom from their imperial overlords.  One verse from Mem and Zin has been singled out as the quintessential statement of thwarted Kurdish national longings: If we had unity among ourselves, if we all, together, obeyed one another, the Turks, the Arabs, and the Persians would one and all be in our servitude.”

In an insightful analysis of the poem, Michiel Leezenberg argues that its nationalistic aspects were not enshrined and the Kurdish political imagination until the late 19th century, thus giving it a somewhat modernist gloss. Previously, Mem and Zin had been valued mostly for its expression of mystical love. But regardless of how the poem was interpreted in early periods, it does seem clear that Xanî himself was a devoted (proto?) nationalist. Considering the current division of Kurdistan among Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, as well as the lack of unity among the Kurdish people, Xanî‎’s vision seems more relevant today than ever.

In 1992, Mem and Zin was made into a motion picture in Turkey, although it had to be filmed in Turkish because the Kurdish language was at the time illegal in the country’s public’s sphere. In 2002, it finally came to the screen in the Kurdish (Kurmanji) language, filmed as a miniseries by Kurdistan TV (based in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan). According to director Nasir Hassan, it was “the most substantial and the most sophisticated artistic work ever done in Kurdistan, … using a crew of more than 1000 people and 250 actors.”

Despite Turkey’s concerns about Kurdish nationalism, it allowed and indeed supported the restoration of the mausoleum of the two historical lovers. According to one source, a staggering 1 trillion Turkish lira (650 million US dollars) was devoted to this Mem and Zin project. As reported by a local mayor who helped guide the restoration, “By restoring a historical piece that has become a ruin, we hope to contribute to tourism and pass it on to the next generations.”

The hope that the restored mausoleum would attract international as well as domestic tourists has apparently not been in vain. In August 2022, a Turkish newspaper reported with some excitement that a Chinese couple had recently paid their respects. The Chinese man, a Muslim convert named Nurettin Dong, has pledged to bring the story of Mem and Zin to China. As he put it, “I translated 2,500 couplets to Chinese. I am excited this will lead to greater recognition of this work.”

The mausoleum of Mem and Zin is located near the Turkish city of Cizre, just north of the Syrian border and not far from that of Iraq. A one-time center of Kurdish culture, as the capital of the autonomous emirate of Bohtan (see the second map below), Cizre has seen its share of tragedy. As summarized by the Wikipedia article on the city:

Under Ottoman control, Cizre stagnated and was left as a small district centre dominated by ruins by the end of the 19th century. The city’s decline continued, exacerbated by the state-orchestrated destruction of its Christian population in the Armenian and Assyrian genocides in 1915, and exodus of its Jewish population to Israel in 1951. It began to recover in the second half of the 20th century through urban redevelopment, and its population saw a massive increase as a place of refuge from 1984 onwards as many fled the Kurdish-Turkish conflict. At the close of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century, Cizre has emerged as a battleground between Kurdish militants and the Turkish state, which inflicted significant devastation on the city to retain control.

If Kurdish nationalism can be said to date back to the 17th century, the Kurdish nation itself –stateless though it still is – may have far deeper roots. We will look at this intriguing primordialist interpretation in the next GeoCurrents post

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Grim News from Kurdistan

Recent news from Kurdistan – often regarded as forming the world’s largest “nation without a state” – has been bleak. Protesting Iranian Kurds have been under attack from their own government, as have many other Iranians. Iran has also launched assaults on the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, which it accuses of harboring Iranian Kurdish insurgents in the rugged borderlands between the two countries. The Turkish government has been attacking its own Kurdish insurgents in the same mountains. These strikes are not precisely targeted and have killed a number of civilians. Turkey (Türkiye, officially) has also been launching attacks against Kurdish forces in the Kurdish-led autonomous region of Rojava in northeastern Syria, and has been indicating for some time that an outright invasion might be forthcoming.

The situation in Rojava is becoming precarious. Rojava, an autonomous region that is nominally part of Syria, is a unique experiment in political organization. It first emerged in 2012, just after the “Arab Spring” uprisings, and gained control over substantial territories a few years later as its militias drove out the forces of ISIS (ISIL/Daesh), with help from the U.S. military. Although largely Kurdish-led, Rojava is an explicitly multi-cultural and multi-linguistic polity, with Kurmanji Kurdish, Arabic, Syriac, Turkish, and Adyghe (or West Circassian) all serving in an official capacity in all or part of the region. Rojava is highly decentralized, divided into seven semi-autonomous regions, or cantons. Its governance is based of what might be called “bottom-up libertarian socialism.” As the Wikipedia article on the region notes in one breathless sentence:

The supporters of the region’s administration state that it is an officially secular polity with direct democratic ambitions based on an anarchist, feminist, and libertarian socialist ideology promoting decentralization, gender equity, equality, environmental sustainability, social ecology and pluralistic tolerance for religious cultural and political diversity, and that these values are mirrored in its constitution, society, and politics, stating it to be a model for a federalize Syria  as a whole, rather than outright independence.

This unparalleled political system is based on the ideas of Murray Bookchin, an American environmental writer and political theorist who died in 2006. Bookchin’s theories were adopted and reinterpreted in the early 2000s by Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant organization of Kurds in Turkey, officially classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU, and the United States.) During the Cold War, Öcalan and his followers adhered to Marxism-Leninism and sought to create an independent Kurdish state. After abandoning authoritarian leftism, Öcalan turned instead to the equally left-wing but decidedly libertarian vision of Bookchin, melding it with several reformulated traditional Kurdish socio-cultural practices. At the same time, the PKK abandoned its goal of outright independence, seeking instead mere Kurdish political autonomy. Many experts think that it has also rejected the tactics of terrorism, and hence no longer deserves the “terrorist” designation.

Whether Rojava’s idealistic system of governance can work in practice is an open question. I was certainly skeptical when I first learned of its existence. But the leaders of Rojava have been employing it for a decade, and evidently with some success. To be sure, they have been subjected to harsh criticism, with some writers claiming that they have authoritarian tendencies of their own and favor Kurds over members of other ethnic groups. The “Libertarian Communist” website libcom.org goes so far as to condemn Rojava as a fraudulent revolutionary organization that has allied itself with the Syrian Assad regime, Russia, and the United States – viscously attacking it, in effect, for doing what has been necessary for its own survival. Overall, what I find remarkable is how little actual reporting has been done on this intriguing political experiment. Considering Rojava’s de facto alliance with the United States, the possibility of an ISIS resurgence in the region, and the existential threat to region’s autonomy posed by the Turkish military, one might expect Western journalists to be keenly interested in what is happening there. But this is not the case. The world at large seems oddly unconcerned about Rojava and its travails.

Rojava’s leaders are worried that their regional autonomy and security might be sacrificed by the United States in the interest of maintaining its own alliance with Turkey, a fellow NATO member. As they point out, Rojava already lost a large strip of land after the Trump Administration acquiesced to the Turkish military occupation of part of northeastern Syria in 2019. A weakened Rojava was also forced into a power-sharing arrangement with the official Syrian regime over most of its northern lands (see the map below). This could hardly have been an easy compromise: in earlier years, Syria’s Assad regime had denied citizenship to many if not most of the country’s Kurdish residents, based on its ideology of Arab nationalism and supremacy.

Although the United States has condemned recent Turkish incursions into Rojava, many residents of the region feel betrayed by the U.S. and the West more generally. As Nadine Maenza recently tweeted, “Turkey is targeting the very people that destroyed the ISIS caliphate, losing 11,000 lives so the United States did not have to put boots on the ground.” This sense of betrayal is a common motif in Kurdish historical thought – and for good reason. As early as 1919, U.S. diplomats offered some support for Kurdistan, including a proposal for an autonomous and eventually independent Kurdish state in what is now southeastern Turkey (see the map below), but they have never followed through. Since 1991, the Kurds of Iraq have generally upheld American political interests in the region, sacrificing many lives in the process. Although a few U.S. politicians, including New York Senator Chuck Schumer, have offered some support for Kurdish independence, the State Department remains deeply hostile to the idea, and the U.S. government more generally prioritizes its alliance with Turkey.

One of the biggest problems confronting Kurdish political aspirations has been their own lack of unity. Although the Kurds of northern Iraq have their own autonomous region that verges on independence, it remains geographically divided along the lines of political party, clan leadership, and dialect/language. In the mid 1990s, the Talabani-led, Sorani Kurdish-speaking Patriotic Union of Kurdistan fought a civil war against the Barzani-led, Kurmanji Kurdish-speaking Kurdish Democratic Party (see the maps below). Although this division was soon patched up, with U.S. help, the two sub-regions of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish polity often find themselves at loggerheads. In 2017, the Kurdish peshmerga military had to retreat from Kirkuk, a city commonly deemed the “Kurdish Jerusalem,” and allow the Baghdad government to regain control. This humiliating withdrawal reportedly occurred after the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan covertly pulled out from the operation, reportedly in connivance with Iran. In the process, the Iranian position in Iraq was strengthened, harming U.S. interests. As the Institute for the Study of War reported at the time,

The Iraqi Government and Iran likely signaled their intent to use military force to compel the Peshmerga withdrawals in those provinces, if necessary. The Kurdish retreat is a win for both the central Iraqi government and Iran, whose proxies have seized new key terrain and consolidated control over previously contested cities. Iran has downplayed the role of its proxies in order to legitimize them as instruments of the Iraqi state. Western media coverage and statements from US officials have assisted Iran with this deception by denying the role of Iran’s proxies in Kirkuk.

The deeper problems in Iraqi Kurdistan these days seem to stem more from political corruption and mismanagement than from internal conflict. A hard-hitting article from Kurdistan Source focuses on the recent surge of migrants out of Iraqi Kurdistan, blaming it largely on misgovernance. As the author writes

The new model [of governance] is premised on high taxation, aggressive privatisation, authoritarian governance, and eliminating nearly all social welfare. Since 2019, while household income and industrial output have stagnated, the government has increased taxes and service bills by 400% to over 1000%. This has led to nearly 70% of the region’s factories closing within just two years. While on paper, the new model is supposed to encourage private-sector driven growth, in reality, most entrepreneurs and private enterprises are driven out of business by the creation of hurdles. The majority of businesses I have talked to believe the government wants to drive them out of business to help certain companies monopolise each sector. These potential monopolies are often owned by members of the two ruling families* or people close to them.

The Kurdish tragedy will be explored in more detail in coming posts.

 

* Meaning the Barzani and Talabani clans.

Grim News from Kurdistan Read More »

Political Orientation and Attitudes Towards NATO (& NATO-Enlargement Map Sequence)

I recently gave a lecture on issues surrounding NATO in my Stanford University adult education class (Continuing Studies Program) on the history and geography of current global events. In preparing the lecture, I came across an interesting poll conducted by the Pew Research Center on attitudes towards NATO in different member states. This study found that in Europe those on the political right have a more favorable view of NATO than those on the political left. This divergence is especially notable in Greece, Spain, and Sweden, but less so in the United Kingdom. Contrastingly, in Canada and especially the U.S., support for NATO is associated with the political left. As can be seen in the chart posted below, American conservatives generally have a favorable view of NATO, but not nearly to the same extent as those on the left.

These findings are interesting but not necessarily surprising. The political left in Europe tends to be suspicious of the United States, and the U.S. is NATO’s dominant military power. On the other side of the Atlantic, American conservatives have been steadily abandoning their support for international military engagement and defense arrangements. To some extent, this change represents a return to the traditional Republican suspicion of foreign entanglements that was dominant before the Cold War.

But if Democrats and Republicans hold markedly different views on NATO, the U.S. public as a whole shows evidence of moving in the same direction regarding American foreign policy more generally. According to a recent Morning Consult poll, Democrats and Republicans alike decreasingly favor the deployment of American troops overseas and are increasingly suspicious of U.S. involvement in military conflicts abroad. The same poll found similar tendencies regarding fundamental issues of economic globalization. Apparently, Democrats and Republicans alike increasingly favored tariffs on foreign goods and barriers to foreign investment. Such convergence is evident in the policy realm. Despite their many deep political differences, the Biden and Trump administrations both pursued protectionist policies during their periods in power. It will be interesting to see if these trends continue and if they will play a significant role in the 2024 election.

Part of my lecture on NATO examined the creation and expansion of the organization. I was frustrated in my search for maps that could clearly portray the organization’s enlargement. As a result, I created my own map sequence, beginning before the creation of NATO and ending with a peek into the possible future of the organization. These maps are available here in PDF format.

NATO Creation and Enlargement Map Sequence

This winter I will be teaching again in Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program, offering a foundational political geography class entitled “The World Political Map.” It will be given remotely through Zoom and can be taken by anyone willing to pay the rather hefty fee. The description of the class can be found here.

 

Political Orientation and Attitudes Towards NATO (& NATO-Enlargement Map Sequence) Read More »

Opposing Views on the U.S. Suburban Electoral Shift, and the New York/Philadelphia Paradox

The changing political orientation of the American suburbs has emerged as a major topic in recent electoral analysis. As a 2019 New York Times headline asked, “Are the Suburbs Turning Democratic?: The Political Dividing Line in America Used to Be Between Democratic Cities And Republican Suburbs; Now It Runs Through the Center of the Suburbs Themselves.” As this article correctly notes, since 2016 inner suburbs have generally moved in a Democratic direction, whereas outer suburbs have remained in the Republican camp. Just this week, the New York Times ran another headline proclaiming, “Democrats Retained Their Grip on Diversifying Suburbs: Modest Gains by GOP Can’t Reverse a Trend That Started In 2018.” Although the article contains some insightful analysis and is accompanied by two revealing maps (posted below), the implications of the headline are frankly bizarre. It implies that the authors can predict the future of electoral geography in the United States based on their analysis of recent trends. Such trends, as we all know, can pivot quickly. As recently as 2010, Newsweek ran a headline reading, “Dems Lose Grip on Crucial Suburbs,” with the article noting that, “When Long Island flipped from red to blue in recent years, Republicans looked unlikely to ever win another statewide election.”  Long Island, however, has flipped back and forth several times since this article was published.

The most recent New York Times headline, with the crucial word “diversifying,” might also be read as an implication that ethnic and racial diversification will determine the outcomes of future elections in American suburbs. This “demography is political destiny” thesis implicitly rests on the earlier works of Democratic analyst Ruy Teixeira, particularly his co-written 2004 book The Emerging Democratic Majority. Teixeira, however, has largely repudiated these ideas, based on his detailed demographic analyses of recent elections. He shows that minority voters, particularly Hispanic ones, have been drifting away from the Democratic Party, and he argues that this shift will likely continue unless the Democrats alter some of their positions, particularly on social and cultural matters. A recent article by Teixeira interprets suburban voting trends quite differently than the New York Times does. As he writes:

And just how much hold do the Democrats have on suburban voters anyway? In the AP/NORC VoteCast survey, the most reliable election survey available, Democrats carried suburban voters nationwide by a single point in 2022. That’s a slippage of 9 points from the Democrats’ 10 point margin in 2020. Interestingly, the slippage in Democratic support from 2020 to 2022 was actually larger among nonwhite than white suburban voters. These data indicate strongly that Democrats might not be in quite the catbird seat they think they are with suburban voters and therefore with the 2024 election. But they appear to have a touching faith that the anti-MAGA playbook will work anytime anywhere.

As both Teixeira and the New York Times writers fully understand, the American suburbs are by no means electorally uniform. One major discrepancy, highlighted by the Times, is that between New York and Philadelphia. In the 2022 election, the modest red shift in the Philadelphia suburbs was not enough to make up for a more substantial blue shift in previous elections. In the New York suburbs, on the other hand, “the four point shift towards the Democrats in 2020 was more than undone by the five point swing toward the Republicans in 2022.”

The 2022 shift toward the Republicans in the New York metropolitan area occurred in both suburban and urban districts. In the the 2022 New York State Assembly election (second map posted below), the shift in the Republican direction was been more pronounced in the outer boroughs of the city than in the Long Island suburbs.

The New York Times attributes the Republican gains in the New York suburbs to two main factors: “governor Kathy Hochul proved a weak Democratic standard bearer … while Republicans mounted a visceral campaign assaulting Democrats over crime.” While rising crime was no doubt an important issue in the New York election, one must ask why it was not equally important in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. Violent crime, after all, has risen more in Philadelphia than in most other major cities. Why then would Republicans be able to capitalize on this issue in New York but not in Philadelphia? Perhaps one factor is the more prominent role of the tabloid press in the former area (particularly the New York Post), which reports extensively on crime. Comments from readers who have more knowledge of these two metropolitan areas would be highly welcome.

Opposing Views on the U.S. Suburban Electoral Shift, and the New York/Philadelphia Paradox Read More »

The Vermont Paradox: A Left-Wing State with a Remarkably Popular Republican Governor

Historically, Vermont was one of the most Republican-voting states in the union. In 1936 it was one of only two states (along with Maine) to favor Alf Landon over Franklin D. Roosevelt, and did so decisively. But since 1988, Vermont has voted for Democratic presidential candidates. It is now by some measures the country’s most left-wing state. In 2020, Vermont gave a higher percentage of its votes to Joe Biden than any other state. Its democratic-socialist senator, Bernie Sanders, won his most recent election easily, gaining the support of 67.4 percent of Vermont voters. In the state’s 2022 U.S. Senate election, Democrat Peter Welsh overwhelmed Republican Gerald Malloy, who took only 27.6 percent of the vote. But these were all national elections; at the state level, a different picture emerges. Vermont not only has a Republican governor, Phil Scott, but an extraordinarily popular one at that. In 2022, Scott enjoyed a landslide election, taking 69.2% of the vote. Of all the sitting governors in the United States, only Mark Gordon of Wyoming received a higher percentage of the vote in the most recent gubernatorial election (see the map below).

Vermont is not the only state with different political environments at the national and state levels. If one compares maps of gubernatorial and presidential elections, the general correlation is relatively close – but the exceptions are significant. As of early 2023, three “red” states will have Democratic governors (Kentucky, Kansas, and Louisiana), and three “blue” states will have Republican governors (Virginia, New Hampshire, and Vermont). Currently, deep blue Maryland and Massachusetts also have Republican governors, although in 2022 both states elected Democratic replacements. Of these seemingly incongruous states, Vermont is by far the most aberrant. It is extreme on both scores, being the most Democratic-voting state in recent national elections and the second most Republican-voting state in the most recent gubernatorial elections.

Like other recent Republican governors in New England, Scott occupies a left-center position on social and cultural issues and a center to center-right position on economic issues. According to his own self-description, “I and very much a fiscal conservative. But not unlike most Republicans in the northeast, I’m probably more on the left of center from a social standpoint. I am a pro-choice Republican.” Scott’s fiscal conservatism is probably key to his success. Vermont is a high-tax state, and evidently many of its residents want to hold the line on further taxation and expenditure.

Scott’s landslide 2022 victory was also related to the unpopularity of his Democratic opponent, Brenda Siegel. Siegel took only 23.4 percent of the vote, losing every county in the state (independents and write-ins took 5 percent of the vote). Siegel is a noted progressive activist, who focused her campaign on homelessness, the housing crisis, the opioid epidemic, drug-law reform, and climate change. As noted by VTDigger,

[Siegal] gained the most attention last fall when she slept on the Statehouse steps for 27 nights to pressure leaders to extend the state’s motel voucher program for Vermonters without permanent housing. The goal, she said, was to serve as a constant reminder to lawmakers about the realities of living outside, confronting them on their walks to work and pressuring them to act. After nearly a month of sleeping on the cold stone steps, she and fellow activists prevailed when the program was extended through the winter.

 

One might have expected Siegel’s political positions and steadfast determination to prove popular in a state as left-wing as Vermont. Electoral returns, however, indicate otherwise. Although the Democrats’ progressive wing has substantial clout within the party, it is regarded with suspicion by moderate Democrats and is rejected outright by most independents. As a result, progressive candidates often have a difficult time winning elections. But if Vermont Republicans had nominated a Trumpian populist, Siegel’s probably would have prevailed. Vermont Republicans, however, incline away from right-wing populism. In 2016, Donald Trump won the Vermont Republican primary, but did so with only 32% of the vote. John Kasich, a center-right if not centrist candidate, came close to winning, taking 30% of the vote.

In several deep blue states, most notably California, Republicans currently have little if any chance of prevailing in a gubernatorial contest. If they were to nominate a moderate candidate, success could be possible. But the Republican base in most parts of the country disdains center-right candidates as “RINOs,” or “Republicans in name only.” In California, where Donald Trump took 75 percent of the vote in the 2016 primary, Republicans are unlikely to nominate a candidate who has a serious chance of winning.

The United States has not only undergone pronounced political polarization in recent decades, but it has also entered an era of what might be called “negative politics.” In this environment, both parties are unpopular with the public at large, and many voters opt not for the party or candidate that they like the best, but rather the one they dislike – or even hate – the least. This unstable dynamic will be explored in a later post.

 

The Vermont Paradox: A Left-Wing State with a Remarkably Popular Republican Governor Read More »

The 2022 Republican Losses in Pennsylvania and Michigan

By the 1990s, Pennsylvania and Michigan had become solidly Democratic states in national elections, forming key blocks in the so-called Blue Wall stretching across the northeastern quadrant of the country. In 2016, however, both states swung to Republican Donald Trump, albeit by very narrow margins. In the 2022 two midterm election, both states returned to the blue camp, with Democratic candidates outperforming expectations. In all likelihood, Michigan and Pennsylvania will be critical states in the 2024 President presidential election.

In Pennsylvania’s election, several Republican candidates severely stumbled. In the gubernatorial contest, Doug Mastriano took only 42% of the vote. Mastriano’s defeat was expected, as he was widely regarded as an extremist candidate associated with the fringe Christian nationalist movement. The U.S. Senate election in Pennsylvania, in contrast, was expected to be close. Many Republicans were optimistic about the prospects of their candidate, Mehmet Oz. Oz had won a close Republican primary in which the endorsement of radio broadcaster Sean Hannity may have been decisive. But in the end, Oz received only 46.5% of the vote. Many Pennsylvanians were evidently skeptical about Doctor Oz. Beyond political issues, objections focused on his dual Turkish citizenship, his career as a television doctor who dabbled in pseudoscience, and the fact that he had only recently moved to Pennsylvania.

In the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives, the Republican Party also performed poorly, losing 12 seats and control of the body. Comparing the 2022 election map to that of 2016, the biggest difference is the massive loss of support for Republicans in the affluent southeastern corner of the state, located in the Philadelphia metropolitan region. The Democrats also gained a seat in the Pennsylvania State Senate, although they did not win control. In the 2022 U.S. House of Representatives election in Pennsylvania, the Republicans lost a seat while the Democrats held steady (the state dropped a seat in redistricting). Yet in terms of the popular U.S. House vote, the Republicans triumphed, taking 52.6% of the vote. This result show that Pennsylvania is still a purple state, one in which Republicans can win if they put forward the right candidates.

Pennsylvania is deeply divided by electoral geography. The eastern part of the state, particularly the Philadelphia metropolitan area, is now firmly in the blue category, as is the Pittsburgh metropolitan area in the west. Contrastingly, central Pennsylvania, often disparagingly referred to as “Pennsatucky,” is in general a socially conservative area that leans in a strikingly populist direction. In the 2016 Republican presidential primary election, Donald Trump won Pennsylvania handily, with 58% of the vote. Not surprisingly, Pennsylvania Republicans were able to nominate a number of Trumpian populists who were not competitive in the 2022 election.

Trump was not nearly as popular in Michigan in the 2016 Republican primary election as he was in Pennsylvania, taking only 37% of the state’s vote. But Michigan Republicans nominated several very conservative candidates in 2022. They had high hopes for their gubernatorial choice, Tudor Dixon, widely regarded as a charismatic candidate. Dixon’s opponent, incumbent Gretchen Whitmer, was viewed by many as vulnerable, partly because of her rather draconian COVID policies. In the end, however, Whitmer triumphed handily, taking 54.9% of the vote. She won in several  counties in the Lower Peninsula that have often supported Republican candidates (compare the 2022 and 2014 maps). Abortion may have been a crucial factor in this election. Tudor Dixon was noted for her strong pro-life stance, opposing abortion even in cases of incest and rape. In the same election, Michiganders gave 56.6 percent of their vote to a referendum “Creat[ing] a Constitutional Right to Reproductive Freedom.” The Republicans Party also lost a Michigan seat in the US House of Representatives, as well as the state’s popular House vote, albeit by a narrow margin. Michigan Democrats took control of both chambers of the state legislature, gaining four seats in the senate and three in the house.

Although Donald Trump is still polling ahead of other possible Republican contenders for the presidency in 2024 and is therefore the apparently front-runner, the 2022 elections in Michigan and Pennsylvania indicate that he would difficulty winning these crucial states. Although several right-populist pundits and politicians, including Ohio Senator-elect J.D. Vance, have warned against blaming Trump for the disappointing Republican tallies in 2022, the Michigan and Pennsylvania results point in a different direction.

The 2022 Republican Losses in Pennsylvania and Michigan Read More »

Mixed Election Returns in Arizona: The Trump Effect?

One of the main take-home messages of the 2022 U.S. election is that individual states matter a great deal. The Republicans gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives largely because they did well in New York, a distinctly blue state, and in Florida, a formerly purple state that is now firmly in the red category. The Democrats, on the other hand, performed well in Pennsylvania and Michigan, both in national and state contests. Other states showed less pronounced movement in either direction. Arizona, in contrast, came in with highly mixed results, offering disappointment for Democrats and Republicans alike.

Arizona was once one of the most reliably Republican states in the union. It was the only state outside of the Deep South to support Barry Goldwater, a native son, in the pivotal 1964 election. Although it voted for Bill Clinton in 1996, it did not opt again for a Democratic presidential candidate until 2020. In that year, Arizona had the country’s closest electoral margin, with Biden receiving 49.36% of the vote and Trump 49.06%. Arizona can now be considered a deep-purple swing state. It also has a reputation for supporting maverick candidates, whether Democrat or Republican. In the recent part, Republican Senator John McCain often irritated other members of his party, as does Democratic SenatorKyrsten Sinema currently.

In Arizona’s 2020 gubernatorial election, Republicans had high hopes for their candidate, Kari Lake. Lake, a former television newscaster, is very comfortable in front of the camera and was widely regarded by Republican pundits as an ideal and charismatic candidate – a “MAGA star” according to some. In contrast, her Democratic opponent, Katie Hobbs, refused to debate and did relatively little campaigning as the polls tightened and the election approached. In the end, Hobbs eked out a narrow victory, which Lake has been reluctant to accept. In the Arizona U.S. Senate contest, Democratic candidate Mark Kelly more handily defeated his Republican opponent, Blake Masters, winning by roughly 5 percentage points. In these high-profile contests, the Democrats were clearly victorious.

But in the 2022 U.S. House of Representative elections in Arizona, a different picture emerges. Going into the contest the Democrats held five Arizona House seats and the Republicans four. After the votes were tallied, the Republicans ended up with six seats, the Democrats three.

The Republicans’ success in the Arizona House races, in contrast to their failure in the gubernatorial and senate elections, seems to be linked to the nature of the individual candidates. Both Kari Lake and Blake Masters are strong Trump supporters who questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. Lake also pointedly rejected the support of Republicans affiliated with John McCain, insulting his legacy. This may not have been a wise strategy. Four days before the election, she told an audience of her supporters:

“We don’t have any McCain Republicans in here, do we?” Lake asked from a campaign stage. “Alright, get the hell out,” she said, before adding, “Boy, Arizona has delivered some losers, haven’t they?”

Senate candidate Blake Masters, for his part, is widely regarded as a hard-core American nationalist who has also opposed U.S. aid to Ukraine. Perhaps more harmful to his image, he is seen as a protege of the controversial tech tycoon Peter Thiel. Thiel’s advocacy of such causes as transhumanism does not endear him to traditional conservatives.

Donald Trump strongly lent his support to Lake and Masters. But he also endorsed two successful Arizona U.S. House candidates, David Schweikert and Eli Crane. Schweikert, however, won by an extraordinarily thin margin, even though his district had been rated as “safe Republican” by 538. Crane won easily, but his victory can be attributed in part to a redistricting process that created a safe Republican seat.

The take-home message of the 2022 Arizona election is that close association with Donald Trump, along with a reputation for extremism, often proves harmful for Republican candidates. In the Arizona U.S. House contest, the Republican candidates received 56.4 percent of the vote statewide, whereas the Republican Senate candidate received only 46.5 percent. These are striking numbers.

As we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post, Trump-endorsed candidates also performed poorly in Michigan and Pennsylvania. These two states had moved from the “blue” to the “purple” category in recent election, but both now seem to be trending back in the Democratic direction.

Mixed Election Returns in Arizona: The Trump Effect? Read More »

Geographical Patterns in the 2022 Election, Part 1, The North-Central United States

The U.S. House of Representatives 2022 election was an almost exact inverse of the 2020 contest. In 2020, the Democrats won 50.8 percent of the popular vote nationwide and took 222 seats; in 2022, the Republicans won 50.7 percent of the popular vote nationwide and will probably end up with 222 seats. Yet both parties can credibly claim to have triumphed in this election. The Republicans took control of the House, but they performed worse than expected. The party out of power at the presidential level usually loses more seats in a midterm election, and in this contest the Democrats faced serious headwinds, including an unpopular president, a high rate of inflation, and a pervasive feeling that the country is headed in the wrong direction.

The electoral geography of the United States has been in transition for the past several decades, with nonmetropolitan regions trending in the Republican direction as metropolitan areas trend in the Democratic direction. The Pacific Coast and the southern half of the interior West have also shifted toward the Democrats, as has the Northeast, while the Midwest and the South have moved toward the Republicans. In the 2022 contest, some of these trends continued but others showed signs of reversal. The Republicans won two more non-metropolitan House seats in the Midwest, while the Democrats cemented their hold along the Pacific coast, winning every House district bordering the ocean, even that of red-state Alaska. But the Republicans picked up some unexpected seats in the metropolitan Mid-Atlantic, particularly in the New York City area, while the Democrats realized a few gains of their own in the Midwest and South.

All these patterns will be explored in later posts. The remainder of this one focuses on the electoral transformation of the north-central region of the country. This area has been trending “red” for some time. Here the Republicans picked up two House seats in 2022 and three in 2020 . But as recently as 2008, a radically different electoral geography appears, as the Democrats then held most of the region’s seats. Even the Dakotas are blue on the 2008 map. The political transformation of this general region can also be seen in recent presidential elections. The next set of maps moves the frame of reference a bit to the east and south to illustrate this electoral transformation. As is readily visible, non-metropolitan areas of Minnesota, Iowa, northern Missouri, Illinois, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan have seen a pronounced red shift over the past 30 years. This transformation is particularly notable in Minnesota. In the landslide election of 1984, Minnesota was the only state to opt for Democrat Walter Mondale over Republican Ronald Reagan; in 2020 Donald Trump lost Minnesota, but only by a narrow margin.

In Minnesota’s 2022 midterm election, the Democrats performed well. Democratic Tim Waltz won the gubernatorial election with 52.3 percent of the vote, but more importantly the Democrats established control over both branches of the state legislature. As can be seen on the first map below, the Democratic Party thus established “trifecta” control in Minnesota, just as it did in Michigan, Massachusetts, and Maryland. But the metropolitan/non-metropolitan divide continues to deepen, as can be seen in maps of the Minnesota State House of Representatives. In 2022, the Democrats triumphed here because they dominated the vote in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul metropolitan region. Peripheral Minnesota, on the other hand, is almost entirely red. Even the mining country of the northeast, historically one of the most solid Democratic strongholds in the country, supported Republican candidates in the 2022 state legislative elections. Contrastingly, the Twin Cities metropolitan area has been moving further in the “blue” direction.

 

For Minnesota as a whole, the modest blue shift in the 2022 election seems to be closely linked to the pro-Trump stance of several prominent Republican candidates. A argued by Minnesota State Representative Emma Greenman in a MINNPOST article:

From the top of the ticket, Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen repeatedly refused to acknowledge that Joe Biden won the 2020 election and publicly suggested that Secretary of State Steve Simon should be jailed. The Republican candidate running to be Minnesota’s chief elections officer, Kim Crockett called herself “the election denier in chief” … . In the statewide match-up that put the issue of democracy directly to voters, Secretary of State Steve Simon soundly beat Kim Crockett and won more votes than any other statewide candidate. In Minnesota’s swing legislative districts, DFLer* challengers defeated extremist election deniers, including an incumbent from Circle Pines who is a member of the Oathkeepers, and a St. Peter incumbent who attended and defended the Jan. 6 Storm the Capitol rally in St. Paul.

Similar results were found in other states in which Republican nominees strongly supported Donald Trump and questioned the results of the 2020 presidential election, as we shall see in later posts.

* The Minnesota affiliate of the U.S. Democratic Party is officially called the “Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party,” or DFL.

Geographical Patterns in the 2022 Election, Part 1, The North-Central United States Read More »

Racial and Regional Voting Patterns in Brazil’s 2022 Election

Some clear racial voting patterns are evident in the 2022 Brazilian election. A map of Brazil’s relatively densely populated eastern strip, for example, shows a clear north/south divide. Its northern half is mostly non-white and voted heavily for Lula da Silva, whereas its southern half supported Bolsonaro and has a population of mostly European descent. To be sure, a few exceptions are found, such as the mostly white, Lula-voting area in the extreme southeast. When one looks at maps of Brazil as a whole, however, the situation is revealed to be much more complicated, as it does in maps of individual Brazilian states and regions. The second map posted below indicates the Brazilian states in which Bolsonaro found his highest level of support in 2022. As can be seen, four of these states have mostly non-white populations. All four of them are located in Brazil’s western zone of deforestation and agricultural expansion.

Before digging further into the details, it is important to note that race has been conceptualized differently in Brazil and the United States. In the U.S., a person with any ancestry from sub-Saharan Africa has been conventionally regarded as Black, whereas in Brazil a person with any European ancestry has conventionally been regarded as non-Black – not as “white,” to be sure, but as pardo, or brown. Historically, Brazil encouraged interracial marriage, partly due to the racist hope that it would result in a gradual “whitening” of the population. As a result of these attitudes and practices, Brazil’s Black community is estimated as constituting only around seven percent of the country’s total population. On the detailed map of racial distribution used in this post, hardly any Brazilian municipalities are shown as having a Black plurality, let alone majority. But by the U.S. system of racial classification, the Brazilian population would be reckoned as roughly half Black, with the northeast having a clear Black majority. Brazil also lacks the heritage of overt racial discrimination that characterizes the United States. Still, people with substantial African ancestry tend to be markedly poorer and less educated than people of primarily European ancestry, and they do suffer from stigmatization. But class status can partly override race; as noted in a 2007 scholarly article, “The idea that ‘money whitens’” is a classic topic in the sociological literature on race in Brazil.”

In northeastern Brazil, the poorest part of the country, voting patterns and racial patterns show little correlation. Although the population of northeastern Brazil is mostly non-white, the region does have pockets of mainly Euro-Brazilian settlement. One prominent example is the south-central part of the state of Rio Grande do Norte. Income maps show that this region is more prosperous and has less dire poverty than the rest of the state, but is still relatively poor by southeastern Brazilian standards. It is not, however, distinguishable on the 2022 electoral map, as it voted, like neighboring non-white areas, heavily for Lula. Almost all of the districts in northeastern Brazil that supported Bolsonaro in 2022 are in the coastal area of Alagoas, a mostly pardo (or mixed race) area. Deeply entrenched patron-client relationships, in which local elites influence the voting patterns of non-elites, might explain this seemingly anomalous pattern.

The largest number of people classified as “Black” in Brazil are found in Bahia, a large state that covers the southern half of the northeastern region. Bahia as many distinctive cultural features, which have been both celebrated and disparaged in the rest of Brazil. The final post in this GeoCurrents series on the 2022 Brazilian election will look more closely at Bahia.

Racial and Regional Voting Patterns in Brazil’s 2022 Election Read More »

Voting Patterns in the 2022 Election in Brazil’s Cerrado Region

As noted in a previous post, the deforested areas of Brazil’s Amazon Basin supported the extreme rightwing candidate Jair Bolsonaro in the 2022 election, whereas the non-deforested areas supported the leftwing candidate Lula da Silva. Somewhat similar patterns are found in the vast Cerrado zone to the south of the Amazonian region.

The seasonally wet and dry Cerrado was mostly covered by savannah vegetation in its original state. It was long considered almost worthless for agriculture, due to its acidic soils and low levels of plant nutrients. Brazilian agricultural scientists at Embrapa, however, learned how to make the Cerrado productive, mostly by adding large quantities of lime and phosphorus to the soil. They also bred new strains of originally temperate crops that would grow well in this tropical environment. Subsequently, clearance of the highly diverse Cerrado vegetation intensified, with much of the region converted to mechanized farmland. As this occurred, Brazil surpassed the United States to become the world’s largest soybean producer. This process has resulted in major economic gains but also in social tensions, heightened economic inequality, and extensive environmental degradation. As little land in the Cerrado has been preserved for nature, it has been called Brazil’s “ugly duckling of conservation.”

As can be seen on one of the maps posted below, much more of the southern and western Cerrado has been transformed into modernized farmland than the northern and eastern part of the region. As might be expected, the main agricultural centers in the western Cerrado voted heavily for Bolsonaro in the 2022 election. The less transformed northeastern Cerrado, contrastingly, voted heavily for Lula in the same election. This environmental/economic/electoral pattern is similar to the one seen in the Amazon.

Economic class is a major factor here. The northeastern part of the Cerrado extends into the poorest part of Brazil (the eastern part of the greater northeast). As Lula was very effective in alleviating poverty and enhancing social development in his earlier terms as president, he retains great popularity in the more impoverished parts of the country. Although some areas in the northeastern Cerrado have become major centers of soybean farming, relatively few people are employed on the mechanized farms and low levels of income remain widespread, as can be seen on the first set of maps posted below. As a result, there is relatively little correlation between voting patterns and agricultural production zones in this part of Brazil, as can be seen on the second set of maps below (the areas outlined in white on the electoral map have Brazil’s highest soybean yields).

The patterns that I am describing here are quite simple and are meant to be taken only in a suggestive sense. Much more detailed work would have to be conducted to make any conclusive statements. I do find it interesting however, that a major area of mechanized soybean agriculture in far western Bahia state in northwestern Brazil voted heavily for Lula de Silva, quite in contrast to the soybean centers in Mato Grosso and other western states. States matter a great deal in Brazil, and Bahia is highly distinctive, noted for having the largest African cultural and demographic imprint in the country. I will explore correlations between racial patterns and voting patterns in the next GeoCurrents post.

(Many thanks to André Goldman for sharing his knowledge of Brazilian political geography and thus helping me write these posts. I will add André’s insightful comments to my earlier Brazilian election posts later this week.)

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Amazonian Deforestation, Support for Bolsonaro, and the Roraima Mystery

In the 2022 Brazilian presidential election, the Amazonian region was strikingly divided, as is clearly visible on the Globo map posted below. (I have added an oval and two terms on the map to mark Roraima and the Amazonian region.) Most municipalities (similar to U.S. counties) here strongly supported one candidate or the other. Bolsonaro’s zone of support lies to the south of the Amazon River, but has a distinct northern outlier in the state of Roraima. In contrast, in the large state of Amazonas in the northwest, Lula da Silva received more than 60 percent of the vote in almost every municipality. The main exception was the capital city of Manaus (population 2.2 million), where Bolsonaro took 61 percent of the vote.

The electoral divide in the Amazonian region is easily explained by economic and demographic factors. As noted in a recent Mongabay headline, “Bolsonaro loses election but finds big support in Amazon Arc of Deforestation.” The Amazonian areas won by Bolsonaro have seen extensive forest clearance and now have economies based on agriculture, grazing, and artisanal (and often illegal) mining. As people stream into these areas from other parts of Brazil, pressure for further deforestation grows. As Bolsonaro, unlike Lula, is a champion of forest clearance and mining, his high level of support in these areas is not surprising. As noted by Mongabay writer André Schröder:

Experts don’t see the result as surprising since a large part of the population in this part of the territory doesn’t consider deforestation to be illegal. “Land invaders, loggers, ranchers and gold miners want a full license to occupy the Amazon territory. And Bolsonaro is not against that,” Beto Veríssimo, researcher and co-founder of the Brazilian conservation nonprofit Imazon, told Mongabay by phone. Voters from those municipalities benefit from politicians who promise not to fight illegal activities, according to Veríssimo.

 

 

The partially deforested, Bolsonaro-voting zone of the southern Amazon is also characterized by high rates of violent crime, as can be seen on the homicide map posted below. Force is often used here to seize land and settle disputes. In such an environment, many voters support Bolsonaro’s policies that allowed widespread gun ownership. In Brazil as a whole, however, roughly two-thirds of the people oppose these measures.

In the Amazonian heartland state of Amazonas, in contrast, relatively little deforestation has occurred. Here most rural people derive their livelihoods primarily from the natural environment and small-scale horticulture. Such areas strongly supported Lula, who significantly reduced the pace of deforestation when he was president in the early 2000s. As noted in a Guardian article, Amazonian municipalities with large number of indigenous people also voted heavily for Lula, as would be expected.

The Brazilian state that gave the highest percentage of its votes to Bolsonaro (76 percent) is Roraima, located in the northern Amazonian region on the border with Venezuela and Guyana. The natural vegetation of Roraima is a mixture of savannah and rainforest, both of which have seen extensive agricultural conversion. Illegal mining is also widespread – and environmentally destructive. Roraima, the least populated Brazilian state, has seen explosive growth in recent decades, its population rising from 79,000 in 1980 to 631,000 in 2020. As can be seen on the paired maps below, only one municipality in Roraima supported Lula in 2022; not coincidentally, it has an overwhelmingly indigenous population. But the state’s other northern municipalities also have indigenous majorities or pluralities, yet they voted for Bolsonaro.

 

 

The electoral victory of Bolsonaro in the indigenous-majority municipalities of northern Roraima is not easily explained. An interesting graphic in The Guardian notes this oddity (posted above) but offers no explanation. A recent Al Jazeera article reports, unsurprisingly, that indigenous leaders in the state see Bolsonaro as a threat and have strongly supported Lula. The article also claims that the indigenous residents of Roraima have not received any benefits from the mining boom. As the author, writing before the election, notes:

If re-elected with enough support in Congress, Bolsonaro could try to push through his long-planned bill to allow mining and other industrial activities on Indigenous lands. As is the case with many Indigenous territories, official requests from companies to mine in Raposa Serra do Sol, including proposals for both gold and diamond mines, have increased since Bolsonaro took office, according to data compiled by the monitoring group Amazonia Minada and seen by Al Jazeera.

“If Bolsonaro is re-elected, we will see a continuation of anti-Indigenous policies,” Antenor Vaz, a former coordinator with Brazil’s Indigenous agency Funai who now works as an independent consultant, told Al Jazeera. “Raposa Serra do Sol would face even more pressure from illegal gold miners, as well as large landowners from outside the reserve.”

 We thus encounter a mystery: why did most voters in heavily indigenous northern Roraima opt for Bolsonaro? Several possibilities come to mind. In Lula’s stronghold of northeastern Brazil, the 2022 election was marked by voter intimidation and suppression. Even the Federal Highway Police, allied with Bolsonaro, tried to delay or prevent people from reaching the polls. Could similar tactics explain the anomalous voting patterns of northern Roraima? I have seen no evidence of this, but my research has been limited. It is also possible that many indigenous people simply did not participate in the election, although Brazil does have compulsory voting.

It does seem that this apparent mystery deserves investigation by someone who knows more about Brazil, and Roraima, than I do.

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