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Noam Chomsky: Liberal-conservative divide no more than an illusion amongst ordinary Americans

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Now joining us is a man who needs no introduction, so I’m not going to do one. Thanks for joining us, Mr. Chomsky.

NOAM CHOMSKY, PROF. LINGUISTICS, MIT: Glad to be here again.

JAY: So we are told by many people, and across the political spectrum, that the problem is we just can’t get along. On the front pages of the newspapers today, the story is, will the Democrats work with the Republicans? And they’re polling about whether more Republicans want their representatives to fight or not fight. And we’re told by people like Jon Stewart that the problem is that we need a more rational center, a more rational discussion; the problem is the people on the left extreme and the right extreme, and there’s always been this division between what’s called liberalism and conservatism, and that’s the basic division of American society, and the problem is the liberals and the conservatives just need to have a more fruitful discourse, they need to get together and figure out a sane center, this all at the time of perhaps the gravest crisis in terms of global economy, certainly since the 1930s. And who knows? It might turn out to be even more profound than that. What’s your take on this whole positioning of what the problem is?

CHOMSKY: I think there’s very little truth to it. What’s happened over the past roughly 35 years is that both parties have drifted to the right. I don’t think the terms liberal and conservative mean much. In fact, if you take a look at the–there’s quite serious inquiry into the actual attitudes of people who call themselves conservatives. So the group of people who say, I’m in favor of small government, cutting back taxes; put aside the social issues, they’re different; well, it turns out most of them have more or less social democratic attitudes. You know, they think there should be more money spent on health, more on education, more on assistance to the poor, but not welfare. Reagan succeeded in blackening the term welfare with his tales about, you know, black women in limousines that are coming to the welfare offices and so on. So no welfare, but assistance to the poor. No foreign aid, but then when people are asked how much should we be giving, they typically say considerably more than we actually are. And what you basically have among the so-called conservatives in the population is what we call liberal attitudes on issue after issue. Take, say, the health-care reform that Obama passed, which is now the real fighting issue. Well, a majority of the population’s opposed to the health-care reform. If you take a look at the reasons, a substantial number are opposed because it didn’t go far enough, and on particular matters that Obama gave away, like, say, a public option. There’s pretty strong support for allowing the pharmaceutical corporations to get away with murder, because the government’s not allowed to negotiate prices with them–overwhelming opposition.

JAY: But certainly in the last election, just a few days ago, what got articulated as a position people voted for, at least as–if you look at through the media lens, is, you know, low to no taxes, people should fend for themselves, you know, this whole idea of the nanny state is under attack. A more extreme version of what the right might [inaudible]

CHOMSKY: That’s certainly true among the spokespersons for the right. But, again, if you take a look at the polling of people who take those views, and you ask them, should we cut down on, say, Medicare, should we cut down on assistance for education, should we cut down on infrastructure development, they say no.

JAY: Well, the way you position it is you’re talking about out in society amongst ordinary people that have conservative values. But this is something that doesn’t get discussed. And maybe is this, you know, [inaudible] kind of the point? I mean–.

CHOMSKY: I mean, it’s there. For example–.

JAY: No, what I’m getting at is this, is that there’s a quote of George Will which I keep quoting over and over again, practically every story I do now. In the fall of 2008, heading into the ’08 elections, George Will is on Stephanopoulos’s show, and there’s a back-and-forth with Donna Brazile. And finally Will blurts out, he says, let’s not get sentimental about democracy. We don’t get to choose whether or not the elite will govern; we get to choose which elite will govern. And is part of the issue here that this liberal-conservative dynamic is a dynamic within the elite, and it doesn’t get talked that way about what goes on in the rest of the society?

CHOMSKY: It’s a dynamic among the articulate, those who have access to–who have public access to express themselves, like Will. But the attitudes of the population are quite different. In fact, if you look over the years–and there have been quite extensive studies–the general will of the population is quite different from policy on major issues. I can refer you to some studies if you like, but there are quite careful studies of it. In fact, on many major issues–. Say me. I’m supposed to be radical left. I find myself more or less in agreement with the majority of the population–more or less; you know, not exactly. But that’s totally different from policy. So, for example, take, say, foreign-policy issues, which have been studied carefully. There’s a book by Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton called The Foreign Policy Disconnect, in which they study, over many decades, attitudes of the public on foreign policies as compared with policy, and there is a sharp disconnect. So, say, on international issues, a considerable majority think that the United Nations ought to take the lead, not the United States, in international crises. Actually, a majority think that the US ought to give up the veto at the Security Council.

JAY: It was clear before the Iraq War the majority of public opinion said let the UN finish its inspection.

CHOMSKY: Yeah, but that’s standard. I mean, you get–when the United States is at war and there’s a lot of propaganda about how our lives are at stake and so on, well, then things change. For example, if you go back about three–take, say, the main foreign policy issue, Iran. It’s considered, you know, the threat to world order. Now, there’s–the last couple of years there’s been a ton of propaganda about it, but if you go back right before the propaganda, say, January 2007, when there were extensive studies of Iranian and American public opinion, turns out they were pretty similar. They both agreed that–large majorities, that Iran should have the right to enrich uranium, as a signer of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but not develop nuclear weapons; they both favored negotiation over threat of force; and so on down the line. In fact, a huge, you know, a large majority thought the United States ought to move towards abandoning nuclear weapons.

JAY: If you get back to the policy debate on domestic questions, it’s being positioned as stimulus versus austerity: less government, no taxes; over here, slightly tax, slight tax reform with some stimulus–although the liberal section of the leadership is also buying into the necessity of sooner than later get to fight the debt, in other words get to austerity.

CHOMSKY: Sooner. That’s why Obama has a deficit commission.

JAY: So what should people be demanding? Or what’s the vision ordinary people should have? And, you know, in the last election, the small government, lower taxes, you could get–people could get their head around.

CHOMSKY: Except that they don’t believe it, because when you ask them what should be cut, point by point, they say not this, not that, I want more spending for that. So it’s a slogan, you know, get the government off our backs. And remember, we have a business-run propaganda system. I mean, it shouldn’t be a secret. And business, of course, would like to have smaller government, would like to get the government off our back, because that means they get on our back. See, there’s a corollary to get the government on our back; namely, give the concentrated private power even more power than it has now. So people call themselves libertarians and say, you know, we don’t want to be run by others. They’re saying, we want to be run by private tyrannies. They should be free to do what they like. That’s the part that’s not expressed. But if you think it through, that’s what’s going to happen. Take the specific issues. People say, yeah, we don’t want taxes, which is, incidentally, quite interesting. We’ll come back to it in a second. But when people are asked, do you want more taxes? No. Horrible. Here, April 15, you know, it’s–that’s considered a day of mourning. Some alien force is coming to steal your money. Well, that’s quite interesting. That’s the result of decades of intense propaganda to try to get people to hate the government so that the corporate sector can run things without interference. And, of course, the corporate sector wants a big government. They don’t want to cut the government. They just want a nanny state for themselves. But the propaganda has been very extensive, and it tells you something. I mean, if there was a democratic culture, functioning democratic culture, then people would celebrate April 15. They would say April 15 is the day when we collaborate to implement the policies that we chose. But they don’t say that.

JAY: Is part of the problem that an important section of the left, and certainly the leadership of the Democratic Party, don’t want to deal with the fact that this form of big government is very alienated from people and that this big government is totally entwined with this corporate sector, but they try to–?

CHOMSKY: I would drop the term left, ’cause, I mean, what is called the left in the media is what used to be called moderate Republicans. The so-called new Democrats are barely–they’re essentially what moderate Republicans were 30, 40 years ago. The Republicans are just brashly and openly the party of private power, private tyranny. They–I mean, they talk about we’re the common man and elites, but so does everyone. But if you look at the policies, that’s what it is. Take, say, Obama. I mean, the core of his funding in the 2000 election was actually financial institutions. And when groups of investors get together to control the state–what we call an election–they expect to be paid back. And they were.

JAY: You can see who got appointed as Obama’s financial team.

CHOMSKY: Right away, you know, instantly. There were other people who could have been appointed.

JAY: So what’s the vision for ordinary people now? What should they be demanding? What should they articulate?

CHOMSKY: They should be demanding a functioning democratic society in which decisions are actually made by the public in their own organizations, their own meetings. I mean, you know, let’s take, say, the primaries. So, say, New Hampshire has the first primary, technically. Well, if you had a democratic society, a functioning one, not just a formal one, what would happen would be that a town in New Hampshire would get together, town meeting, whatever organizations they have, and say these–hash out the kind of policies they want the government to follow, come to some more or less agreement, say, well we’d like to do so and so, then if a candidate wants to come, they should say, okay, you can come, and we’ll tell you what we want you to do, and if you can really commit yourself to this honestly, maybe we’ll vote for you. That’s not what happens. What happens is the candidate comes in with a huge PR apparatus and makes a speech to the town and says, here’s how wonderful I am and here’s what I’m going to do, and people probably obviously they don’t believe him properly, and then gone. That’s the opposite of democracy.

JAY: Now, what would the economy look like? What’s the demands on the economy?

CHOMSKY: Well, you know, I think the term stimulus has been turned into a dirty word, like taxes. But if there was real discussion about this, public discussion about it, I think most of the population would probably agree with leading economists, Nobel laureates, who say what we need is a big stimulus. Deficit reduction down the road, maybe. But we didn’t have a stimulus. I mean, if you take a look at the Obama stimulus, I mean, contrary to tons of lies about it, there’s good objective evidence that it did save maybe a couple of million jobs. However, it was a very small stimulus, and it was wiped out by cutbacks in government spending at other levels. So the stimulus was actually more or less the same as the cutback in state and local spending. So that means there was stimulus.

JAY: Is part of this a missing critique on the limits of stimulus, that there’s a point where even if there’s–even a direct government jobs program, for that matter, but the underlying problem of stagnant wages and chronic now-high unemployment–.

CHOMSKY: That goes back 35 years.

JAY: So does there not need to be some addressing of that? ‘Cause stimulus alone is not likely to address that.

CHOMSKY: No, stimulus is for an immediate problem.

JAY: So what’s the longer-term vision?

CHOMSKY: There’s a–right now there’s a problem of low demand. Corporations have money coming out of their ears. They’ve just huge profits just stored up. They’re not creating demand.

JAY: Yeah. In fact, they’re going offshore with the money now, mostly.

CHOMSKY: Part of it, and that’s part of the problem, which goes way back, not for now. The population can’t–people just lost roughly $6 trillion. That’s not small. That’s what the housing bubble was, and maybe a couple of trillion more in their mutual funds and so on. So roughly $8 trillion of wealth have been lost for the population. So consumer demand is–it’s there, but limited. Now, in that kind of situation, the only way you can get the economy moving again is by government creating demand.

JAY: But then what?

CHOMSKY: If the economy gets moving again, it’ll grow, and then with the growth of the economy, you can return and overcome whatever deficit there is. That’s pretty much the way it’s been done in the past.

JAY: But in terms of this democratization of the society, doesn’t there need to be something on the economic front that reflects that? And if you go back to the same kind of economy we had pre-crash–.

CHOMSKY: But now we’re going–see, let’s go back to that. Take–you mentioned stagnating wages. That’s a 35-year old problem. I mean, there was a big growth period without historical precedent in the ’50s and the ’60s into the early ’70s. In the mid ’70s there was major change in economic policy. You know, it didn’t happen in an instant, but it happened over time, and it was escalated by Reagan, again by Clinton, even more so by Bush. But the–it’s bipartisan, started in the late Carter years. Two things, which are related. One of them was a shift towards financialization of the economy. So the share of profits by financial institutions started to increase. By now it’s (you know, there’s–it’s estimates) roughly a third of corporate profits. You know, they don’t contribute–financial institutions do something for the economy, but nothing on that scale. That’s basically harmful to the economy. But it increased enormously. Now they’re the solid core of economic power, say, a third of corporate profits or something like that. Associated with that was a hollowing out of productive industry. So it’s a continuation of a process that [inaudible]

JAY: So what do you do? What should people be demanding in terms of structural change on the economic side?

CHOMSKY: Well, let’s just look at the consequences of this. The consequences are for about–for roughly 35, 30 years, a little more, wages for the majority, real wages, have pretty much stagnated, working hours have increased. People have been getting by by having two adults working, or women in the workforce at lower wages, and by debt, and by asset inflation, like, say, the housing bubble. Well, that’s just not viable. And meanwhile these same people see that there’s plenty of wealth around, but it’s going into very few pockets. I mean, the top maybe 1 percent or even one-tenth of 1 percent of the population have been making out like bandits. And so we now have this incredible inequality, maybe back to the ’20s, or maybe even a record. And this is part of people’s consciousness. I’m working harder. Things are getting worse. I’m working more hours. Benefits which were never very good have declined. Meanwhile, other people are getting very rich. Something’s wrong. Give me an answer. They were right to ask for an answer. They’re not going to get it from the Democrats, the people who are called the left, because they are the ones who have been denying and implementing policies. They’re not going to say, yeah, that’s true; that’s what happens when we participated in the huge growth of the financial sector, which is of dubious significance for the economy, may be harmful, largely; we did that, and we assisted the policy of hollowing out production, which is a policy of setting working people in competition with each other throughout the world. So what we call our trade policies–a bad term for it. Certainly not free-trade policies. What are called free-trade policies are essentially a program setting working people against each other throughout the world, but protecting the privileged people. So, for example, we don’t allow foreign doctors and lawyers and economists and others to practice here. There’s all kind of barriers to it.

JAY: So in terms of some basic structural change–.

CHOMSKY: But the–my point is that the Democrats are not going to say this. Obviously, the Republicans won’t say it. The press won’t say it. So what comes along is George Will, the Tea Party, Rush Limbaugh, and others who say, look, I have an answer. If you listen to them–and I do listen to them; I’m interested–the answer that you get has a kind of internal coherence. I mean, it’s off the wall as far as reality is concerned, but it has an internal logic, and at least it’s an answer, so you can see why people believe it. And they end up with completely contradictory attitudes, like let’s cut taxes and get the government off our back, but let’s increase spending on all the things I care about. Get the government off our back–nobody says get the corporations on your back. You know. Well, we should have a reasonable discourse about this, but that would require–you know, there’s only one way that’s going to come about, namely, by reconstituting a functioning democratic society (to the extent that there was one), which means popular organizations in which people participate. That’s how you get ideas. Even if you’re working, say, on this floor of MIT in the sciences, you don’t sit by yourself. You talk to others. You cooperate. You work together. You figure out your own thoughts. You sharpen them [on] other people’s views. I mean, that’s what the labor unions used to be. When–that’s one of the reasons why business hates labor unions so much and has been trying to destroy them for 60 years. They’re dangerous. They have a democratizing effect. They bring people together and allow them to work together, not just to raise their wages, but also to work out what–you know, exactly what you’re asking, what should social and public policy be. And, of course, they’re not the only such organization. We have others, and some still survive, churches, for example.

JAY: But to have this expression effective, if you can have this kind of democratization of the politics, at least the beginning of that process, and people start to talk about these kinds of issues, what kind of economy do we want, and what would that policy look like–.

CHOMSKY: Well, I think what kind of economy we want should go way beyond this. I’m just talking about a very superficial level.

JAY: Well, I’m talking about let’s go way beyond it. What structural changes should people be imagining? ‘Cause if the thing–.

CHOMSKY: Let’s be concrete.

JAY: Yeah, because the thing the Tea Party gave is–whatever you make of it, it seemed to be a vision one could fight for. What’s a vision, an alternative vision, do you think, that will be more in the interests of people?

CHOMSKY: Democracy, and that has very concrete aspects. So instead of being abstract about it, let’s take a real case. The government, the Obama administration, essentially took over the auto industry. I mean, they basically owned it. They didn’t call it that. Well, there are things that could have been gone. What was done was to continue the policy of shutting plants, shipping work overseas, and so on, under the same–pretty much the–you know, a few different faces, but essentially the same attitude. There’s an alternative. There are things the country badly needs–for example, high-speed transit. When you go abroad and you come back to the United States, in many ways it looks like a third-world country. I could give details, but one typical example is the lack of efficient mass high-speed public transportation. Well, the same GM plants that are being shut down have a skilled workforce in which they could develop that technology and provide it to the country. It would be extremely important for the economy. In the longer term it would be a step towards addressing the extremely serious global warming problem. But instead of doing that, what’s happening, what–the policies are that the plants are being shut down, trimmed, the workforce cut back. Meanwhile, the transportation secretary is traveling around Europe using federal stimulus money to get contracts from Spain and France and other places to provide high-speed transit for the United States. I mean, it’s surreal.

JAY: So, in other words, a public option for the auto industry.

CHOMSKY: That would mean worker takeover of the factories, which–’cause management isn’t going to agree and bankers aren’t going to agree. But it would mean that the workforce ought–and the community, what are called the stakeholders, ought to essentially take over the productive system. Then they could do this.

JAY: Well, certainly the government with GM and Chrysler could have had any makeup of the board they wanted.

CHOMSKY: Yeah, they could have had stakeholders.

JAY: What about on the finance sector, then? Why not the same thing, a public option for the finance sector?

CHOMSKY: Well, see, the finance sector really has to be pared down significantly. There are some interesting studies going on about this among economists. And take a look at the last issue of D–dalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. There are several lengthy discussions in it by very well-known economists, including Nobel laureates, who raise the interesting question, “What does the financial system do for us–” and they discuss ways. And what you can find out–they haven’t really been investigated, but their judgment basically is, well, awful lot of it is harmful. I mean, there is a service that the financial institutions can perform, like directing investment to–directing funds, stored funds, you know, what you leave in the bank, to usable, to productive investment. But a huge amount of it is not doing that. It’s devoted to cutting off a couple of nanoseconds from the financial transfers, which then get reversed a few nanoseconds later. It contributes nothing to the economy, but it absorbs huge funds, and it also draws some of the highest talent, which is also a cost. Well, with the financial institutions a real question is: to what extent do we need them? I mean, some extent. Paul Volcker, you may remember, awhile back said the only useful innovation in the financial sector for the last couple of decades is the ATM machine. He was exaggerating and making a point, but there is a point. So the financialization of the economy–and, incidentally, there’s the global economy–that is a major issue that has to be reversed. It–ever since it happened, roughly the ’70s.

JAY: I mean, is there any way to do that without the same logic that President Obama gave for the health-care system? Wouldn’t it not be [the] same for the finance? You can’t really do without some kind of public instrument.

CHOMSKY: With–yeah, and that could have easily been done, just as it could’ve been technically–.

JAY: Same thing, ’cause they were completely dependent upon public money.

CHOMSKY: Yes. So instead of just saying, okay, we’ll bail you out and then pay you off, they could have said, okay, we own you now, and we’ll reconstruct you in a socially useful way. That would require the kind of mass popular organization that, for example, led to the New Deal. You know, the New Deal didn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, Roosevelt said, force me to do it.

JAY: So the critique of that is that then puts too much concentration of power within a federal government.

CHOMSKY: No, but–see, if we had a democratic society, functioning one, the federal government would be the population, so we put power in the hands of the population and their representatives. That’s called democracy.

JAY: So the short of it is, to democratize the economics you’ve got to democratize the politics and vice versa.

CHOMSKY: And democratize the public. You have to reconstruct functioning significant public organizations of the kind that unions were in the past–and to a limited extent still are. And there are plenty of others. That’s–I mean, we can say, okay, we’re not going to have a democracy. Fine. Then let’s just give it all to Goldman Sachs and–.

JAY: Blackwater.

CHOMSKY: You know, so we’ll let them do it. That’s, I think, what George Will was saying. Okay. So let’s say it. You know. But if we’re going to pretend to be a democracy, let’s become one. Let’s move towards a kind of society where April 15 is a day of celebration, ’cause we’re implementing our plans.

JAY: April 15 being pay your taxes day.

CHOMSKY: Pay your taxes means, okay, we’re cooperating to implement the programs that we’ve decided on. And the same thing could happen in, you know, a town where a GM plant is located and being closed down and the stakeholders, workforce, and the community say, no, we’re going to take it over and produce what the country needs. Alright, that would require some federal stimulus, just like for GM to proceed as in the past required a big federal stimulus. But it can be done in different ways. We don’t have go to Spain to get high-speed transport. We don’t have to go to China to get solar panels. These are social decisions made by people in power, primarily these days bankers and other financial institutions, and there’s no reason for the public to tolerate that. Now, as long as we’re going to have that, you’re going to get these contradictory attitudes like cut down on the government, cut down on taxes, but increase everything that I want, which is basically what you have now.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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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.