Is Obama a Socialist?

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There's been a lot of talk in the last couple weeks over whether Barack Obama is a socialist. I think the two main events that have spurred this on are the revelation of his past association with a social democratic party called the New Party, which is openly left of the Democratic mainstream, and redistributionist talk from him both at the last presidential debate and from a particularly explicit quote from 2001 about how the pretty leftward Warren Court didn't go far enough in overthrowing the founders' intent in the Constitution.

Here's what I think is going on here. Obama is an incrementalist. He hasn't always been. His change is actually chronicled in his first book. Alinsky-style community organizing is very close to an implementation of a socialist agenda to undermine the capitalist system. There's every indication that Obama was in the thick of Alinsky-style work, even if he never agreed with everything Alinsky followers thought. He identified with the kinds of things they were trying to do in community organizing. It was Alinsky followers who trained him and then recruited him to train others in the same techniques. But Obama's community organizing was a failure. He was disappointed at every turn, according to his book. He eventually gave up on that method of change and turned to politics, where he knew he could try to get at least something done, even if it was only a little bit of a change at a time. I'm not sure he's really moved from that attitude. The New Party is exactly what you'd expect of someone with such a view. He was willing to run as a Democrat with an additional New Party endorsement in order to indicate that he's to the left of mainstream Democrats while seeking their support anyway. It was an attempt to mainstream a left-of-Democrat candidate, and it was an effective strategy until the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.

But this in itself shows that Obama is at least practically not a socialist. The distinction between socialism and European-style social democrats is that socialists seek to undermine and overthrow the system, and social democrats seek to work within the system to reform it gradually. The New Party was basically a bunch of former socialists who had become social democrats. Their goals had become more pragmatic. They were going to change what they could by moving the Democratic party to the left. The only way their candidates could win is if they also had the Democratic nomination, so they opted for double-billing to get their candidates more votes. (I'm not sure how New York still does it with parties like the Conservative Party, the Independence Party, and the Working Families Party. Does anyone know how those function differently from what the New Party was trying to do? What they do is obviously not the same, or it would have fallen under the same Supreme Court ruling.)

I'm convinced that Obama hasn't changed his ideals all that much. There's no way someone could say that the Warren Court didn't go far enough in overthrowing the founders' intent in the Constitution (alongside redistributionist language) unless there's a strong socialist steak still present, at least in terms of what he thinks the ideal government would look like. Even if that socialist streak has been toned down since, Obama said this after his conversion to being a social democrat. He does seem to be a redistributionist of sorts in the classic socialist mode, at least in his ideal government. How much he'd be willing to try to do depends, of course, on how much he expects to be able to get done. The scariest thing about an Obama victory for an economic conservative is that he'd almost certainly have at least two years of a Congress who would basically give him everything he wants, except on the few occasions when the Blue Dogs in the House might join with Republicans to prevent any particularly repugnant bills, but their influence seems to be about to diminish at least somewhat after this election. (It still amazes me that Democrats are running to replace minority Republicans in Congress by arguing for change. Giving the party in power more votes is change?)

So I don't think it's quite right to call Obama a socialist. He seems to be something closer to a European-style social democrat, at least in what he will try to do. But that just means he won't try to implement socialist ideals if he doesn't think he can. With a Congress entirely willing to grant their new Leader whatever he wants, I'm not sure that difference is as much as it might seem. Conservatives who keep calling him a socialist do seem to me to be on to something, even if I'd hesitate to apply that label straight out, and I think it's sufficient reason even for moderate Democrats to be very wary about casting a vote for him given that there won't be any divided government to reign in what he might try to do. I can understand why my friends who are themselves left of the Democratic party love him. I can understand why a lot of people are delighted to play a role in putting the first black president into office. I can even understand a mainstream Democrat who would have preferred Hillary Clinton but might still think Obama is closer to their views than McCain is. What I can't fathom is conservatives and moderates who think they're going to be getting a moderate Democrat who will vote for him just because they think McCain is too much like Bush, figuring Obama seems harmless enough because his proposals sound pretty centrist. That's what explains most independents' and moderates' support for Obama, and it strikes me as either ill-informed or irrational.

Update: Be sure to read the comments. The (first?) Nov 2 comment in particular has links to some much more detailed discussion that seems to me to confirm my general thesis that Obama holds that a socialist theory of justice would be good for the Supreme Court to endorse at some point but might be pragmatically worth getting to at most incrementally.

12 Comments

I agree with you as far as saying he's not a socialist, Jeremy. But I have a hard time seeing what you see in his comments about the Supreme Court.

First, the charge of socialism, at least in recent days, stems mainly from his use of of the expression "spread the wealth around." By itself, redistribution of wealth does not amount to socialism. That's especially true when "spread[ing] the wealth around" just means implementing a progressive tax rate, which is what Obama was discussing with Joe. By this standard, we have been living in a socialist country since 1913, with brief experiments in socialism in 1862-72 and 1894-5. Most self-described socialists would find that surprising.

[Incidentally, Alaska is the one state in the union that closely approximates socialism. In 2008, most residents of the state received a $3,200 check funded by corporate taxes. This has been going on since 1982.* The state has no individual income tax or statewide general sales tax.*]

Second, the 2001 comment you have linked does not indicate that Obama endorses "overthrowing the founders' intent in the Constitution." It simply indicates that Obama disagrees with the way most Courts have interpreted the Constitution over the years. He expressed regret that the Warren Court didn't "break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, at least as its been interpreted ... that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties."

It seems to me that Obama's statement is highly unlikely to tell us anything about his views vis-a-vis the Founders. "Negative liberties" and "positive liberties" are not concepts that map well onto the Constitution as it was originally penned. The Founders would generally have seen "liberty" in republican terms, with negative liberty and at least one kind of positive liberty being inseparable concepts. And in any case, they were leaving most things in the hands of the various states. So a court really shouldn't be interpreting the original intent of the Founders as being either negative or positive per se; the Founders initially established a state comprising multiple other states that had -- and were intentially allowed to keep -- entirely incompatible policies. But the Reconstruction Amendments changed the premise of our constitution.

In other words, there is no intent of the Founders to overthrow here. We've already moved far past the intent of the Founders. The evolution of the text happened thanks partly to the Fourteenth Amendment, but several other amendments are also totally incompatible with any vision the Founders would have shared. For example, the Seventeenth completely overturned one of the basic tenets of the document produced by the Convention. Obama seems to think that this transformation in the text itself justifies a reexamination of the Court's assumptions about the text's purpose. When a Court interprets the text as if we were still living in 1787, it is being unfaithful to the text we now have. And I think there's a lot of room to make that claim; we don't even have to abandon the general principle of originalism, as long as we're willing to look at the origin of each amendment. Whether I would agree with the details of Obama's interpretation of purpose is another matter. But he's not guilty of wanting to overthrow the dead-and-buried Founders' Constitution.

What does "equal protection of the laws" mean, exactly? We've been debating this since 1866, when some politicians (including some of those involved in passing the amendment) interpreted this as license for highly intrusive federal measures to impose effective racial equality in the South. Is "equal protection" a mere restraint on government, or does it enshrine some sort of positive liberty as the birthright of Americans? The Founders won't help here. And it's possible that even the drafters of the amendment would have different answers.

I think the opposition to Obama's particulars of redistribution is merely differing on a matter of degree, where they themselves don't mind a lesser degree of it. But I think what leads to the socialism charge isn't that he has a more extreme system of redistribution. It's that he uses that term. I think the idea is that people who use that language are more likely to be more socialistically-inclined, and people who use it without understanding that it sends shivers down the spine of a lot of people are out of touch. I think there are other reasons to think that this is partly just Obama being used to academic culture and not used to the culture of most ordinary Americans, the same thing that gave rise to a number of other lines he's used that have upset people (e.g. the guns and religion one). But there is reason, given his background and how he described his turn to politics to pursue his goals instead of community organizing, to think of his goals as noticeably to the left than most of his party.

I keep reading through the 2001 quote, and I still can't see how it can be read in context as anything other than a wish that the Warren Court had treated the Constitution as guaranteeing that the state and federal governments seek to ensure distributive justice in the way that socialism would guarantee as a matter of basic rights.

Jeremy,
I think you are wrongly confining socialism to those who want to achieve their socialist ends by revolution.

It is true that there are differences of opinions on how best to achieve socialist/communist goals, but a difference in method is not a great enough reason to relabel socialists as 'social democrats'. (For instance, look at the various means communists gained power...yet all were communists)

Such a relabelling is just another propaganda tool to further the goals of socialism. I'm surprised you would accept such definitional slights of hands in your analysis.

That distinction is readily maintained to show a distinction in practice while acknowledging an agreement in ideals. Social democrats in Europe are as socialistic as Marxists when it comes to the end goal. The fact that they don't think it's achievable by revolution is a significant difference, though, and so is the fact that the incremental approach won't cause as much of a change during the short run as long as there are competing forces at work to prevent them from instituting the ideal government they imagine as truly just.

I think it's as misleading to call Obama a socialist as it would be to call Plato totalitarian. People do it in both cases, but Plato explicitly declares that he's not actually advocating instituting the ideal government that many people who only read the Republic think he actually would have approved of. He doesn't think the realities of human nature and the limits of our ability to figure out who is an expert would allow such a government ever to work. Similarly, it wouldn't surprise me at all if Obama doesn't think the full-on socialist picture would really work. He just has a socialist picture of what justice is, and he seeks to implement that as much as is possible with a system that will genuinely work.

That's what social democrats are like. The true democratic socialist doesn't think there are any obstacles to socialism working as long as it can be initiated without the problems that every actual example seems to have had. But social democrats just prefer to work with a theory of justice that's socialistic in nature while reforming democratic republics according to that theory of justice, realizing that the practical side of things won't ever allow that to be fully worked out. I'm not sure it's sleight-of-hand at all to define a position in between two others that shares the theory of justice with the more leftist one and the practical methods with the left-center one. You can accept the socialist theory of justice without being a socialist, just as you can accept the libertarian theory of justice without being a libertarian, as long as you recognize that there are important moral and political principles that contribute to the best government besides justice. I think Obama does. Certainly much of what he says in his campaign assumes other such principles (his distancing from Wright on race included some, as did his 2004 convention speech).

David Bernstein offers a much more detailed analysis of a wider array of evidence from Obama on his judicial philosophy, and see Orin Kerr's followup. Generally speaking, the Constitution can be read to support a socialist theory of justice, but the Supreme Court is normally better off operating incrementally and not with the wholesale revision to constitutional interpretation that the Warren Court did. They were right to do what they did because they were dealing with a time period when there was no other remedy to remove segregation and its like. But most of the time the Supreme Court shouldn't get too far ahead of public opinion. He doesn't seem to have any objection in principle to the Supreme Court imposing a standard of justice that imposes socialism, but he thinks for pragmatic reasons that it's better off not trying, at least with public opinion what it is. That very much sounds like what I've concluded about Obama in the post above.

It's interesting what he says about Supreme Court appointments, and I'll quote that directly:

I think that Justice Souter, who was a Republican appointee, Justice Breyer, a Democratic appointee, are very sensible judges. They take a look at the facts and they try to figure out: How does the Constitution apply to these facts? They believe in fidelity to the text of the Constitution, but they also think you have to look at what is going on around you and not just ignore real life.

That, I think is the kind of justice that I'm looking for -- somebody who respects the law, doesn't think that they should be making law ... but also has a sense of what's happening in the real world and recognizes that one of the roles of the courts is to protect people who don't have a voice.

That's the special role of that institution. The vulnerable, the minority, the outcast, the person with the unpopular idea, the journalist who is shaking things up. That's inherently the role of the court. And if somebody doesn't appreciate that role, then I don't think they are going to make a very good justice.

This fits well with what he said when he opposed Bush's appointments of Roberts and Alito. The problem he found with them is that they didn't have a high enough rate of deciding with the vulnerable, outcast, and so on. It's as if there's some minimum percentage of cases where judges ought to use affirmative action to support the underdog whether the law favors them or not, and a judge who doesn't do that isn't just enough. Only a socialist theory of justice could support such a crazy view, as if there's a guarantee of those with less ability to get ahead in life to win cases to get ahead in life, even when the law doesn't support them, since a theory of justice that concerns itself only with outcome really doesn't care about whether cases are decided based on who is in the right.

This shows how Obama court appointments will cause serious harm to the rule of law, and support for his narrative about the judiciary will make judges look like cold-hearted creeps if they actually decide cases on the merits instead of on who you might feel sorry for. It's how he tried to paint Roberts and Alito, so it's no surprise that he'd use the reverse strategy to motivate judges who are more concerned with a just result than with following the law or the Constitution. As he says, you need to change people's views and hearts before initiating the more radical agenda that he wants eventually to be accomplished, so he's going to try to do the former as much as he can, starting with painting relatively moderate conservatives as heartless opponents of the weak.

Jeremy, thanks for taking the time to reply.

I think the problem here is that (according to your definitions) a social democrat, whilst constantly move society towards exactly the same ends as a socialist. Justice to them is defined as equality in economic and socio-cultural issues and freedom from dependence on owners of the means of production. There is only one place that can end. Socialism.

That they may never get there, as the economic, political and social toxicity of socialism may overpower a society first (As opposed to a revolution, where they get to socialism [kind of] straight a way and wait for the toxicity to slowly destroy)

Marx essentially claimed that non-violent means could transform a society to socialism/communism. Lenin was the one that rejected this notion, in favor of violence in all cases.

Neither is pretty nor desirable.

Not sure if you have read it, but Fred Schwarz' 'You can trust the communists' is a good overview to communist thinking http://www.schwarzreport.org/yct/Edited%20You%20Can%20Trust%20the%20Communists%20(to%20be%20communists).rtf

Alan, I'm not sure what you're trying to say if it's supposed to be anything different from what I'm saying. I've distinguished between two kinds of people who hold to a socialist theory of justice. One, the kind people typically think of when they hear the word 'socialist', advocates dismantling the capitalist system and instituting a socialist government. The other thinks the end result of the socialist is the only truly just government but is insistent on making incremental reforms. You seem to think there's no point in making that distinction just because both share the same ideals. I disagree. I don't see how the fact that they share the end result means there's a problem making the distinction. I couldn't vote for Obama unless he were facing an opponent noticeably worse than him. Several of the Democratic candidates who ran for the 2008 nomination and probably all of the Republican candidates (besides Ron Paul) who I'd have no second thoughts voting for if it would help prevent an Obama presidency. None of this is to try to justify or excuse a vote for him. I don't think that can be done. I just want to make proper distinctions between different views, and social democrats have come up with a view that's distinct from what we normally call socialism, even if the two share the core theory of justice in common.

The difference is that I see the removal of the 'socialist' label by 'social democrats' being mostly a propaganda issue. it is a rebranding to make their views more respectable (similar to 'pro-choice')

Both what you call socialists and social democrats are merely types of socialist (the broader category). As such, I think it is proper to call social democrats 'socialist'.

To use an inflammatory example. A person who killed by stabbing someone with a needle 10,000 times is still a murderer, even though it takes longer and the damage happened in very small increments.

I don't disagree that there are no differences between the two groups, I merely disagree that we should not call them both socialists. (There are certainly many ways to label them differently without dropping the socialist label)

All I'm saying is that it's misleading to call them socialists without qualifying it, and people are doing exactly that.

I disagree with you on the label 'pro-choice'. No one is pro-abortion except maybe the Chinese government. One side accepts that life is the more important issue than choice in terms of what decides the moral and/or legal question of whether an abortion is ok. The other side thinks choice wins out over life in deciding that question. So the labels 'pro-choice' and 'pro-life' are the most accurate ones at capturing the difference on the issue most at dispute.

I guess it would be misleading if you thought most people would automatically associate 'socialist' with someone who wants a violent revolution to change the government, but I think it is pretty clear from the use of the term in the media that this is not the case. No one is arguing that Obama wants to operate that way, even the people calling him a socialist.

Regarding pro-life/pro-choice. Once again, I have to disagree. The propaganda value and intentional choice of the label is well documented and evidenced by those pushing the abortion agenda.

Clear examples is the lack of counselling in abortion clinics for alternatives like adoption.

Another example is the opposition to full disclosure of risks and complications of abortions, for a proper informed choice.

Yet another example is the opposition to proper medical guidelines for abortion facilities.

Even without all these issues, I would disagree with the pro-choice label, as it twists the real issue at stake. Is the unborn property or person.

Slavery made exactly the same arguments (E.g. Dred vs Scot Supreme court case ruling Slaves were not persons. People arguing that slavery was a private issue...if you don't like it, don't own a slave etc). Anyone today would think the label pro-choice would be stupid to apply to someone supporting slavery. The issue is personhood, not choice. (In this regard pro-life is slightly better, but still a bit off. It points close to the issue of life, but like pro-choice, was a propaganda term that does indeed obfuscate the issue)

It doesn't have to be a violent revolution to be a major overhaul of the governmental system with radical change. Obama wants change, but he doesn't want that kind of change, not all at once and not without a lot more popular support.

I'm not interested in propaganda value. Both 'pro-life' and 'pro-choice' have propaganda value, and I think they're about equally bad in that respect. Someone who thinks it's not the government's job to stop abortion because they don't think it's clear that a fetus has moral status is not pro-death, so using the term 'pro-life' has propaganda value of suggesting that pro-choicers are pro-death. That's a clear propaganda value. But it's not what people mean when they say they're pro-life. They simply mean that life trumps choice. Similarly, saying you're pro-choice has propaganda value in suggesting that pro-lifers are against people choosing anything on their own, but that's not what pro-lifers mean when they use the label. They just mean they think life trumps choice on this issue. The two labels have parallel criticisms and parallel reasons to support them. They just seem much more accurate to me in capturing the main issue that's really under dispute. When you've got a situation like that, I'm happy to give both sides they're preferred label.

I do not agree with you that the issue is over whether the unborn is property or person, for reasons that I've partly explained here the day before I wrote this post. The simplest reason why that's true, though, is that the most careful defenders of legalized abortion accept, at least for the sake of argument, that a human being in the fetal stage has full moral rights, while still resisting the claim that having such rights makes all abortion immoral and requires making it illegal. So the debate isn't about whether the fetus is a person but whether the right to do what you want with your body is a stronger right than the right to life (or the moral status, if you want to move away from basing morality on rights, as I do) of a fetus. That means it's a battle between the principle of life and the principle of choice.

As for slavery, I've never seen anyone make it about personal choice. It was, however, about states' rights, at least for a lot of people. A lot of people thought slavery was wrong but didn't think it was a legitimate act for the federal government (which, keep in mind, was only as loose an authority as the E.U. is now, and the states were viewed as sovereign states) to interfere with such matters and that it should be left to states to settle their own internal matters on such issues.

Dred Scott assumed black people were persons, because it used that language to describe them. What it said is that persons descended from Africans aren't citizens, not that they're not persons. It doesn't assume the false disjunction that persons can't be property. Persons can be property, as any Christian should admit, since we're all God's property. Perhaps it makes a mistake in thinking that human persons can be property of other human beings, and perhaps some people make the same mistake with abortion, but one certainly need not assume that a fetus is property to favor keeping abortion legal (any more than one need assume that a fetus isn't a person). Thomson's argument certainly does no such thing.

I guess we disagree on being interested in propaganda value. I surprised that you aren't that interested, as the terms used obfuscate rather than enlighten. Deceive, rather than educate.

Pro-life and pro-choice gain their propaganda value not just by what it implies about their opposition, but by obscuring the real issues. The labels are actually incredibly ironic (and thus the source of much poorly reasoned arguments).

(The abortion debate is not about being pro-life or pro-choice. If you knew nothing about the debate, the terms will only lead you to make poor conclusions.)

The irony is that more pro-life people support capital punishment than do pro-choice people.

The irony is that more pro-choice people support government restrictions than pro-life people.

The real foundational question is when is it justified to take a life, specifically the life on the unborn.

(P.s. thanks for the correction on the Dred Scott case...I must of picked that mistaken view up in some previous readings...I checked out the actual case file and you are correct)

Regarding socialism, I still don't agree with you. I think there are many cases and examples of people who are (self proclaimed or not) socialists, who don't want to use violent revolution.

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