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Chomsky says while it’s true that the two parties are essentially like factions of one party – the party of business – the differences do matter to ordinary people. If you are living in a swing state, there is nothing wrong with picking the lesser of two evils.

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Chomsky on Presidential Elections
Paul Jay

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: As the financial crisis and the economic crisis deepens, working people are asking, “How bad is it going to get?” and “How will it affect me?” To help us answer those questions, we’re joined by Professor Noam Chomsky, who needs no introduction. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So a few weeks ago, on George Stephanopolos’s show, George Will said the following:


GEORGE WILL, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Surely in a democracy it’s time for us to stop being sentimental and say the question we settle in an election is not whether elites shall rule but which elites shall rule.


Which was a rather candid moment to see on television. But for people, ordinary people, working people in swing states now, where their vote might help determine which section of the elite is going to rule, should it matter to them?

CHOMSKY: Not only it should matter, but it does matter and has mattered right through American history. Actually, George Will is essentially correct in the terms of the framing of the way American democracy is supposed to work. James Madison, the main framer, his main view, as he expressed at the Constitutional Convention, was that power should be in the hands of the wealth of the nation, the responsible set of men—men, of course—who respect the rights of property; and the goal of the government should be to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. And that thesis runs right to the contemporary period. The perhaps most famous exponent of it was the leading figure in American media, the public intellectual in the 20th century Walter Lippman, who wrote progressive essays on democracy. He was a Wilson-Roosevelt progressive. His view was that the population should be spectators, not participants. He called them ignorant and meddlesome outsiders who have to get out of the political arena, and we smart guys who have to run things have to be protected from the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd—that’s you guys out there. On the other hand, the population has never accepted this, has always struggled against it. The Jacksonian democracy is a famous case. But it continues. The benefits, the freedom that we have now is because of popular struggles. Popular struggles in the 1930s compelled the government to create New Deal measures, and in the 1960s it led to civil rights, Medicare, welfare state measures, women’s rights, and so on. Every single one of them, if you look, is the result of people simply not accepting the doctrine of elite rule, and it’s true today. You just take a look at polls. A spectacular 95 percent of the population—which is amazing for a poll—object that the government doesn’t pay attention to popular opinion.

JAY: There’s been sort of a traditional analysis on the left. There’s a section of the elite that’s more connected to the military-industrial complex, a section of the elite that’s more connected to domestic economy, needs a more vigorous domestic purchasing power, you know, certainly overlap. Does that analysis hold up? And if so, for ordinary people is it better to have one section of the elite in power or the other? I mean, right now, if you’re in a swing state, you’re going to decide McCain or Obama. Is there a decision that matters to people? And what would you suggest if you were in a swing state?

CHOMSKY: Well, I would suggest voting against McCain, which means voting for Obama without illusions, because all the elevated rhetoric about change and hope and so on will dissolve into standard centrist Democratic policies if he takes office. However, there is a difference, and it’s been studied quite closely by political scientists. There’s a strong difference over time. You don’t see it in any particular moment, but over time the general population, the large majority of the population other than the very wealthy, tends to do considerably better under Democratic than under Republican administrations. And the reason is sort of what you said: they reflect different elite constituencies, and the differences are quite striking and very noticeable. So if that’s what matters to you, you know, that’s usually a pretty good guy if you’re voting. It’s not that the Democrats represent public opinion. They don’t. In fact, like the Republicans, they’re pretty relatively right of public opinion on a host of major issues, including those of most importance to the public. In fact, what’s happening now, it’s interesting it’s not being discussed. It’s very striking; it tells you a lot about American democracy. For years, decades, in fact, one of the leading concerns, if not the top concern of the public, has been the health care system, which is understandable. It’s a total catastrophe. It has about twice the costs of other industrial countries and some of the worst outcomes, and it’s painful for individuals. If you’ve ever spent a little time at an ER watching people come for a bad cold, then you can see what it’s like.

JAY: We’ve been doing work in various states—in northwest Indiana, Virginia, and other places. It’s all people want to talk about is the health care system—jobs or health care.

CHOMSKY: And there’s a good reason for it. It’s a catastrophe. It’s getting much worse. It’s going to swamp the federal budget. And the fundamental reason for it is it’s privatized. That introduces layer after layer of bureaucracy, cherry picking, supervision, paperwork, and that’s hundreds of millions of dollars of waste a year. Well, up until the 2004 election, it was just off the agenda. People mention the Clinton program, but that’s a misunderstanding. What the public has wanted is very straightforward: they want a national health care system. Usually people pick Canada as the model, not because it’s the best system, but ’cause it’s right there. You see it. You don’t see the Australian system, which is better. But the public by large majorities has favored a national health care system, say, Medicare-plus it’s sometimes called, extended to the population, which would be far cheaper for [inaudible]

JAY: Now, Obama doesn’t go there. Obama does not go there.

CHOMSKY: Well, see, it’s interesting. It’s quite interesting to see what’s happened. Up until 2004, nobody went there. So the last debate before the election in 2004 was on the domestic economy and concerns. And, now, 2008 is different. In 2008, both Democratic candidates, Clinton and Obama, did make proposals which, as you say, were not what the public wants but were approaching it. But what happened between 2004 and 2008 to make it politically possible? Public opinion didn’t change. What changed is that a major sector of concentrations of real power, namely manufacturing industry, they changed their position. So General Motors says that it cost them over $1,000 more to make a car in Detroit than across the border in Windsor, Canada, because of the inefficient health care system. Well, when a large sector of concentrated capital, concentrated economic power becomes interested in something, it becomes politically possible. So now it’s moving to the political agenda. They’re not getting there. What does that tell you about the functioning of American democracy? It’s very revealing, and it is doubly revealing that nobody comments on it.

JAY: I mean, in this segment of the interview, just to concentrate more on the politics of this election, what do you say to the third-party candidates who say, you know, they are all the same, and that we’re locked in this dilemma, they say, of one party or the other, the, you know, lesser of evils and such? What do you say to them when they say it really doesn’t make any difference who wins?

CHOMSKY: Well, to say it doesn’t make any difference who wins is simply to express your contempt for the general population, ’cause it does make a difference. A lot of what they say is correct: the two parties are effectively factions of one party, the business party, but the factions are somewhat different. And as I mentioned, over time the differences show up in benefits, working conditions, wages, things that really matter to people. So yes, there’s a difference. It’s a narrow difference, and the spectrum within the political system is well to the right of popular opinion, and certainly the public is well aware of it. So 80 percent of the population say that the government is run by, I’m quoting, “a few big interests looking out for themselves, not the population.” And they can argue about the details, but the picture’s essentially correct, and they don’t like it. Nevertheless, there is some difference and you have to make a choice. If you’re in a swing state, you have to ask: is this difference enough for me to pick the lesser of the two evils? And there’s nothing wrong with picking the lesser of the two evils. The cliché makes it sound like you’re doing something bad, but no, you’re doing something good if you pick the lesser of two evils. So is it worth doing that? Or is it worth trying to act to create a potential alternative? For example, should I vote Green because maybe someday their party will be a real alternative? Should I express my disdain for the right-wing orientation of both parties by not voting, let’s say? Or should I pick the lesser of the two evils, thereby helping people? Okay. That’s a decision people have to make.

JAY: In the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about the current financial crisis. And what do people mean when they talk about the financial crisis and the real economy as if they’re two different planets? Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Professor Noam Chomsky.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Noam Chomsky has written and lectured widely on linguistics, philosophy, intellectual history, contemporary issues, international affairs and U.S. foreign policy. His works include: Aspects of the Theory of Syntax; Cartesian Linguistics; Sound Pattern of English (with Morris Halle); Language and Mind; American Power and the New Mandarins; At War with Asia; For Reasons of State; Peace in the Middle East?; Reflections on Language; The Political Economy of Human Rights, Vol. I and II (with E.S. Herman); Rules and Representations; Lectures on Government and Binding; Towards a New Cold War; Radical Priorities; Fateful Triangle; Knowledge of Language; Turning the Tide; Pirates and Emperors; On Power and Ideology; Language and Problems of Knowledge; The Culture of Terrorism; Manufacturing Consent (with E.S. Herman); Necessary Illusions; Deterring Democracy; Year 501; Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War and US Political Culture; Letters from Lexington; World Orders, Old and New; The Minimalist Program; Powers and Prospects; The Common Good; Profit Over People; The New Military Humanism; New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind; Rogue States; A New Generation Draws the Line; 9-11; and Understanding Power. His most recent book is called Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel's War Against the Palestinians published in November of 2010.