US public irrelevant
Noam Chomsky interviewed by Avi Lewis
Al Jazeera, June 30, 2008
AVI LEWIS: I'd like to start by talking about the US presidential campaign. In writing about the last election in 2004, you called America's system a "fake democracy" in which the public is hardly more than an irrelevant onlooker, and you've been arguing in your work in the last year or so that the candidates this time around are considerably to the right of public opinion on all major issues.

So, the question is, do Americans have any legitimate hope of change this time around? And what is the difference in dynamic between America's presidential "cup" in 2008 compared to 2004 and 2000?

NOAM CHOMSKY: There's some differences, and the differences are quite enlightening. I should say, however, that I'm expressing a very conventional thought 80 per cent of the population thinks, if you read the words of the polls, that the government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves not for the population [and] 95 per cent of the public thinks that the government ought to pay attention to public opinion but it doesn't.

As far as the elections are concerned, I forget the exact figure but by about three to one people wish that the elections were about issues, not about marginal character qualities and so on. So I'm right in the mainstream.

There's some interesting differences between 2004 and 2008 and they're very revealing, it's kind of striking that the commentators don't pick that up because it's so transparent.

The main domestic issue for years is the health system - which is understandable as it's a total disaster.

The last election debate in 2004 was on domestic issues ... and the New York Times the next day had an accurate description of it. It said that [former Democratic presidential candidate John] Kerry did not bring up any hint of government involvement in healthcare because it has so little political support, just [the support of] the large majority of the population.

But what he meant was it was not supported by the pharmaceutical industry and wasn't supported by the financial institutions and so on.

In this election the Democratic candidates all have [health] programmes that are not what the public are asking for but are approaching it and could even turn into it, so what happened between 2004 and 2008?

It's not a shift in public opinion - that's the same as before, what happened is a big segment of US corporate power is being so harmed by the healthcare system that they want it changed, namely the manufacturing industry.

So, for example, [car manufacturer] General Motors says that it costs them maybe $1,500 more to produce a car in Detroit then across the border in Windsor, Canada, just because they have a more sensible healthcare system there.

Well, when a big segment of corporate America shifts its position, then it becomes politically possible and has political support. So, therefore, you can begin to talk about it.

LEWIS: But those aren't changes coming from pressure from below?

CHOMSKY: No, the public is the same, it's been saying the same for decades, but the public is irrelevant, is understood to be irrelevant. What matters is a few big interests looking after themselves and that's exactly what the public sees.

LEWIS: And yet, you can see people agitating against the official story, even within the electoral process. There is definitely a new mood in the US, a restlessness among populations who are going to political rallies in unprecedented numbers.

What do you make of this well branded phenomenon of hope - which is obviously part marketing - but is it not also part something else?

CHOMSKY: Well that's Barack Obama. He has his way, he presents himself - or the way his handlers present him - as basically a kind of blank slate on which you can write whatever you like and there are a few slogans: Hope, unity ...

LEWIS: Change?

CHOMSKY: Change. And it does arouse enthusiasm and you can understand why. Again 80 per cent of the population thinks the county is going the wrong way.

For most people in the US the past 30 years have been pretty grim. Now, it's a rich country, so it's not like living in southern Africa, but for the majority of the population real wages have stagnated or declined for the past 30 years, there's been growth but it's going to the wealthy and into very few pockets, benefits which were never really great have declined, work hours have greatly increased and there isn't really much to show for it other than staying afloat.

And there is tremendous dissatisfaction with institutions, there's a lot of talk about Bush's very low poll ratings, which is correct, but people sometimes overlook the fact that congress's poll ratings are even lower.

In fact all institutions are just not trusted but disliked, there's a sense that everything is going wrong.

So when somebody says "hope, change and unity" and kind of talks eloquently and is a nice looking guy and so on then, fine.

LEWIS: If the elite strategy for managing the electorate is to ignore the will of the people as you interpret it through polling data essentially, what is an actual progressive vision of changing the US electoral system? Is it election finance, is it third party activism?

CHOMSKY: We have models right in front of us. Like pick, say, Bolivia, the poorest county in South America. They had a democratic election a couple of years ago that you can't even dream about in the US. It's kind of interesting it's not discussed; it's a real democratic election.

A large majority of the population became organised and active for the first time in history and elected someone from their own ranks on crucial issues that everyone knew about control of resource, cultural rights, issues of justice, you know, really serious issues.

And, furthermore, they didn't just do it on election day by pushing a button, they've been struggling about these things for years.

A couple of years before this they managed to drive Bechtel and the World Bank out of the country when they were trying to privatise the water. It was a pretty harsh struggle and a lot of people were killed.

Well, they reached a point where they finally could manifest this through the electoral system - they didn't have to change the electoral laws, they had to change the way the public acts. And that's the poorest country in South America.

Actually if we look at the poorest country in the hemisphere Haiti - the same thing happened in 1990. You know, if peasants in Bolivia and Haiti can do this, it's ridiculous to say we can't.

LEWIS: The Democrats in this election campaign have been talking a lot, maybe less so more recently, about withdrawing from Iraq.

What are the chances that a new president will significantly change course on the occupation and might there be any change for the people of Iraq as a result of the electoral moment in the US?

CHOMSKY: Well, one of the few journalists who really covers Iraq intimately from inside is Nir Rosen, who speaks Arabic and passes for Arab, gets through society, has been there for five or six years and has done wonderful reporting. His conclusion, recently published, as he puts it, is there are no solutions.

This has been worse than the Mongol invasions of the 13th century - you can only look for the least bad solution but the country is destroyed.

And it has in fact been catastrophic. The Democrats are now silenced because of the supposed success of the surge which itself is interesting, it reflects the fact that there's no principled criticism of the war so if it turns out that your gaining your goals, well, then it was OK.

We didn't act that way when the Russians invaded Chechnya and, as it happens, they're doing much better than the US in Iraq.

In fact what's actually happening in Iraq is kind of ironic. The Iraqi government, the al-Maliki government, is the sector of Iraqi society most supported by Iran, the so-called army - just another militia - is largely based on the Badr brigade which is trained in Iran, fought on the Iranian side during the Iran-Iraq war, was part of the hated Revolutionary Guard, it didn't intervene when Saddam was massacring Shiites with US approval after the first Gulf war, that's the core of the army.

The figure who is most disliked by the Iranians is of course Muqtada al-Sadr, for the same reason he's disliked by the Americans he's independent.

If you read the American press, you'd think his first name was renegade or something, it's always the "renegade cleric" or the "radical cleric" or something - that's the phrase that means he's independent, he has popular support and he doesn't favour occupation.

Well, the Iranian government doesn't like him for the same reason. So, they [Iran] are perfectly happy to see the US institute a government that's receptive to their influence and for the Iraqi people it's a disaster.

And it'll become a worse disaster once the effects of the warlordism and tribalism and sectarianism sink in more deeply.

chomsky.info