The Non-Election of 2004


elections of November 2004 have received a great deal of discussion,
with exultation in some quarters, despair in others, and general
lamentation about a “divided nation.” They are likely
to have policy consequences, particularly harmful to the public
in the domestic arena, and to the world with regard to the “transformation
of the military,” which has led some prominent strategic analysts
to warn of “ultimate doom” and to hope that U.S. militarism
and aggressiveness will be countered by a coalition of peace-loving
states, led by—China (John Steinbruner and Nancy Gallagher,


We have come to a pretty pass when such words are expressed in the
most respectable and sober journals. It is also worth noting how
deep is the despair of the authors over the state of U.S. democracy.
Whether or not the assessment is merited is for activists to determine. 

significant in their consequences, the elections tell us very little
about the state of the country, or the popular mood. There are,
however, other sources from which we can learn a great deal that
carries important lessons. Public opinion in the U.S. is intensively
monitored and, while caution and care in interpretation are always
necessary, these studies are valuable resources. We can also see
why the results, though public, are kept under wraps by the doctrinal
institutions. That is true of major and highly informative studies
of public opinion released right before the election, notably by
the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR) and the Program
on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland
(PIPA), to which I will return. 

conclusion is that the elections conferred no mandate for anything,
in fact, barely took place, in any serious sense of the term “election.”
That is by no means a novel conclusion. Reagan’s victory in
1980 reflected “the decay of organized party structures, and
the vast mobilization of God and cash in the successful candidacy
of a figure once marginal to the ‘vital center’ of American
political life,” representing “the continued disintegration
of those political coalitions and economic structures that have
given party politics some stability and definition during the past
generation” (Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers,

Hidden Election

1981). In the same valuable collection of essays, Walter Dean Burnham
described the election as further evidence of a “crucial comparative
peculiarity of the American political system: the total absence
of a socialist or laborite mass party as an organized competitor
in the electoral market,” accounting for much of the “class-skewed
abstention rates” and the minimal significance of issues. Thus
of the 28 percent of the electorate who voted for Reagan, 11 percent
gave as their primary reason “he’s a real conservative.”
In Reagan’s “landslide victory” of 1984, with just
under 30 percent of the electorate, the percentage dropped to 4
percent and a majority of voters hoped that his legislative program
would not be enacted. 

these prominent political scientists describe is part of the powerful
backlash against the terrifying “crisis of democracy”
of the 1960s, which threatened to democratize the society, and,
despite enormous efforts to crush this threat to order and discipline,
has had far-reaching effects on consciousness and social practices.
The post-1960s era has been marked by substantial growth of popular
movements dedicated to greater justice and freedom and unwillingness
to tolerate the brutal aggression and violence that had previously
been granted free rein. The Vietnam War is a dramatic illustration,
naturally suppressed because of the lessons it teaches about the
civilizing impact of popular mobilization. The war against South
Vietnam launched by JFK in 1962, after years of U.S.-backed state
terror that had killed tens of thousands of people, was brutal and
barbaric from the outset: bombing, chemical warfare to destroy food
crops so as to starve out the civilian support for the indigenous
resistance, programs to drive millions of people to virtual concentration
camps or urban slums to eliminate its popular base. By the time
protests reached a substantial scale, the highly respected and quite
hawkish Vietnam specialist and military historian Bernard Fall wondered
whether “Viet-Nam as a cultural and historic entity” would
escape “extinction” as “the countryside literally
dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed
on an area of this size”—particularly South Vietnam, always
the main target of the U.S. assault. When protest did finally develop,
many years too late, it was mostly directed against the peripheral
crimes: the extension of the war against the South to the rest of
Indochina—terrible crimes, but secondary ones.

managers are well aware that they no longer have that freedom. Wars
against “much weaker enemies”—the only acceptable
targets—must be won “decisively and rapidly,” Bush
I’s intelligence services advised. Delay might “undercut
political support,” recognized to be thin, a great change since
the Kennedy-Johnson period when the attack on Indochina, while never
popular, aroused little reaction for many years. Those conclusions
hold despite the hideous war crimes in Falluja, replicating the
Russian destruction of Grozny ten years earlier, including crimes
displayed on the front pages for which the civilian leadership is
subject to the death penalty under the War Crimes Act passed by
the Republican Congress in 1996—and also one of the more disgraceful
episodes in the annals of U.S. journalism. 

world is pretty awful today, but it is far better than yesterday,
not only with regard to unwillingness to tolerate aggression, but
also in many other ways, which we now tend to take for granted.
There are very important lessons here, which should always be uppermost
in our minds—for the same reason they are suppressed in the
elite culture. 


to the elections, in 2004 Bush received the votes of just over 30
percent of the electorate, Kerry a bit less. Voting patterns resembled
2000, with virtually the same pattern of “red” and “blue”
states (whatever significance that may have). A small change in
voter preference would have put Kerry in the White House, also telling
us very little about the country and public concerns. 

usual, the electoral campaigns were run by the PR industry, which
in its regular vocation sells toothpaste, life-style drugs, automobiles,
and other commodities. Its guiding principle is deceit. Its task
is to undermine the “free markets” we are taught to revere:
mythical entities in which informed consumers make rational choices.
In such scarcely imaginable systems, businesses would provide information
about their products: cheap, easy, simple. But it is hardly a secret
that they do nothing of the sort. Rather, they seek to delude consumers
to choose their product over some virtually identical one. GM does
not simply make public the characteristics of next year’s models.
Rather, it devotes huge sums to creating images to deceive consumers,
featuring sports stars, sexy models, cars climbing sheer cliffs
to a heavenly future, and so on.  The business world does not
spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year to provide information.
The famed “entrepreneurial initiative” and “free
trade” are about as realistic as informed consumer choice.
The last thing those who dominate the society want is the fanciful
market of doctrine and economic theory. All of this should be too
familiar to merit much discussion. 

the commitment to deceit is quite overt. The recent U.S.-Australia
negotiations on a “free trade agreement” were held up
by Washington’s concern over Australia’s health care system,
perhaps the most efficient in the world. In particular, drug prices
are a fraction of those in the U.S.: the same drugs, produced by
the same companies, earning substantial profits in Australia though
nothing like those they are granted in the U.S.—often on the
pretext that they are needed for R&D, another exercise in deceit.
Part of the reason for the efficiency of the Australian system is
that, like other countries, Australia relies on the practices that
the Pentagon employs when it buys paper clips: government purchasing
power is used to negotiate prices, illegal in the U.S. Another reason
is that Australia has kept to “evidence-based” procedures
for marketing pharmaceuticals. U.S. negotiators denounced these
as market interference: pharmaceutical corporations are deprived
of their legitimate rights if they are required to produce evidence
when they claim that their latest product is better than some cheaper
alternative or run TV ads in which some sports hero or model tells
the audience to ask their doctor whether this drug is “right
for you (it’s right for me),” sometimes not even revealing
what it is supposed to be for. The right of deceit must be guaranteed
to the immensely powerful and pathological immortal persons created
by radical judicial activism to run the society.

assigned the task of selling candidates, the PR industry naturally
resorts to the same fundamental techniques, so as to ensure that
politics remains “the shadow cast by big business over society,”
as America’s leading social philosopher, John Dewey, described
the results of “industrial feudalism” long ago. Deceit
is employed to undermine democracy, just as it is the natural device
to undermine markets. Voters appear to be aware of it. 

the eve of the 2000 elections, about 75 percent of the electorate
regarded it as a game played by rich contributors, party managers,
and the PR industry, which trains candidates to project images and
produce meaningless phrases that might win some votes. Very likely,
that is why the population paid little attention to the “stolen
election” that greatly exercised educated sectors. And it is
why they are likely to pay little attention to campaigns about alleged
fraud in 2004. If one is flipping a coin to pick the King, it is
of no great concern if the coin is biased. 

2000, “issue awareness”—knowledge of the stands of
the candidate-producing organizations on issues—reached an
all-time low. Currently available evidence suggests it may have
been even lower in 2004. About 10 percent of voters said their choice
would be based on the candidate’s “agendas/ideas/platforms/goals”:
6 percent for Bush voters, 13 percent for Kerry voters (Gallup).
The rest would vote for what the industry calls “qualities”
or “values,” which are the political counterpart to toothpaste
ads. The most careful studies (PIPA) found that voters had little
idea of the stand of the candidates on matters that concerned them.
Bush voters tended to believe that he shared their beliefs, even
though the Republican Party rejected them, often explicitly. Investigating
the sources used in the studies, we find that the same was largely
true of Kerry voters, unless we give highly sympathetic interpretations
to vague statements that most voters had probably never heard. 

polls found that Bush won large majorities of those concerned with
the threat of terror and “moral values” and Kerry won
majorities among those concerned with the economy, health care,
and other such issues. Those results tell us very little. 

is easy to demonstrate that for Bush planners, the threat of terror
is a low priority. The invasion of Iraq is only one of many illustrations.
Even their own intelligence agencies agreed with the consensus among
other agencies, and independent specialists, that the invasion was
likely to increase the threat of terror, as it did; probably nuclear
proliferation as well, as also predicted. Such threats are simply
not high priorities as compared with the opportunity to establish
the first secure military bases in a dependent client state at the
heart of the world’s major energy reserves, a region understood
since World War II to be the “most strategically important
area of the world,” “a stupendous source of strategic
power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”
Apart from what one historian of the industry calls “profits
beyond the dreams of avarice,” which must flow in the right
direction, control over two-thirds of the world’s estimated
hydrocarbon reserves—uniquely cheap and easy to exploit—provides
what Zbigniew Brzezinski recently called “critical leverage”
over European and Asian rivals, what George Kennan many years earlier
had called “veto power” over them. These have been crucial
policy concerns throughout the post-World War II period, even more
so in today’s evolving tripolar world, with its threat that
Europe and Asia might move towards greater independence, and worse,
might be united: China and the EU became each other’s major
trading partners in 2004, joined by the world’s second largest
economy (Japan), and those tendencies are likely to increase. A
firm hand on the spigot reduces these dangers.

that the critical issue is control, not access. U.S. policies towards
the Middle East were the same when it was a net exporter of oil,
and remain the same today when U.S. intelligence projects that the
U.S. will rely on more stable Atlantic Basin resources. Policies
would be likely to be about the same if the U.S. were to switch
to renewable energy. The need to control the “stupendous source
of strategic power” and to gain “profits beyond the dreams
of avarice” would remain. Jockeying over Central Asia and pipeline
routes reflects similar concerns. 

are many other illustrations of the same lack of concern of planners
about terror. Bush voters, whether they knew it or not, were voting
for a likely increase in the threat of terror, which could be awesome:
it was understood well before 9/11 that sooner or later the Jihadists
organized by the CIA and its associates in the 1980s are likely
to gain access to WMDs, with horrendous consequences. Even these
frightening prospects are being consciously extended by the transformation
of the military, which, apart from increasing the threat of “ultimate
doom” by accidental nuclear war, is compelling Russia to move
nuclear missiles over its huge and mostly unprotected territory
to counter U.S. military threats—including the threat of instant
annihilation that is a core part of the “ownership of space”
for offensive military purposes announced by the Bush administration
along with its National Security Strategy in late 2002, significantly
extending Clinton programs that were more than hazardous enough,
and had already immobilized the UN Disarmament Committee. 

for “moral values,” we learn what we need to know about
them from the business press the day after the election, reporting
the “euphoria” in board rooms—not because CEOs oppose
gay marriage. And from the unconcealed efforts to transfer to future
generations the costs of the dedicated service of Bush planners
to privilege and wealth: fiscal and environmental costs, among others,
not to speak of the threat of “ultimate doom.” That aside,
it means little to say that people vote on the basis of “moral
values.” The question is what they mean by the phrase.  The
limited indications are of some interest. In some polls, “when
the voters were asked to choose the most urgent moral crisis facing
the country, 33 percent cited ‘greed and materialism,’
31 percent selected ‘poverty and economic justice,’ 16
percent named abortion, and 12 percent selected gay marriage”
(Pax Christi). In others, “when surveyed voters were asked
to list the moral issue that most affected their vote, the Iraq
war placed first at 42 percent, while 13 percent named abortion
and 9 percent named gay marriage” (Zogby). Whatever voters
meant, it could hardly have been the operative moral values of the
Administration, celebrated by the business press. 

won’t go through the details here, but a careful look indicates
that much the same appears to be true for Kerry voters who thought
they were calling for serious attention to the economy, health,
and their other concerns. As in the fake markets constructed by
the PR industry, so also in the fake democracy they run, the public
is hardly more than an irrelevant onlooker, apart from the appeal
of carefully constructed images that have only the vaguest resemblance
to reality. 

turn to more serious evidence about public opinion: the studies
I mentioned earlier that were released shortly before the elections
by some of the most respected and reliable institutions that regularly
monitor public opinion. Here are a few of the results (Chicago Council
of Foreign Relations): 

large majority of the public believe that the U.S. should accept
the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and the World
Court, sign the Kyoto protocols, allow the UN to take the lead in
international crises, and rely on diplomatic and economic measures
more than military ones in the “war on terror.” Similar
majorities believe the U.S. should resort to force only if there
is “strong evidence that the country is in imminent danger
of being attacked,” thus rejecting the bipartisan consensus
on “pre-emptive war” and adopting a rather conventional
interpretation of the UN Charter. A majority even favor giving up
the Security Council veto, hence following the UN lead even if it
is not the preference of U.S. state managers. When official Administration
moderate Colin Powell is quoted in the press as saying that Bush
“has won a mandate from the American people to continue pursuing
his ‘aggressive’ foreign policy,” he is relying on
the conventional assumption that popular opinion is irrelevant to
policy choices by those in charge. 

is instructive to look more closely into popular attitudes on the
war in Iraq, in the light of the general opposition to the “pre-emptive
war” doctrines of the bipartisan consensus. On the eve of the
2004 elections, “three quarters of Americans say that the U.S.
should not have gone to war if Iraq did not have WMD or was not
providing support to al Qaeda, while nearly half still say the war
was the right decision” (Stephen Kull, reporting the PIPA study
he directs). But this is not a contradiction, Kull points out. Despite
the quasi-official Kay and Duelfer reports undermining the claims,
the decision to go to war “is sustained by persisting beliefs
among half of Americans that Iraq provided substantial support to
al Qaeda, and had WMD, or at least a major WMD program,” and
thus see the invasion as defense against an imminent severe threat.
Much earlier PIPA studies had shown that a large majority believe
that the UN, not the U.S., should take the lead in matters of security,
reconstruction, and political transition in Iraq. Last March, Spanish
voters were bitterly condemned for appeasing terror when they voted
out of office the government that had gone to war over the objections
of about 90 percent of the population, taking its orders from Crawford
Texas, and winning plaudits for its leadership in the “New
Europe” that is the hope of democracy. Few if any commentators
noted that Spanish voters last March were taking about the same
position as the large majority of Americans: voting for removing
Spanish troops unless they were under UN direction. The major differences
between the two countries are that in Spain, public opinion was
known, while here it takes an individual research project to discover
it; and in Spain the issue came to a vote, almost unimaginable in
the deteriorating formal democracy here.

results indicate that activists have not done their job effectively. 

to other areas, overwhelming majorities of the public favor expansion
of domestic programs: primarily health care (80 percent), but also
aid to education and Social Security. Similar results have long
been found in these studies (CCFR). Other mainstream polls report
that 80 percent favor guaranteed health care even if it would raise
taxes—in reality, a national health care system would probably
reduce expenses considerably, avoiding the heavy costs of bureaucracy,
supervision, paperwork, and so on, some of the factors that render
the U.S. privatized system the most inefficient in the industrial
world. Public opinion has been similar for a long time, with numbers
varying depending on how questions are asked. The facts are sometimes
discussed in the press, with public preferences noted, but dismissed
as “politically impossible.” That happened again on the
eve of the 2004 elections. A few days before (October 31), the






reported that “there is
so little political support for government intervention in the health
care market in the United States that Senator John Kerry took pains
in a recent presidential debate to say that his plan for expanding
access to health insurance would not create a new government program”—what
the majority want, so it appears. But it is “politically impossible”
and has “[too] little political support,” meaning that
the insurance companies, HMOs, pharmaceutical industries, Wall Street,
etc., are opposed. 

is notable that such views are held by people in virtual isolation.
They rarely hear them and it is not unlikely that respondents regard
their own views as idiosyncratic. Their preferences do not enter
into the political campaigns and only marginally receive some reinforcement
in articulate opinion in media and journals. The same extends to
other domains. 

would the results of the election have been if the parties, either
of them, had been willing to articulate people’s concerns on
the issues they regard as vitally important? Or if these issues
could enter into public discussion within the mainstream? We can
only speculate about that, but we do know that it does not happen
and that the facts are scarcely even reported. It does not seem
difficult to imagine what the reasons might be. 

brief, we learn very little of any significance from the elections,
but we can learn a lot from the studies of public attitudes that
are kept in the shadows. Though it is natural for doctrinal systems
to try to induce pessimism, hopelessness, and despair, the real
lessons are quite different. They are encouraging and hopeful. They
show that there are substantial opportunities for education and
organizing, including the development of potential electoral alternatives.
As in the past, rights will not be granted by benevolent authorities,
or won by intermittent actions—a few large demonstrations after
which one goes home, or pushing a lever in the personalized quadrennial
extravaganzas that are depicted as “democratic politics.”
As always in the past, the tasks require day-to-day engagement to
create—in part re-create—the basis for a functioning democratic
culture in which the public plays some role in determining policies,
not only in the political arena from which it is largely excluded,
but also in the crucial economic arena, from which it is excluded
in principle.

Chomsky is a linguist, social critic, and author of numerous articles
and books, including

Hegemony or Survival  

Books, 2003)


Pirates and Emperors, Old and New

End Press, 2002)