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Obama, McCain, And Redistribution Of Wealth

by @ 12:05 pm on October 27, 2008. Filed under 2008 Election, Barack Obama, John McCain, Politics

The blogosphere is abuzz over this audio of statements Barack Obama made back in 2001:

Frankly, I think that most of the bloggers who are pushing this video as some sort of smoking gun are taking a huge leap of logic. Justin Gardner, I think, has it right:

Obama wasn’t even advocating redistribution of wealth via the courts. In fact, just the opposite. He said it would be a clumsy way to do that, and because the Warren court didn’t do it, that means they weren’t such a radical court.

Also, he was arguing that folks within the civil rights movement looked too much towards the courts to bring about change, instead of doing more community organizing and building change infrastructure.

Alex Knapp makes a similar point:

Most of the conservative blogs that are harping about how this interview isn’t “being taken out of context.” But here’s the thing–they are taking Obama out of context. Barack Obama has been clear–throughout his political career, as well as in his books–that what he means by a “redistribution” is not a radical socialist agenda, but rather a tax code that is a bit more progressive–with the middle class having their taxes cut and wealthier people getting their taxes raised back to Clinton-era levels, a larger government role in health care, and a bigger role for government in creating economic opportunities. Now, you can definitely quibble with Obama’s policy prescriptions, but they are clearly not socialist, and there’s nothing in Obama’s political record which pushes towards anything but a moderate Democratic economic policy agenda.

The GOP punditry’s misinterpretation of what Obama means by “social justice” and “redistribution” is a variation of the classic logical fallacy of equivocation. In this case, Obama’s critics are using their own definitions of those terms used by Obama, rather than using the context of Obama’s politics to determine what Obama means by those terms and arguing accordingly. That’s just bad logic.

It’s also a sign, I would submit, that the conservative movement has run out of ideas. The Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannity’s of the world have triumphed, and their poster child for the new anti-intellectualism that typifies most “conservative” politicians is none other than the Republican candidate for Vice-President.

Does Barack Obama believe in redistributing wealth ? Yea, I’m sure he does, but you, as I’ve already pointed out, you could also say that John McCain does too.

Update: Here’s the transcript of what Obama actually said in the audio clip posted above:

“If you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement, and its litigation strategy in the court, I think where it succeeded was to vest formal rights in previously dispossessed peoples, so that I would now have the right to vote, I would now be able to sit at a lunch counter and order and as long as I could pay for it I’d be okay.”

“But,” Obama said, “The Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society. And to that extent as radical as I think people tried to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, as least as it’s been interpreted, and Warren Court interpreted in the same way that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties, says what the states can’t do to you, says what the federal government can’t do to you, but it doesn’t say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf. And that hasn’t shifted.”

Obama said “one of the, I think, the tragedies of the civil rights movement, was because the civil rights movement became so court focused, I think that there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change, and in some ways we still suffer from that.”

If the reaction among the conservative pundit-sphere is the argument that the McCain Campaign is going to be making going into the final week of the campaign, then I don’t think it’s going to go very far.

6 Responses to “Obama, McCain, And Redistribution Of Wealth”

  1. [...] honestly, and as I noted earlier today, I don’t think it takes a law professor, lawyer, or Constitutional scholar to see that what [...]

  2. [...] what seems to be a follow-up to yesterday’s kerfuffle about Barack Obama’s comments about the Warren Court and redistribution of wealth, [...]

  3. [...] what seems to be a follow-up to yesterday’s kerfuffle about Barack Obama’s comments about the Warren Court and redistribution of wealth, [...]

  4. Stephen Littau says:


    While I think you have some valid points, I don’t think its “a huge leap in logic” from the audio clip that Obama is a proponent of wealth redistribution. It seems to me that he is lamenting the fact that the courts and the congress have not done more to take from the haves and give to the have nots.

    Does this not concern you as a libertarian? It certainly does me! This man will have the ability to appoint judges who will twist the Constitution to reflect his far left wing agenda (If Obama is a “moderate” Democrat, I would hate to see what a left wing extremest looks like).

  5. Stephen Littau says:

    Not that anything that Obama said in this clip surprises me.

  6. Stephen,

    Of course Obama’s views concern me, but that’s separate from what’s at issue in the audio clip.

    As I see it, Obama was in fact saying that using the court’s to achieve a goal like “economic justice” is not a good idea, and that it would have been improper for the Warren Court to go along with the more radical ideas of the 60’s left in that arena. He is, in other words, making an argument for judicial restraint, which I think says something about how he views the proper role of the Courts.

    As for the broader point, I don’t find anything in what Obama has said about progressive taxation to be different in any significant respect from the system that’s been in place in this country for generations.

    Do I oppose progressive taxation ? Absolutely.

    Do I agree with the Republican line that Obama is a “socialist” ? Only if you define the word in such a way that it essentially means that most Republicans are socialists too.

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