I’ve recently had exchanges with David Frum, Harold Meyerson, and “Eugene Debs,” a Democratic activist who writes under the name of one of America’s greatest socialists, over the publication of my forthcoming book, Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism. (Here’s the press release for the book.) Frum thinks that Jonah Goldberg and I are mistaken to call Obama a socialist. Debs agreed.
Now “Eugene Debs” is back. On the matter of his anonymity, he says that only his argument should matter, not his identity. I disagree, and I will have more to say next week about the issue of engaging in public debate under an assumed name.
Debs argues that even an irrefutable Obama connection to socialism in the past would mean nothing if it could not be seen in operation in the present. That’s why my book ends with a chapter connecting Obama’s socialist past to the conduct of his presidency. Yet precisely because much contemporary American socialism is self-consciously stealthy, Obama’s socialist past illuminates his presidency in a way that non-historical accounts cannot. I am not going to spell this out until the publication of Radical-in-Chief, precisely because my understanding of Obama’s presidency is bound up with my revelations about his past.
The question of deception adds another dimension to this debate. Let’s say the hypothetical scenarios of Obama’s past socialism spun out by Debs were all true. If that was the case, it would mean that President Obama had systematically and profoundly deceived the American people about his own political history during the 2008 election. I believe that the president has, in fact, deceived the public in just this way. Radical-in-Chief makes that case in detail. Obama’s deceptive handling of his past undermines democracy. It also undermines trust in Obama’s claims about the motivations behind his current policies. Americans knew the truth about Ronald Reagan’s liberal past, just as they clearly understood that he was a committed conservative when he ran for president. But the American public has not been told the truth about Obama’s socialist past. That deception matters immensely for our assessment his conduct in office.