Noam Chomsky: How the Word 'Liberal' Has Been Totally Distorted in America
As the war of words between presidential candidates has only begun to ratchet up, I’ve already grown battle-weary, anxious and disheartened.
While critiquing the existing state of affairs in his essay “State of the Union” (The Nation, 1975), Gore Vidal shared the following observation: “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.” Far from a mere witty turn of phrase, what Vidal alluded to was the not so inconspicuous trend of both camps gradually realigning themselves further “right” (conventional, constrained) on issues despite enthralling rhetoric that would suggest otherwise. Forty years later, his Cassandra dilemma regarding the abandonment of liberalism still rings true though its significance holds no sway over those deafened by partisan favoritism.
In my piece “Under the Microscope: Black Conservatives,” I clarify that, though I hold very progressive political views contra conservatism, I do not identify as a Democrat. Part of the reason is due to the fact that many Democrat officials—and thus the political platform they epitomize and endorse—simply don’t push for truly liberal-leaning policies that would catalyze radical change this nation so desperately needs.
The term liberal comes from the Latin liberalis, which means “pertaining to a free person.” Within the confines of political discourse, liberalism prescriptively refers to one open to new behavior and willing to discard traditional values, the antithesis of “Traditional Values™,” a revered cornerstone of conservative ideation. Why, then, does it appear Democrats have a tendency to disavow programs that would coincide with their adoptive moniker?
Seeking insight regarding this political malaise, I was able to pick the brain of Professor Noam Chomsky, renowned philosopher and linguist. The world’s leading political theorist had this to say about today’s incarnation of the Democrat and Republican parties:
Both parties have shifted well to the right, the Republicans almost off the spectrum. Respected conservative commentator Norman Ornstein described them, plausible, as a "radical insurgency" that has largely abandoned parliamentary politics. Democrats now are mostly what used to be called "moderate Republicans." There’s ample evidence that most of the population, at the lower end of the income spectrum, is effectively disenfranchised – their representatives pay no attention to their opinions. Moving up the income ladder, influence increases slowly, but it’s only at the very top that it has real impact. Plutocracy masquerading as formal democracy.
The frameworks of this nation’s political system is an ostensible democracy as studies reveal, which is only a secret to the apathetic or those living under a rock. In an in-depth interview to be published later this week, Professor Justin Lewis—political analyst and media critic—echoes the sentiment of Chomsky regarding the erasure of left representation, which makes sense given their collaborative work titled The Myth of the Liberal Media: The Propaganda Model of News (see video here).
Much of Lewis’ research focuses on how there’s many issues wherein the U.S. public are to the left of both main parties but that such polling results are rarely referenced due to it conflicting with conventional political agenda. By contrast, what we tend to see is polling data that reinforces views aligned with mainstream party debates: That which is “Part of the Plan.”
Now, regarding my despondency.
None of the presidential hopefuls impress me, which is par for the course. That said, Bernie Sanders appears to be an apparition of hope for real social progress that would be absent within the neo-conservative seriously-not-liberal regime of Hilary Clinton and would degenerate midst the clutches of any Republican candidacy. There are significant drawbacks with Sanders (e.g., insinuations that he’d maintain “business as usual” regarding foreign policy is egregious), but in a race advertising 31 flavors of the horrible and grotesque, he’s a somewhat bitter-sweet relief for those desiring a faint taste of liberal representation.
Chomsky seems to agree. When asked about the more noteworthy contenders in the 2016 presidential race, he said:
Sanders is a decent New Dealer, way to the left in the current U.S. political system. I don’t agree with some of his stands, but he’s a breath of fresh air. Clinton’s a centrist Democrat, Bush a right-wing Republican, sane by today’s weird standards. Trump is a very dangerous demagogue, though one can understand his appeal after decades of stagnation and loss of hope, even though the targets of the fears and angers are misplaced.
The problem is the Wu Tang Clan were right: cash rules everything around me. The Big Two (re: Democrats, Republicans) receive a substantial chunk of financial support from corporate entities that demand politicians reciprocate with supporting policies that favor them. Those who don’t capitulate to these typically conservative forces aren’t likely to be viable contenders, which is one of the reasons why Bernie Sanders is seen as an underdog compared to corporate sycophant Hilary Clinton.
It’s still difficult for me to take Donald Trump’s run seriously. I get that his sideshow bravado swept up in mainstream media’s captivation is dangerous in a way. I also concede with many points made regarding Trump being the new face of white supremacy. The thing is, the appeal of this uncouth loudmouth isn’t proof that his explicitly racist, sexist, Islamophobic, and privilege-induced ramblings are in any way valid, but rather a collective sigh of discontent with common political sophistry. We live in a society that craves entertainment and those with whom we can identify—Trump delivers on these attributes though lacking any real substance sheltered away behind that obtuse curtain guarded by blowhard antics. Also, keep in mind this white-oriented culture just endured eight years of having to call a Black man their leader…Trump’s present success—given what he represents—doesn’t surprise me.
Moreover, people want tangible change that amounts to more than just a catchy slogan. For the right, that means supporting candidates that thrive on victim blaming, yearn to hinder and divest in policies that aid women, LGBTQIA, immigrants, and people of color, and will greenlight stricter theocratic legislation. For the ostensible left, that means (thus far) placing odds on one of two choices: one with considerable clout but a distant stranger to liberal principles though she feigns otherwise, and one who, though far from flawless, actually bears resemblance to a liberal candidate.
Liberalism is important to me, and likely to anyone else of a similar mindset, because the way progress is effectively enacted across social institutions—the complex of positions, roles, norms and values lodged in particular types of social structures—is by way of evolving and forward-thinking. These standards are prone to stimulate directives targeting the marginalized and support multiculturalism, which literally (seriously, literally) contradicts the motivations and interests of conservative ideology.
You’d think more would be on board for further development and more inclusionary lawmaking…but then I remember those who benefit from the status quo are more inclined to relish the current horse-and-buggy-pace of societal maturation, or even champion a devolution to “The Good Old Days” (read: Dixiecratic, “Jim Crow wasn’t so bad” resolve) where it’d be more widely acceptable to not consider classism, ableism, toxic masculinity, racism, transantagonism, etc. I understand being a decent person is “hard” for those who adore their privilege. These are the people who perceive their abject disconnect from those who are othered as a sign of the outsider’s weakness instead of realizing the frailty is their own.
And so I sit, battle weary, anxious, and disheartened. Liberalism isn’t dead, but when it comes to a political institution that prefers stagnancy, it sure is hard to come by.