Chomsky, polling and popular struggle

 Chomsky, increasingly so in recent years, has devoted a portion in many of his writings to stressing that polls indicate that many Americans have social democratic inclinations. In interviews or essays he often says something like "my views are close to those of the majority of the population; elite politicians and intellectuals support mass murder in the third world  but the general population is opposed to it. The general population is often much more sensible than elite sectors."  I think there may be something to what Chomsky says but I think he place too much significance on the polls.  I get the feeling that Chomsky dosen’t take into acocunt how superficial and fickle the opinions of many people are. Our people are very vulnerable to propaganda that might make them sympathetic to the right wing views that are antithetical to the response they give Chomsky’s pollsters.

. I think Chomsky overlooks the fact that the polls show that  most white people are pretty bad on the issue of race and so this kind of hinders their ability to genuinely get behind efforts to support progressive policies.  When you start talking about poverty you eventually have to bring race into the discussion and alot of white folks don’t like that. They may be sympathetic toward poor farmers in the midwest, the people that Willie Nelson sings for and maybe some of them have sympathy for poor white folks in Appalachia. But I think there is a limit to their social conscience; certainly I think it is more limited than Chomsky implies it is.

I think Chomsky and Howard Zinn don’t take into account the fact that "popular struggles" have historically been started by quite small groups of people and for a long time a large number of Americans were afraid of the consequences of showing sympathy toward the struggles, indifferent to them or hostile to them. Sit-down strikes, for example, elicited alot of beneficial concessions to American workers, significantly more than most of the conventional strikes of the period, but they were launched by a small number of workers. From early Spring to June 1st 1937, roughly 485,000 Americnans participated in sit-downs, inspired by the sit-down strikes in Flint Michigan that lasted from late December 1936 till around February 11th 1937.  But many other workers were (understandably) afraid of the consequences of joining the sit-downs or were hostile to them. . I’ve been looking, while doing my Master’s thesis, at some Gallup polling data from the late 1930’s and a large majority of  public opinion was fervently against sit-downs strikes, favored the use of government force against them,  was sympathetic toward Henry Ford’s violent anti-union policies. etc. At the same time, Americans in the late 1930’s, according to Gallup polling, were overwhelmingly in favor of having labor unions in their society. I think that workers should direct their own struggles but first there has to be a small cardre of educated and committed people who can help educate the workers in a libertarian socialist direction and inspire them to support direct action.  I think democratization of our media system is absolutely crucial.

I think it will take a very severe economic depression for any major progressive struggles to develop.  As Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward write in "Poor People’s Movements," when people are all in the same boat of misery, as during the Great Depression, they tend to think something is wrong with the overall economic and political system. However when people have economic trouble during "normal" economic times, when they see other Americans in the middle class experience reasonable propserity while they have trouble,  they tend to blame not the system but themselves, get lower self-esteem, become alcoholics and beat their children, etc. Maybe the Employee Free Choice Act will help revive organized labor into the vibrancy it had in the 1930’s, though when you see that it has leaders like Andy Stern, you get some doubts in your head. One would hope that a revived labor movement would encourage a leader like Stern to become less conservative and employer friendly–the change that happened to John L. Lewis during the 1930’s–and that he can be forced out of power if he dosen’t adjust to the times.

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