Noam Chomsky Gets It: How to Be an Idealistic Pragmatist

by Joshua A. Turner/Guest

If one were to have watched the media coverage of American politics over the last six months, one might be forgiven for thinking that the only two stories going on are Donald Trump and the GOP circus, and the tightening race between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. And while much of this is at once entertaining and horrifying to varying degrees, there is more substantive and likely more important conversation taking place on the left of the political spectrum; is Senator Sanders worthy of the support he is receiving and what should be done if Mrs. Clinton is the nominee for the Democratic Party.

The debate about Senator Sanders is one which has taken on various shapes and forms ever since he began looking like a viable alternative to Mrs. Clinton. Many see Sanders as being the most left wing/still electable candidate to come along in a great while. He has described himself as a Democratic Socialist, something that just last election cycle was used pejoratively to describe President Obama (who is not a socialist of any stripe) and his policy platform is littered with with ideas that most progressives would be quite pleased with2; universal healthcare, tax increases for the wealthy, tighter regulation of Wall Street, free college at state schools, and a stimulus package aimed at creating jobs and fixing infrastructure. Though its beyond the scope of this article to tackle comprehensively, it is important to note that there are large differences between being a Socialist in the traditional sense and a Social Democrat in the European tradition. Chomsky describes Sanders as a ‘New-Dealer”, which I believe is the best characterization of his views that I have heard yet.

However, there are many on the left who take issue with the Senator’s stance on guns, his tacit support of the state of Israel, his seeming willingness to continue the drone program, and most recently his not supporting reparations for African Americans. Full disclosure, I am a Sanders supporter.

This is a debate that has split the left and has turned quite nasty at times, with Sanders supporters often becoming quite defensive when his views or his left wing ‘credibility’ is questioned. Unlike the debate on the right wing of the political spectrum, which seems to revolve around how much one can love Jesus and guns while hating foreigners and poor people, this debate is very policy and issue oriented and for many it simply comes down to how much ideological purity is one willing to sacrifice to find an electable candidate closest to their positions. Enter Noam Chomsky.

Professor Chomsky has long been a anti-imperialism voice on the left and one of the most respected public intellectuals in the world. He is also a shrewd critic of American politics and has long advocated for the following position; if you live in a ‘safe’ state, that is to say a state whose electoral votes are almost guaranteed to go in one direction or the other, then vote your conscience. If you live in a swing state, then vote for the most left candidate whom is most likely to win. While this may not seem controversial to some, many on the left take issue with this position; real change, they say, comes from the ground up, not the top down, and that simply voting for Senator Sanders (to say nothing of voting for Mrs. Clinton) is really just a vote for the status quo and they have no wish to do that.

For those unsatisfied with both of the Democratic frontrunners, there is indeed a worthy candidate in the Green Party nominee Dr. Jill Stein. Dr. Stein is certainly to the left of Sanders and Clinton and her platform ticks off many of the boxes for those that have questions about Sanders left wing bonafides, specifically on foreign policy issues. And for many, a key factor is that she operates outside of the two party system. Her views certainly match up favorably with Professor Chomsky’s. But given what we know of his stance on electoral politics in America, it should come as no surprise that Chomsky supports Sanders and would vote for Clinton over a Republican.

In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Chomsky says that “If [Sanders] were elected, I think he would – of the current candidates – be the one who would have, from my point of view, the best policies.” Its also worth noting that Chomsky has only donated to two candidates at the federal level, with Sanders being the first during his fifth run for Vermont’s Congressional seat. However, Chomsky remains pessimistic about Sanders’ chances of winning, citing the problems of running in a campaign system where the super rich are extremely powerful and influential to the outcome. And this is where the Chomsky’s support of voting for Hillary Clinton in a general election becomes a potential issue for many on the left.

At this point its worth looking at what exactly Mrs. Clinton’s campaign is running on; I say her campaign because she herself has proved so malleable over the years that her true feelings on potentially any issue are a mystery. Mrs. Clinton claims to be a progressive candidate, with views that seem to line up with Sanders on many issues. She is for higher minimum wage, higher taxes on the wealthy, equal pay for women, support for a woman’s right to choose, and perhaps most importantly recognizes the real danger that climate change poses to the world. However, to say that Mrs. Clinton is a progressive would be true only if comparing her with others in her party and Republicans (which says more about them than it does about her). She is very hawkish on Foreign Policy (much more so than President Obama who, despite wining a Nobel Peace Prize, has actually expanded some of the Bush policies in the ‘War’ on terror and would not be mistaken for a dove in any fair minded judgement), is not in favor of health care as a right, and perhaps most importantly is beholden to the monied interests of Wall Street. As Senator Sanders has pointed out, she has received tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from many of the the same banks that helped create the financial crisis of 2008. I believe it is also fair to juxtapose her potential administration with that of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, whose polices were quite centrist and also helped contribute to the same financial crisis. It is not unreasonable to assume that her administration might follow a similar pattern.

It is thus easy to see why so many on the left would refuse to vote for Mrs. Clinton (and perhaps even Senator Sanders) on principle, not wanting to justify a corrupt political system by taking part in it. There is merit to this viewpoint; people want actual change and Mrs. Clinton is very unlikely to offer that to them. The more votes someone like a Dr. Stein can receive boots the credibility of third party candidates and makes their electoral chances in the future much better. And some simply want to see the entire system be torn down, making participating in it a tacit endorsement that they are loathe to give. The problem with this is what is lurking on the other side of the political isle.

The Republican field of 2016 is quite an easy one to mock and not take seriously; the frontrunner is a caricature of all the worst things about conservative politicians, a man who will say and do just about anything to appeal to the base of both his party and human nature. And he is likely not the worst of the bunch. Every candidate in this field is for more war overseas, denies climate change as a problem facing the planet, wants to see immigration restrained and people here illegally sent home regardless of their situation, and would seek to continue the failed ‘trickle down’ economic polices of the Reagan years.

Of course this is nothing new, Republicans have held these views for years. A common criticism of the Chomsky position that I have heard is that “we lived through so and so’s administration and we will survive whoever the Republican is this time”. But the problem is that we almost didn’t survive the last Republican administration. Not only did the Bush administration drag us into a quagmire in the Middle East which is still resulting in loss of life for all parties involved, but also the financial crisis of 2008, where total collapse was only narrowly avoided by the election of Barack Obama and the implementation of his policies. And as difficult as it may be to believe, this round of Republican candidates are even worse.

Gone is the “Compassionate Conservatism” of the Bush years,replaced by an all out jingoistic, anti-science, oligarchic ideology. But the top of the ticket is actually only part of the reason to be worried. Because Republicans control the majority of the state legislatures, districts are gerrymandered to make taking back the House of Representatives for the Democrats extremely unlikely. The Senate is up for grabs and it is very likely that many of the seats in contention will be affected by who sits atop the ticket in both parties. This means that Republicans could potentially control the Executive and Legislative branches of government and be in position to appoint Supreme Court justices. The veto pen of a Mr. Sanders or Mrs. Clinton might be the only thing to protect many of the (small) gains of the Obama years and stop a further assault on our civil society. As Professor Chomsky puts it “every Republican candidate is either a climate change denier or a skeptic who says we can’t do it. What they are saying is, ‘Let’s destroy the world.’ Is that worth voting against? Yeah.”

The point of all this is not to encourage anyone to support Senator Sanders or (certainly not) Mrs. Clinton. It’s not even to suggest that the political system we currently have is something worth fighting for. It is to suggest that elections have consequences, whether we choose to engage in the process or not. I do not believe that both being against the system or any candidate and participating in the process need be mutually exclusive. I am not a supporter of Mrs. Clinton but I do recognize that she would be a much better alternative to any of the Republican options. Likewise, I do think that it is very possible to fight against the system but still see that who governs that system is important enough to care about. If a radical left wing intellectual like Professor Chomsky can see this, I hope that others will as well.

Joshua A. Turner is a Utica native. He’s a progressive with a BA in Political Science from Utica College and currently finishing a Master’s in Education, also at Utica College.


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