Published October 28, 2010
Stanley Kurtz hit an Organizing for America nerve during Barack Obama’s campaign for president. Stanley, a Harvard-educated social anthropologist, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and has written for National Review and National Review Online for over a decade. When he started not only asking questions but digging into Barack Obama’s academic and activist past, the campaign tried to shut him down — literally, organizing a phone slamdown on Chicago radio.
Well, this still is America. And so Stanley has done what he is trained to do — research and present evidence to present a complete picture, in this case of the man who is currently president of the United States. The fruit of that project is a gripping, meticulous new book, Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism, which he discusses with me here.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What is so bad about being a Radical-in-Chief?
STANLEY KURTZ: There are two key problems. First, Obama’s slow-motion socialism undercuts liberty and prosperity on behalf of a highly questionable view of fairness. Second, and at least as disturbing, Obama’s practice of disguising his ideological views is bad for democracy, which depends upon informed public choice.
LOPEZ: “Community organizing is a largely socialist profession.” How does one back that up? A lot of faith-based types could be described as community organizers, couldn’t they? And they’re not necessarily socialists. They certainly needn’t be.
KURTZ: If you define community organizing very broadly, you could include even conservative groups under its banner. From some perspectives, the Tea Party is a form of community organizing. But the community organizing I discuss in the book is a self-consciously radical tradition that flows from the early achievements of Saul Alinsky, along with the work of Students for a Democratic Society and the National Welfare Rights Organization in the early-to-mid 1960s. The leadership of these groups was largely socialist, and remained so as they moved into community organizing in the 1970s and beyond. More to the point, the community organizers who trained and worked with Obama were largely socialist, although they made a point of not advertising that fact. Even the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, a faith-based group that has done much to support community organizing (including Obama’s own early work), is an effectively socialist group, although it doesn’t say so directly. My book carefully unpacks a great deal of archival evidence to substantiate these claims.
LOPEZ: You wrote, “When I began my post-campaign research for this book, my inclination was to downplay or dismiss evidence of explicit socialism in Obama’s background. I thought the socialism issue was an unprovable and unnecessary distraction from the broader question of Obama’s ultra-liberal inclinations. I was wrong. Evidence that suggests Obama is a socialist, I am now convinced, is real, important, and profoundly relevant to the present.” Explain.
KURTZ: It takes a whole book to explicate that statement. But to be brief, when I first found programs from the Socialist Scholars Conferences Obama attended in New York in the 1980s, I saw a number of people who were later part of his political circle. I was particularly struck by the name James Cone, who was Jeremiah Wright’s theological mentor and the founder of black liberation theology. There were other talks on black liberation theology at those conferences as well. That meant Obama would very likely have known about Wright’s theology even before he met Wright, and would have recognized its socialist content. Following this trail, I discovered that many of Obama’s organizing mentors and colleagues in Chicago were prominent socialists, with ties to the group that had sponsored those early socialist conferences. The policy preferences, tactics, and strategies of these socialist organizers are recognizable in the administration’s conduct today. In fact, the Obama administration continues to coordinate its grassroots support through many of the same socialist organizers he worked with in previous years.
LOPEZ: Why was the 1983 Socialist Scholars Conference “so formative an influence on Obama’s political career”?
KURTZ: I argue that it was Obama’s attendance at that first Socialist Scholars Conference in 1983 that made him decide to become a community organizer. At that point, I maintain, Obama was already a socialist. But that 1983 conference exposed him for the first time to the socialist world’s newfound emphasis on community organizing as part of a long-term political strategy to realign the parties along class lines. The goal was to inch the country toward socialism through multicultural “rainbow” coalitions led by minority politicians on the model of Chicago’s Harold Washington, who became Obama’s political idol. This gave Obama a solution to his identity crisis and drove him off the path to a career in international relations, which is where he’d been up till then. My argument for all this unfolds a bit like a detective story in the second chapter of the book.
LOPEZ: What actual evidence do you have that Obama attended the annual Socialist Scholars Conferences in New York between 1983 and 1985?
KURTZ: Obama tells us himself in Dreams from My Father that he attended socialist conferences at the Cooper Union. Detailed evidence from socialist archives shows that there was only one socialist conference at the Cooper Union, and that was the Socialist Scholars Conference of 1983. Obama’s name also appears on a list of pre-registrants for the 1984 Socialist Scholars Conference. There is less evidence that he attended the Socialist Scholars Conference of 1985, although I think it’s likely that he did. Not only did Obama attend the previous two conferences, evidence indicates that in 1985 he was studying the writings of Harry Boyte, an important theorist of community organizing who spoke at the 1985 conference. Boyte, by the way, advised Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. I carefully dissect the evidence for Obama’s conference attendance in the book.
LOPEZ: What is socialism? What is socialism to Barack Obama? How has that changed since 1983? How has it stayed the same?
KURTZ: These are the big questions. In the 1980s, the failure of Sixties and Seventies radicalism and the ascent of Ronald Reagan forced America’s socialists to take another tack. They de-emphasized strategies of nationalization and focused instead on local organizing as the way to move the country toward socialism. Now, instead of nationalizing a company, the idea was to get community organizers onto boards of directors, or to force banks to run loans through groups like ACORN. This was socialism “from below,” and it is the strategy that captivated Obama.
Obama’s socialist community-organizing colleagues followed French Marxist theorist André Gorz. Gorz advocated a strategy he called “non-reformist reforms,” proposing a series of seemingly minor tweaks to the system that were in fact designed to undermine capitalism and usher in socialism over time. This led Obama’s socialist mentors to devise an early version of the “public option,” although at the time they applied the idea to the energy sector, not health care. The socialism of Obama’s mentors was incremental and intentionally disguised. In the book, I argue that Obama follows many of his socialist mentors’ ideas to this day.
LOPEZ: How important is black liberation theology to understanding Barack Obama? And where does Jeremiah Wright fit in here?
KURTZ: The important thing about black liberation theology for Obama at the beginning was that its practitioners had just struck up an alliance with the Democratic Socialists of America. That gave Obama a way of bringing together his leftist political inclinations with his quest for an African-American identity. Obama surely disagreed with Reverend Wright’s crazier ideas, like the absurd notion that the AIDS virus is the product of a racist plot against blacks. Obama put up with Wright’s extremism because they shared a socialist outlook. Obama very much hoped to use radical preachers like Wright to help build a leftist political movement. In the book, I present a great deal of new evidence on Obama’s relationship with Wright, and on Wright’s own fascinating political history.
LOPEZ: Was Bill Ayers his mentor or not?
KURTZ: Ayers certainly gave Obama a leg up when he helped elevate Obama to the head of a foundation Ayers created, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. But I’d prefer to call the relationship an extended political partnership. In the book, I show that Obama eventually returned the favor and brought Ayers onto the board of the Woods Fund, which no one has pointed out until now. Obama also helped fund the work of Ayers’s wife, former Weather Underground leader Bernardine Dohrn. I’ve discovered that Obama even had longstanding ties to Bill’s brother, John Ayers. But the big picture is that Ayers and Dohrn were just a part of Chicago’s larger socialist world. Obama was also deeply immersed in that world, and it just so happens that, in 2008, the infamy of Ayers and Dohrn gave us a tiny peek into Obama’s larger radical political environment.
LOPEZ: How important is ACORN to understanding Barack Obama and the Democratic party today? Is ACORN still a factor?
KURTZ: I present a great deal of new documentary evidence detailing Obama’s longstanding relationship with ACORN. When you compare all this new material with Obama’s statements in 2008, it’s obvious that he lied about his relationship with ACORN. That’s important because it calls into question Obama’s credibility on the matter of his radical beliefs and associations. To this day, Obama and the Democrats blame the financial crisis exclusively on deregulation. The contribution of ACORN and the Democrats to the origins of the subprime-lending crisis is not as widely known as it should be. The book uncovers archival documents that allow us to recover ACORN’s extensive role in the origins of the financial crisis. Fascinating documents with ACORN’s inside account of its meetings with President Clinton and his officials tell us everything about the financial crisis that Obama and the Democrats don’t want us to hear. The mentality that got us into the crisis is still at play, with both Obama and the Democrats. That is the big lesson. But ACORN itself hasn’t disappeared. ACORN is a kind of giant organizational shell game, and the recent change of name is just another move in that game.
LOPEZ: Barack Obama wrote in Dreams from My Father: “Political discussions, the kind that at Occidental had once seemed so intense and purposeful, came to take on the flavor of the socialist conferences I sometimes attended at Cooper Union or the African cultural fairs that took place in Harlem and Brooklyn during the summers — a few of the many diversions New York had to offer, like going to a foreign film or ice-skating at Rockefeller Center.” You read a lot into “diversions.” How? Why? Is he really that smart?
KURTZ: If all we had was Dreams from My Father, we couldn’t make much of those conferences. But after a painstaking reconstruction of what actually happened at those socialist conferences, the outlines of Obama’s entire political career emerge. It’s amazing how careful organizers are about both disguising and, on rare occasions, revealing their socialism. This goes back to Alinsky, but in the book I show socialists explaining to other socialists that the group Obama worked with, the Midwest Academy, was quietly socialist. Midwest Academy organizers made a practice of thinking through every little signal they gave about their socialist views with enormous care. Obama learned his craft from them.
LOPEZ: If Obama is so smart, why are the Democrats going to lose big on Tuesday?
KURTZ: Most people don’t realize that community organizers fail a lot more often than they succeed. That’s not because they’re dumb, but because, fundamentally, they are trying to manipulate people into following the organizer’s own political path. It isn’t easy to get people to travel down a political path that is not truly their own, but that is what community organizers try to do. Smarts alone can only get you so far along that road. Having said that, I argue in the book that Obama isn’t in quite as hopeless a position as he may seem to be right now. Obama has adopted a high-risk strategy. His long-term goal is to polarize the parties along class lines, thereby driving the country substantially to the left. He’s taking big chances to get there, but there is a plausible long-term scenario for success. I go into this in some detail in the final chapter.
LOPEZ: So is Saul Alinsky really, truly important to understanding our president?
KURTZ: He is, but in the book I focus on Alinsky’s method as adapted and transformed by an extraordinary community-organizer-training institute called the Midwest Academy. Barack and Michelle Obama both had close ties to the Academy, and it is the Midwest Academy’s version of organizing — and of socialism — that deeply stamped Obama, I believe. I would call Obama, a “Midwest Academy socialist,” and one way to read the book is as a long explanation of exactly what Midwest Academy socialism is.
LOPEZ: What does the Midwest Academy have to do with the milestone health-care legislation the president signed this March?
KURTZ: The Midwest Academy virtually invented the “public option” idea, although in those days they wanted a public energy corporation to “compete” with private oil and gas companies (in the unspoken hope of driving them out of business). I believe that Obama’s support for a public option and his willingness to trade it away were both based on the Midwest Academy’s strategies of gradualism and “non-reformist reforms.” Even without the public option, the health-care bill as written is designed to drive the system toward single-payer over time. The president’s way of selling health-care reform, chiefly as a pragmatic fix rather than a matter of principle, also goes back to Alinskyite techniques as filtered through the Midwest Academy.
LOPEZ: You write about a “strategic patience” in Barack Obama’s socialism. He doesn’t sound patient, though. He sounds shrill and out of patience, especially with his condescending, dismissive Slurpee lines.
KURTZ: I agree that the president is losing a bit of his cool under pressure. More broadly, I think Obama was ready to move more incrementally before the financial crisis gave him a large Democratic majority in Congress. At that point, Obama decided to take advantage of what seemed at the time like a unique opportunity to grasp for a great deal of “change” at once. Even so, from the perspective of many on the left, Obama has gone slowly, say, by giving up the public option. I also think Obama is ready for slow trench warfare with a Republican Congress. To prepare for that, he first needed to get in place programs the Republicans would try to repeal. Out of that polarizing battle, Obama hopes to jump-start a movement of have-nots angry about efforts to peel back their new entitlements. He may fail, but that is his long-term play. And it follows a well-worn community-organizing model, as I show in the book.
LOPEZ: Do you have insights into what exactly Barack Obama makes of the abortion debate and where that fits into a full picture of him? Despite a radicalism there, he’s been stealth about it, somewhat consistently, in his national career.
KURTZ: Midwest Academy founder Heather Booth began as a socialist feminist with an intense interest in abortion. Yet she ultimately downplayed that issue in an effort to assemble a populist anti-business coalition that united culturally conservative blue-collar workers with the descendants of the Sixties left. Midwest Academy strategy is to downplay cultural issues and foreign policy in order to avoid dividing a broad-based, economically focused, populist coalition of the Left. I think Obama follows this program. He’s a leftist on cultural issues, but he doesn’t want to emphasize it any more than he absolutely has to, because that will split his coalition on economic issues, which is what he really cares about.
KURTZ: Do you think there is anything to the Dinesh D’Souza thesis about Obama?
LOPEZ: I’ve read his Forbes article, not the book, so my reaction has to be provisional. I think D’Souza takes kernels of truth and overloads them with significance. Was Obama attracted to postcolonial theory? Yes, he tells us so himself. Were Obama’s socialist inclinations inspired, in part, by his father’s socialism? They very likely were. But none of that substitutes for a careful attempt to reconstruct Obama’s adult political career. That is what I have tried to do. D’Souza is squeezing all the controversy he can out of the public record. But the heretofore hidden history I recover is ultimately more interesting and important.
LOPEZ: Why is this important now? I know many of the policies are harmful to the country, and I want to see his party’s power depleted come January and someone else in the White House after the next presidential election. Why should I care what he wrote in Dreams from My Father and what conferences he attended in the Eighties?
KURTZ: The final chapter of the book shows how deeply Obama’s past still influences his present. More broadly, electing and reelecting a president is, in substantial measure, a matter of trust. Obama has misrepresented who he was and is, both during the 2008 election and since. In that sense, he has broken trust with the public. Only if the American people know the truth about their president’s political beliefs can they make an informed decision about his reelection. That is how democracy works. The mind of the president means a great deal. The health-care and financial-reform bills are largely unfinished projects. What they will become depends on how the massive regulatory apparatus of each is shaped by the administration. A number of Obama’s supporters still believe his claims of post-partisan pragmatism. Showing that this is not the true picture could have a very significant effect on whether the country decides to throw in its lot with Obama or his Republican opponent two years from now.
LOPEZ: Beyond this Tuesday, how can those who want to defeat Obama and his agenda make use of your book?
KURTZ: I do think the book makes Obama’s strategic moves more understandable, and therefore easier to counter. But simply exposing the president’s lack of frankness about his political past and present could do more than anything to deplete his public appeal. Setting the socialism question aside for a moment, just knowing that Obama’s colleagues and mentors made a regular practice of disguising their real political views is going to disturb a lot of voters.
LOPEZ: Why do you think your argument is compelling? Why would you urge those who don’t already think Obama is radical to read your book?
KURTZ: The whole socialism argument kicked off by Obama’s candidacy and presidency has been off-base. It is grounded in ignorance of what modern American socialism really is. Agree or disagree with my argument about Obama, my book shows what much of contemporary socialism has become. It proves that stealth socialism is a real phenomenon, whether you think Obama embraces that view or not. It gives readers access to an important but almost totally unknown political world. It is a world Obama lived in for years. All that may not resolve our arguments about the president’s political views, but it puts the debate itself on an entirely new footing.
LOPEZ: What did you learn that most surprised you during the course of your research?
KURTZ: During campaign 2008, I debated a prominent community organizer and Obama advisor named Harry Boyte. He presented himself during that debate as a slightly left-leaning cousin of communitarian conservatives. When I learned that he was a prominent and powerful socialist, I was shocked. When I discovered that he had been the leader of a socialist faction that believed in using the word “communitarian” to disguise its socialist convictions, I was amazed. When I realized that Boyte had been the leading thinker of the faction of socialist organizers who trained Obama, I was stunned.
LOPEZ: Have you been surprised about various reactions to your book?
KURTZ: People are sometimes taken aback (in a good way) when they interview me and realize that I have a whole new approach to the socialism argument. A number of people who are just now moving through the book are writing to tell me it’s gripping in the way a murder mystery is. The book is scholarly, but the process of peeling back Obama’s self-presentation and unearthing the hidden story beneath it is exciting.
LOPEZ: If there’s one thing you could drive home to Americans about the president, what would it be?
KURTZ: He hasn’t been telling us the truth about his political convictions.
LOPEZ: What does it mean for American history that we have a socialist as president right now?
KURTZ: The liberalizing changes of the Sixties have borne fruit in a new generation, yet they have been incomplete. The Democrats have moved left, but resistance to those changes has driven Republicans to the right. The government sector is so large now that the fundamental character of the American system is at stake. We will either move incrementally over the line toward European-style socialism, or pull substantially back. The battle will be fought out over the next two years, with the coming presidential election determining the winner. A Republican victory next week does not decide the question. It only sets up the larger battle Obama has been planning all along. We don’t yet know who will win.