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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.
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