Life of the New Party

Published October 30, 2008

National Review Online

A variety of evidence now indicates, with a high degree of likelihood, that Barack Obama was a member of the far-left New Party, which also endorsed him in his first run for the Illinois state senate in 1996. Obama's New party ties graphically illustrate the connection between his troubling “associations” and the core economic issues of the presidential campaign. The New Party's agenda was radically redistributionist. More important, the New Party's specific strategy for achieving its economic goals precisely paralleled Obama's now infamous 2001 radio remarks on “major redistributive change.” So let's take a tour of New Party ideology, after which we can explore the ever-increasing evidence that Obama himself was in fact a New Party member.

Left of Liberal
Obama's New Party-endorsed first run for office began in late 1995. So it's of interest that New Party co-founder Joel Rogers published an essay describing the Left's need for the New Party in the March/April 1995 issue of The New Left Review. (The New Left Review, can fairly be described as a prestigious outlet for writing that is largely Marxist/Socialist in content.) Since the revelation of Obama's New Party ties, Rogers has striven to paint his outlook as mainstream and moderate. Yet this 1995 article, contemporaneous with Obama's run for office as a New Party-endorsed candidate, gives the lie to that claim.

It's notable that New Party supporter and left-extremist Noam Chomsky is one of the few readers thanked in Rogers's acknowledgments. From there, Rogers quickly links his political prescription to the claim that there are fundamental problems in the way American society is structured. Above all, Rogers expresses disdain for liberals, who characteristically refuse to take steps to gain “social control of the economy” or to put “serious constraints on capital.” Mere liberals (embodied for Rogers by Bill Clinton) are corrupt tools of “unconstrained capitalism.”

In Rogers's view, then, American capitalism needs to be tamed and transformed in fundamental, structural, ways, a task which mere liberals are unable and unwilling to undertake. Rogers does also slam America's use of force in pursuit of its foreign policy goals, and decry our legacy of “four hundred years' racism.” Yet his focus is clearly on the need to transform the very structure of the American economy.

This is why Rogers addresses himself, not to Clintonian liberals, but to “progressives.” For Rogers, the key difference between the two is that liberals are unwilling to generate a popular movement from below that would remove command of the economy from the hands of corporate capitalists. Liberals are content to manipulate the public from above, when what's actually needed, says Rogers, is “mobilizing outside the state.” Only such grassroots mobilizing can hope to challenge corporate power.

Incremental Socialism?
Does this make Rogers's a socialist? Arguably, yes. But the answer to that question is not a simple one. Rogers hopes to avoid the socialist label. Like many on the far left, he couches his ultimate goals in euphemism and convoluted language. So instead of calling for socialism, Rogers demands “economic democracy.” That sort of euphemism produces locutions that would strike most Americans as odd: “The biggest ‘rule' and barrier to democracy, of course, is capitalism–private ownership of the means of production…and what follows does not seek to change that rule directly.” In this passage, the word “democracy,” serves as a virtual synonym for socialism, to the point where capitalism itself is described as the greatest “barrier to democracy.” What Rogers seems to want to say here is that the entire capitalist system is blocking his ultimate socialist goal. But of course he can't afford to say that out loud. So instead he simply calls capitalism “undemocratic.” Yet in the same phrase, Rogers notes that his strategy for undermining capitalism is long-term and indirect (“what follows does not seek to change that rule [i.e. capitalism] directly”).

Rogers explains that his short-term goal is to create “new forms of domestic regulation more heavily reliant on citizen watchdogs.” This “democratization” of the economy would not only constrain capitalism, without quite replacing it, but would also build long-term momentum for deeper structural change: “The reforms proposed…would permit the qualification of capital's property rights and a demonstration — essential to mobilizing support for more stringent democratic efforts….” (Here, the word “democratic” again serves as a kind of euphemistic synonym for “socialist.) Or again, Rogers speaks of his proposed reforms as initial small steps toward major systemic change: “Also, the reforms facilitate greater popular control of capital itself, which would permit experimentation with different forms of ownership and production….”

What exactly does Rogers mean by “new forms of domestic regulation more heavily reliant on citizen watchdogs”? The obvious answer is ACORN. ACORN's founders were central to the creation of the New Party, and the strongest New Party chapters (very much including Chicago) were built around preexisting ACORN-dominated organizations. ACORN's systematic campaign against America's banks was a crusade to “constrain capitalism” through “citizen watchdogs.” Unfortunately, ACORN's “citizen watchdogs” forced the entire banking system to abandon traditional credit standards, thus paving the way for our current economic meltdown. (See “Planting the Seeds of Disaster.”)

Yet what Rogers and his ACORN allies obviously desire is to extend the model of ACORN as the “watchdog” of capitalism to our entire economic system. ACORN moved from local community organizing, to pressuring local banks, to gaining influence and even a semi-formal role within the federal government and the banking system itself. Rogers wants to spread that pattern through the whole economy.

Rhetorical Smokescreen
Rogers is fairly open about his strategy of rhetorical disguise. For example, he wants his economic reforms to be couched as a new “bill of rights.” What would these new economic “rights” entail? A de facto guaranteed minimum income, wage controls, and guaranteed full employment established by a mandated shortening of the work-week. Rogers calls this “employment redistribution.” Technically, Rogers wants to do all this within the existing capitalist framework. Yet skeptics could be forgiven for probing behind the euphemism and incrementalism for a long-term agenda that plausibly appears to have socialism as its end-point. More important than resolving this labeling dispute, however, is recognition that the New Party agenda is both radical and exceedingly redistributionist.

Perhaps understandably, the New Party was extremely reluctant to put forward a formal platform. In 1996, however, the same year Obama won his first office as a New Party-endorsed candidate, Harvard economist Juliet Schor authored a programmatic statement for the New Party entitled, “A Sustainable Economy for the 21st Century.” (This was later expanded and published by Schor as a book.)
The original pamphlet was reviewed by David Levy, a sympathetic scholar from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, in Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice. (You can find a slightly reworked copy of Levy's review here.) Some passages from Levy make it clear that if the New Party is not socialist, this may have more to do with calculated political presentation than with underlying ideology. In any case, socialist or not, the New Party's proposals are radical:

…Schor is careful not to sound too radical either–there is not talk of socialism or other language that might scare away a public suspicious of left-wing rhetoric. [New Party co-founder] Dan Cantor is emphatic in stating that “this is not a socialist party.” Cantor prefers the term “egalitarian democracy”…

Rather than specify a detailed blueprint of the “ideal” economy, the New Party's approach is to emphasize the process of transforming the one we have. Engaging in this process would, of course, entail a radical change in the economic system: it requires a shift in power away from owners of corporate capital toward workers, consumers, and other groups of disenfranchised by the current system…

While the pamphlet does not advocate nationalization of the means of production, or discuss forms of ‘market socialism”…many of the policies would indeed be considered radical in the context of contemporary American (and even European) politics.

Radio Barack
The New Party's approach to the problem of economic redistribution closely parallel's Barack Obama's 2001 radio remarks on economic redistribution. Obama may not have had any principled objection to bringing about economic redistribution via the courts. Yet he voiced a pragmatic preference for promoting redistributive change through “community organizing and activities on the ground.” Like Rogers, Obama implicitly distinguished between the contemporary “liberal” attempt to promote change (to the extent it was willing to do so at all) by direction from above (i.e. the courts), and the bolder “progressive” desire to build an organized base for “major redistributive change” from below.

Are Obama's radical plans all in the past? There is no reason to think so. Aside from the fact that 2001 is not very long ago, Obama shows every sign of hoping to build a base for long-term economic change from below. Obama's has promised a massive national service program closely allied with the nonprofit sector. In conjunction with this, Obama plans to remove “barriers for smaller nonprofits to participate in government programs.” In other words, Obama plans a massive effort to funnel America's youth into volunteer work alongside the likes of ACORN. Not only might Obama's favorite community organizers soon be training your child, the ultimate goal is arguably to bring to fruition Rogers's dream of “popular governance rooted in mass democratic organization.” Over time, that is, a substantial new public sector, composed of radical community organizers and politicized student “volunteers,” would form the nucleus of a newly “democratized” capitalism. Some might call this the New Party road to de facto socialism.

If these are Obama's goals, I doubt he wants to achieve them all at once, any more than Rogers himself wanted to do so. As I've argued elsewhere, Obama, like so many of his community organizer colleagues, practices an “incremental radicalism.” The point is not to push for the whole redistributionist agenda right away, but to gain a series small but cumulative victories, each of which contributes to the formation of a long-term coalition for more ambitious systemic change. Even as president, I think Obama would hew to this incremental strategy. But I do think we have reason to believe that Obama's long-term goals may be little different from Joel Rogers's.

New Party Ties
At any rate, there can be no doubt that in 1996, Obama made his first run for office as a New Party-endorsed candidate. And while Obama and Joel Rogers continue to deny it, a raft of accumulating evidence points to the fact that Obama was a New Party member. I presented some of the key evidence in “Something New Here,” where I also explained what the New Party was, and highlighted its close ties to ACORN. Thanks to the efforts of “New Zeal” blogger Trevor Loudon, we now have important documentary evidence from the spring 1996 issue of the New Party's key national organ, New Party News, that Obama was in fact a New Party member.

Additional evidence can be found in this New Party announcement from 1996. A publication called The Progressive Populist also identified Obama as a New Party member here. Perhaps more important, this “Chicago New Party Update” from the newsletter of the closely allied Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) suggests that, in Chicago, the distinction between an endorsed New Party candidate and a New Party member may have been non-existent. According to this report, “Candidates must be approved via a NP political committee. Once approved, candidates must sign a contract with the NP. The contract mandates that they must have a visible and active relationship with the NP.” In effect, then, the contract signed as a condition of endorsement constituted a commitment to membership in the organization. And even in the highly unlikely event that the several contemporaneous reports of Obama's membership in the New Party were somehow mistaken, the fact that his endorsement required him to maintain a “visible and active relationship” with the party confirms the existence of close and supportive two-way ties. We already know that Obama was closely allied with key New Party figures, and remained so for many years. (See “Something New Here,” linked above, and “A Party Without Members?“) All of this means that we are perfectly entitled to treat Obama as a strong and close supporter of the New Party, and almost certainly as a member as well.

I've engaged in a spirited back and forth with the Politico's Ben Smith over the existence and significance of Obama's New Party ties. Smith relies uncritically on New Party co-founder Joel Rogers's characterization of his ideological agenda, and on Rogers's shifting and unsupported denials of Obama's New Party membership. Rogers
's manifestly absurd claim that the New Party didn't have members has already been retracted.

In fact, a large number of news stories, and the New Party's own literature, repeatedly note that the party does have members, without adding any of Rogers's tortured qualifications. In a Fall 1997 article in New Labor Forum, for example, New Party cofounder Daniel Cantor and ACORN's lead national organizer, Wade Rathke brag that the New Party has 10,000 members.

Such references could be multiplied, but why go on with this charade? The New Party had members, and Barack Obama was one of them. That is what contemporaneous documents tell us, and that is the reasonable inference to be made from the requirement that endorsed candidates sign a contract of party support. We know that Obama was a close ally, supporter, and even funder of key New Party figures. At a minimum, it is intriguing that one of the key lawyers who argued the New Party's famous “fusion” case was both a partner in Obama's law firm and the wife of Joel Rogers. And if, in the exceedingly unlikely event that, all evidence to the contrary, Obama was somehow not a New Party member, his ties to the party were in any event extraordinarily close and reciprocal.

What Obama Wants?
All of this matters, not because of some simplistic associational “gotcha,” but because Obama's still somewhat mysterious ideology, as revealed in that 2001 radio interview, is greatly illuminated by his New Party ties. The New Party advocated gradual, but radical economic change, arguably socialist, but in any case heavily redistributive, all swathed in the soothing vocabulary of traditional American democracy, and grounded in the hope that the reach of groups like ACORN could one day be multiplied many times over. This, I'd wager, is what Barack Obama believed when he was endorsed by the New Party in 1996, what he believed when he spoke of “major redistributive change” on the radio in 2001, and what he hopes to accomplish (over time) should he become president of the United States in 2009.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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