Origins of Obama’s Ideology

Dinesh D’Souza’s and Newt Gingrich’s claims that Obama’s ideology and policies are rooted in his father’s “Kenyan anti-colonialism” have attracted a lot of controversy. I don’t think that these claims necessarily amount to racist “bigotry.” But I also see little if any evidence to support them.

It’s hard to point to any Obama positions that differ significantly from those of most other left-liberals. Indeed, it’s hard to find any that are much different from what Hillary Clinton likely would have done had she won the 2008 Democratic nomination. Ironically, the Obama health care plan (perhaps his most important policy initiative) has a centerpiece individual mandate provision that Obama harshly criticized when Clinton proposed it during the 2008 campaign. D’Souza doesn’t even attempt to prove that Obama is significantly different from other liberals of his generation who do not have any Kenyan anticolonial roots. Virtually all the Obama policies and attitudes he cites (bailouts, the health care plan, increased economic regulation, retrenchment in foreign policy, skepticism about American exceptionalism, lack of interest in space exploration) have broad support on the US political left.

In considering Obama’s positions, I also find little to differentiate him from other left-liberal law professors of his generation – a group that I am familiar with for obvious professional reasons. The only major issue where he apparently differs from the majority of the latter is in his skepticism about the effectiveness of judicial review as a tool for promoting liberal social change. That may account for Obama’s unwillingness to place a high priority on appointing and confirming judicial nominees. Even on this issue, Obama’s views are hardly unique. They are similar to those of an important minority of liberal constitutional law scholars such as Obama’s University of Chicago colleague Gerald Rosenberg, and Michael Klarman. These scholars claim that judges are usually unwilling or unable to deviate much from mainstream public and elite opinion (I criticize the Klarman-Rosenberg thesis here, here, and here).

It’s theoretically possible that Obama came to hold the same views as most other liberals for reasons that differ from theirs. It’s not inherently bigoted to assume that a person’s ethnic background or national origin played a role in determining their politics. It certainly did for me. Given my personality and interests, I think it very likely that I would have become a liberal or a leftist had I been born in the United States. Growing up, I was the kind of young intellectual whom F.A. Hayek had in mind when he wrote “The Intellectuals and Socialism.” It was my background as a refugee from the Soviet Union (combined with the closely related factor of my parents’ influence) that prevented this natural affinity from taking hold and helped set me on the path that ultimately led to libertarianism. Because of the Russian background, my ideological trajectory differed from that of most native-born American libertarians.

In Obama’s case, however, there is nothing to suggest that he had a preexisting affinity for another ideology that was somehow thwarted by his father’s influence. It’s possible, of course, that being black increased the likelihood of his ending up on the left. For a variety of historical reasons, African-American intellectuals have been overwhelmingly left-wing since the New Deal era. But that trend is far from limited to those with a Kenyan or “anticolonial” background. As Tim Cavanaugh suggests, Obama’s ideology more closely resembles the New Deal liberalism of his mother – the parent who actually raised Obama while his father was mostly absent.

In sum, D’Souza’s thesis isn’t racist or bigoted. But, like many of his other recent writings, it is poorly reasoned and unsupported by evidence.

UPDATE: Various commenters claim that it’s hard to explain why D’Souza advanced such a poorly supported theory, if not because of racism. I find it very easy to explain. Political pundits make weak arguments all the time. D’Souza in particular has repeatedly demonstrated that he has little understanding of the views of those opposed to him, as shown by his previous writings that I linked to above. It’s not just Obama’s views that D’Souza advances silly explanations for; it’s also those of atheists, liberals other than Obama, libertarians, anti-American Muslims, and so on. Indeed, his speculations about Obama are less ridiculous than some of his other theories. At least the claim that Obama’s views derive from his father’s has some superficial plausibility based on the fact that Obama wrote an entire book focused on his relationship to him, and was obviously fascinated by his father’s life.