Cornel West: The Dinesh D’Souza of the Left?

Last year, Dinesh D’Souza made waves by claiming that Barack Obama’s left-wing ideology and policies can be explained by his “anti-colonial” attitudes, traceable to his father’s Kenyan background. I criticized D’Souza’s argument here. This year, Cornel West claims that Obama’s racial background is the key to explaining why the president isn’t left-wing enough. West believes that it’s because Obama mixed-race background led him to have a “certain fear of free black men,” and to be more comfortable with “upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart.”

Both West and D’Souza err in assuming that there is something unusual about Obama’s policies that requires explanation based on his personal background. In reality, as I explained in my critique of D’Souza, Obama’s policies are largely what any liberal Democratic president would have done under similar circumstances. Had Hillary Clinton or John Edwards (sans sex scandal) won the 2008 election, they would have done most of the same things. Indeed, Obama’s most important policy initiative, the health care bill, is in large part based on a proposal that Hillary Clinton promoted in the 2008 primaries, at which time Obama harshly criticized it.

I don’t always agree with Jonah Goldberg. But he recently hit the nail on the head on this particular issue:

Simpler explanations are available [than West's and D'Souza's]. Obama is a liberal Democrat. He does things a white liberal Democrat would do, and he receives mostly the same opposition a white liberal Democrat would receive.

Why isn’t Obama pursuing a more left-wing agenda? Perhaps because he only barely managed to get the health care bill through a Democratic Congress as it was, and also faced strong opposition to some of his other key policies. An (even) more consistently left-wing agenda would probably have been dead on arrival, as happened with the health care “public option.” It would also have hurt Obama’s electoral prospects, and those of the Democratic Party more generally. Like most successful politicians, Obama usually puts political survival first.

I don’t deny that Obama might genuinely have less left-wing views (including on racial issues) than West. Indeed, that’s a very likely possibility. Obama is on the left side of the Democratic Party mainstream, while West, a self-described “non-Marxist socialist,” is much further to the left than that. It’s understandable that a socialist like West believes that a conventional liberal like Obama isn’t left-wing enough. But it’s doubtful that the difference is caused by what West calls Obama’s “deracination.” There are plenty of liberal Democratic blacks who aren’t as far to the left as West, despite not having Obama’s unusual background. Indeed, the average African-American liberal is probably ideologically closer to Obama than to West.

Be that as it may, this is another case of pundits overestimating the impact of the personal on the political. Most of what Obama has done is readily explicable by his partisan background and the political situation he finds himself in rather than by personal idiosyncracies. To the extent that his personal views are discernible, they seem very similar to those of other liberal intellectuals of his generation, both white and black.

In a weird way, critics like D’Souza and West have much in common with the enthusiastic Obama supporters who in 2008 believed that Obama represented a fundamental break with politics as we know it. Both groups assume that the president is a lot more special than he actually is.