Shocking Development: Obama is a Liberal

By Alan Stewart Carl | Related entries in Barack, Economy, Liberalism, Welfare

Circulating the wires today is a 2001 Barack Obama radio interview clip concerning wealth redistribution. As with all things political, your perspective and your prejudices will determine your interpretation of this clip.

Some see it as no big deal. Others see it as proof that Obama is all but a Marxist.

I understand the right’s desire to turn this clip into the smoking gun proof that Obama is going to seize our wealth and turn us all into comrades. I think many on the right have convinced themselves that such a nefarious goal is “the truth” about Obama and see evidence of that truth in every Obama utterance, much like many on the left tend to see every George W. Bush move as an attempt to enrich his cronies and advance theocracy.

There’s plenty of reasons to be concerned by Obama’s tricky tax plan, but I’m not going to play along with this “Obama’s a socialist/Marxist” nonsense.

First of all, the clip in question is an intellectual discussion not a policy debate. In many instances, Obama is speaking theoretically. When he does directly address his own philosophies, one of the clear points he makes is a major positive: he believes change should come through the democratic means of legislation rather than the manipulation of courts and the misuse of the Constitution.

On the matter of wealth redistribution, he’s clearly in favor of it. But why is this a surprise? Equality is the central tenet of liberalism. Universal health care. Affirmative action. Gay rights. Welfare. Minimum wage. Labor laws. Hate speech laws. Progressive taxation. They’re all attempts to equalize us. When handled responsibly, the drive for equality promotes a necessary level of fairness within our society. When handled with too much fervency, the drive can trample other rights and lead us towards distasteful moral equivalencies and, ultimately, the kind of totalitarianism spawned by communism.

So, the concern isn’t that Obama supports redistribution of wealth (both parties support it to varying degrees). The concern is with how much redistribution he supports. Are his goals within the American mainstream or are they radical? While I’m sure many believe Obama is hiding his true objectives, I’d argue that his platform gives us as clear a picture as we’re likely to get of how much redistribution Obama desires. And, I gotta say, as much as I dislike the messiness of his tax credits, Obama isn’t suggesting any radical moves. Could he support something more onerous once in office? Sure. But, even with a Democratic majority, there’s little likelihood that anything radical will get through the legislative process.

I think it’s important to note that, like all mainstream American liberals, when Obama talks about redistribution, he’s talking about equality of income. He wants what liberals always want: for the government to give a helping hand to the poor and for the government to place various restrictions on the rich to keep them from centralizing too much of our nation’s wealth.

This is not a radical philosophy. If Obama had used words like “income fairness” or even “wealth equality,” the radio clip in question would have remained on whatever shelf it was found. But “redistribution” sounds scary. It’s this election’s bogeyman word and some are going to keep treating the radio clip like the smoking gun that proves Obama’s wicked plans. As for me, I think I’ll assume the more likely scenario: Obama is a liberal.

Shocking. But true.


This entry was posted on Monday, October 27th, 2008 and is filed under Barack, Economy, Liberalism, Welfare. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

22 Responses to “Shocking Development: Obama is a Liberal”

  1. James Says:

    I’m still kind of shocked that it took so long for the conservatives to use the whole socialism/Marxist thing. I mean, with a graduated tax system, you’d think they’d be bright enough to be yelling about it for oh, 70 years.

  2. Regis Says:

    “Equality is the central tenant of liberalism. Universal health care. Affirmative action. Gay rights. Welfare. Minimum wage. Labor laws. Hate speech laws. Progressive taxation. They’re all attempts to equalize us. When handled responsibly, the drive for equality promotes a necessary level of fairness within our society. When handled with too much fervency, the drive can trample other rights and lead us towards distasteful moral equivalencies and, ultimately, the kind of totalitarianism spawned by communism.”

    I do not agree with this at all. As a liberal, all I want is fairness, justice and opportunity for all. I totally reject your slippery slope argument. I would make the argument that the real concern is the upward distribution of income and wealth which promotes corporatism and is more like to lead to, or is according to Mussolini, fascism. This is especially so when the leaders of the country think the Constitution is just a bunch or words on paper. Funny how the Repubs never were concerned about the distortion of income and upward distribution of wealth in the Bush Administration.

  3. Alan Stewart Carl Says:

    Regis, I’m not making a slippery slope argument. I have no issue with mainstream American liberalism. I support almost all those goals, albeit I don’t always support the proposed remedies.

    But communism did begin as an attempt to make everyone equal. To do that, it required totalitarianism. By no means am I suggesting that is the natural result of wanting equality or a natural result of liberal philosophy. It’s just an extreme result. Just like the extreme result of libertarianism is anarchy and the extreme result of conservativism is some form of fascism or theocracy. People have the capacity to take any idea too far.

    I think you believe I’m using “liberal” as a pejorative. I’m not.

    Do you agree that equality is a central focus of liberalism? I mean “fairness” and “justice” are both pretty close synonyms of “equality.” I didn’t think I was proposing a radical interpretation.

  4. Avinash_Tyagi Says:

    Wrong Alan, communism only required Totalitarianism, because, while Marx stated that the revolution would occur in an advanced industrialized capitalism, when Lenin took over Russia it was not industrialized, the russian communism was created in order to force the society towards the point where the revolution occured, in fact in an industrialized advanced nation Marx believed that the revolution would occur within a democratic state

  5. Rich Horton Says:

    I teach a “Political Idologies” course and as such I’m a stickler about some of the terminology.

    “Equality is the central tenant of liberalism.”

    In terms of the political ideology this is assuredly wrong. Liberalism is about maximizing freedom (thus the Latin root “liber”). Maximizing “equality” is, and always has been, a central tenet of socialism. (Which is different than communism…you seem to use the terms interchangably).

    “Universal health care. Affirmative action. Gay rights. Welfare. Minimum wage. Labor laws. Hate speech laws. Progressive taxation. They’re all attempts to equalize us.”

    And, thus, not particularly “liberal.”

    Now, this distinction matters. For example, John Stuart Mill has always been classified as a liberal, but he would be horrified at the notion of “hate speech laws”…and rightfully so, as they are completely illiberal. That such laws are termed “liberal” in our weird world Mill would view as grotesque.

    What is amazing about our society is there is no longer a popular term to apply to someone who values human freedom above all else.

    Is says something unpleasant about the drift of our society.

  6. Jim S Says:

    I think that anything as all consuming as Communism would inevitably lead to tyranny. And it is not accurate to say that liberalism wants complete equality, IMO. I think it is more accurate to say that they really mean it when they say they want equal opportunity. In today’s world this means a better base platform for the less well off to work off of. Yes, it means decent housing, education and health care. It doesn’t mean telling the Americans who live in poor states that it’s just tough luck but it doesn’t mean anything to their fellow Americans that they can’t afford these things on their own so they’ll have to do without. But if those goals are going to be met it means some serious re-thinking of our approaches to all of these issues needs to be done. Since Republicans have thoroughly integrated Reagan’s saying about government into their political DNA they aren’t capable of doing any of it. So I refuse to vote for them until they can meet reality head on.

  7. Regis Says:

    Alan,
    I do not believe that equality is the same as fairness and justice. Equality could be very unfair and unjust. Equality has more dimensions than fairness and justice. Fairness and justice imply to me equality and justice under the law, which includes our economic system.

    I totally reject that fervent liberalism can lead to communism at the extreme. Indeed, I believe Marx thought that society would evolve into communism from capitalism when men were replaced by machines and had substantial free time and the bourgeoisie devoured itself in greed. Sound familiar.
    Soviet communism was Lenin’s bastardization of what Marx predicted would evolve naturally.

    I agree that many of the liberal remedies to injustice are unfair to some but, take, for example, affirmative action. In my view the greater injustice is to allow the evils perpetrated during slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow and segregation to remain visited upon a group of people and their psyche through no fault of their own. Without affirmative action, it will take many more generations for this national disgrace to be rectified. The sins of our fathers have been passed on for so many generations that we unstigmatized Americans must provide remedies. I am not saying that affirmative action is the only remedy; education and personal experience will help significantly but we still have school systems that are purposely segregated. Look up Haley Barbour and the way Mississippi carves out new school districts when there is a possible large African American student population in an area newly inhabited by whites — new gated communities for instance. We have a long way to go.

  8. Alan Stewart Carl Says:

    Rich: my apologies for being so loose with my definitions. I used to be such a stickler for proper labeling until I realized that most people’s modern conceptions of “liberal” and “conservative” (and “socialism” and “marxism” for that matter) have been so degraded I might as well just go with the flow. I used to say I am a classic liberal, but people just squinted at me. So, the “liberal” I use above is “modern American definition of liberal” which is, as you know, frought with inconsistencies. But it’s not socialism because modern American liberals don’t advocate the kind of substantial government control of industry and wealth distribution that defines socialism. It would be nice if we had a proper label.

    Jim: I think there are a lot of liberals who are more concerned with equality of results more than equality of opportunity. When you talk quality of opportunity you have to be comfortable with the fact that some people are going to fail to take advantage and live in poverty. That said, I support equality of opportunity but am usually resistant to efforts to create equality of results.

    Avinash: what are you arguing? That Marxism is possible? (it’s a utopian fantasy, btw) The point I made is that communism puts the goal of “equality” above all else and the attempts to achieve that goal have reached totalitarianism.

  9. Alan Stewart Carl Says:

    Regis: well, as I just mentioned to Rich, we’re a little hemmed in by shifting and inconsistent definitions here. And, obviously, modern American liberalism is not a monolithic set of beliefs. Some have a more devoted commitment to equality for equality’s sake than others.

    Not to divert the conversation, but affirmative action is a good example of putting equality of result over other considerations. I don’t want to get into the issue because my position on it is nuanced. It’s better handled over beers than on blogs.

  10. Rich Horton Says:

    “So, the “liberal” I use above is “modern American definition of liberal” which is, as you know, frought with inconsistencies.”

    I knew this was what you were doing…but I wanted to be deliberately obtuse…but for a reason. To attempt to use the term “conservative” to describe someone who values freedom above all else is just as wrong as to say Liberalism = equality.

    See how it becomes increasingly absurd? If…

    “new” Liberalism = non-Marxist Socialism, and

    “new” conservatism = “old” Liberalism…

    So what equals “old” Conservatism?

    It begins to feel like an old Monty Python sketch…and I dont feel like standing in the tea chest.

  11. Erik J Says:

    I just want to clear some of the ideological definitions up. I’m a college student currently studying American Government, and according to Houghton Mifflin’s “The Challenge of Democracy” textbook, modern conservatives value social order over freedom over equality. Liberals value equality over freedom over social order. That is not to say that the lower value is not important at all, it just does not take precedent over the first two. Of course ideology is varied, but as Alan is only speaking in generalities, I agree with his assessment.

    For example, liberals support universal health care, affirmative action, etc. Conservatives support stronger military, more police, censorship of television, etc.

    I also don’t see any slippery slope argument, Alan is simply stating that liberalism taken to an extreme is communism, and the same is true for conservatism and fascism.

  12. Jimmy the Dhimmi Says:

    “From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict which each other; and we can achieve either one or the other, but not both at the same time.” -Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom

    Anyone here disagree with that statement?

  13. Justin Gardner Says:

    Nice try Jimmy.

    However, we’re not talking about complete material equality under Obama. Not in the least, and to suggest otherwise is grossly intellectually dishonest, and you know it.

    I mean, how you guys can argue that making sure people have health care and rolling back the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest 5% is somehow ushering in “serfdom” baffles me.

    But thank you for revealing your talking points for the next 4 years. They’ll be ridiculously easy to counter.

  14. kranky kritter Says:

    First, let’s clear up the easiest thing: It’s not “tenant,” it’s ” tenet.”

    As Alan and Rich cover, there is indeed a gap between the political movement of liberalism as it manifests itself in the real world, and the actual definitions. Alan, I used to call myself a classical or old school liberal until I found out the libertarians had already laid claim. Fact is, the older liberals (those who actually value liberty) who have found fault with the democrats and modern progressivism have some taste for small-l libertarianism. Such folks find precious little welcome in either of the major parties. Some Republicans talk a good game on matters of liberty, but the Republican party remains in constant thrall to social conservatives who support policies that are anathema to social liberty.

    FWIW, the correct and functional term for folks who privilege equality as the greatest good among various admirable goods (which may themselves conflict) is egalitarian. This term does not however seem likely to slip into common usage any time soon. We have 2 parties, and we are basically stuck with 2 inaccurate philosophical buckets to match. Oh and it’s debatable whether JS Mill is best described as a liberal or a utilitarian. But I agree with Rich that he’d be horrified by hate speech laws.

    Regis. I see little harm and much good when any advocate of a particular philosophy understands the perils of where we might end up if that philosophy is taken to an extreme. I agree with you that slippery slope arguments are characteristic of sloppy thinking, but it doesn’t take much common sense to see that while there may not be an especially slippery slope, there might be a set of stairs, and a reasonable progression.

    For various and obvious reasons, no politician can speak freely of such matters. But I have little respect for anyone not running for office who would bother to deny that modern political liberalism tends towards more socialism. But then, I am among the minority of folks who doesn’t get scared off by boogie words. Most Americans think that we loathe and reject socialism, but we don’t. We have continually dabbled with it, and I think a strong case can be made that we have a substantial taste for it in many quarters. That includes a substantial portion of self-identifying conservatives who insist they utterly reject it.

    Jimmy, do you agree that your quote implies that it must therefore be a question of balance, of constant making of choices?

    Eric, are you satisfied by those definitions? Mustn’t one wonder how liberals expect to achieve equality without the structure of some social order that imposes a version of equality to counteract human nature? The problem I have with those definitions is that “social order” is an insufficently distinct concept from freedom and equality. If you ask me, modern liberals and modern conservatives strongly favor distinctly different social orders. IMO, the notion that liberals are less concerned with social order than conservatives is highly suspect. It might even be a big lie. Fascism is the result of rigorous fealty to narrow ideology, too much partisanship IOW.

  15. Jimmy the Dhimmi Says:

    I think it’s important to note that, like all mainstream American liberals, when Obama talks about redistribution, he’s talking about equality of income.

    You said it, not me. Who is being dishonest? Why should equalizing income levels be a role of the government in a free society at all, since income inequality is a result of liberty and freedom?

    I mean, how you guys can argue that making sure people have health care and rolling back the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest 5% is somehow ushering in “serfdom” baffles me.

    Answer this question JG, proposed by the brilliant Steve Conover at The Skeptical Optimist:

    What percentage of federal tax receipts would the rich (those making over $250,000) have to pay in order for you to say, “Stop! That percentage of total tax receipts is just the right amount for the rich to be paying; any more than that would be unfair”?

    Give me a number JG. I assume it’s higher than 35%. What about 40%? 45%? What is your answer?

    Oh, and Frederick Hayek wrote that book in 1940, describing the emerging socialist movements in Europe at the time.

  16. kranky kritter Says:

    I’d like to know why my comment has not shown up, and yet when I re-post it gets rejected for being a duplicate.

  17. kranky kritter Says:

    Let’s clear up one thing: It’s not “tenant,” it’s ” tenet.”

  18. kranky kritter Says:

    Eric, do those definitions satisfy you? Don’t you have to wonder how to achieve equality without the structure of some social order that imposes a version of equality?

    If you ask me, modern liberals and modern conservatives strongly favor distinctly different social orders. IMO, the notion that liberals are less concerned with social order than conservatives is highly suspect. It might even be a big lie. Fascism is the result of rigorous fealty to narrow ideology, too much partisanship IOW.

  19. kranky kritter Says:

    There sure is a gap between the political movement of liberalism as it manifests itself in the real world, and the actual definitions.

    Alan, I used to call myself a classical or old school liberal until I found out the libertarians had already laid claim. Fact is, older liberals who actually value liberty have found fault with the democrats and modern progressivism. These folks have some taste for small-l libertarianism. Such folks find precious little welcome in either of the major parties.

    Some Republicans talk a good game on matters of liberty, but the Republican party remains in constant thrall to social conservatives who support policies that are anathema to social liberty.

  20. kranky kritter Says:

    The correct and functional term for folks who privilege equality as the greatest good among various admirable goods (which may themselves conflict) is egalitarian. This term does not however seem likely to slip into common usage any time soon. We have 2 parties, and we are basically stuck with 2 inaccurate philosophical buckets to match.

    Oh and it’s debatable whether JS Mill is best described as a liberal or a utilitarian. But I agree with Rich that he’d be horrified by hate speech laws.

  21. kranky kritter Says:

    Regis, I see little harm and much good when any advocate of a particular philosophy understands the perils of where we might end up if that philosophy is taken to an extreme. I agree with you that slippery slope arguments are characteristic of sloppy thinking, but it doesn’t take much common sense to see that while there may not be an especially slippery slope, there might be a set of stairs, and a reasonable progression.

    For various and obvious reasons, no politician can speak freely of such matters. But I have little respect for anyone not running for office who would bother to deny that modern political liberalism tends towards more socialism. But then, I am among the minority of folks who doesn’t get scared off by boogie words. Most Americans think that we loathe and reject socialism, but we don’t. We have continually dabbled with it, and I think a strong case can be made that we have a substantial taste for it in many quarters.

    And that includes a substantial portion of self-identifying conservatives who insist they utterly reject it.

  22. In Search of … Obama, the Radical Lefty Says:

    [...] If that series were still on TV today, and its producers were willing to consider political mysteries, they might be tempted to piece together an investigation into claimed sightings of “Obama, the Radical Lefty” – sightings that run the gamut from that single-source, subjective “most liberal Senator” ranking, to Matt Drudge’s more recent, ripped-out-of-context hyperventilating about wealth redistribution via the courts. [...]

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