Politics: October 2008 Archives

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.

Latoya Peterson at Racialicious is, to my mind, one of the more insightful and fair-minded of commentators on race from a left-of-center perspective. I often find myself disagreeing with her on politics, and I don't think she always represents conservative views or Republican politicians as charitably as I'd like, but I usually find her discussions of race to be more nuanced than most left, center, or right commentators can achieve. I even recognize elements in her analysis that strike me as the sort of thing I'd expect out of moderate conservatives on race, which I regard as outstanding intellectual honesty on her part, because a lot of the people she associates with on such matters would be very resistant to such conclusions (and certainly would be if I were the one presenting them).

But sometimes I see something from her that I just can't accept, and I've just found one. She speaks favorably of Adriel Luis' diatribe on McCain's use of "that one" to refer to Obama as racist in what it "really means". I watcher the video of Luis, and I just don't see any argument there for why McCain must have meant it in a racist way, none at all. The "that one" comment reminded me more of John Kerry's continued use of "this president" when speaking directly at George W. Bush in their debates. It's insulting, but it's quite a reach to claim (without argument) that it's even racial, never mind racist. It may well be that McCain is a
racist. Some people have seen his use of 'gook' for his Vietnamese captors as a sign of racism, but see Katie Hong's better explanation of what's going on there (and her critique of why it's still bad to use the term in that way but isn't necessarily racist). But even if he's at least racially insensitive in some troubling ways, it's just crazy even to suggest that "that one" is racist without giving a shred of evidence that other interpretations are impossible or unlikely, including my own thought that it was just like Kerry's indirect way of referring to Bush as an intended slight without racial connotations.

Now I said Luis gave no argument for why McCain must have meant this in a racist way. I didn't say he gave no argument for making such a claim. He does give a very interesting argument for why it's perfectly ok to throw around charges of racism with no shred of evidence. He says that as long as we brush off each potentially racist claim as not being clearly racist then people won't see any racism as being there. I suppose that might be true if we did that with absolutely every case, even ones where there's evidence (and there are plenty, including some that can't be interpreted charitably, such as Michael Richards' big fiasco with the N-word). But remember that we're talking about particular cases that we don't really know about. There's a reason we don't (at least we're not supposed to) find someone guilty unless guilt can be established beyond a reasonable doubt. We could use the argument that such a policy would mean that we'd never catch killers and that people would deny the reality of murders, thinking deaths were all accidental. But it doesn't have that effect, and the policy of giving the people of the benefit of the doubt with accusations of racism need not have such an effect.

For the same reason that we don't assume guilt with crimes, we should also not assume guilt with moral accusations that aren't crimes. It's basic human decency, and I find it sorely lacking among people who throw racism charges around without strong evidence. Being hesitant in particular cases when you don't know for sure is not the same thing as denying that racism is real. No, it's just being unsure about particular cases when you don't know for sure. I can't count how many times I've been accused of justifying racism when I've pointed out that a racism charge is unwarranted. Only if you don't know the distinction between being true and being proved to be true can you make such a charge. You don't need to deny that racism is real or even that it's widespread and so deep-seated that it's hard to spot in order to point out that a particular case is not clearly racist and thus unfair to call racist, and this will be true no matter how many such particular cases you find.

I've given a moral argument for my policy of giving people the benefit of the doubt in cases of potential but unestablished racism. I don't think it should have to bring any negative racial effects as long as those who question racist accusations in particular cases are willing to acknowledge it when it's clear and insist that there are probably plenty of cases of real racism where we unfortunately can't be sure and thus be able to call them on it. My sense is that conservatives on race are sorely lacking in that sort of thing, and that's why every attempt to follow a policy like mine gets seen as an attempt to justify actual racism. But I don't see how that mistake on the part of people who follow a policy like mine can justify the accusation of trying to justify racism, as has been said about me many times in the comments at Racialicious whenever I've said that a charge of racism is going beyond what we can be sure of. But people prone to leap to racism charges without enough evidence are also prone to leap to racism-justifying charges without reason.

I maintain that we do need to give particular people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to racism charges. Leaping to accusations of racism fuels the sense that every charge of racism is just a political ploy to get more power for a black hegemony that has taken great joy in gaining power by making racism charges. There's no way conservatives on race are going to back down from that narrative as long as a significant number of people follow a policy like Luis'. His strategy is therefore counterproductive, because he's just adding fuel to the fire among those who think racism charges are all or mostly false. Consistently repeating such charges without evidence isn't going to undermine such a narrative. It will further it. A more widespread recognition of the fact that racism is more widespread and deeply-seated among everyday white experiences will only come if those who seek to find racism under every rock and tree are a little more willing to express skepticism in particular cases when racism isn't all that well established.

Ayers on White Supremacy

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Conservatives need to understand the language of the left if they're going to criticize what people on the left say. William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn have a new book coming out. Here is the publisher's blurb about the book:

Race Course Against White Supremacy By: William C. Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn

White supremacy and its troubling endurance in American life is debated in these personal essays by two veteran political activists. Arguing that white supremacy has been the dominant political system in the United States since its earliest days--and that it is still very much with us--the discussion points to unexamined bigotry in the criminal justice system, election processes, war policy, and education. The book draws upon the authors' own confrontations with authorities during the Vietnam era, reasserts their belief that racism and war are interwoven issues, and offers personal stories about their lives today as parents, teachers, and reformers.

Tommy Oliver summarizes Ayers as saying, "we are a nation of white supremacists". He then quotes an LGF post that says Ayers claims, "the dominant political system in the United States is white supremacism". Both of these claims are gross misunderstandings of what that blurb says, and it takes only the little familiarity I have with Marxian-style racial critiques to see this.

White supremacy, according to the Marx-style critique, consists of two things. First, the social structure of race relations is such that white people do in fact dominate much of the time. Second, there are structures in place that serve to perpetuate that dominance. Such a view can range from the most radical end to a much more minimal version. The radical extreme claims that white people have set up such a system deliberately and intentionally perpetuate it to serve their own interests. A much more minimal version, in my view, is very close to the truth, and that claims only that there are factors in place that, often unintentionally or at least for motivations other than race, have the effect of continuing the influence that white people disproportionally still have most of the time.

White supremacism is an ideology. It holds that white people ought to be in power because white people are better than those of other races. It claims that any structures in place that might be called white supremacy are good and worth extending to make white control even stronger. It's not hard to see, then, that white supremacy is not the same thing as white supremacism. One is a set of social structures. The other is an ideology.

What the blurb for the Ayers/Dohrn book actually says is "that white supremacy has been the dominant political system in the United States since its earliest days--and that it is still very much with us". That simply is not a claim that white supremacism is dominant in any respect, as the LGF post says. It is not a statement about the prevalence of white supremacism among Americans, as Tommy Oliver's post asserts. It is a statement that white supremacy, the fact of white predominance and structures that continue it, has been more influential in American history than any other political structure. I think it's a highly questionable claim, and I'm sure there's a great deal in this book that I'd disagree with, but it doesn't do to pretend the claim is something much crazier than it really is. There's enough to criticize about the book that there's no need to make it out to be making an accusation that's much more serious than what the blurb actually attributes to the book.

Obama Oversaturation

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Whenever a commercial begins to play so often that it seems like it's airing every commercial break, I begin to lose patience with whatever it's advertising, even if it was something I tend to like or support. I'm curious how oversaturating the market with the same awful Obama ad every single break of Stargate Atlantis and Sanctuary is supposed to help Obama rather than just turning off any undecided voters who might be watching. People watch science fiction to get away from stuff like politics, not to have it show up every time the show takes a break. It would be different to do that on cable news, where most people watching are actually interested in what's going on in the world, or they wouldn't have that channel on. At least when I watch tonight's Heroes it will be on DVR.

It's bad enough that he's got his own channel now and intends to do a Ross Perot the week before the election, but the same tired commercial five times an hour is getting a bit annoying. I'm not at all sure it's an effective strategy in the longest election in American history, when most people are getting tired of the campaign and want it to be over, to get in everyone's face and encourage them to think of you as the late-night guest who just won't go home and let you go to bed in peace. That's not a way to make people happier to vote for you.

Obama on Genocide

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I'm not going to try to claim that Barack Obama hasn't ever changed his stance on Iraq, but this doesn't seem to be such a flip:

From last year:

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn't a good enough reason to keep US forces there," the AP reported on July 20, 2007...

From Tuesday night's debate:

In such cases, answered Obama, "we have moral issues at stake." Of course the United States must act to stop genocide, he said. "When genocide is happening, when ethnic cleansing is happening . . . and we stand idly by, that diminishes us."

Sorry, but I don't see any inconsistency here. He doesn't think preventing a potential genocide is a good enough reason for a military presence in another nation. He does think stopping one in progress gives a moral imperative to stop it. To make this work, he'll have to provide arguments for why the first case is merely potential and not a serious enough risk to worry about removing troops completely from the situation, or he'll have to argue that it's never ok to intervene until after the fact. I don't think either argument is easy to make. I'd need to see more than I've seen to convince me, anyway. I also don't know of any instance when he's tried to make that case. But it's not necessarily an inconsistency or a change in view.

It's perfectly fine to point out when politicians change their views in order to get them to explain the change (but don't assume a change is a sign of flipping for mere political reasons if there's a plausible explanation for that change in views, as there sometimes is). It's also fine to ask them to explain how two statements fit together if they don't think they've changed their views. I don't think Obama's statements on gun control fit together at all, despite his claim not to have changed his views. I also don't think his explanations of his past connections and votes are consistent with each other or with the past. But his critics need to be a little better at restricting themselves to genuine examples of conflicting statements, or even the legitimate questions about his honesty, revisionism, and political expediency are going to be seen as mere political plays without substance.

It's counter-productive to use flimsy reasoning against a candidate, because those inclined to give the benefit of the doubt (and undecided voters probably are) aren't going to be moved by the real criticisms if they constantly see bad ones. The mainstream media and lefty blogs have now ruined their chances at any legitimate criticisms of Sarah Palin move the conservative base, because they can't trust anything anyone says against her. The fact that a political opponent who has been vocally against her has led the investigation of the firinng of Mike Wooten is going to lead to immediate distrust of what little criticism of her their report contains (it's mostly critical of her husband). The base will of course have no problem playing this stuff up to no end, but that's not going to move undecided voters very much.

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