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Noam Chomsky, "On the 2004 Elections"

"On the 2004 Elections"

Noam Chomsky, ZNet

The elections of November 2004 have received a great deal of
discussion, with exultation in some quarters, despair in
others, and general lamentation about a "divided nation."

They are likely to have policy consequences, particularly
harmful to the public in the domestic arena, and to the
world with regard to the "transformation of the military,"
which has led some prominent strategic analysts to warn of
"ultimate doom" and to hope that US militarism and
aggressiveness will be countered by a coalition of
peace-loving states, led by — China! (John Steinbruner and
Nancy Gallagher, Daedalus).

We have come to a pretty pass
when such words are expressed in the most respectable and
sober journals. It is also worth noting how deep is the
despair of the authors over the state of American democracy.
Whether or not the assessment is merited is for activists to
determine.Though significant in their consequences, the elections tell
us very little about the state of the country, or the
popular mood. There are, however, other sources from which
we can learn a great deal that carries important lessons.
Public opinion in the US is intensively monitored, and while
caution and care in interpretation are always necessary,
these studies are valuable resources. We can also see why
the results, though public, are kept under wraps by the
doctrinal institutions. That is true of major and highly
informative studies of public opinion released right before
the election, notably by the Chicago Council on Foreign
Relations (CCFR) and the Program on International Policy
Attitudes at the U. of Maryland (PIPA), to which I will return.

One conclusion is that the elections conferred no mandate
for anything, in fact, barely took place, in any serious
sense of the term "election." That is by no means a novel
conclusion. Reagan's victory in 1980 reflected "the decay of
organized party structures, and the vast mobilization of God
and cash in the successful candidacy of a figure once
marginal to the `vital center' of American political life,"
representing "the continued disintegration of those
political coalitions and economic structures that have given
party politics some stability and definition during the past
generation" (Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, Hidden
1981). In the same valuable collection of essays,
Walter Dean Burnham described the election as further
evidence of 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," accounting for much of the "class-skewed
abstention rates" and the minimal significance of issues.
Thus of the 28% of the electorate who voted for Reagan, 11%
gave as their primary reason "he's a real conservative." In
Reagan's "landslide victory" of 1984, with just under 30% of
the electorate, the percentage dropped to 4% and a majority
of voters hoped that his legislative program would not be

What these prominent political scientists describe is part
of the powerful backlash against the terrifying "crisis of
democracy" of the 1960s, which threatened to democratize the
society, and, despite enormous efforts to crush this threat
to order and discipline, has had far-reaching effects on
consciousness and social practices. The post-1960s era has
been marked by substantial growth of popular movements
dedicated to greater justice and freedom, and unwillingness
to tolerate the brutal aggression and violence that had
previously been granted free rein. The Vietnam war is a
dramatic illustration, naturally suppressed because of the
lessons it teaches about the civilizing impact of popular
mobilization. The war against South Vietnam launched by JFK
in 1962, after years of US-backed state terror that had
killed tens of thousands of people, was brutal and barbaric
from the outset: bombing, chemical warfare to destroy food
crops so as to starve out the civilian support for the
indigenous resistance, programs to drive millions of people
to virtual concentration camps or urban slums to eliminate
its popular base. By the time protests reached a substantial
scale, the highly respected and quite hawkish Vietnam
specialist and military historian Bernard Fall wondered
whether "Viet-Nam as a cultural and historic entity" would
escape "extinction" as "the countryside literally dies under
the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on
an area of this size" — particularly South Vietnam, always
the main target of the US assault. And when protest did
finally develop, many years too late, it was mostly directed
against the peripheral crimes: the extension of the war
against the South to the rest ofIndochina — terrible
crimes, but secondary ones.

"State managers are well aware that they no longer have
that freedom. Wars against "much weaker enemies" — the only
acceptable targets — must be won "decisively and rapidly,"
Bush I's intelligence services advised. Delay might
"undercut political support," recognized to be thin, a great
change since the Kennedy-Johnson period when the attack on
Indochina, while never popular, aroused little reaction for
many years. Those conclusions hold despite the hideous war
crimes in Falluja, replicating the Russian destruction of
Grozny ten years earlier, including crimes displayed on the
front pages for which the civilian leadership is subject to
the death penalty under the War Crimes Act passed by the
Republican Congress in 1996 — and also one of the more
disgraceful episodes in the annals of American journalism.

The world is pretty awful today, but it is far better than
yesterday, not only with regard to unwillingness to tolerate
aggression, but also in many other ways, which we now tend
to take for granted. There are very important lessons here,
which should always be uppermost in our minds — for the
same reason they are suppressed in the elite culture.

Returning to the elections, in 2004 Bush received the votes
of just over 30% of the electorate, Kerry a bit less. Voting
patterns resembled 2000, with virtually the same pattern of
"red" and "blue" states (whatever significance that may
have). A small change in voter preference would have put
Kerry in the White House, also telling us very little about
the country and public concerns.

As usual, the electoral campaigns were run by the PR
industry, which in its regular vocation sells toothpaste,
life-style drugs, automobiles, and other commodities. Its
guiding principle is deceit. Its task is to undermine the
"free markets" we are taught to revere: mythical entities in
which informed consumers make rational choices. In such
scarcely imaginable systems, businesses would provide
information about their products: cheap, easy, simple. But
it is hardly a secret that they do nothing of the sort.
Rather, they seek to delude consumers to choose their
product over some virtually identical one. GM does not
simply make public the characteristics of next year's
models. Rather, it devotes huge sums to creating images to
deceive consumers, featuring sports stars, sexy models, cars
climbing sheer cliffs to a heavenly future, and so on. The
business world does not spend hundreds of billions of
dollars a year to provide information. The famed
"entrepreneurial initiative" and "free trade" are about as
realistic as informed consumer choice. The last thing those
who dominate the society want is the fanciful market of
doctrine and economic theory. All of this should be too
familiar to merit much discussion.

Sometimes the commitment to deceit is quite overt. The
recent US-Australia negotiations on a "free trade agreement"
were held up by Washington's concern over Australia's health
care system, perhaps the most efficient in the world. In
particular, drug prices are a fraction of those in the US:
the same drugs, produced by the same companies, earning
substantial profits in Australia though nothing like those
they are granted in the US — often on the pretext that they
are needed for R&D, another exercise in deceit. Part of the
reason for the efficiency of the Australian system is that,
like other countries, Australia relies on the practices that
the Pentagon employs when it buys paper clips: government
purchasing power is used to negotiate prices, illegal in the
US. Another reason is that Australia has kept to
"evidence-based" procedures for marketing pharmaceuticals.
US negotiators denounced these as market interference:
pharmaceutical corporations are deprived of their legitimate
rights if they are required to produce evidence when they
claim that their latest product is better than some cheaper
alternative, or run TV ads in which some sports hero or
model tells the audience to ask their doctor whether this
drug is "right for you (it's right for me)," sometimes not
even revealing what it is supposed to be for. The right of
deceit must be guaranteed to the immensely powerful and
pathological immortal persons created by radical judicial
activism to run the society. When assigned the task of
selling candidates, the PR industry naturally resorts to the
same fundamental techniques, so as to ensure that politics
remains "the shadow cast by big business over society," as
America's leading social philosopher, John Dewey, described
the results of "industrial feudalism" long ago. Deceit is
employed to undermine democracy, just as it is the natural
device to undermine markets. And voters appear to be aware
of it.

On the eve of the 2000 elections, about 75% of the
electorate regarded it as a game played by rich
contributors, party managers, and the PR industry, which
trains candidates to project images and produce meaningless
phrases that might win some votes. Very likely, that is why
the population paid little attention to the "stolen
election" that greatly exercised educated sectors. And it is
why they are likely to pay little attention to campaigns
about alleged fraud in 2004. If one is flipping a coin to
pick the King, it is of no great concern if the coin is biased.

In 2000, "issue awareness" — knowledge of the stands of the
candidate-producing organizations on issues — reached an
all-time low. Currently available evidence suggests it may
have been even lower in 2004. About 10% of voters said their
choice would be based on the candidate's
"agendas/ideas/platforms/goals"; 6% for Bush voters, 13% for
Kerry voters (Gallup). The rest would vote for what the
industry calls "qualities" or "values," which are the
political counterpart to toothpaste ads. The most careful
studies (PIPA) found that voters had little idea of the
stand of the candidates on matters that concerned them. Bush
voters tended to believe that he shared their beliefs, even
though the Republican Party rejected them, often explicitly.
Investigating the sources used in the studies, we find that
the same was largely true of Kerry voters, unless we give
highly sympathetic interpretations to vague statements that
most voters had probably never heard.

Exit polls found that Bush won large majorities of those
concerned with the threat of terror and "moral values," and
Kerry won majorities among those concerned with the economy,
health care, and other such issues. Those results tell us
very little.

It is easy to demonstrate that for Bush planners, the threat
of terror is a low priority. The invasion of Iraq is only
one of many illustrations. Even their own intelligence
agencies agreed with the consensus among other agencies, and
independent specialists, that the invasion was likely to
increase the threat of terror, as it did; probably nuclear
proliferation as well, as also predicted. Such threats are
simply not high priorities as compared with the opportunity
to establish the first secure military bases in a dependent
client state at the heart of the world's major energy
reserves, a region understood since World War II to be the
"most strategically important area of the world," "a
stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the
greatest material prizes in world history." Apart from what
one historian of the industry calls "profits beyond the
dreams of avarice," which must flow in the right direction,
control over two-thirds of the world's estimated hydrocarbon
reserves — uniquely cheap and easy to exploit — provides
what Zbigniew Brzezinski recently called "critical leverage"
over European and Asian rivals, what George Kennan many
years earlier had called "veto power" over them. These have
been crucial policy concerns throughout the post-World War
II period, even more so in today's evolving tripolar world,
with its threat that Europe and Asia might move towards
greater independence, and worse, might be united: China and
the EU became each other's major trading partners in 2004,
joined by the world's second largest economy (Japan), and
those tendencies are likely to increase. A firm hand on the
spigot reduces these dangers.

Note that the critical issue is control, not access. US
policies towards the Middle East were the same when it was a
net exporter of oil, and remain the same today when US
intelligence projects that the US itself will rely on more
stable Atlantic Basin resources. Policies would be likely to
be about the same if the US were to switch to renewable
energy. The need to control the "stupendous source of
strategic power" and to gain "profits beyond the dreams of
avarice" would remain. Jockeying over Central Asia and
pipeline routes reflects similar concerns.

There are many other illustrations of the same lack of
concern of planners about terror. Bush voters, whether they
knew it or not, were voting for a likely increase in the
threat of terror, which could be awesome: it was understood
well before 9-11 that sooner or later the Jihadists
organized by the CIA and its associates in the 1980s are
likely to gain access to WMDs, with horrendous consequences.
And even these frightening prospects are being consciously
extended by the transformation of the military, which, apart
from increasing the threat of "ultimate doom" by accidental
nuclear war, is compelling Russia to move nuclear missiles
over its huge and mostly unprotected territory to counter US
military threats — including the threat of instant
annihilation that is a core part of the "ownership of space"
for offensive military purposes announced by the Bush
administration along with its National Security Strategy in
late 2002, significantly extending Clinton programs that
were more than hazardous enough, and had already immobilized
the UN Disarmament Committee.

As for "moral values," we learn what we need to know about
them from the business press the day after the election,
reporting the "euphoria" in board rooms — not because CEOs
oppose gay marriage. And from the unconcealed efforts to
transfer to future generations the costs of the dedicated
service of Bush planners to privilege and wealth: fiscal and
environmental costs, among others, not to speak of the
threat of "ultimate doom." That aside, it means little to
say that people vote on the basis of "moral values." The
question is what they mean by the phrase. The limited
indications are of some interest. In some polls, "when the
voters were asked to choose the most urgent moral crisis
facing the country, 33 percent cited `greed and
materialism,' 31 percent selected `poverty and economic
justice,' 16 percent named abortion, and 12 percent selected
gay marriage" (Pax Christi). In others, "when surveyed
voters were asked to list the moral issue that most affected
their vote, the Iraq war placed first at 42 percent, while
13 percent named abortion and 9 percent named gay marriage"
(Zogby). Whatever voters meant, it could hardly have been
the operative moral values of the administration, celebrated
by the business press.

I won't go through the details here, but a careful look
indicates that much the same appears to be true for Kerry
voters who thought they were calling for serious attention
to the economy, health, and their other concerns. As in the
fake markets constructed by the PR industry, so also in the
fake democracy they run, the public is hardly more than an
irrelevant onlooker, apart from the appeal of carefully
constructed images that have only the vaguest resemblance to

Let's turn to more serious evidence about public opinion:
the studies I mentioned earlier that were released shortly
before the elections by some of the most respected and
reliable institutions that regularly monitor public opinion.
Here are a few of the results (CCFR):

A large majority of the public believe that the US should
accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court
and the World Court, sign the Kyoto protocols, allow the UN
to take the lead in international crises, and rely on
diplomatic and economic measures more than military ones in
the "war on terror." Similar majorities believe the US
should resort to force only if there is "strong evidence
that the country is in imminent danger of being attacked,"
thus rejecting the bipartisan consensus on "pre-emptive war"
and adopting a rather conventional interpretation of the UN
Charter. A majority even favor giving up the Security
Council veto, hence following the UN lead even if it is not
the preference of US state managers. When official
administration moderate Colin Powell is quoted in the press
as saying that Bush "has won a mandate from the American
people to continue pursuing his `aggressive' foreign
policy," he is relying on the conventional assumption that
popular opinion is irrelevant to policy choices by those in

It is instructive to look more closely into popular
attitudes on the war in Iraq, in the light of the general
opposition to the "pre-emptive war" doctrines of the
bipartisan consensus. On the eve of the 2004 elections,
"three quarters of Americans say that the US should not have
gone to war if Iraq did not have WMD or was not providing
support to al Qaeda, while nearly half still say the war was
the right decision" (Stephen Kull, reporting the PIPA study
he directs). But this is not a contradiction, Kull points
out. Despite the quasi-official Kay and Duelfer reports
undermining the claims, the decision to go to war "is
sustained by persisting beliefs among half of Americans that
Iraq provided substantial support to al Qaeda, and had WMD,
or at least a major WMD program," and thus see the invasion
as defense against an imminent severe threat. Much earlier
PIPA studies had shown that a large majority believe that
the UN, not the US, should take the lead in matters of
security, reconstruction, and political transition in Iraq.
Last March, Spanish voters were bitterly condemned for
appeasing terror when they voted out of office the
government that had gone to war over the objections of about
90% of the population, taking its orders from Crawford
Texas, and winning plaudits for its leadership in the "New
Europe" that is the hope of democracy. Few if any
commentators noted that Spanish voters last March were
taking about the same position as the large majority of
Americans: voting for removing Spanish troops unless they
were under UN direction. The major differences between the
two countries are that in Spain, public opinion was known,
while here it takes an individual research project to
discover it; and in Spain the issue came to a vote, almost
unimaginable in the deteriorating formal democracy here.

These results indicate that activists have not done their
job effectively.

Turning to other areas, overwhelming majorities of the
public favor expansion of domestic programs: primarily
health care (80%), but also aid to education and Social
Security. Similar results have long been found in these
studies (CCFR). Other mainstream polls report that 80% favor
guaranteed health care even if it would raise taxes — in
reality, a national health care system would probably reduce
expenses considerably, avoiding the heavy costs of
bureaucracy, supervision, paperwork, and so on, some of the
factors that render the US privatized system the most
inefficient in the industrial world. Public opinion has been
similar for a long time, with numbers varying depending on
how questions are asked. The facts are sometimes discussed
in the press, with public preferences noted but dismissed as
"politically impossible." That happened again on the eve of
the 2004 elections. A few days before (Oct. 31), the NY
reported that "there is so little political support
for government intervention in the health care market in the
United States that Senator John Kerry took pains in a recent
presidential debate to say that his plan for expanding
access to health insurance would not create a new government
program" -- what the majority want, so it appears. But it is
"politically impossible" and has "[too] little political
support," meaning that the insurance companies, HMOs,
pharmaceutical industries, Wall Street, etc., are opposed.

It is notable that such views are held by people in virtual
isolation. They rarely hear them, and it is not unlikely
that respondents regard their own views as idiosyncratic.
Their preferences do not enter into the political campaigns,
and only marginally receive some reinforcement in articulate
opinion in media and journals. The same extends to other

What would the results of the election have been if the
parties, either of them, had been willing to articulate
people's concerns on the issues they regard as vitally
important? Or if these issues could enter into public
discussion within the mainstream? We can only speculate
about that, but we do know that it does not happen, and that
the facts are scarcely even reported. It does not seem
difficult to imagine what the reasons might be.

I brief, we learn very little of any significance from the
elections, but we can learn a lot from the studies of public
attitudes that are kept in the shadows. Though it is natural
for doctrinal systems to try to induce pessimism,
hopelessness and despair, the real lessons are quite
different. They are encouraging and hopeful. They show that
there are substantial opportunities for education and
organizing, including the development of potential electoral
alternatives. As in the past, rights will not be granted by
benevolent authorities, or won by intermittent actions — a
few large demonstrations after which one goes home, or
pushing a lever in the personalized quadrennial
extravaganzas that are depicted as "democratic politics." As
always in the past, the tasks require day-to-day engagement
to create — in part re-create — the basis for a
functioning democratic culture in which the public plays
some role in determining policies, not only in the political
arena from which it is largely excluded, but also in the
crucial economic arena, from which it is excluded in principle.

[Noam Chomsky is the author of Hegemony or Survival:
America's Quest for Global Dominance
(now out in paperback
from Owl/Metropolitan Books).]