The Role of Civil Society on Turkish and American Democracy:

What We Can Learn from Each Other’s Struggles

By Emily Rodriguez
The most shocking part of stepping foot on Turkish soil for the first time what how natural it felt to be there.

Certainly, the language undulated heavily through the air, forming a puzzle of çs and üs I could not decipher; regardless, the air itself felt eerily familiar. Perhaps it was because I had already spent the months leading up to my trip traveling through Istanbul, Kars, and several small villages with writers like Orhan Pamuk and stepping through the country’s past with journalists like Stephen Kinzer. The romantic in me would like to believe that the land did not feel foreign because so many bloodlines have passed through here, because maybe at some point a distant ancestor gazed upon the Bosphorus, feeling connected to the past and the future, the east and the west, peace and war, and every human emotion, just as I was now.

A week before I found myself eating cheese Borek and drinking sour cherry juice in a spotless restaurant in Yenibosna , on the European side of Istanbul, I had been working on the May 2015 mayoral primary race back home in Philadelphia. A week after I left Turkey, the taste of tea and pomegranate still lingering on my tongue, 46 million Turks voted in an election that was widely considered a referendum on President Recep Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). I had spent the 10 days in between learning as much as I could about Turkey’s power structure and how it compares to that of the United States with regards to our respective democracies.

We tend to think of democracy simply as the exercise of free and fair elections; by this definition, democracy in the United States is currently facing serious challenges. The 2010 Citizens United ruling released unrestricted quantities of campaign-related spending into our elections. Voters rights are under attack through legislation at the state level that seeks to add obstruct access to the polls, especially for minorities, women, the elderly, students, and the disabled. The act of “gerrymandering,” or carving up legislative districts to protect incumbents and their party, has made competitive elections essentially a thing of the past. Fewer Americans are exercising their right to vote, either because the barriers have become too high, or their elected leaders too predetermined. In 2014, the midterm elections saw an all-time low of 36.4% turnout.[1]

By the same definition, the June 7th election would indicate great hope regarding the strength of Turkey’s democracy. Turnout was 86%[2] with no evidence of voter fraud or tampering. In the end, the Kurdish-aligned People’s Democratic Party (HDP), won 13% of the vote – safely beyond the 10% threshold it would need to enter parliament, and a few points above what polls had been saying.

There is more to democracy, however, than an unhindered vote. Rule of law and stable institutions are key components that, generally speaking, have held steady in the United States, while waxing and waning in Turkey, depending on who is in power.

Though civilization has thrived in Turkey for millennia, democracy there is a relatively new concept. As the Ottoman Empire began to crumble at the end of the First World War, the charismatic war hero of Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and his Young Turks established the Republic of Turkey. Kemal, who created for himself the surname Atatürk, meaning “Father of the Turks,” unilaterally enacted a series of sweeping social reforms. From promoting Western-style dress at the expense of the traditional fez and veil, to taking vast steps to liberate and empower women, Atatürk sought to thrust his country into the modern world. He truly considered himself a fatherly figure who knew what was best for his people, and developed an entourage of Kemalist elites who carried on his patriarchal, and perhaps patronizing, system of governing.

Turkish politics were dominated by Atatürk’s legacy until the country shifted to a multi-party system in 1945. A series of coups in 1960, 1971, and finally 1980 put a halt to growing democratic tendencies in favor of order. The 1980 coup was enacted in part to put an end to the violence that rocked the streets of Istanbul and beyond during the 1970s. From the wreckage of the 1980 coup, however, emerged a dynamic leader who reshaped Turkey in a profound way. Turgut Özal was elected Prime Minister in 1983 when Turkey was dominated by a class of military and economic elite. He made reforms that opened Turkey’s economy to the world and awoke in its people a sense of entrepreneurship. Özal also challenged political taboos, admitting he was part Kurdish, embracing aspects of Islam prohibited by Kemalists, and publicly calling the question: “What if we recognize the Armenian genocide?”[3] When he died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1993, the change for which he pushed so tirelessly dissipated almost immediately.

As a result, the 1990s in Turkey were defined by secularism and Westernization. The Kemalist elite and an expanding entrepreneurial class, and fueled by Özal’s encouragement to grow the economy, thrived during this decade. Turkey became a player on the international stage. All the while, the majority of Turks – traditional, rural, Muslim – felt ignored. Political corruption and state-sponsored repression defined day-to-day life. And then on August 17, 1999, the earth quaked beneath Turkey and everything changed.

The earthquake of 1999 was a defining moment for Turkish democracy. The failure of “daddy state” to respond appropriately in the wake of the devastation caused mass disillusion in the eyes of the Turkish people from all walks of life. Countless bodies lay beneath the rubble of shoddily assembled apartment buildings, the needless and tragic result of government corruption and lack of oversight.

It was through this settling dust that Istanbul mayor Recep Erdoğan caught the attention and hope of a people thirsty for change. He succeeded in shifting Turkey’s democracy from a “minority democracy” that caters to the elite minority, to a “majority democracy” that focuses on the broader needs of Turkish citizens. For the first time since the 1980s, when Özal promised progress and inclusion, Turks were hopeful that Erdoğan would lead the country in the right direction. For several years, he did just that. He gave a voice to the Muslim majority, rolled back restrictions, and made the Turkish people feel like they were truly on the path towards democracy.

And then something happened that no one can quite place their finger on. Erdoğan began to change. Some attribute the beginning of the shift to the December 2013 crackdown on corruption, where police officers raided the homes of high-ranking officials and confiscated millions of dollars in cash. Erdoğan responded by firing thousands of police officers, prosecutors, and judges.[4] From there, the then-Prime Minister began to act paranoid. He built a huge palace. He distanced himself from his trusted entourage. He cut off ties with the West and cozied up to Iran. He lashed out. When I was in Turkey in May 2015, the head of Zaman, a major newspaper in Turkey, was in jail Other journalists we met with spoke softly and nervously watched their surroundings from behind their steaming tulip-shaped glass tea cups.

That the course of Turkish democracy can shift so dramatically in such a short time highlights the importance of the rule of law and strong, stable institutions. That is not to say that power in the United States follows a rigid course. Governance veers towards the right or the left, depending on which party controls the White House, Congress, the state legislatures, and the leanings of the judiciary. Nevertheless, because of America’s strong institutions – a free press, business groups, labor unions, nonprofits, organized religion, an educational system, and a loyal military – and a general respect for the rule of law, one charismatic leader will not dramatically alter the course of the country. That job belongs to civil society. The influence of the American people, natives and immigrants alike, incrementally shapes the way we are governed. The ball goes to the conservatives, then back to the progressives. No matter which side the current trend favors, however, we are always playing on the same field.

Though Ronald Reagan governed much differently from Jimmy Carter, and Nancy Pelosi’s House had a very different agenda than that of Newt Gingrich, the system did not crumble. No one arrested the opposition. No journalists disappeared. Judges kept their seats. It can and should be noted that domestically, the United States has brushed up against the outskirts of tyranny (and internationally we have perpetrated atrocities). This is, after all, the country that allowed McCarthyism to define the 1950s, the same period when democracy was just starting to take root in Turkey. It was in the United States that in 2006, as negotiations regarding Turkey’s accession to the European Union came to a halt, seven U.S. Attorneys were dismissed by the Bush Administration, allegedly to impede investigations of Republican politicians.[5] Currently, the United States is a society that favors the rich at the expense of racial and economic minorities, men over females who are struggling to claim their place, and profit over anything or anyone who could possibly get in the way. At the same time, countless Turks are on pins and needles around Erdoğan, wondering what the next chapter in their history will look like.

For both the United States and Turkey, the arc is long but towards justice it bends, and civil society creates the force that pulls our respective moral universes. Social groups influence our elections, challenge our status quo, shape our national dialogue, and, whenever possible, ensure that the needs of the minority are not crushed by the whim of the majority or the elite. At least that is the idea.

Civil society can be defined simply as “a community of citizens linked by common interests and collective activity.”[6] In Turkey, its development has depended in large part on the regime under which movements attempted to grow, though its components have always been there. Civil society in the United States has enjoyed a more fluid trajectory. Minorities, feminists, and workers have made incremental progress, and though they have faced many setbacks, they forge forward as they struggle.

By examining the social organizations in Turkey and the United States side-by-side, I am by no means attempting to claim that there is a direct comparison between them. Minorities, feminists, and workers in both countries have complex and unique stories. Rather than draw direct links, my goal is to shed light on their narratives and see what lessons they have to offer one another.

Though many social groups contribute to and shape a democracy, from my perspective over the past few years, the most prominently influential groups in the United States have been racial minorities, specifically African Americans, feminists, and labor unions. That is not to discount the incredible advances that activists from the LGBTQ community have made, most notably the June 2015 Supreme Court ruling allowing for gay marriage throughout the country, and the steady increase of non-discrimination laws in more and more states and municipalities.[7] Nor can we ever forget the horrors our forefathers inflicted on Native Americans for centuries, atrocities that decimated their population and robbed them of their land forever. But the groups who are most prominently addressing the most dominant and systematic problems are people of color, women, and workers.

Over the past few years, we have seen the Black Lives Matter movement shine a bright light onto the institutionalized racism that has plagued our country since its inception. This broken system has kept a disproportionately high number of African American people economically and politically marginalized, deprived of opportunity, incarcerated, undereducated, and subject to de facto segregation, even years after the repeal of Jim Crow laws and the enactment of the Voter Rights Act. Because of the courage of young Black activists, people from all walks of life in the United States are now talking about police violence, questioning our criminal justice system, calling out racists schooling formulas for what they are, and recognizing white privilege for the first time on this scale.

Likewise immigrants and their supporters are using their voices throughout the country to the benefit of millions. Their influence led to President Barack Obama’s series of executive actions in November 2014[8] that have begun to address our broken immigration system. Their activism has also rolled back the practice of local police forces cooperating with immigration officials in many municipalities, including in my home city of Philadelphia.[9] Like their Irish, Italian, and Polish predecessors, first and second generation immigrants of Latin American, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern descent are challenging a xenophobic tendency that too often makes its way into policy and law.

Making Turkey “whole” has been a long struggle for the millions of ethnic minorities in the country. For Armenians, it is a question of having their pain, suffering, and slaughter recognized by the Turkish state. For the Kurds, the largest minority group in the country, there exists a long conflict with government, which can only be solved through democracy. The so-called “Kurdish question” is often confused with Kurdish rebellion, most notably by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). At the founding of the Republic of Turkey in the early 20th century, Kurds found themselves victims of human rights violations and even massacres. Later, Kurdish language in public spaces was banned and Kurds were discouraged from expressing their identity, and armed conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state rocked the country from 1984 to 1999, when the PKK called for a unilateral ceasefire in the aftermath of the earthquake. Still, the situation did not improve for most Kurds who wanted to both be Turkish and be Kurds, but above all, free.

A glimmer of hope appeared in 2005 when Turkey entered into talks about European Union membership. Then Prime Minister Erdoğan flew to Southeastern Turkey and promised to “resolve every issue with more democracy.”[10] For the first time, Kurds felt as though the world were watching, that they were now safe because democracy would give them a voice. This hope was unfortunately short-lived. The breakdown of talks with the European Union coincided with newly resumed police crackdowns on Kurds and their rights. Recently, the relationship between the Kurds and the government has been extremely adversarial, even violent, and it has only been exasperated by the presence of ISIS in the region.[11] But the Kurds are resilient and have overwhelmingly chosen to react in a peaceful manner. The rise in power of the HDP, a left-leaning coalition with strong Kurdish ties, is one of the biggest challenges to Erdoğan’s power. Their victory in the June election is a sign that people in Turkey are hungry for a voice and that they have the organization to advance their goal.


Like the Civil Rights movement in the United States, the Feminist movement began with women seeking the right to vote. Then, finding themselves far from equal to their male counterparts, women expanded their goals from there. After a series of advancements during the twentieth century, present day feminism in the United States centers on fighting to hold onto past victories, while seeking modest steps forward economically and politically. Since the Great Recession, more and more women are the primary breadwinners in their families, yet they make on average only 79%[12] of what a man in a similar position earns. Furthermore, though women make up more than half the population of the United States, yet the current Congress is less than 20% female[13] and women currently hold only 4.4% of Fortune 500 CEO positions.[14] There are no political or hiring quotas to help chip away at that glass ceiling. Instead, women are constantly required to explain that the steep barriers to entry, and not their lack of ability, that systematically keep them from positions of power.

Beyond discrimination, unfriendly workplace policies, and undercutting, usually sexualized, comments that women face in the public sphere, the most visible attack that women face in the United States is on their access to reproductive healthcare. The recent attempt by Congress to threaten to shut down the federal government rather than fund Planned Parenthood[15] is a glaring example of the controversy. Regardless of anyone’s personal views, Roe vs. Wade has been the law of the land since 1973, yet, from January 1010 to January 2015, states enacted 231 abortion restrictions.[16] Few political debates occur without bringing up the right of a woman to control her own body.

In Turkey, control over a woman’s body and behavior is a symbol of national identity. The question of the role of the woman in Turkish society became a matter of debate in the early days of the Turkish Republic. While the Kemalists and Islamist of the period were often at odds, they agreed on certain aspects of what the Turkish woman should be: a chaste and honorable mother and wife. It was imperative that the sexuality be kept under strict control. And though the women’s movements would reemerge after the 1980 coup, in the 1920s and 30s, both secularist and Islamist women accepted a handful of rights given to them by the male establishment – the right to vote, to get elected, to divorce – and put what is now known as the “first wave” of Turkish feminism on hold for the good of the newly formed Republic.

In the 1980s, their granddaughters picked up where the early feminists left off. Though Turkish women have come a long way, they did not advance as a unified force. As far back as the end of the Ottoman Empire, women’s voices began to emerge, but while “progressivists” looked towards to West and demanded emancipation, Islamists looked towards to Koran as a guide.[17] This divide was stark in this “second wave” of feminism. Secular women went as far as to attack Islamic traditions, like the headscarf, as symbols of oppression, creating a rift between themselves and their devout Muslim sisters. However, feminism is the struggle for self-determination, self-expression, and self-protection. In recent years, as secular and Islamic women began identifying commonalities in their respective struggles, they began to unite and to collectively stand up to the men who still aim to control them. In 2014, hundreds of women posted pictures of themselves laughing on Twitter in defiance of Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç’s statement that “a woman should be chaste. She should know the difference between public and private. She should not laugh in public.”[18] Long gone are the days of legal honor killings and virginity tests in Turkey, and yet women are still blamed when they are raped or physically abused because they left their proper place in society. It is up to Turkish women to define and defend their space.


Beyond divisions along racial and gender lines, economic organizations are also prominent players in democratic societies. In the United States, the class structure has been most noticeably embodied by the labor movement. With a strong and proud history that brought about the American middle class, the weekend, a 40 hour work week, and all the laws that influence the strength of our rights on the job, unions in the United States have done so much to distribute wealth in a manner that resembles something fair. In fact, there is a direct, positive correlation between union density and family income. Likewise, as union membership began to decline in 1969, average middle class income began to shrink with it.[19] Unions are a source of both economic and political power, having built powerful lobbying arms and departments that focus on political action. They do a lot to bring voices of everyday working Americans to the halls of legislatures and the podiums at campaign rallies. Their influence ensures that the issues that still matter to the working class get heard by the powers that be, and come election time, labor unions put their thumb on the scale through big contributions and boots on the ground.

It is no wonder that the wealthy elite in the United States have made it a priority to destroy unions. From outsourcing the private sector to foreign countries with lower labor standards to demonizing public sector workers, most notably public school teachers, the anti-worker agenda has been a sophisticated and successful attack. Union density was an anemic 11% in 2004,[20] consistent with the steady decline union membership has suffered over the past 50 years.[21] Legislatures across the country have in the works anti-union legislation, like so-called “right-to-work bills,” which would eliminate the “fair share” fees that non-union employees have to pay the union that bargains their contracts and defends them in the case of a disciplinary action. Such “right-to-work” laws have been shown to further decrease union density and lead to decline in wages.[22] In fact, the Supreme Court is set to rule on Friedrich’s vs. California Teachers Association, which would essentially make the entire public sector in the United States a “right-to-work” zone, crippling the labor movement with devastating results for workers.

In Ankara, we met with a group of machine industrialists, a business alliance of 270 members who represent over 35,000 employees and are responsible for $1.5 billion in exports. Over a generous breakfast of tomatoes, cucumbers, pastries, herbs, and cheeses, I asked if they could give me some insight into the role of labor unions in Turkish society. The business leader at the head of the table answered sharply: “Unions have become too political. They should focus on their jobs of protecting working conditions and stay out of politics.” Next question. Having worked as the political director for a union, I see both functions of unions as essential parts of democracy. When the fate of organized labor is dependent on the whim of political leaders, unionized workers have no choice but to be political.

Under Erdoğan’s AKP, union density has plummeted from 57.5% in 2003 to just 9.68% this year, and of these, only 4.5% have collective bargaining rights.[23] But the AKP attack on unions does not seem to be an ideological, labor vs. capital opposition, though it should be noted that the PKK has roots in Marxism. Still, the animosity appears to be reactionary; Erdoğan lashes out at organized labor when organized labor questions him. Then the cycle continues. The government’s attack on unionized workers caused labor to join anti-government protests in 2013 and to speak out against the AKP. The problem goes beyond rhetoric, though. Erdoğan has detained union leaders, accused members of terrorist activity, and cracked down hard on them when they protest or strike. By their very nature, unions challenge power because they claim power for working people, at the expense of the political elite. In Turkey, they play a vital role in the country’s democracy because are a place for Turks with diverse backgrounds to come together and find a voice.


Underlying these various groups is the reality that most people belong to more than one faction of civil society. In fact, what makes these movements so powerful are all of the overlapping identities that form them. Race, class, gender, region, political leaning, ethnicity, religion, status, sexual orientation, economic philosophy – people define themselves based on many different components of their identity. And movements are defined by the people, with all their varied identities, who form them. In the United States, these identities get divvied up into a two party system that tries to compartmentalize voters and create a dichotomy. In Turkey, identity is broadly, though still imperfectly, reflected in a multi-party system, which gives a more accurate snapshot of the makeup of Turkish society.

I was told that overwhelmingly people in Turkey vote according to their identity rather than their ideology. I could not help but consider the economic self-interest that guides so many voters in the United States. There is a troubling tradition in the United States of voting against someone else, just so they do not have more than you. There is a similar distaste for “the other” in Turkey as well. For years the Kemalists fought to protect “Turkishness,” much like the right in America claims to want to protect “Americanness.” Both “Turkishness” and “Americanness” are myths, which, in both cases, hinder our respective democracies.

So many people in Turkey who claim to have “Turkic blood” flowing through their veins are in fact descendants of refugees who fled to Anatolia from any and all of history’s wars.[24] The great Turks, who according to legend descended the Altay Mountains, have been joined by people from all parts of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East over many centuries. This reality should be clear especially now as the world watches thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees seek solace from ISIS just across the border. The threat to mystical “Turkishness” has kept women in headscarves out of university classrooms. It has forced Armenians and Kurds to feel like foreigners on the land where they were born. It has marginalized and ridiculed those who do not fit its image and keeps Turkey divided.

“Americanness” is similarly illusory. The United States is a country of immigrants who settled on stolen land and formed an economy based on slave labor, though our history books would have us believe that we are a nation of white, freedom-loving men who worked hard, created wealth and perfected democracy. As a result, the advancement of blacks and other minorities, women of all classes, and workers of all hues has suffered. This myth has allowed the privileged to create wholly unfair education systems and an economy where the gap between the richest 10% and the rest of society is insurmountable. When women start gaining ground in the workplace, we restrict their healthcare and their control of their own bodies. It has made us mean and individualistic and chronic consumers.

But the myth is not what truly defines us. To be truly American is to have struggled, to have placed your hand around the arc of the moral universe and given it a tug. It is to continue to struggle, together, taking one more step every day towards justice. We have been on this slow but steady path for almost 250 years. Turkey got a later start, but has proved itself to be a quick learner. This sense of wholeness, of common struggle, is the promise that Erdoğan failed to deliver.

As Prime Minister, Erdoğan took a minority democracy and turned it to a majority democracy, but instead of truly uniting the country, he catered to those who voted for him. After a successful referendum in 2007, Erdoğan mistakenly believed this victory to be a reflection on him personally. Really, it was a Turkish people’s way of saying they want to be heard. In fact, political wins are never about our leaders. It is about what they represent and how they make us dream. The drive towards self-determination exists in us naturally; democracy simply provides a space for that drive to exist. In the absence of democracy, if that energy has no outlet, it will explode.

On one of our last nights in Turkey, we were in Istanbul on our way to eat manti (Turkish dumplings covered in yogurt and spices), when we passed a plaza full of HDP activists. The tension and excitement filled the air. Everyone could feel that something was about to happen. During the previous days, we had discussed the upcoming elections during every meeting we had had. “Which party is best for minorities? For women? For the LGBTQ community? For workers?” The answer was a resounding: “HDP.” It was no surprise then that on June 7th, the HDP flew past the 10% threshold and won 13% of the vote. In Turkey, the people are looking beyond bloodlines, seeing each other and asking what they can achieve together.

Of course, the recent, horrific bombing in Ankara that claimed lives and traumatized the nation could threaten the results of the upcoming election on November 1st. But a unifying Turkey is a powerful thing, and I believe that once the wounds begin to heal, the struggle for true democracy will forge on.


Perhaps Turkey felt familiar from the moment I landed because though the specifics of our stories – continents, centuries, religions, populations, national origins – are infinitely different from each other, we find ourselves seeking a similar goal. Our ethnic minorities want their needs considered and their pain acknowledged. Our women want their choices respected and their barriers to entry erased. Our workers and our poor want economic stability and a chance to raise their families with dignity. We want our voices heard. We want the right to self-expression and an opportunity to define our own lives. We want democracy, and in this quest, there is so much we can learn from each other.





[3] Crescent & Star: Turkey between Two Worlds. Kinzer, Stephen. Page 17







[10] Kinzer, 135














[24] Kinzer, 102