The 2016 US presidential election is shaping up to be a fascinating contest between reactionaries (Donald Trump and Ted Cruz), pro-establishment figures (Hillary Clinton) and a progressive of a selective kind (Bernie Sanders). The candidates’ views span a political range that is broader than usual, at least insofar as US political life goes, and several of them are taking positions that are rather unusual for mainstream US political culture. For example, GOP candidates are turning their backs on “free trade” agreements, while Sanders has emphasized issues like inequality, class and the connection between money and politics.
Do these developments speak of a changing United States? If so, what is the connection now between ideology, money in politics and elections? In this latest exclusive interview with Truthout, Noam Chomsky sheds light on these critical issues.
C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, perhaps because more outrageous political characters are drawn into US politics than at any other time in the recent past, we have become witnesses of some strange developments, such as GOP candidates attacking “free trade” agreements and even someone like Donald Trump having turned against his fellow billionaires. Are we witnessing the end of the old economic establishment in American politics?
Noam Chomsky: There is something new in the 2016 election, but it is not the appearance of candidates who frighten the old establishment. That has been happening regularly. It traces back to the shift of both parties to the right during the neoliberal years, the Republicans so far to the right that they are unable to get votes with their actual policies: dedication to the welfare of the very rich and the corporate sector. The Republican leadership has accordingly been compelled to mobilize a popular base on issues that are peripheral to their core concerns: the Second Coming, “open carry” in schools, Obama as a Muslim, lashing out at the weak and victimized, and the rest of the familiar fare. The base that they’ve put together has regularly produced candidates unacceptable to the establishment: [Michele] Bachmann, [Herman] Cain, [Rick] Santorum, [Mike] Huckabee…. But the establishment has always been able to beat them down in the usual ways and get their own man ([Mitt] Romney). What is different this time is that the base is out of control, and the establishment is almost going berserk.
Analogies should not be pressed too far, but the phenomenon is not unfamiliar. The German industrialists and financiers were happy to use the Nazis as a weapon against the working class and the left, assuming that they could be kept under control. Didn’t quite work out that way.
All of this aside, the US is not immune to the general decline of the mainstream political parties of the West, and the growth of political insurgencies on the right and left (though “left” means moderate social democracy, in practice) — one of the predictable consequences of the neoliberal policies that have undermined democracy and caused substantial harm to most of the population, the less privileged sectors. All familiar.
It appears that big-ticket conservative donors, like the Koch brothers, are turning their back on the Republican Party. If this is actually true, what might possibly be the explanation for this development?
The reason, I think, is that they are having a problem controlling the base they have mobilized, and are seeking some way to avoid a serious blow to their interests. It wouldn’t entirely surprise me if they manage somehow to control the [Republican National] Convention and possibly even bring in someone like Paul Ryan. Not a prospect to welcome, in my opinion.
Stories about wealthy individuals financing politicians are as old as the country itself. So, in what ways has money reshaped American politics in our own era?
Nothing that is completely new. The standard scholarly work on this topic — Thomas Ferguson’s outstanding studies in his book Golden Rule and more recent publications — traces the practices and the consequences back to the late 19th century, with particularly interesting results on the New Deal years, continuing to the present.
There are always new twists. One, which Ferguson has discussed, dates to Newt Gingrich’s machinations in the 1990s. Prestigious and influential positions in Congress used to be granted on the basis of seniority and perceived achievement. Now, they are basically bought, which drives congressional representatives even deeper into the pockets of the rich. And Supreme Court decisions have accelerated the process.
In the past, the candidate with the most money won almost all the time. But Donald Trump seems to have changed the rules about politics in money as he has actually spent less money than his rivals. Has the power of money suddenly shrunk in an election year dominated by extreme voices?
Don’t know the exact figures, but Trump seems to be putting plenty of money into the campaign. However, it is striking how huge money chests have failed. Jeb Bush is the clearest case. There is a very interesting article by Andrew Cockburn about this in the April issue of Harper’s, reviewing studies that show that an enormous amount of the money poured into political campaigns with TV ads etc., serves primarily to enrich the networks and the professional consultants but with little effect on voting. In contrast, face-to-face contact and direct canvasing, which are inexpensive — but require a lot of often volunteer labor — do have a measurable impact. Note that a separate matter is the question of the influence of the campaign spending by wealth and power on policy decisions, the kind of question that Ferguson has investigated.
What specific economic interests would you say are best represented by GOP candidates in the 2016 election?
The super-rich and the corporate sector, even more so than usual.
One of the great myths in American political culture revolves around “free-market” capitalism. The US economy is not a “free-market” economy, as most libertarians would point out, but the question is whether there can be a system of “free-market” capitalism, let alone whether it would be desirable to have one.
There have been examples of something like free-market capitalism. The distinguished economic historian Paul Bairoch points out that “there is no doubt that the Third World’s compulsory economic liberalism in the nineteenth century is a major element in explaining the delay in its industrialization,” or even “deindustrialization.” There are many well-studied illustrations. Meanwhile, Europe and the regions that managed to stay free of its control developed, as Europe itself did, by radical violation of these principles. England and the US are prime examples, as is the one area of the global South that resisted colonization, and developed: Japan.
Like many other economic historians, Bairoch concludes from a broad survey that “it is difficult to find another case where the facts so contradict a dominant theory” as the doctrine that free markets were the engine of growth, a harsh lesson that the global South has learned over the years, again in the recent neoliberal period. There are classic studies of some of the inherent problems in “free market” development, like Karl Polyani’s The Great Transformation, Rajani Kanth’s Political Economy and Laissez-Faire, and a substantial literature in economic history and history of technology.
There are also fundamental problems of unregulated markets, such as the restriction of choice that they impose (excluding public goods, like mass transportation) and their ignoring of externalities, which by now spells virtual doom to the species.
A recent poll showed that more than nine in 10 Americans said they would vote for a qualified presidential candidate who is Catholic, a woman, Black, Hispanic or Jewish, but less than half said they would vote for a candidate who is a socialist. Why is socialism still a taboo in this country (although one must admit that socialism seems to be dead virtually everywhere else today in the Western world)?
A difficult question to discuss, because the word “socialism” (like most terms of political discourse) has been so vulgarized and politicized that it is not very useful. The essence of traditional socialism was workers’ control over production, along with popular democratic control of other components of social, economic and political life. There was hardly a society in the world more remote from socialism than Russia, which is presented as the leading “socialist” society. If that’s what “socialism” is, then we ought to oppose it. In other uses, the post office, national health programs and others are called “socialist,” but they are not opposed by the public — including national health, supported, often by large majorities, for many years in the US, and still today. The term “socialist” became taboo for reasons of Cold War ideology, which divorced the term from any useful meaning.
There are significant elements of something like authentic socialism in the Western world, notably worker-owned (and sometimes managed) enterprises, cooperatives with real participation, and much else. I think they can be thought of in Bakunin’s terms, as creating the institutions of a more free and just society within the present one.
These days the US seems to have a comparative advantage over other “developed” countries around the world only in military technology. In fact, the US is beginning to resemble more and more a “third world” country, at least with regard to its infrastructure and the extent of the poverty level and homelessness among a significant and constantly rising portion of the population. In your view, what factors have led to this dreadful state of affairs in what still remains a very rich country?
The US is, to an unusual extent, a business-run society, without roots in traditional societies in which, with all their severe flaws, people had some kind of place. Its history as a settler-colonial and slave society have left their social and cultural legacy, along with other factors, such as the unusual role of religious fundamentalism. There have been large-scale, radical democratic movements in American history, like the agrarian populist and militant labor movements, but they were mostly crushed, often with considerable violence.
One consequence is what Walter Dean Burnham calls a “crucial comparative peculiarity of the American political system: the total absence of a socialist or laborite mass party as an organized competitor in the electoral market.” He showed that this accounts for much of the “class-skewed abstention rates” that he demonstrated for the United States, and the downplaying of class-related issues in the largely business-run political system. In some ways the system is a legacy of the Civil War, which has never really been overcome. Today’s “red states” are solidly based in the Confederacy, which was solidly Democratic before the civil rights movement and Nixon’s “Southern strategy” shifted party labels.
In many ways the US is a very free society — also in social practices, such as lack of the kind of relations of deference that one often finds elsewhere. But one consequence of the complex amalgam is the sad state of social justice. Although an extremely rich society, with incomparable advantages, the US ranks very low in measures of social justice among the richer [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] (OECD) societies, alongside of Turkey, Mexico and Greece. Infrastructure is a disaster. One can take a high-speed train in other developed societies, or from China to Kazakhstan, but not from Boston to Washington — maybe the most traveled corridor — where there hasn’t been much of an improvement since I took the train 65 years ago.
Traditional Marxists speak of human society as consisting of two parts: base and superstructure. Would you say that the base dictates the superstructure in US society?
Don’t have much to say. I don’t find the framework particularly useful. Who holds dominant decision-making power in US society is not very obscure at a general level: concentrated economic power, mostly in the corporate system. When we look more closely, it is of course more complex, and the population is by no means powerless when it is organized and dedicated and liberated from illusions.