Glenn is out to lunch at the moment, and I am taking the opportunity to poach under his blog name. I am becoming more concerned of late that President Obama’s true leftist character is going to come out in full flower. I have been recalling a revealing article that I read in National Review by Stanley Kurtz just before the election. In it, Mr. Kurtz shed a good deal of light on something called the Gamaliel Foundation, which Obama worked for during his days as a community organizer. I’m taking the liberty of reprinting here a significant portion of that article which I think is now more alarming given Obama’s recent activities as commander in chief.
These, then, are the beliefs at the spiritual heart of the Gamaliel Foundation’s community-organizing efforts. They show clear echoes of Jeremiah Wright’s and James Cone’s black-liberation theology, and it’s evident that Obama has an affinity for organizations that embody this point of view. But a question arises. Gamaliel’s goal is to build church-based coalitions capable of wielding power on behalf of the poor. These congregation-based organizations are supposed to counterbalance and undercut America’s oppressive power structures. Yet if most American Christians are deluded servants of a sinful and oppressive system, how can they be molded into a majority coalition for change? Given the privatistic, insular, and individualistic character of American culture, theological frankness might backfire and drive away potential allies, exactly as happened with Reverend Wright. Thus arises the need for stealth.
FAKE RIGHT, GO LEFT
It might have been all but impossible to penetrate the strategic thinking of Obama’s cohorts if not for the fortuitous 2008 publication of Organizing Urban America: Secular and Faith-based Progressive Movements, by Rutgers political scientist Heidi Swarts. This is the first book-length study of the organizing tactics and political ideologies of Gamaliel and ACORN, the two groups to which Obama’s community-organizing ties are closest. Swarts’s study focuses on Gamaliel and ACORN in St. Louis, but given the degree of national coordination by both groups, the carry-over of her findings to Chicago is bound to be substantial. Because Swarts is highly sympathetic to the community-organizing groups she studies, she was granted an unusual degree of access to strategic discussions during her period of fieldwork.
Swarts calls groups like ACORN and (especially) Gamaliel “invisible actors,” hidden from public view because they often prefer to downplay their efforts, because they work locally, and because scholars and journalists pay greater attention to movements with national profiles (like the Sierra Club or the Christian Coalition). Congregation-based community organizations like Gamaliel, by contrast, are often invisible even at the local level. A newspaper might report on a demonstration led by a local minister or priest, for example, without noticing that the clergyman in question is part of the Gamaliel network. “Though often hidden from view,” says Swarts, “leaders have intentionally and strategically organized these movements that appear to well up and erupt from below.”
Although Gamaliel and ACORN have significantly different tactics and styles, Swarts notes that their political goals and ideologies are broadly similar. Both groups press the state for economic redistribution. The tactics of Gamaliel and ACORN have been shaped in a “post-Alinsky” era of welfare reform and conservative resurgence, posing a severe challenge to those who wish to expand the welfare state. The answer these activists have hit upon, says Swarts, is to work incrementally in urban areas, while deliberately downplaying the far-Left ideology that stands behind their carefully targeted campaigns.
Although the Gamaliel agenda is deeply collectivist and redistributionist, organizers are schooled to frame their program in traditional American, individualist terms. As Swarts puts it:
What makes [Gamaliel’s] ideology liberal rather than conservative is that it advocates not private or voluntary solutions but collective public programs. They seek action from the state: social welfare programs, redistribution, or regulation. . . . But publicly [Gamaliel and other congregation-based groups] usually emphasize individual responsibility on the part of authorities.
Although ACORN’s radicalism is somewhat more frank than Gamaliel’s, ACORN has an “innovative cultural strategy” of its own. ACORN’s radicalism is incremental; it’s happy to work toward ambitious long-term goals through a series of baby steps. For example, although ACORN has fought for “living wage” laws in several American cities, these affect only the small fraction of the workforce employed directly by city governments. The real purpose of ACORN’s urban living-wage campaigns, says Swarts, is not economic but political. ACORN’s long-term goal is an across-the-board minimum-wage increase at the state and federal levels. The public debate spurred by local campaigns is meant to prepare the political ground for ACORN’s more ambitious political goals, and to build up membership in the meantime.
Throughout his career, Obama has drawn on all of these strategies. In Illinois’s Republican-controlled state senate, Obama specialized in incremental legislation, often drawn up in collaboration with groups like Gamaliel and ACORN. His tiny, targeted expansions of government-financed health care, for example, were designed to build political momentum for universal health care. And his claim to be a “common-sense pragmatist,” rather than a leftist ideologue, comes straight out of the Gamaliel playbook.
In 2005, the year after Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate, the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Community Change released a report titled “Promising Practices in Revenue Generation for Community Organizing.” One of the report’s authors was Jean Rudd, Obama’s friend and the president of the Woods Fund during Obama’s years on that foundation’s board. Buried deep within the report lies the story of Obama’s role in expanding the Woods Fund’s financial support for groups like Gamaliel and ACORN.
Since the start of his organizing career, Obama was recognized by the Woods Fund as “a great analyst and interpreter of organizing,” according to the 2005 report. Initially an adviser, Obama became a Woods Fund board member, and finally board chairman, serving as a key advocate of increased funding for organizing during that period. In 1995, the Woods Fund commissioned a special evaluation of its funding for community organizing — a report that eventually recommended a major expansion of financial support. Obama chaired a committee of organizers that advised the Woods Fund on this important shift.
The committee’s report, “Evaluation of the Fund’s Community Organizing Grant Program,” is based on interviews with all the big names in Obama’s personal organizer network. Greg Galluzzo and other Gamaliel Foundation officials were consulted, as were several ACORN organizers, including Madeline Talbott, Obama’s key ACORN contact. Talbott, an expert on ACORN’s tactics of confrontation and disruption, is quoted more often than any other organizer in the report, sometimes with additional comments from Obama himself. The report holds up Gamaliel and ACORN as models for other groups and supports Talbott’s call for “‘a massive infusion of resources’ to make organizing a truly mass-based movement.”
The article ends with the following:
The ultimate goal of all these efforts — fundamental disruption of America’s power structure, and economic redistribution along race, poverty, and gender lines — is entirely compatible with the program outlined by Dennis Jacobsen in Doing Justice. Obama could hardly have been unfamiliar with the general drift of Gamaliel ideology, especially given his reputation as an analyst of community organizing and his supervision of a comprehensive review of the field.
Even after becoming a U.S. senator, Obama has maintained his ties to the Gamaliel Foundation. According to an October 2007 report for the University of California by Todd Swanstrom and Brian Banks, “it is almost unheard of for a U.S. Senator to attend a public meeting of a community organization, but Senator Obama attended a Gamaliel affiliate public meeting in Chicago.” Given this ongoing contact, given the radicalism of Gamaliel’s core ideology, given Obama’s close association with Gamaliel’s co-founder, Gregory Galluzzo, given Obama’s role as a Gamaliel consultant and trainer, and given Obama’s outsized role in channeling allegedly “nonpartisan” funding to Gamaliel affiliates (and to his political ground troops at ACORN), some questions are in order. Obama needs to detail the nature of his ties to both Gamaliel and ACORN, and should discuss the extent of his knowledge of Gamaliel’s guiding ideology. Ultimately, we need to know if Obama is the post-ideological pragmatist he sometimes claims to be, or in fact a stealth radical.
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.