Chomsky Sessions 4: The Political System

Now, just a few questions about the political system. In elections, you sometimes suggest voting for people who you simultaneously have devastating criticisms of – as a lesser evil, as something that is the best one can do in the short term. But then there's also the problem of trying to build long term institutions of resistance, including within the electoral arena – say, for instance a third party. How do you weigh the benefits of supporting a liberal, corporate candidate who's much better than the other, as against supporting a third party candidate or a process that is completely independent of that dynamic to make your choice?

I don't think there's any formula. It depends on particular circumstances. Like, take, say, 2008. I happen to live in Massachusetts. It's a safe state. You know how it's going to turn out. So I felt free to vote for the Green Party, which at least is making some kind of effort, whatever one thinks about it, to develop a lasting alternative. If I was in a swing state, say, Pennsylvania, I probably would have voted for Obama. 'Cause I think it would have been very dangerous in the short term to have McCain and Palin in there. Not that I like Obama. Other times I just didn't see any point in voting at all. Sometimes, there's a point, sometimes there isn't. It depends on the options, alternatives. So, for example, if Gore had been elected in 2000, it's not obvious that we would have gone to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. We might have, but, it's not so clear. If McCain had been elected in 2008 we wouldn't just have a majority of ultra-right in the court, we'd have an unbreakable majority.

So there are…

And there are many choices like that. First of all, it's not a high level decision. I mean I think it's the kind of, it's like a tenth rate decision. Other things are way more important. I mean, the United States is just not a functioning democracy. But in a functioning democracy, which do exist – Bolivia, for example – people vote. But that's just a break in an ongoing struggle.

In the United States the way it is set up is that there is not supposed to be any participation. It's just big hoopla about the vote, you know, signs all over the place, work on getting out the vote. You push the lever, then you go home. That's a serious failure of democracy. So you want to try to overcome that democratic deficit. It's pretty striking how it's been achieved in the United States. In fact, the very concept of democracy is almost non-existent. So, take, say, primaries. I mean, let's imagine you had a functioning democracy with our own institutions. So…

Political institutions?

Political institutions. You have, say the New Hampshire primary. In a democratic society, what would happen is the people in a town in New Hampshire would get together in their own organizations, assemblies, groups, whatever they are, and take off a little time from whatever political and other activities that they're engaged in and say: OK let's work out what we would like to see in the next election. And they come up with some sort of program: "we'd like to see this". Then, if some candidate, says: I would like to come to town to talk to you, they would say: well you can come if you want to listen to us. And the candidate could come and they would explain to him what they want and they would say: if you can give a convincing reason why you'll support these things we'll consider voting for you. Or, maybe we'll have our own representative, we don't care about you. That would be a functioning democracy.

What happens is totally different. Nobody meets in the town. The candidate and his PR representatives and so on announce that he's coming to, or she sometimes, is coming to a town in New Hampshire and they kind of gather people together. The people sit there and listen to the candidate saying how wonderful I am, I'm going to do all these great things and nobody believes a word and then they go home. Well, you know, that's the opposite of democracy.

In fact, we see it all the time. I mean, take, say, April 15th. I mean, in a functioning democratic society that would be a day of celebration, the day you hand in your taxes. You would be saying: OK, we got together, we worked out some plans and programs that we think ought to be implemented and we're now participating in providing the funding to get these things done. That's a democracy. In the United States it's a day of mourning. It's a day when this alien force, you know, the government, which comes from Mars or somewhere is arriving to steal from us our hard earned money and use it for their own purposes, whatever they are. That's a reflection of the fact that the concept of democracy is kind of like, not even in people's minds. Now, I'm kind of exaggerating, it's not quite this sharp, but it's pretty close. It's a very great success to the…

You could discuss in a similar fashion the voter turnout, or the reasons why people vote for who they vote for. So, voter turnout, what do you think?

Take voter turnout. I mean, there's a lot of effort to get voter turnout. And people go for all kind of reasons. I mean, sometimes the reasons are quite interesting. There was an election which people regard as having a startling result in Massachusetts in January. Senate election, which gave the Republicans the 41st seat. Well, that concept alone is interesting.

There's two formal political parties in the country, Democrat and Republican. The Republicans have lost any pretense, almost, of being a traditional political party. They've almost no policies. I mean, the policy is "no" to whatever you produce. They are kind of like the old Communist Party in that party discipline is almost unanimous. They had 40 votes, now they have 41. Almost invariably unanimous, doesn't matter what the issue is. Maybe appointing somebody to some post in the bureaucracy so it can function.

The Democrats, who are kind of… there are groups called moderate Democrats. They're pretty much the ones who used to be called liberal Republicans. The party alignment has shifted, so that the liberal Republicans, in that traditional usage, have been essentially expelled from the party. And they've switched over and become what are called moderate Democrats, meaning old-fashioned Republicans. So, the moderate Democrats sort of go along with Republicans on all sorts of things. Then there are the Democrats that are called left. Almost entirely kind of centrist, pro-business Democrats and a couple of stragglers. They've all agreed to require a supermajority on everything. That means that majority rule can be blocked and is blocked unless you have a supermajority. T

The technique that's used is the filibuster. Well, the filibuster has been around for a long time, it was occasionally used. So the filibuster has now become kind of like the signing statement, when a president says: OK, I'll sign this legislation but I'm not going to follow it for this and that reason. There had been such cases, but with Bush II it became something totally novel – I think there were more signing statements than in the preceding 42 presidencies. It just became routine, and Obama's picking it up. And the filibuster's become the same, it's just a way for this party discipline, party of "no", to insist on a supermajority for anything.

In fact, it got to the point where one Republican, Senator Shelby, just announced he's going to hold up every presidential nomination, I think 70 nominations, routine nominations. And, of course, he asked for some special gift for his state. Meanwhile they're saying out of the other side of their mouths: we don't like pork, but unless you give me this gift, I'm going to hold up every nomination. And that works with a party that keeps the party discipline.

OK, so Brown, the guy elected in Massachusetts, was the 41st vote, it means even a supermajority won't work. Now, the Brown vote has been described as being kind of like a popular rebellion against the leftist government taking over. That's not what happened. What happened was quite interesting. First of all, a flood of money poured in toward the end of the campaign from the financial institutions. And that's for the reason that we already discussed. Obama had started making some mild noises about greedy bankers and so on, and part of the reaction was to say: OK, you talk like that, we're going to eliminate your supermajority. So a lot of money poured in.

If you look at the voting, Brown won primarily for two reasons: the affluent suburbs were very much engaged and very supportive of Brown. So they're condemning Obama because although he's giving them a lot, he's not giving them enough. So we want even more. That's the affluent suburbs. In the urban areas, which are mostly Democratic, you know, working class, poor, voting was very low. And they were essentially telling Obama: you're giving everything away, we're not even going to bother with you, we're not even going to take part. Particularly interesting was the union vote. It was lower than usual, but the majority of the union vote went to Brown.

And it's been discussed in the labor press, the good labor press, like Labor Notes – they interviewed people and union leaders and so on. The working people were just furious about the health care program. Now, you know, it's portrayed as a critique of the health care program, but in fact people don't like the health care program but because it didn't go far enough. Considerable majorities of the general population, and certainly Obama voters even more, were in favor of the public option and Medicare buy-in and other things which Obama just canned. So they don't like it 'cause it didn't go far enough, that's the majority of the population, not exactly what the headlines say. But in the case of the union leaders, activists, working people and unions, they were furious because Obama has been willing to give up everything, practically, except for one thing on which he's been insistent. Namely, taxing them for their health care plans. It's called an excise tax on Cadillac plans. I mean, Cadillac plans are not what rich people get. It's what working people have succeeded in eking out of their employers through the union in trade-off for giving everything else away.

So, part of the trade-off in the class war is in the unions – and this is a bad error of the unions from way back – is to give up on almost everything but at least to get some benefits for your own people. Not for others, just for your own. It's one of the reasons we don't have a national health care program – because of the focus of the unions on themselves, not others. Very different from Canada. In Canada, the same unions insisted on health care for everybody. In the United States they kind of bought in to the corporate system, and said: OK, health care for us. The result is that unionized workers get pretty decent, you know, by U.S. standards, health care plans. Obama insists he'll give away everything else, he insists on taxing them pretty heavily. So, of course, union workers are furious. So they voted for Brown. They're shooting themselves in the foot but the voting is understandable.

I mean, the anger is justified.

The anger is very justified.

The willingness to, sort of, rebel and to get upset is justified, it's perfectly sensible. There's just no avenue that does anything except make it worse.

Yeah, and that generalizes over the country. So, you know, I've been saying for some time, and other people have too, it's a serious mistake for the left to make fun of the Tea Party movement and Sarah Palin and the rest of them. I mean, it's easy to make fun of them, a lot of it's just kind of comical and ridiculous. But, that's not the point. What we should be doing is ridiculing ourselves.

For not having better alternatives.

I mean these are people who ought to be organized by the left. These are people who have worked hard all their lives, done everything they're supposed to. They're being shafted, they have been for 30 years. You know, wages have stagnated, declined, services are collapsing, they never were very good, schools are lousy. What's happening to us? Why is this happening to me?

Well, they get an answer from, say, Glenn Beck. You know, the rich liberals are taking over everything, they don't care about you, and they want to give it away to illegal immigrants and so on and so forth. Alright, that's a coherent answer. When you listen to him it's an internally coherent answer. It says something. So, they accept it. The liberal Democrats aren't going to give them an answer. They're not going to say: this is happening to you because for the last 30 years we've been working with the corporate system to deindustrialize the society and enrich bankers and so on. They're not going to hear that. And the left is just not telling them anything. It's trying to, but it's not doing it. That's extremely dangerous. It kind of has a whiff of the late Weimar republic to it.

So, ridiculing it doesn't make sense. It's like the union workers in Massachusetts shooting themselves in the foot, as became clear right away. As soon as Brown was elected he managed to get in – superfast with the help of the so-called moderate Democrats – in time to help vote down an appointment for the National Labor Relations Board, which is the one pro-union, relatively pro-union, appointment that was likely to get in to the NLRB. It used to be at one point some device for supporting workers’ rights. I mean, it's almost eliminated. But if you eliminate the last, you know, pro-union person it gets worse. So, when they were voting for Brown, that's in fact what they were voting for, but that wasn't what was in their minds. What was in their minds was anger at Obama for insisting on one thing, namely taking away their health benefits.


But, if you go back to the late 1960s, and you come all the way forward, we're talking 40 years. In those 40 years there's been a left, there's been leftists, there's been people who are critical of all these things that you're talking about. And yet, they, if we're honest about it, haven't produced an awareness or a mechanism or pretty much anything that speaks to the broad population, even at a moment when it is furious at the government, at employers, at Wall Street and so. So, either we've been doing something wrong or it's hopeless. I mean, if we've been doing everything right and gotten to the place where we are, that's not a very good sign. It would be much better if we had made mistakes, if we have failed to operate as well as we should have and, therefore, there are things that can be done. What mistakes, or what failings do you think are responsible for the mess that we're in?


Well, I mean the left, such as it is, does talk about these issues. But the left is just a conglomeration of a lot of people, but very scattered. And issue-oriented. So there's a part of the left that's dedicated to gay rights, there's another part that's dedicated to environmental issues, there's another part that's concerned with nuclear weapons and aggression or whatever it may be. But they tend to be kind of separated. You can't really identify an organized left that's addressing the kinds of concerns that the general population very rightly has. So what part of the left has been talking constantly, clearly, to the right people about the fact that the financialization of the economy from the 70s has led to stagnation, basically, of real wages and incomes. And deterioration of limited benefits and so on. In fact, a large part of the issue-oriented left, unfortunately, has alienated this population. I mean, we may not like it, but the fact is that a large part of that population is racist, is sexist, is, you know, opposed to gay rights and so on. And, while working on those issues is correct, it's got to be done in a way which recognizes the reality of the audience that is out there.

Alright, moving on to one of those areas, race in America, racism. What is race and racism?

I mean, race – here the postmodernists are sort of right – it's a social construction. I mean, we decide that there's different races, there are a lot of different ways you can categorize people. We do it by, you know, color or hairstyle or whatever it is. And it's a deep strain in American history. Goes right back to slavery, it never really changed. But it's real. And, it shows up very strikingly in people's attitudes. People's attitudes are quite different from what is usually claimed.

One of the things that political scientists do pretty well is study popular attitudes in extensive polling. And they publish straight and interesting results. Actually the current issue of the main political science journal, Political Science Quarterly, happens to have an article reviewing a lot of poll studies on attitudes towards social justice issues. And the results are pretty interesting. I mean, it turns out that, contrary to what is commonly claimed, the population is basically kind of social democratic in their attitudes.

In fact the most interesting part is the author identifies the people who call themselves anti-government. You know, right wing libertarian, get the government off our backs, that kind of thing. So, just looking at their attitudes, they tend to be in favor of more aid for, more federal spending for education, for health, for helping poor people, you know, for social security. Pretty much the same things as the liberals would say. But there's an exception. Two exceptions. They think we're giving too much to blacks and we're giving too much to people on welfare. Well, it has no relation to reality, but we can see where it comes from. I mean, it comes from unremitting propaganda that's based on traditional racism. You know, the blacks are getting everything, they're taking our country away from us. And of the sort of Reaganite type, you know, extremist propaganda about the welfare, you know the black mother in a Cadillac coming to steal your money at the welfare office.

You have enough propaganda like that and you get this split in attitudes. Now, notice I'm talking here about the people who regard themselves as anti-government, you know, right wing. In the general population it's similar, but less striking in a way. And that shows up on other things too. Actually, when you ask people… they didn't happen to in these polls, but it's been done before. What do you think you ought to give to, say, poor mothers with dependent children.

Of course, it's more than…

It's way more than we actually do. It shows up on foreign aid, too. Regularly. You ask people: what do you think about foreign aid? They say, we're giving everything away to those undeserving people who are ripping us off. What do you think we ought to give them? They say maybe ten times as much as we do. And these are failures of the left, too. You know, you're supposed to educate people. But what I think it means is that the audience is there. You know, people's general attitudes are kind of more or less social democratic.

OK, what about, in parallel, questions of sexism.

That's one of the real achievements of the 960s. Actually, the post-1960s movement. I mean, the issues were raised in the 1960s in an interesting way. I think the feminist movement really took off in the 1970s and later. And part of it, at least, was the result of sexism in the left. I remember from the resistance movement, it was very striking. The women were supposed to hand out the leaflets and so on. In fact, it was even ultra-sexist in some cases. And the men, the resisters, were doing something difficult and dangerous and courageous. And at one point, by the end of it, they were kind of being told: look, you guys are oppressors.

That was very hard for a lot of people to take. I mean, it lead to real breakdowns. Here we are, courageous, moral, doing something really hard, and it turns out we're oppressors. It was psychologically quite difficult, but, I think out of that came at least one strain of what became the feminist movement. There were others. And it took off. And there have been a lot of changes. I mean, there's a lot of problems, but the country's very different from what it was in the 1960s in this respect. I mean, you can see it in places like MIT. When I got there in the 1950s MIT was white males. You know, well dressed, deferential, you know, working on their whatever it was, particular professional concerns. If you walk down the halls now it's half women, maybe a third minorities, informal dress, informal relations, a lot of activism. OK, those are changes.

Transcribed by Anton G. 


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