Dissection of US politics: A conversation with Noam Chomsky

An Interview with Guest Columnist Ramin Zareian

December 4, 2019. The Red & Black.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Noam Chomsky in his office at the University of Arizona where he is a Laureate Professor of linguistics. In addition to being the father of modern linguistics, Chomsky is a world-renowned political dissident. He is one of the most cited scholars in history and has written more than 100 books on topics including linguistics, politics, mass media, international affairs, and war. Here is an abridged transcript of the portion of the discussion regarding U.S. politics.

You’ve expressed support for [Sen.] Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign. What are some challenges that he faces?

The chances that Sanders will win the nomination are not great. The main reason is that he has [a] tremendous attack on him. Just take a look at how he’s treated in the media. It’s pretty obvious just from reading, but there’s a good study about it by In These Times of how the media have been handling Sanders. So, I think that all stops will be pulled to make sure that he doesn’t get the nomination. If he gets the nomination, the attacks will be wild. He’ll get the whole Republican propaganda machine going after this Jewish, atheist, and so on.

The chances he could be elected are small, but if he does get elected, he won’t have Congress. How are you going to win Congress? The U.S. electoral system is constructed so that the reactionary elements have an overwhelming advantage. Like in the last election, I think the Democrats won the Senate by about 12 million votes, but they lost the Senate. That happens all the time. There’s a structural element that maximizes the effect of the rural, white, conservative vote. Plus, gerrymandering, voter suppression and everything else. So, there has to be an enormous Democratic victory for them to win Congress which is unlikely.

Even if you win Congress, most of the people elected among the Democrats are what are called Blue Dog Democrats, moderate Republicans. They’re not going to support Sanders’s plans. On top of all of that, the fact is that U.S. politics are dominated by wealth. The wealthy basically control legislation, so the barriers against carrying out progressive legislation are quite high. So, it could happen, but it would require an enormous popular mobilization, the kind that took place in the 1930s that enabled the New Deal measures to be carried out.

How can the U.S. Supreme Court and judicial system be reformed?

It comes down to what’s happening in the country. The court sort of reflects that. One of McConnell’s main policies has been packing the judiciary. He managed to block even the consideration of the Garland appointment to ensure we’d have a reactionary Supreme Court judge. At the lower level, they’re just flooding. They had blocked Obama’s appointments for a long time. Now they’re flooding them with far-right, mostly young judges on the lower courts. That’s going to have an effect even after these guys are long gone, so it’s not just a matter of reforming the Supreme Court. The whole judicial system has been consciously driven to the right.

These guys are fighting for survival. The Republicans understand that they’re a permanent minority party, and they have to, therefore, pull out every stop to try to maintain their total subservience to wealth and corporate power. You can see it in the hearings. Not a single House Republican is willing to break with Trump. Not a single one says a word. Totally bought, subservient to the far-right. No principles. You can’t be a Republican and have the slightest bit of principle.

This is on issue after issue. Take, say, climate change, an existential issue. You go back a decade and Republicans were considering legislation that dealt somewhat with global warming. [Former Sen.] John McCain runs for president in 2008. He had a global warming provision in his platform, something about it, and Congress was the same. The Koch brothers got a wind of this, launched a huge campaign to buy off the Senate, intimidate them, lobbying and so on. The whole party switched 100%. Now you can’t be a Republican and say global warming matters. It’s just total lack of principle. I don’t think there’s been anything like this. They just believe in their own survival, and that’s pretty unusual, so to overcome this would take large scale popular mobilization.

What are your thoughts on a Federal Job Guarantee program or a Universal Basic Income (UBI)?

It’s hard to remember but full employment was once a Democratic Party position. The last gasp of that was the 1978 Humphrey-Hawkins bill, a full employment bill. Carter didn’t veto it, but he watered it down so that it just became voluntary, toothless. Since then, Democrats have gone so far to the right that they’ve probably forgotten about it. But that makes a lot of sense.

It is claimed that unemployment is low, but that’s mostly fakery. You’re classified as employed if you work one hour a week. If you take a look at job quality indices—whether people have decent jobs—job quality index is going way down. People may have a job, but it’s thirty hours a week mopping the floor at McDonald’s, and you can be cancelled whenever the boss says we don’t need you. Stuff like that, barely hanging on.

There’s a way out of that: government-provided jobs. They’re desperately needed. U.S. infrastructure is collapsing. That’s a lot of good jobs. Private industry is not going to pay for it. Those should be government jobs. Same is true all the way up to high technology. Where do computers come from, internet, all high-tech industry? Public funding. ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Continues to today. Advanced tech, it’s like pharmaceuticals, mostly done at public expense.

There are plenty of opportunities for the public through the government — the one institution that’s theoretically responsive to the public — to develop the economy and provide full jobs. It’s not done for ideological reasons. There’s a mantra, starts with [former President Ronald] Reagan, that government is the problem and we got to get rid of government. The meaning of that mantra is we gotta get rid of the population. The government is the one institution that is somewhat responsive to the public. Private corporations aren’t. So, you get rid of the government, move it to private capital, you’re moving it to unaccountable private tyrannies.

So yes, government-sponsored programs would be for decent, good jobs which would help the society. We’d be much better off with real infrastructure, with sustainable development, with new solar energy, wind power and so on, but that’s going to require a government initiative. That would be the obvious thing to do.

What about UBI? Depends on the context. So, the UBI was supported by Milton Friedman, for example, the far-right, but you have to look at his reasons. He wanted to do that to eliminate the entire welfare system. That’s a catastrophe. There are people who need things over and above. We’re not all identical, but with right-wing libertarian ideology, we’re all equal. We just enter the market, and everything goes wonderfully. In the real world, it just doesn’t happen to be like that. A mother with three kids enters a market differently than Milton Friedman does, needs special care. If you eliminate the entire welfare system, that’s a catastrophe for the part of the population that isn’t relatively privileged and wealthy. On the other hand, if you introduce the UBI as a kind of a floor along with a decent social-benefit system, it could make sense.