Elections Run by Same Guys Who Sell Toothpaste

Noam Chomsky

Delivered at the International Relations Center, January 25, 2005

Presidential candidate John Kerry’s platform and program were way to the right of popular opinion on just about every issue in the 2004 U.S. elections. To the extent that anybody could even understand the program, people didn’t favor it. People who voted for Kerry are people who were concerned about the economy and about health issues. Do you think those people could tell you what Kerry’s health program was or what he was going to do for the economy? I mean, I couldn’t tell you. You have to do a research project to figure out what the program was. And it’s not that people failed to know it because they’re stupid. It’s because it was not presented as something comprehensible.

Of the people who voted for candidate George Bush, the major categories were people who were concerned about terror and about national security. It’s claimed that people who were concerned about values voted for Bush, but that’s mostly a statistical artifact. When you asked the further question, “What values do you have in mind?” it turned out that the major values were things like, “I don’t like this society because it’s too materialistic,” and “There’s too much oppression.” Those are the values. Is that what Bush stands for? Getting rid of that? As far as terrorism is concerned, the administration very consciously chose actions that it was expected would increase the threat of terror and, in fact, did. It’s not because they want terror, it’s just not much of a priority for them.

People who voted for Bush tended to assume that he was in favor of their views, even if the Republican Party platform was diametrically opposed to them. The same was largely true of Kerry voters.

The reason for this is that the parties try to exclude the population from participation. So they don’t present issues, policies, agendas, and so on. They project imagery, and people either don’t bother or they vote for the image. The Gallup Poll regularly asks, “Why are you voting?” One of the choices is, “I’m voting for the candidate’s stand on issues.” That was 6% for Bush, and 13% for Kerry—and most of those voters were deluded about the positions of the candidates. So what you have is essentially flipping a coin. Each candidate got approximately 30% of the electorate. Bush got 31%, Kerry got 29%.

The party managers know where the public stands on a whole list of issues. Their funders just don’t support them; the interests they represent don’t support them. So they project a different kind of image.

If you listen to the presidential debates, you can’t figure out what they’re saying, and that’s on purpose. The last debate was supposed to be about domestic issues. The New York Times commented that Kerry didn’t make any hint about possible government involvement in health care programs because that position has, in their words, “no political support.” Well, according to the most recent polls, 80% of the population thinks that the government ought to guarantee health care for everyone, and furthermore regard it as a moral obligation. That tells you something about people’s values. But there’s “no political support.”

Why? Because the pharmaceutical industry is opposed, the financial institutions are opposed, the insurance industry is opposed, so there’s “no political support.” It doesn’t matter if 80% of the population regard it as a moral obligation: That doesn’t count as political support. It tells you something about the elite conception. You’re supposed to vote for the image they’re projecting. That’s not surprising really. Just ask yourself, “Who runs the elections?”

The elections are run by the same guys who sell toothpaste. They show you an image of a sports hero, or a sexy model, or a car going up a sheer cliff or something, which has nothing to do with the commodity, but it’s intended to delude you into picking this one rather than another one. Same when they run elections. But they’re assigned that task in order to marginalize the public, and furthermore, people are pretty well aware of it.

For many years, election campaigns here have been run by the public relations industry and each time it’s with increasing sophistication. Quite naturally, the industry uses the same technique to sell candidates that it uses to sell toothpaste or lifestyle drugs. The point is to undermine markets by projecting imagery to delude and suppressing information—and similarly, to undermine democracy by the same method.

In the year 2000, there was a huge fuss afterwards about the stolen election, with the Florida chads and the Supreme Court. But ask yourself who was exorcised about it? It was all among a small group of intellectuals. They were the ones who were upset about it. There was never any public resonance for this. In the current election it’s being reiterated. There’s a big fuss among intellectuals about the vote in Ohio, how the voting machines didn’t work, and other things. But the interesting thing is that nobody cares.

Why don’t people care if the election is stolen? The reason is that they don’t take the election seriously in the first place. They reacted about the way that people react to television ads. It’s a mode of delusion. If the Democrats want to succeed in that game, they’re just going to have to figure out better ways of delusion.

There is an alternative, and that is to try to run a program that’s committed to developing a democratic society in which people’s opinions matter.