During his first campaign for the Illinois state senate in 1995-96, Barack Obama was a member of, and was endorsed by, the far-left New Party. Obama’s New Party ties give the lie to his claim to be a post-partisan, post-ideological pragmatist. Particularly in Chicago, the New Party functioned as the electoral arm of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). So despite repeated attempts to distance himself from ACORN, Obama’s New Party ties raise disturbing questions about his links to those proudly militant leftists. The media’s near-total silence on this critical element of Obama’s past is deeply irresponsible.
SOCIALIST? While a small group of bloggers have productively explored Obama’s New Party ties, discussion has often turned on the New Party’s alleged socialism. Was the New Party actually established by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)? Was the New Party’s platform effectively socialist in content? Although these debates are both interesting and important, we needn’t resolve them to conclude that the New Party was far to the left of the American mainstream. Whether formally socialist or not, the New Party and its ACORN backers favored policies of economic redistribution. As Obama would say, they wanted to spread the wealth around. Bracketing the socialism question and simply taking the New Party on its own terms is sufficient to raise serious questions about Obama’s political commitments — questions that cry out for attention from a responsible press.
In 2002, Micah L. Sifry, a former writer and editor with The Nation magazine, published Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America, a book that contains what is probably our best account of the rise and fall of the New Party. Although Sifry leaves us hanging on the socialism question, his chapter on the New Party is more than enough to raise disturbing questions about Obama’s radicalism, and about his ties to ACORN.
Sifry reports a quip by New Party co-founder, Daniel Cantor: “The shorthand strategy for accomplishing all this is to get the Bruce Springsteen, Lauryn Hill, and Pete Seeger vote united in one party.” The Peter Seeger vote does sound like shorthand for the old-time socialist Left — but also for far-left-leaning baby boomers in general. Bruce Springsteen and Lauryn Hill point to young blacks and whites on the left, perhaps including, but not restricted to, openly socialist sympathizers. In short, the New Party was a mid-1990s effort to build a “progressive” coalition to the left of the Democratic party, uniting left-leaning baby boomers with minorities, relatively militant unionists, and “idealistic” young people.
PARTY WITHIN A PARTY In contrast to Ralph Nader’s recent third-party campaigns, the New Party’s strategy was to work through “fusion.” Fusion parties were popular in the 19th century. Although these small parties had a separate line on the ballot, they often endorsed one of the major-party candidates. That meant these third parties didn’t have to act as “spoilers” in close elections. Yet by constituting themselves as separate entities and offering their endorsement as bait, fusion parties tended to push the major parties further to the right or the left. We see remnants of the old fusion-party pattern in New York State, where separate Liberal and Conservative parties sometimes shift elections by endorsing one or another major party candidate.
As the New Party’s founders put it, they were looking for a cross between the “party within the party” strategy favored by leftist Democrats and the “plague on both your houses” stance later adopted by the Naderites. That means Obama’s New Party ties place him on the far left end of the Democratic party, arguably with one foot outside and to the left of the party itself.
Does this make Obama “socialist?” Maybe so, but according to Sifry, the vague “New Party” name was chosen precisely to avoid such ideological pigeonholing. Maybe that vagueness was designed to avoid exposing the party as the socialist sympathizer it was. Or maybe the name was a way of avoiding complex internal struggles between competing ideological factions, some socialist and some not. (The answer is “both of the above,” I tend to think.) In any case, the New Party was clearly far to the left of mainstream Democrats, and according to Sifry, the party explicitly thought of itself as made up of committed “progressives,” rather than conventional “liberals.” That is entirely consistent with a famous 1995 profile of Obama by Hank De Zutter, which portrays him as closely tied to ACORN, and holding a world-view well “beyond” his mother’s conventional liberalism.
To get a sense of where the New Party stood politically, consider some of its early supporters: Barbara Dudley of Greenpeace; Steve Cobble, political director of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coaltion; prominent academics like Frances Fox Piven, coauthor of the “Cloward-Piven strategy” and a leader of the drive for the “motor-voter” legislation Obama later defended in court on behalf of ACORN; economist Juliet Schor; black historian Manning Marable; historian Howard Zinn; linguist Noam Chomsky; Todd Gitlin; and writers like Gloria Steinem and Barbara Ehrenreich. Socialist? Readers can draw their own conclusions. At one point, Sifry does describe the party’s goals as “social democratic.” In any case, the New Party clearly stands substantially to the left of the mainstream Democratic party.
ACORN CONNECTION Unquestionably, ACORN was one of the most important forces behind the creation of the New Party. According to Sifry: “Wade Rathke, ACORN’s lead national organizer, was in on the founding discussions that led to the New Party, and the group’s political director, Zach Polett, also came to play a big role in guiding New Party field organizing for the party [in Chicago and Little Rock].” In fact, Sifry portrays ACORN’s leading role in the New Party as the result of a conscious decision by the organization to move into electoral politics in a more substantial way than they had been able to solely through their political action committee. In addition to Rathke and Polett, a key early supporter of the New Party was Obama’s closest ACORN contact, Madeline Talbott.