By Meera Srinivasan
The United States is a very fundamentalist, religious country – one of the most extreme in the world, says Noam Chomsky, arguably that country’s best-known political dissident of our times.
“And that’s been true since its origins,” he says, explaining this apparently ultra-religious facet of the US and its impact on electoral politics in an interview to The Wire.
There are not too many countries in the world where two-thirds of the population awaits The Second Coming, Chomsky said, adding that half of them think it is going to be in their lifetimes. “And maybe a third of the population believes the world was created 10,000 years ago, exactly the way it is now. Things like that are pretty weird, but that is true in the United States and has been for a long time.”
However, the religious fundamentalists have become a political force more recently, notes Chomsky, tying the country’s “religious-fundamentalist” side to what we see in the run up to the US presidential elections, particularly the mobilisation of the religious right and the soaring popularity of Republican candidate Donald Trump.
At 87, Noam Chomsky shows few signs of fatigue or cynicism. Sitting amid overflowing bookshelves at his office at MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy – where he has taught for over half a century – he speaks slowly, with professorial pauses. A few plants stand in the corners of his room lit by the muted winter sun. And there is Roxy, his personal assistant’s particularly gentle cocker spaniel – Chomsky calls her a cat – quietly roaming about, occasionally fixing her curious gaze on visitors.
Chomsky’s dissenting voice may have shaped the politics of generations, but nothing about him fits the stereotype of a “brooding intellectual”. He makes fun of his colleagues and seems quite happy to be made fun of. “You have started resembling Bertrand Russell,” jokes his personal assistant Beverly Stohl, suddenly struck by their similarity as her boss walks across the philosopher’s imposing black and white portrait on the wall. “Oh, I do?” he asks with a laugh, barely audible. I too find myself distracted, comparing him with Russel. They did look a bit alike if you looked at the pearl-white hair — Chomsky’s curling around his ears— and the pointed noses.
Over the last six months, Chomsky has been commenting extensively on the 2016 US presidential elections. On the one hand, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – who has brought income inequality on to the table – is drawing considerable support. He has managed to raise about $33 million for his campaign, shattering individual donor records. On the other, someone like Trump on the Republican side is leading in the polls.
In Chomsky’s view the apparently contradictory trends are reflections of the same phenomenon. “It is also something you see in Europe. The impact of the neoliberal programmes of the past generation almost everywhere has been to undermine democratic participation, to impose stagnation or sometimes decline on the majority of the population and to concentrate wealth very narrowly, which of course then in turn affects the political system and how it works.”
And this is seen in different ways, in different places, but some phenomena are common. In Europe, the mainstream more or less traditional parties – Social Democratic, Christian democratic – are declining. “At the edges you are getting increased activism and participation, both Left and Right. Something similar is happening here [in the US].”
An ever-growing anger among wide sections of the population and a hatred of institutions is visible. “There is plenty of anger and good reasons for it, if you look at what is happening to people.” Citing a recent study in the United States that points to increasing mortality rates of less educated, white men in the age range of 45-55 years, he says: “that just does not happen in developed societies.”
“It is a reflection of depression, hopelessness, concern that everything is lost – nothing is in our lives, nothing is in our futures, then at least show your anger.” The propaganda system in the US, in England, in continental Europe is designed to focus that anger on people who are even more deprived and miserable – such as “immigrants, ‘welfare cheats’, trade unions and all kinds of people who somehow you think are getting what you are not getting”.
The Trump Phenomenon
The anger then is not focused on those who are really responsible – the power-hungry private sector or the huge financial institutions which are basically supported by tax payers. “But don’t look at them, look at the people who are even below you – like a mother with dependent children who lives on food stamps, she is the one who is a problem. Some of the immigrants fleeing from the destruction that the US caused in Central America and are trying to survive, so look at them – and that’s the Trump phenomenon,” says the political theorist, presenting his analysis of Trump’s ever-growing hate speeches that seem to resonate with some sections of the US’s population.
The data is not precise enough to be sure. It is commonly said that these are angry blue collar males, but they are probably lower middle class when you look more closely. They are white collar professionals, those running small businesses and people who have been pushed out of the system. “You can understand the appeal – at both edges of the political system. It is coming from similar roots, but pointed at a different direction.”
The other group that leaders like Trump seek to please are the nativists, according to. Chomsky. Therefore, they employ the rhetoric of “They are taking our country away from us.” ‘They’ being, minorities, immigrants and others. “It used to be a nice white Anglo-Saxon country but it’s gone.” That sentiment, he says, makes the US an increasingly terrified population, probably the most frightened country in the world. “It has been the safest country in the world for a long time, but if you look at fear it is overwhelming. The fear of ISIS is higher in the United States probably than it is in Turkey.” This sense of deep insecurity also explains the “crazy gun culture”.
Even the Republican establishment – essentially bankers and corporate executives that run the party – are unable to get rid of candidates like Trump. Earlier in the case of Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum the party establishment managed to “crush them” using advertising and other such means. “This is the first election they can’t do it. They are amazed, they are upset, and the Republican establishment is going berserk.”
And that, Chomsky says, is because the anger around the anti-Washington sentiment, which he thinks should actually be anti-corporate sentiment, is so overwhelming. “You can see it – like the Supreme Court right now is probably going to undermine what remains of public service unions.”
That sentiment is popular in much of the country, he says, where people ask ‘why this fireman should get a pension when I can’t get a good job.’ “Well the reason why he has a pension is because he accepted lower wages, that’s why he has a pension. That requires thought and organisation. In a society of isolated people where each person is alone with his Fox News and iPhone people don’t understand what is happening. It is happening here in this fashion and it is happening in Europe in other ways, but I think these phenomena are very real.”
‘Sanders, a New Dealer’
He sees Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, as appealing to a huge part of the population which is basically traditionally progressive. “Though he happens to use the word socialist, it just means New Dealer.”
Chomsky considers Sanders a New Deal democrat, which in today’s political spectrum is way off on the left. President Eisenhower would look like a radical leftist in today’s spectrum, literally. Eisenhower said that anyone who questions New Deal measures – a series of domestic measures introduced in the US in the 1930s as a response to the Great Depression – is just out of the political system. “By now practically everyone questions them, Sanders is unusual in that he upholds them.”
On earlier occasions Chomsky has said that the Sanders campaign is valuable for flagging some important economic issues, but the senator wouldn’t be able to do much even if he is elected president – “which was unlikely in the system of bought elections” — for Sanders would be alone with virtually no Congressional support .
Situating the Sanders movement within broader political shifts in the US and globally, Chomsky says one of the things that has happened in the neo-liberal period, in Europe too, is that all the parties have moved to the right. “Today’s Democrats, Clinton-style Democrats, are pretty much what used to be called moderate Republicans. And the Republicans just went way off the spectrum. They are so dedicated to service to wealth and the corporate sector that they simply cannot get votes on their own programmes.” In order to just try and stay in the political system, they try to mobilise sections of the population that have always been there but were never really politically organised — like evangelical Christians.
On state spending on public services, which repeatedly figures in the US election campaign, Prof. Chomsky says people’s opinion is varied and nuanced, often coloured by racist ideas.
Obama, a Target for Racists
Even people who call themselves conservatives say they want more spending on education, on health, but not on welfare which, he says, has been demonised by “Reagan racism”. Foreign aid presents another interesting case. “When you ask people what they think about foreign aid they say it is way too high, we are giving everything away to undeserving people. When you ask them what they think foreign aid is they estimate it way beyond what it is. When you ask them what it should be, they want it to be much higher than what it actually is. Things like that are consistent over a long period.”
Chomsky calls the US healthcare system “an international scandal”, and an outcome of what he terms the neoliberal assault. This is happening in England too. The National Health Service in England is probably the best health system in the world. They are now trying to dismantle it and turn it into something like the American system which is one of the worst in the world.”
The American healthcare system is about twice the per capita cost of comparable countries and has some of the worst outcomes. The reason, he says, is straightforward. It is privatised, it is very inefficient. There is a huge bureaucracy. And companies are interested in profit, not health. “Ask the population what they think. For years, people have been in favour of national health care. When Obama came along with his proposal, almost two thirds of the population was in favour of what was called a public option. But despite public opinion, national health care was not even considered.”
Obama’s proposal, which was a mild improvement on the scandalous system, is opposed by most of the population because they see it through the propaganda system as the government harming their healthcare. “In fact, it is kind of interesting that it is called Obamacare even by the Democrats, even by his supporters. Why is it called Obamacare? Medicare was introduced during the Johnson administration. Is it called Johnsoncare? This is just a reflection of straight racism.” It became rather evident during Obama’s presidency. “A lot of hatred of Obama, which is unbelievable, is really visceral racism. There is still a large part of the Republican that thinks he was born somewhere else – Kenya, he is a Muslim.”
“In fact, recent polls show that about a quarter of Republicans think that he maybe Antichrist. That is tied up with the fundamentalist, religious tales about Armageddon, Antichrist and Jesus having a battle, and the saved souls rise to heaven maybe in our lifetimes. These are big things in the United States. That’s where the Republican base is now.”
Meera Srinivasan is the IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow 2015-16