Is Barack Obama a socialist? Astonishingly, the media, with rare exception, have all but ignored the ideas of people who ought to know: self-declared socialists. Socialist Party USA co-chairman Billy Wharton agreed to answer a few questions for me, and tells FrumForum what American socialism would look like, why he thinks that Obama is a crony for business interests, and why true socialists find virtually nothing to celebrate in his presidency.
FF: Thank you so much for your time. I’m a little astonished that so few people are asking self-avowed socialists about this “controversy.” I guess a good place to start, then, would be right at the beginning: just what is socialism?
BW: Democratic socialism is a political philosophy based on two central notions. The first is that all people in society have the right to the basic necessities of life, including housing, a job, health care and a clean environment. We see these things as unalienable human rights. Second, and connected, we believe that the principles of democracy need to be applied to the economy … this means things like worker self-management of businesses, consumer cooperative organizing and participatory budgeting.
FF: Yes-or-no question: is the president a socialist?
FF: Why do so many people think he is?
BW: One important reason is that a seriously disorganized Republican Party is attempting to recover from a string of electoral defeats by allowing the far-right to employ a tried and true practice in American politics – red-baiting. The key element of this tactic is that it provides a simple explanation for rather complex social and economic problems. A section of people living in the disarray of the economic crisis that started in 2008 have chosen to adopt this simple explanation.
The danger for the Republican Party is that the Tea Party, which is a seriously top-down movement, will begin to exercise control over the Party. Second danger, is that they are re-introducing the term socialist to American politics. The far-right is trying to control this definition, but this is difficult to do. Our task as socialists is to demonstrate not only that Obama is not a socialist, but that socialist ideals offer better answers to the problems that everyday people face under capitalism.
FF: A lot of conservatives would say that your description of what socialism fundamentally is — “all people in society have the right to the basic necessities of life – including housing, a job, healthcare and a clean environment” — sounds a lot like a typical Obama speech. In what areas is the president falling short of socialist goals?
BW: I would encourage these folks to take a serious look at the policies Obama has enacted over the past two years. The election campaign is over, so there is no more ambiguity about what Obama might or might not do. On healthcare, Obama and the Democrats in the Congress allowed the health insurance companies to write the healthcare reform bill. This means that instead of the single-payer national program that socialists advocated, Obama supported a bill that will allow private companies to loot taxpayer money while selling junk healthcare plans to the uninsured.
On the bank bailout, more of the same. Instead of the national jobs program that we called for, Obama poured billions into the banks. Financial reform? Same deal. Obama and the Democrats allowed the Republicans to negotiate out the Volcker Rule that would have placed more serious regulation on the financial sector. Finally, Obama failed miserably during the BP oil explosion. Instead of a nationalization order, which socialists supported, BP received polite invitations to lunch at the White House. Where is the socialism in all of this?…
FF: Is there anything Obama has done at all that’s given true socialists cause to celebrate? Or has he shown himself to be a down-the-line crony for business interests?
BW: Throughout his administration President Obama has demonstrated a commitment to defend the interests of corporations and the richest 5% of society. And now, his Deficit Commission appears to be targeting public programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Socialists are faced with the task of building movements to defend these programs and developing initiatives that move towards greater economic democracy. Obama’s not an ally in the struggle, if anything his administration has been a hindrance.
FF: Let me play devil’s advocate here. What of Obama’s history? Saul Alinsky, the original “community organizer,” has become something of a household name as of late. Now, Alinsky was a proud leftist, and the movement he launched had openly leftist — and, in many instances, socialist — goals. What do you say to those who would contend that, given his background as a community organizer, Obama must secretly sympathize with socialist goals, even if he disagrees with folks like you on tactics? (For instance: your call for healthcare nationalization had literally no chance of passing Congress.)
BW: There was community organizing well before Alinsky, however, he’s been quite influential in post WWII organizing efforts. I wouldn’t call Alinsky a proud leftist. In fact, he was explicitly anti-ideological and advocated avoiding electoral politics. Socialism is a political ideology and the Socialist Party USA seeks to create social change, in part, through electoral campaigns. So, socialists don’t draw much inspiration from Alinsky.
Neither, it seems, does Obama. When given the opportunity to defend ACORN, Obama refused to come clean about his connections to the group. Thereby allowing the right wing to dismantle the organization. This was the first sign that Obama intended to distance himself from any grassroots political efforts. And we can see the same process underway among immigrant rights groups and the marriage equality movement. This is why I say I’m not even sure that Obama is a liberal and the idea that he’s a socialist is simply absurd.
FF: Are there any politicians in the United States that SPUSA feels comfortable with right now?
BW: We are committed to presenting our own candidates in local, state and Federal elections throughout the country. On occasion we also engage in electoral coalitions with other third parties. We see no possibilities for progressive change inside either the Democrats or Republicans. The Republicans have been the party of social and economic conservatism and eventually neoconservatism since post World War II. The Democrats have acted as their partners by pursuing neoliberal policies and managing wars of aggression from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. Independents such as Bernie Sanders and progressives like Dennis Kucinich tend to fall into line with the prevailing political opinions in the Democratic Party. This was particularly true during the recent healthcare and financial reform debates. If Americans want real political change it will have to happen outside of the two party system.
FF: Finally, where is SPUSA directing its resources right now? What issues are most burning to Socialists at this moment?
BW: We’re aiming to build local organizations in every state in the country. Since the capitalist crisis began in 2008 we have established new locals in Memphis, Oklahoma City and Wichita. This is the first time since the McCarthy period that socialists are organizing in these locations. We intend to continue and extend this process.
The issues that are critical to us include reversing the SB 1070 anti-immigrant law in Arizona, stopping the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and advancing our ideas about economic democracy. Overall, we hope to create a society based on socialist values of solidarity, compassion and justice.
FF: Anything else you’d like to add?
BW: I thank you for this opportunity to present our ideas about democratic socialism. I hope that other people will give us a fair hearing. I think that they will find that socialism for the 21st century offers the best hope for the global advance of human development. I encourage people to visit our website and examine the ideas that we support. We also have a weekly WebZine.