Keane Bhatt: So let's start with your post-November 6 analysis. What, in your mind, have been the lessons to take away from the elections?
Noam Chomsky: The United States is a special case, and for me, very interesting. It's studied carefully and we know a lot about it. One of the most striking features of the elections is the class-based character of the vote. Now, class is not discussed or even measured in the United States. In fact, the word is almost obscene, except for the term "middle class." And you can't get exact class data; the census doesn't even give class data. But you can sort of see the significance of it just from income figures.
If you look at income levels from the lowest to the highest, as you move up, the proportion of Republican votes increases almost in a straight line. If you take voters above the median, Romney would've won by a landslide; below the median, Obama would've. Now, that understates the reality, because almost half the population doesn't vote, and they're skewed very heavily towards the lower income distributions. And studies of these people show they are overwhelmingly Democratic – in fact, social democratic. So if they had voted, the small Obama victory would've been huge.
Why didn't they vote? Well, there are things they know intuitively, which are well studied in the political science literature. One of the things it does quite well is study polling, which is very extensive. So we know a lot of what people think, and there's very good work comparing attitudes as indicated by polls with policy – and there's some pretty striking results. The sort of gold standard in this work right now is Martin Gilens' recent book, which is quite good. What he points out is that the lower 70 percent have no influence on policy, so they're essentially disenfranchised. And then as you move up higher, you get a little more influence. When you get to the very top, they essentially get what they want. Polling results aren't sharp enough for him to deal with the crucial segment of the population – the top fraction of 1 percent – which is where the real concentration of wealth is, and undoubtedly the real concentration of power. But you can't show it, because the polls aren't good enough.
Going back to why people don't vote, I presume the main reason is because they understand without reading political science texts that it doesn't make any difference how they vote. It's not going to affect policy, so why bother?
On top of that are all the various difficulties that are imposed on less privileged people to vote. We know about all that. It starts with the fact that the voting is on Tuesday. It's a workday, so you can't take off from work, and it goes on from there. So that affects it, but my guess is – I don't think it's been studied – the primary reason for not voting is just the recognition that it doesn't make any difference. Those guys up there aren't interested in me anyhow, so why should I bother?
So what you have is a highly class-based electoral system which is almost overwhelmed by the fact that in order to even participate in the election, you have to have a huge amount of money. You get that money from the pockets of wealth, the corporate sector and wealthy individuals, so you're naturally indebted to them.
There's another very striking fact about the elections which you can't miss if you looked at the red-and-blue electoral map the next day: it's the same political landscape that you saw during the Civil War – nothing much has changed except the party names. In the 1960s, civil rights legislation was coming along, and Nixon recognized the Southern strategy would work – that combination means that the Republicans and Democrats shifted names, but other than that, it's the same distinction. And that tells you something pretty important about American politics.
After the Civil War, the party system reconstituted, but it reconstituted along sectional lines. So there was a slogan: "You vote where you shoot." If you were in the Confederacy, you voted Democrat. If you were in the North, you voted Republican. It was a little mixed, due to the fact that many Northern workers were Catholic and they voted Democratic. But that was because of Tammany-style politics, so they're kind of out of the general system anyway; they were just being helped around by corrupt Irish politicians. But the basic split is sectional voting. Now it very quickly turned out that the two sectional parties were naturally taken over by manufacturing and financial interests. And that's where it's been ever since.
We have never had class-based parties. We've had parties run by the business classes. There's slight variations. Like in the New Deal period, there was a lot of popular activism, so things shifted slightly, but not much. Thomas Ferguson in particular has shown that the New Deal was strongly supported by high-tech, internationally oriented business, like General Electric and so on. And it never would've gotten anywhere if it hadn't been for that. So basically, you have a business party with two factions, one with somewhat more of a base in the general population, one with less.
That's sharpened in the last couple of years. Something interesting happened in the last 20 years, roughly. The Republicans basically abandoned any pretense of being a parliamentary party. They've simply become the party of the super-rich and the corporate structure, with a kind of a lock-step uniformity – like everybody has to sign a catechism and so on. That's not a political party, and you can't get votes that way. So in order to get votes, they've been compelled to mobilize sectors of the population that were always there, but were never really a political force.
And it's a pretty crazy country in a lot of ways. It's a super-religious country, way off the international spectrum. There's no country in the world like it. These people were mobilized and that's part of the base. It has always been a very frightened country, way back to colonial times. There's a big sector that thinks, "They're coming to get us," whoever "they" are – maybe the UN, or the government or somebody; it used to be the Indians and the slaves. So you have to have guns, and you have to defend yourself. It goes way back in American history. So those are people who are mobilized: kind of a nativist, frightened population, which is quite substantial.
On top of that, there's just the straight racist issue, which has been exacerbated by the fact that whites are becoming a minority. So you hear John Boehner say, "They're taking our country away from us." "They" being, well … okay. And all of this stuff creates a base which is kind of off the international spectrum. Take a look at the primaries – they're pretty interesting. The Republican establishment obviously wanted Romney – he's one of them – but the base didn't want him. So people kept coming up from the base: Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Santorum; one nutcase after another. And they were going to win.
But as soon as they came up, a huge flood of attack ads poured in to smash them down and the establishment finally got their guy. But they've got a problem, and the problem is similar to the problem German industrialists faced in the early 30s. They were happy to have the Nazis as their storm-troops to destroy the labor movement and so on, and they figured they could control them. It didn't turn out that way, but it's not so obvious what's going to happen here.
KB: After the elections you said, "Unless there's an organized, militant labor movement, it's very unlikely that the goals of changing the society will be achieved." But 42 percent of the public would like to see unions have less influence, while just 25 percent would like to see them have more. Even more strikingly, 38 percent of union households voted for anti-union Wisconsin governor Scott Walker in June.
The European social democracies counted on roughly a 70-80 percent unionization rate for their proper functioning. What would returning to the historic US high-water mark of 1954, where a third of the country was unionized, do? And how exactly does labor go about achieving it? Could even high union density be enough to address a host of newer problems, like climate catastrophe, which are unlikely to be solved through simply a more social-democratic political system?
NC: You have to look at American history. The US has been, to an unusual extent, a business-run society – I mentioned some of it – and it has a very violent labor history, much more so than Europe. In fact, workers were getting murdered in strikes up through the late 1930s. Nothing like that had happened in Europe for years. There's never been a parliamentary labor party.
The labor movement was virtually crushed by the 1920s. It was quite substantial and important. There was a big union movement, and there was also a radical farmers' movement. The radical farmers had come from Texas, incidentally, and that was the source of the most important democratic movement in American history. It was a huge movement – the Farmers Alliance linked up with the Knights of Labor. They were crushed by force. Then they reconstituted, and then Wilson crushed them. The First Red Scare virtually eliminated the labor movement; by the 1920s, there's nothing there.
It picked up in the 30s with the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] organizing sit-down strikes and so on. Business was terrified. If you read the business press, they thought the world was coming to an end. Then they immediately turned to other methods to block the labor movement: recall the scientific methods of strikebreaking, the Mohawk Valley formula and things like that. Well, the war came along – everything got put on hold – but immediately after the war, all of this went into operation.
It was a huge business offensive, astonishing in its scale. There's pretty good scholarship on it – the propaganda penetrated churches, sports leagues, schools, cinema, almost anything you can think of. Nothing was left out to try to make sure that labor was destroyed. It had an effect. The attack on labor persisted. There were some changes in the 60s, but in the early 70s, it was resumed – part of the neoliberal assault, which was violently anti-union.
By now, as you know, it's down to like 7 percent in private industry. A lot of hatred of unions is simply based on the effectiveness of propaganda, and partly it's themselves. I'm sure you remember that in 1979, Doug Fraser, then head of the United Auto Workers (UAW), made an important speech. He pulled out of the labor-business council that [Jimmy] Carter was setting up. He complained that business had been fighting a one-sided class war against labor, and that's not right. He was correct, except he was a little bit late. It had been going on throughout American history and the labor movement had cooperated. The business w