Having authored a book called Radical-in-Chief, it’s no surprise that I’m unpersuaded by Michael Medved’s attack on the use of the word “radical” to characterize Obama. Let’s remember that Obama proudly trained community organizers in the work of Saul Alinsky, whose theories were encapsulated in books entitled Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals. If Alinskyite organizers can call themselves radicals, why can’t their critics?
It’s true that when dealing directly with the people they organize, Alinskyites generally eschew the label “radical,” just as they suppress their socialist ideology. But Medved seems unaware of the fact that Alinskyite bad faith is one of the charges against Obama. Obama has denied that single payer health care is the long-term goal of his policies, even though significant evidence suggests that he is not telling the truth about that. Such behavior would be entirely expected from an Alinskyite organizing radical.
Does Medved believe that the policies advocated on a day-to-day basis by openly socialist Senator Bernie Sanders and columnist Harold Meyerson are “unprecedented?” The real problem is that they are all-too-precedented. A genuine understanding of contemporary “democratic socialism” reveals that it overlaps considerably with the left side of the Democratic Party. Obama’s socialist organizing mentors worked comfortably, if quietly, to drive the party leftward from within. Their core strategy, as socialists, was to spend their political capital on those parts of the standard liberal agenda most likely to lead to irreversible structural changes in the economy. To be radical is to “go to the root.” Obama’s socialist mentors believed that what made them “radical” was their ability to recognize and emphasize within the standard liberal smorgasbord those particular changes most likely to cut away at the roots of American capitalism.
Health-care reform has long been the part of the standard liberal agenda dearest to the hearts of socialists. We now know that Obama decided to make health-care reform the centerpiece of his presidency, against the wishes of nearly all his senior advisers. That suggests Obama is operating according to something other than the standard liberal playbook. Again, however, contemporary Alinskyite radicalism is notable for making sophisticated use of the overlap between “reformist” socialism and standard Democratic politics. Contra Medved, it’s not a simple either/or. That’s how Jan Schakowsky could move so easily from the very same group of socialist Alinskyite radicals who trained Obama to a Democratic seat in Congress.
Kevin Williamson’s excellent new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, makes a sophisticated argument to the effect that the American economy is partially socialized already, even if the system as a whole retains a non-socialist character. At some point, however, the balance could tip. Incremental socialization could yield a fundamentally new system-wide dynamic that is socialist in nature.
If the health-care sector were sufficiently socialized, and a massive new cohort of unionized public employees were to emerge within it, the political balance of power in American could permanently–and yes, radically–alter. What distinguishes the radicalism of Obama and his Alinskyite organizing mentors is that they understand what Williamson understands. They recognize that an incremental, sector-by-sector strategy of socialization, often achieved through regulation rather than overt nationalization, is a viable means of anti-capitalist transformation.
Medved makes much of the lack of socialists among Obama’s appointees. But Obama’s stealth-socialist Alinskyite organizing mentors are still around. They work with him coordinating grass-roots support for his policies according to an “inside/outside” strategy Obama helped them perfect back in Illinois.
You can argue that Obama’s populist critics don’t have these sorts of sophisticated analyses in mind. Actually, I think the populists see matters more clearly than Medved. Conservative populists and real-life Alinskyite socialists share the conviction that America can be radically transformed by degrees–and will be, so long as the public fails to recognize what’s at stake.