excerpted article

Imperial Presidency

Strategies to control the "great beast"

by Noam Chomsky

Z magazine, February 2005



It goes without saying that what happens in the U.S. has an enormous impact on the rest of the world-and conversely: what happens in the rest of the world cannot fail to have an impact on the U.S., in several ways. First, it sets constraints on what even the most powerful state can do. Second, it influences the domestic U.S. component of "the second superpower," as the New York Times ruefully described world public opinion after the huge protests before the Iraq invasion. Those protests were a critically important historical event, not only because of their unprecedented scale, but also because it was the first time in hundreds of years of the history of Europe and its North American offshoots that a war was massively protested even before it was officially launched.

We may recall, by comparison, the war against South Vietnam launched by JFK in 1962, 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 U.S. assault. 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 of Indochina-hideous crimes, but lesser ones.

It's quite important to remember how much the world has changed since then. As almost always, not as a result of gifts from benevolent leaders, but through deeply committed popular struggle, far too late in developing, but ultimately effective. One consequence was that the U. S. government could not declare a national emergency, which should have been healthy for the economy, as during World War II when public support was very high. Johnson had to fight a "guns-and-butter" war, buying off an unwilling population, harming the economy, ultimately leading the business classes to turn against the war as too costly, after the Tet Offensive of January 1968 showed that it would go on a long time. There were also concerns among U.S. elites about rising social and political consciousness stimulated by the activism of the 1960s, much of it reaction to the miserable crimes in Indochina, then at last arousing popular indignation. We learn from the last sections of the Pentagon Papers that after the Tet offensive, the military command was reluctant to agree to the president's call for further troop deployments, wanting to be sure that "sufficient forces would still be available for civil disorder control" in the U.S., and fearing that escalation might run the risk of "provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions."

The Reagan administration assumed that the problem of an independent, aroused population had been overcome and apparently planned to follow the Kennedy model of the early 1960s in Central America. But they backed off in the face of unanticipated public protest, turning instead to "clandestine war" employing murderous security forces and a huge international terror network. The consequences were terrible, but not as bad as B-52s and mass murder operations of the kind that were peaking when John Kerry was deep in the Mekong Delta in the South, by then largely devastated. The popular reaction to even the "clandestine war," so called, broke entirely new ground. The solidarity movements for Central America, now in many parts of the world, are again something new in Western history.

State managers cannot fail to pay attention to such matters. Routinely, a newly elected president requests an intelligence evaluation of the world. situation. In 1989, when Bush I took office, a part was leaked. It warned that when attacking "much weaker enemies"-the only sensible target-the U.S. must win "decisively and rapidly." Delay might "undercut political support,,' recognized to be thin, a great change since the Kennedy-Johnson years when the attack on Indochina, while never popular, aroused little reaction for many years.

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.


Each candidate [ in the 2004 election] received about 30 percent of the electoral vote, Bush a bit more, Kerry a bit less. General voting patterns were close to the 2000 elections; almost the same "red" and "blue" states, in the conventional metaphor. A few percent shift in vote would have meant that Kerry would be in the White House. Neither outcome could tell us much of any significance about the mood of the country, even of voters. Issues of substance were as usual kept out of the campaign or presented so obscurely that few could understand.

It is important to bear in mind that political campaigns are designed by the same people who sell toothpaste and cars. Their professional concern in their regular vocation is not to provide information. Their goal, rather, is deceit. But deceit is quite expensive: complex graphics showing the car with a sexy actor or a sports hero or climbing a sheer cliff or some other device to project an image that might deceive the consumer into buying this car instead of the virtually identical one produced by a competitor. The same is true of elections, run by the same public relations industry. The goal is to project images, and deceive the public into accepting them, while sidelining issues-for good reasons.

The population seems to grasp the nature of the performance. Right before the 2000 elections, about 75 percent regarded it as virtually meaningless, some game involving rich contributors, party managers, and candidates who are trained to project images that conceal issues, but might pick up some votes. This is probably why the "stolen election" was an elite concern that did not seem to arouse much public interest; if elections have about as much significance as flipping a coin to pick the King, who cares if the coin was biased?

Right before the 2004 election, about 10 percent of voters said their choice would based on the candidate's "agendas/ideas/platforms/goals"; 6 percent for Bush voters, 13 percent for Kerry voters. For the rest, the choice would be based on what the industry calls "qualities" and "values." Does the candidate project the image of a strong leader, the kind of guy you'd like to meet in a bar, someone who really cares about you and is just like you.

U.S. public opinion is studied with great care and depth. Studies released right before the election showed that those planning to vote for Bush assumed that the Republican Party shared their views, even though the Party explicitly rejected them. Pretty much the same was true of
Kerry supporters. The major concerns of Kerry supporters were economy and health care and they assumed that he shared their views on these matters, just as Bush voters assumed, with comparable justification, that Republicans shared their views.

In brief, those who bothered to vote mostly accepted the imagery concocted by the PR industry, which had only the vaguest resemblance to reality. That's apart from the more wealthy who tend to vote class interests.

What about actual public attitudes? Again, right before the election, major studies were released reporting them-and we see right away why it is a good idea to base elections on deceit, very much as in the fake markets of the doctrinal system. Here are a few examples: A considerable majority believe that the U.S. 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 (including security, reconstruction, and political transition in Iraq); rely on diplomatic and economic measures more than military ones in the "war on terror," and use 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.

Overwhelming majorities favor expansion of purely domestic programs: primarily health care (80 percent), but also aid to education and Social Security. Similar results have long been found in these studies, carried out by the most reputable organizations that monitor public opinion. In other mainstream polls, about 80 percent favor guaranteed health care even if it would raise taxes-a national health care system is likely to reduce expenses considerably, avoiding the heavy costs of bureaucracy, supervision, paperwork, etc., some of the factors that render the U.S. 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 (October 31), the NY Times reported, "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 there is too little political support, meaning that the insurance companies, HMOs, pharmaceutical industries, Wall Street, etc., are opposed.


Both recent history and public attitudes suggest some straightforward strategies for short-term activism on the part of those who don't want to wait for China to save us from "ultimate doom." We enjoy great privilege and freedom, remarkable by comparative and historical standards. That legacy was not granted from above, it was won by dedicated struggle, which does not reduce to pushing a lever every few years. We can abandon that legacy and take the easy way of pessimism-everything is hopeless, so I'll quit. Or we can make use of that legacy to work 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.

These are hardly radical ideas. They were articulated clearly, for example, by the leading 20th century social philosopher in the U.S., John Dewey, who pointed out that until "industrial feudalism" is replaced by "industrial democracy," politics will remain "the shadow cast by big business over society." Dewey was as "American as apple pie," in the familiar phrase. He was in fact drawing from a long tradition of thought and action that had developed independently in working class culture from the origins of the industrial revolution. Such ideas remain just below the surface and can become a living part of our societies, cultures, and institutions. But like other victories for justice and freedom over the centuries, that will not happen by itself. One of the clearest lessons of history, including recent history, is that rights are not granted; they are won. The rest is up to us.

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