Life of the New Party
A redistributionist success story.


Stanley Kurtz

Are Obama’s radical plans all in the past? There is no reason to think so. Aside from the fact that 2001 is not very long ago, Obama shows every sign of hoping to build a base for long-term economic change from below. Obama’s has promised a massive national service program closely allied with the nonprofit sector. In conjunction with this, Obama plans to remove “barriers for smaller nonprofits to participate in government programs.” In other words, Obama plans a massive effort to funnel America’s youth into volunteer work alongside the likes of ACORN. Not only might Obama’s favorite community organizers soon be training your child, the ultimate goal is arguably to bring to fruition Rogers’s dream of “popular governance rooted in mass democratic organization.” Over time, that is, a substantial new public sector, composed of radical community organizers and politicized student “volunteers,” would form the nucleus of a newly “democratized” capitalism. Some might call this the New Party road to de facto socialism.

If these are Obama’s goals, I doubt he wants to achieve them all at once, any more than Rogers himself wanted to do so. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Obama, like so many of his community organizer colleagues, practices an “incremental radicalism.” The point is not to push for the whole redistributionist agenda right away, but to gain a series small but cumulative victories, each of which contributes to the formation of a long-term coalition for more ambitious systemic change. Even as president, I think Obama would hew to this incremental strategy. But I do think we have reason to believe that Obama’s long-term goals may be little different from Joel Rogers’s.

New Party Ties
At any rate, there can be no doubt that in 1996, Obama made his first run for office as a New Party-endorsed candidate. And while Obama and Joel Rogers continue to deny it, a raft of accumulating evidence points to the fact that Obama was a New Party member. I presented some of the key evidence in “Something New Here,” where I also explained what the New Party was, and highlighted its close ties to ACORN. Thanks to the efforts of “New Zeal” blogger Trevor Loudon, we now have important documentary evidence from the spring 1996 issue of the New Party’s key national organ, New Party News, that Obama was in fact a New Party member.

Additional evidence can be found in this New Party announcement from 1996. A publication called The Progressive Populist also identified Obama as a New Party member here. Perhaps more important, this “Chicago New Party Update” from the newsletter of the closely allied Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) suggests that, in Chicago, the distinction between an endorsed New Party candidate and a New Party member may have been non-existent. According to this report, “Candidates must be approved via a NP political committee. Once approved, candidates must sign a contract with the NP. The contract mandates that they must have a visible and active relationship with the NP.” In effect, then, the contract signed as a condition of endorsement constituted a commitment to membership in the organization. And even in the highly unlikely event that the several contemporaneous reports of Obama’s membership in the New Party were somehow mistaken, the fact that his endorsement required him to maintain a “visible and active relationship” with the party confirms the existence of close and supportive two-way ties. We already know that Obama was closely allied with key New Party figures, and remained so for many years. (See “Something New Here,” linked above, and “A Party Without Members?”) All of this means that we are perfectly entitled to treat Obama as a strong and close supporter of the New Party, and almost certainly as a member as well.

I’ve engaged in a spirited back and forth with the Politico’s Ben Smith over the existence and significance of Obama’s New Party ties. Smith relies uncritically on New Party co-founder Joel Rogers’s characterization of his ideological agenda, and on Rogers’s shifting and unsupported denials of Obama’s New Party membership. Rogers’s manifestly absurd claim that the New Party didn’t have members has already been retracted.

In fact, a large number of news stories, and the New Party’s own literature, repeatedly note that the party does have members, without adding any of Rogers’s tortured qualifications. In a Fall 1997 article in New Labor Forum, for example, New Party cofounder Daniel Cantor and ACORN’s lead national organizer, Wade Rathke brag that the New Party has 10,000 members.

Such references could be multiplied, but why go on with this charade? The New Party had members, and Barack Obama was one of them. That is what contemporaneous documents tell us, and that is the reasonable inference to be made from the requirement that endorsed candidates sign a contract of party support. We know that Obama was a close ally, supporter, and even funder of key New Party figures. At a minimum, it is intriguing that one of the key lawyers who argued the New Party’s famous “fusion” case was both a partner in Obama’s law firm and the wife of Joel Rogers. And if, in the exceedingly unlikely event that, all evidence to the contrary, Obama was somehow not a New Party member, his ties to the party were in any event extraordinarily close and reciprocal.

What Obama Wants?
All of this matters, not because of some simplistic associational “gotcha,” but because Obama’s still somewhat mysterious ideology, as revealed in that 2001 radio interview, is greatly illuminated by his New Party ties. The New Party advocated gradual, but radical economic change, arguably socialist, but in any case heavily redistributive, all swathed in the soothing vocabulary of traditional American democracy, and grounded in the hope that the reach of groups like ACORN could one day be multiplied many times over. This, I’d wager, is what Barack Obama believed when he was endorsed by the New Party in 1996, what he believed when he spoke of “major redistributive change” on the radio in 2001, and what he hopes to accomplish (over time) should he become president of the United States in 2009.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


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