Functioning Democracy

NoamAn excerpt from Noam Chomsky’s brilliant speech “Prospects for Survival.”

Let’s return finally to the main line of defense: functioning democracy. We can begin with the leader of the free world, the model of democracy for centuries.

In a democracy, the voice of the people is heard. Let’s ask what might happen in the United States if this principle were upheld. One consequence would be that the most popular and respected political figure in the country would have an influential role, maybe even be president. That’s Bernie Sanders, by a very large margin.

The Sanders campaign was the most remarkable feature of the 2016 elections. It broke the prevailing pattern of over a century of U.S. political history. A substantial body of academic political science research establishes very convincingly that elections are pretty much bought: campaign funding alone is a remarkably good predictor of electability, for Congress as well, and also for decisions of elected officials. Research also shows that a considerable majority of the electorate, those lower on the income scale, are effectively disenfranchised, in that their representatives pay no attention to their preferences. As wealth increases, political representation does too, though only slightly—until you arrive at the very top, a fraction of 1 percent, where our policies are pretty much set.

The Sanders campaign broke sharply from that well-established model. Sanders was scarcely known. He had virtually no support from the main funding sources, the corporate sector and private wealth, was derided by the media, and he even dared to use the scare word “socialist.” Yet he probably would have won the Democratic nomination had it not been for shenanigans of the Obama-Clinton party managers.

Suppose he had won, or even that he had a major public platform today. We might then hear statements like this concerning labor rights: “I have no use for those—regardless of their political party—who hold some foolish dream of spinning the clock back to days when unorganized labor was a huddled, almost helpless mass. . . . Only a handful of unreconstructed reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions. Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”

That’s not Sanders, however. The candidate who said that was Dwight Eisenhower, when he was running for president in 1952. Such was the voice of conservatism during the days of the great growth period of regulated state capitalism, often called the economic “golden age.”

We’ve come a long way since then. Now we are on the verge of seeing the demise of even public unions, about the only sort that remains in the United States. Real democracy would be quite different, so public opinion studies show. Much the same holds for a host of other issues as both parties have shifted well to the right during the neoliberal period, with the Republicans now at a point where respected conservative political scientists describe them as a “radical insurgency” that has abandoned parliamentary politics.

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