Published November 8, 2010
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Stanley Kurtz, a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor for National Review Online. He has also written for National Review, The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, Policy Review,and Commentary. He is the author of the new book, Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism.
FP: Stanley Kurtz, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
I would like to talk to you today about your case for Obama’s socialism and why Obama’s radical past matters today.
I think it is best to start with these two questions:
Do the American people really understand Obama’s vision for our country? And if not, why not?
Kurtz: Thanks Jamie.
A widely-reported poll found that 55 percent of likely voters think Obama is a socialist. These folks are regularly mocked by liberal opinion-makers, of course. Yet my research shows that the people who believe Obama is a socialist have been right all along. Obama wants to move America as far as he can toward European-style socialism, and many Americans do get this.
On the other hand, the full truth about Obama’s socialism is not well understood by voters on either side of the political spectrum. That’s because the recent history of socialism has been intentionally shrouded in mystery. Peeling back the curtain explains a lot about Obama’s plans, and puts our debates about the president’s political convictions in a whole new light.
The reason few understand the truth about Obama’s socialism is that the community organizers who trained Obama and sponsored his political career intentionally keep their socialism secret. They do this because they understand perfectly well that the American people would reject their socialist views were they frankly stated. So Obama’s organizing models and mentors — some of the most influential socialists in the country — intentionally adopted a strategy of stealth. Obama’s stealth-socialist mentors developed methods of political disguise, including a vocabulary and strategy for advancing socialism without openly saying so. Obama has mastered their techniques. I wouldn’t have believed all this myself if I hadn’t read about it in the papers of these socialist community organizers. But there it is in black and white.
FP: Tell us about your research and sources.
Kurtz: I traveled across the country, searching for archives preserving the papers of the community organizations and socialist groups to which Obama was connected. These archival documents were incredibly revealing. They form the basis of Radical-in-Chief. I also did a great deal of research in long-forgotten issues of obscure journals, many of which contain articles which frankly state the socialist plans of Obama’s organizing colleagues. Various socialist groups maintained semi-public/semi-private publications called “discussion bulletins,” in which they would air their disagreements and reveal their strategies in ways they dared not do in their official newsletters.
Also, the archives of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington contain historic documents detailing the contacts between Obama’s original community organization and the Washington administration. The Harold Washington archives even hold remarkable documents revealing the political history of Jeremiah Wright. This is only a small sample of the sorts of archives I visited. Putting the story together was like solving a giant jigsaw puzzle. I traveled from archive to library to archive, following a set of clues and piecing together the hidden story of Obama’s past.
FP: What shaped Obama’s vision? His years at Columbia, it seems, were quite instrumental.
Kurtz: Obama was a socialist even before he reached Columbia. But it was in April of 1983, in his senior year, that Obama walked into an off-campus Socialist Scholars Conference. That conference changed the future president’s life and gave him a program he’s been following for his entire political career, right up to this day.
It was in the early eighties that American socialists turned in force to community organizing as a long-term strategy for transforming American society. With Reagan as president, conventional socialist nationalization of America’s businesses was impossible. So instead the focus turned to grassroots strategies for creating socialism “from below.” Community organizations like ACORN would take hold of the capitalist system from the ground up, forcing banks to make risky subprime loans, for example. The idea was to create de facto public control of businesses through community organizations, rather than through formal government ownership.
The symbol of all this was Chicago’s Mayor Harold Washington, who worked closely with Chicago’s small but influential collection of socialists, many of whom brought the community organizations they controlled onto the Washington bandwagon. The buzz at that 1983 Socialist Scholars Conference was that minority-led political coalitions would work in tandem with community organizations to swing the Democratic Party left. This would incrementally move America toward socialism. Harold Washington became Obama’s political idol, and Obama was swept up in plans to create a partnership between quietly-socialist community organizers and left-leaning minority politicians to reshape the American system.
Amazingly, the Socialist Scholars Conferences Obama attended in New York in the mid-eighties even put him on the path that led to Reverend Wright. The Democratic Socialists of America, which sponsored those conferences, had just formed an alliance with the black liberation theologians who were Reverend Wright’s mentors. Obama would have learned all about the ties between black liberation theology and socialism at those conferences.
FP: Crystallize for us why Obama’s radical past matters today.
Kurtz: I think President Obama is best described as a “Midwest Academy socialist.” The socialist community organizers who ran the Midwest Academy sought to build broad-based populist coalitions of the left, focused on economic issues. To do that, they downplayed cultural questions and foreign policy, since those issues tended to split off working-class traditionalists from the descendants of the sixties left. The left responds to the Obama-as-socialist charge by pointing to his refusal to leave Afghanistan and his slow movement on social issues, but this is classic Midwest Academy strategy. Like his mentors, Obama wants to build populist anti-business coalitions guided by quietly socialist strategists (in this case the president of the United States). Moves that might endanger a broad-based, economically-focused coalition of the left are avoided.
The socialists who trained and inspired Obama believed in working in and through the Democratic Party. They were very different than the “sectarian” socialists who refused to engage with the two-party system. Michael Harrington was the leader of these “democratic socialists.” Harrington knew that full-blown socialism would never happen in his lifetime. Instead he wanted to participate in ordinary Democratic Party politics, intentionally focusing on those parts of the conventional liberal program most likely to put America on an irreversible path toward socialism over time. Health care was considered a top priority in that respect. Although it has not been widely discussed, Obama’s decision to focus on health care in his first year was made in the face of opposition from all of his top advisors. Harrington-style socialists expend political capital for the most socialist-friendly parts of the conventional Democratic program. That is exactly what Obama has done.
Obama’s socialist organizing mentors were especially interested in creating de facto public ownership, not through direct nationalization of businesses, but through control of businesses “from below.” Midwest Academy founder Heather Booth now runs Americans for Financial Reform, which was the leading voice for incorporating a controversial provision called “proxy access” into the financial reform bill. Proxy access will make it easier for unions and environmental groups to gain seats on corporate boards, the central economic strategy of Obama’s socialist mentors. Few have even noticed this change, but it’s an important example of how the Midwest Academy’s incremental socialist program is advancing under cover of the Obama administration’s legislative agenda.
FP: Expand a bit more for us on the gulf between Obama’s inner conviction and the image he presents to the public. What kind of strategy has he adopted?
Kurtz: Obama’s systematic effort to disguise his radical past is a major theme of Radical-in-Chief. When you compare the documents I’ve dug up from the ACORN archive at the Wisconsin Historical Society with Obama’s own statements about his relationship with ACORN, it’s hard not to conclude that he has intentionally lied about his ties to that group. The same thing is true on issues like Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers.
More broadly, Obama has adopted the strategy of his socialist organizing mentors. They present themselves as post-partisan pragmatists with a populist-communitarian edge, when in fact they are dyed-in-the-wool socialists. This self-presentation helped Obama get elected, but his insistence on retaining the veneer of a “pragmatist” has alienated him from some in his own base. Large sections of the left want a leader who will openly advocate their ideology before the American public. Obama’s stealth strategy forces him to sacrifice all that.
I argue that Obama’s long-term plan is a variation on Michael Harrington’s “socialist realignment strategy.” The idea is to attack business interests and, over the long term, drive them out of the Democratic Party. That might sound crazy, but the loss of business interests is supposed to be overbalanced by the infusion of a populist, anti-business movement of the left. Combine that economic populism with politically activated minority communities, the theory goes, and you have divided the parties along class lines. At that point, Harrington believed that the “have nots” dominating the Democratic Party would gradually drift toward socialism.
FP: If Obama has his way, what could America look like eventually in his hands? What is one of the worst-case scenarios?
Kurtz: Like Harrington, I don’t think Obama expects to see full-blown socialism within his lifetime. Also like Harrington, I think Obama uses a socialist ideal to guide him in the present. Obama wants to invest his political capital in the steps most likely to place us on a gradual, but irreversible, path toward a socialist future. The model of Obama’s sponsors was the platform of the Swedish labor parties — the people who wanted to move even Sweden a bit closer to full-blown socialism.
Yet the European welfare state is collapsing. Sweden has moved rightward, not leftward. Britain is enacting massive spending cuts. Greece and France have been torn by riots spawned by financial retrenchment. European-style socialism is destined to fail, because the demographics of the West can no longer support the extended welfare state. If we anticipate this change now, financial disaster might be averted. If, on the other hand, we follow Obama’s path, there is a serious risk of generalized financial collapse and extended depression when a retiring baby-boom generation puts unmanageable strains on the world’s financial system.
FP: Stanley Kurtz, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.