Published October 20, 2008
During his first campaign for the Illinois state senate in 1995-96, Barack Obama was a member of, and was endorsed by, the far-left New Party. Obama's New Party ties give the lie to his claim to be a post-partisan, post-ideological pragmatist. Particularly in Chicago, the New Party functioned as the electoral arm of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). So despite repeated attempts to distance himself from ACORN, Obama's New Party ties raise disturbing questions about his links to those proudly militant leftists. The media's near-total silence on this critical element of Obama's past is deeply irresponsible.
While a small group of bloggers have productively explored Obama's New Party ties, discussion has often turned on the New Party's alleged socialism. Was the New Party actually established by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)? Was the New Party's platform effectively socialist in content? Although these debates are both interesting and important, we needn't resolve them to conclude that the New Party was far to the left of the American mainstream. Whether formally socialist or not, the New Party and its ACORN backers favored policies of economic redistribution. As Obama would say, they wanted to spread the wealth around. Bracketing the socialism question and simply taking the New Party on its own terms is sufficient to raise serious questions about Obama's political commitments — questions that cry out for attention from a responsible press.
In 2002, Micah L. Sifry, a former writer and editor with The Nation magazine, published Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America, a book that contains what is probably our best account of the rise and fall of the New Party. Although Sifry leaves us hanging on the socialism question, his chapter on the New Party is more than enough to raise disturbing questions about Obama's radicalism, and about his ties to ACORN.
Sifry reports a quip by New Party co-founder, Daniel Cantor: “The shorthand strategy for accomplishing all this is to get the Bruce Springsteen, Lauryn Hill, and Pete Seeger vote united in one party.” The Peter Seeger vote does sound like shorthand for the old-time socialist Left — but also for far-left-leaning baby boomers in general. Bruce Springsteen and Lauryn Hill point to young blacks and whites on the left, perhaps including, but not restricted to, openly socialist sympathizers. In short, the New Party was a mid-1990s effort to build a “progressive” coalition to the left of the Democratic party, uniting left-leaning baby boomers with minorities, relatively militant unionists, and “idealistic” young people.
PARTY WITHIN A PARTY
In contrast to Ralph Nader's recent third-party campaigns, the New Party's strategy was to work through “fusion.” Fusion parties were popular in the 19th century. Although these small parties had a separate line on the ballot, they often endorsed one of the major-party candidates. That meant these third parties didn't have to act as “spoilers” in close elections. Yet by constituting themselves as separate entities and offering their endorsement as bait, fusion parties tended to push the major parties further to the right or the left. We see remnants of the old fusion-party pattern in New York State, where separate Liberal and Conservative parties sometimes shift elections by endorsing one or another major party candidate.
As the New Party's founders put it, they were looking for a cross between the “party within the party” strategy favored by leftist Democrats and the “plague on both your houses” stance later adopted by the Naderites. That means Obama's New Party ties place him on the far left end of the Democratic party, arguably with one foot outside and to the left of the party itself.
Does this make Obama “socialist?” Maybe so, but according to Sifry, the vague “New Party” name was chosen precisely to avoid such ideological pigeonholing. Maybe that vagueness was designed to avoid exposing the party as the socialist sympathizer it was. Or maybe the name was a way of avoiding complex internal struggles between competing ideological factions, some socialist and some not. (The answer is “both of the above,” I tend to think.) In any case, the New Party was clearly far to the left of mainstream Democrats, and according to Sifry, the party explicitly thought of itself as made up of committed “progressives,” rather than conventional “liberals.” That is entirely consistent with a famous 1995 profile of Obama by Hank De Zutter, which portrays him as closely tied to ACORN, and holding a world-view well “beyond” his mother's conventional liberalism.
To get a sense of where the New Party stood politically, consider some of its early supporters: Barbara Dudley of Greenpeace; Steve Cobble, political director of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coaltion; prominent academics like Frances Fox Piven, coauthor of the “Cloward-Piven strategy” and a leader of the drive for the “motor-voter” legislation Obama later defended in court on behalf of ACORN; economist Juliet Schor; black historian Manning Marable; historian Howard Zinn; linguist Noam Chomsky; Todd Gitlin; and writers like Gloria Steinem and Barbara Ehrenreich. Socialist? Readers can draw their own conclusions. At one point, Sifry does describe the party's goals as “social democratic.” In any case, the New Party clearly stands substantially to the left of the mainstream Democratic party.
Unquestionably, ACORN was one of the most important forces behind the creation of the New Party. According to Sifry: “Wade Rathke, ACORN's lead national organizer, was in on the founding discussions that led to the New Party, and the group's political director, Zach Polett, also came to play a big role in guiding New Party field organizing for the party [in Chicago and Little Rock].” In fact, Sifry portrays ACORN's leading role in the New Party as the result of a conscious decision by the organization to move into electoral politics in a more substantial way than they had been able to solely through their political action committee. In addition to Rathke and Polett, a key early supporter of the New Party was Obama's closest ACORN contact, Madeline Talbott.
While ACORN played an important founding role for the New Party nationally, ACORN was clearly the main force behind the New Party chapter in Chicago. In general, New Party chapters built around an ACORN nucleus were the most disciplined and successful party outposts. Nationally, the New Party's biggest wins were in Chicago, very much including Obama's victory in his 1996 run for the Illinois state senate. Chicago's New Party was actually formed around two core elements, ACORN and the Service Employ
ees International Union (SEIU) Local 880. Yet, as Sifry notes, SEIU 880 was itself an ACORN offshoot.
Together ACORN and SEIU 880 were the dominant forces in Chicago's New Party. True, there was also participation by open socialists, but these were not a majority of New Party organizers. You can certainly argue, as libertarian blogger Trevor Louden has, that whether openly or not, the New Party in Chicago and beyond was effectively socialist. It's a powerful argument and worthy of consideration. After all, according to Rutgers University political scientist Heidi J. Swarts, ACORN's leaders see themselves as “a solitary vanguard of principled leftists.” So a party outpost built around ACORN would be a party built around “principled vanguard leftists.” Sounds pretty socialist to me. Yet, as I've emphasized, we needn't resolve the “socialism” question to conclude that the New Party, and particularly its Chicago branch, was far to the left of the Democratic party, and largely under the control of ACORN.
Consider “The People Shall Rule,” a look at some of Chicago ACORN's electoral efforts co-authored by Madeline Talbott, Obama's closest ACORN contact and a key New Party supporter. In describing former Chicago ACORN leader Ted Thomas's successful run for alderman, Talbott stresses that, even after election, Thomas retained his ACORN ties. Thomas was invited to retain his seat on ACORN's Chicago board, ACORN members continued to treat him as a leader, and Thomas continued to brainstorm and strategize with ACORN's other organizers. Talbott is so busy detailing Thomas's continued links to ACORN that she doesn't even bother to mention that Thomas actually ran on behalf of the New Party. (See “NP Chair elected to Chicago City Council.”)
As so often with ACORN, technically separate organizations are often relatively meaningless designations for different branches of ACORN itself. And in Chicago, the New Party was very much an ACORN-dominated operation. Ted Thomas was a city alderman, de facto ACORN leader, and New Party chair all at once. So Obama's ties to the New Party represent yet another important, and still unacknowledged, link between Obama and ACORN.
We already know that Obama's ties to ACORN's Madeline Talbott ran deep. Less known is that Obama's links to Chicago ACORN/New Party leader Ted Thomas were also strong. Thomas was one of a handful of aldermen who stood with Obama in his unsuccessful 2000 race for Congress against Bobby Rush. Obama is also had long-standing ties to SEIU Local 880, an ACORN union spin-off and a bulwark of Chicago's New Party. In his 2004 race for the Democratic Senate nomination, SEIU Local 880 strongly endorsed Obama, citing his long history of support for the group.
So the fact that Obama received the New Party's endorsement in his first run for office in 1995-96 cannot be dismissed as insignificant. On the contrary, Obama's ties to the New Party, and the New Party's backers at ACORN (often the very same people), are long-standing, substantial, and reveal a great deal about his personal political allegiances. Because it was a fusion party, the New Party did not require that all the candidates it endorsed be members. Yet the New Party's endorsements were carefully targeted. There was no attempt to endorse candidates in every race, or even to set up nationwide chapters. Carefully selected races in carefully targeted cities were seized upon — and only when the candidate fit the profile of a decidedly left-leaning progressive Democrat. In this way, the New Party set out to form a hard-left “party within a party” among the Democrats.
More than this, we now have substantial evidence that Obama himself was in fact a New Party member. We even have a photograph of Obama appearing with other successful New Party candidates. Clearly, then, it is more than fair to identify Obama with the hard-left stance of the New Party and its ACORN backers. In her recent study of ACORN and the Gamaliel Foundation, the two groups of community organizers to which Obama was closest, Heidi Swarts describes their core ideology as “redistributionist.” Joe the Plumber take note. Whether formally socialist or not, Obama ties with ACORN and its New Party political arm show that spreading your wealth around has long been his ultimate goal.
All this means that Barack Obama is far from the post-partisan, post-ideological pragmatist he pretends to be. On the contrary, Obama's ideological home is substantially to the left of the Democratic-party mainstream, so far to the left that he has one foot planted outside the party itself. And since the New Party Chicago was essentially an electoral arm of ACORN, Obama's New Party tie, is yet another example of his deep links to the far-left militant organizers of that group. Obama's account of his limited ties to ACORN in the third debate was clearly not truthful. Likewise, his earlier denials of ties to ACORN have fallen apart.
At what point will the press force Obama to own up to the full extent of his ties to ACORN? At what point will the press demand a full accounting of Obama's ties to the New Party? At what point will the depth of Obama's redistributionist economic stance be acknowledged? Barack Obama is hiding the truth about his political past, and the press is playing along.
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.