Former president Jimmy Carter deemed the U.S. as having become “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery” in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision to strike down limits on campaign contributions, and the wielding of illegitimate authority within our political system has only grown more extreme in the eight years that have passed since then.
“Illegitimate authority” is often construed to be a trait of non-democratic societies and failed or collapsed states. In reality, however illegitimate authority is quite common in democratic polities, such as the United States.
For example, the U.S. Supreme Court can issue judicial writs that violate human rights or go against the public interests. Economic elites and powerful interests groups have a large influence on public policy. The general public has little to no independent influence. scholarly research has shown. The legitimacy of the U.S. political authority is in fact very doubtful when you consider the dynamics of decision making and the rules at play.
In the interview that follows, Noam Chomsky — a public intellectual regarded by millions of people as a national and international treasure — gives us a real tour de force exposé of largely unknown facts in U.S. legal history while boldly revealing how many of our governing institutions and leaders wield illegitimate and undemocratic authority over much of the country’s contemporary political and economic landscape. Let’s keep in mind that we should assume that all authority is illegitimate, unless it can justify itself. Chomsky frequently points out that the burden of proof lies with those who advocate authority and not those who question it.
In this interview Chomsky shares his insights on activism and the urgency of a transition to a sustainable tomorrow. Chomsky is a professor of linguistics emeritus at MIT. He is also currently a laureate at the University of Arizona. He has published over 150 books in linguistics and media studies.
C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, over the past couple of decades, we’ve been witnessing a surge of illegitimate authority. I am not talking about the increasing influence transnational corporations have on democratic processes. I am referring to decisions made by a few elected or appointed individuals that impact the lives and livelihoods of millions. For example, a few people sitting at the Supreme Court were appointed for life by presidents that lost the popular vote, and they often enough issue decisions that go against the majority of voters’ preferences. Another example is that members of the U.S. Congress block bills that aim to improve the economic well being of citizens and protect the environment, opting instead to introduce legislation to benefit powerful lobby groups. Can you comment on this most depressing state of affairs in America’s political landscape?
Noam Chomsky: The Supreme Court is a traditional reactionary institution. There is some deviation, but it’s rare. The Warren Court’s major decisions greatly enhanced freedom and basic rights, but not in isolation: There were popular movements, primarily African American but joined by others to a degree, which made it possible for the Warren Court’s rulings to be implemented. Today’s reactionary Roberts Court is reverting to the norm with its dedicated efforts to reverse this deviation. And it can do so thanks in large measure to the conniving and deceit of the leading anti-democratic figure in the Republican organization — no longer an authentic political party: Mitch McConnell.
All of this information is well-known, or should be. I’ll return to a few comments about it.
This story goes back further than most people know. While some of the story is well-known, not all of it. It’s familiar that the enormous power of the Supreme Court traces back to Justice John Marshall’s decision in Marbury v. MadisonTo make the judiciary the arbiter over the meaning of law, powers that go well beyond those granted by the Constitution. His appointment by John Adams as well as his own immediate appointments, decisions, were intended to undermine the newly elected Jefferson government.
Shades of McConnell
Marshall’s opinions had a major impact in shaping the constitutional order as it in fact is interpreted. His influence on the court is unmatched.
All of this is again well-known.
Much less well known are the assumptions that lie behind Marshall’s major decisions. In fact, these have only recently been revealed in legal scholarship by the important work of Paul Finkelman, who did the first systematic study of Marshall’s rulings on a central element of American history: slavery, which is likely to be expunged from history curricula if Republicans regain power and can implement their totalitarian initiatives to determine what cannot be taught in schools.
Finkelman explores “Chief Justice John Marshall’s personal and political commitment to slavery, as a lifelong buyer and seller of human beings, and his deep hostility to the presence of free blacks in America.” He then proceeds to show that in his judicial rulings, Marshall “always supported slaveowners when blacks claimed to be free. Similarly, he consistently failed to enforce the federal prohibitions on American participation in the African slave trade or, after 1808, the absolute prohibition on bringing new slaves into the United States.” As Finkelman points out, Marshall’s harsh and brutal rulings were “consistent with his lifelong personal and political support for slavery.”
Marshall was not an ordinary justice, and Marshall had a profound impact on the lives and well-being of all those who were treated as less than human during his time in America. It is an understatement to say that he is “perhaps the Supreme Court’s most influential chief justice.”
This is not the time to go over the complex and often tumultuous history of this court. It’s enough to remember that it hardly accords with the patriotic slogans we are enjoined to chant by the new totalitarians in Washington.
Congress is a mixed story. One constant feature is the service to the powerful and rich, which relies on the resources you mentioned. Popular activism has had major impacts on the civilization of the country, and sometimes it has been an effective counterforce. The New Deal period from the ‘30s through the ‘60s is the most recent case. Despite the fact that the New Deal was largely wiped out by the business classes, they maintained strong political support from Dwight Eisenhower (the last true conservative president). In his view, “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. Of course, there is a small splinter group that believes you can accomplish these things. . . . [But] their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
Eisenhower’s attitudes illustrate how far his party has declined in recent years, meanwhile defaming the term “conservatism.”
One current illustration of the drift of the party to the far right is its love affair with the racist “illiberal democracy” of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. It goes beyond Tucker Carlson and others. As one illustration, the American Conservative Union “convenes in Budapest next month [June] to celebrate a European leader accused of undermining democracy and individual rights.” Justly accused, but Orbán regards it as praise, not accusation, and today’s “conservatives” appear to agree.
Eisenhower’s prognosis was wrong. The “splinter group” — which unfortunately was far from that — was not merely waiting in the wings. It was working hard to find ways to help the public, sometimes very effectively. Its influence was strong by the end of Carter years. The Democrats had by that time almost abandoned any concern for working people and became more of a party of wealthy professionals.
Reagan opened the doors to those Eisenhower had bitterly criticized, and launched the powerful neoliberal assault against the general population of the last 40 years, which is still vigorously under way. We don’t have the time to go over its impact yet again. It is encapsulated in the Rand Corporation study that we have discussed, which found that these programs have “transferred” close to $50 trillion from the middle and working classes to the ultrarich in 40 years, a pretty impressive feat of highway robbery.
Today’s Republican organization can barely control its enthusiasm at the prospect of carrying the assault further, concealed with cynical populist slogans.
All of this is happening right in front of our eyes, and it’s all quite openly. The congressional GOP virtually goose-steps in obedience to McConnell’s explicit and public orders, reprised from the Obama years. Regaining power is the only priority in legislative policy. This means that you must ensure that the country is ungoverned and that any legislation that would benefit the general population is blocked. Then failure to achieve anything can be blamed on Democrats — a few of whom participate in the sham.
The most striking current example is the Build Back Better program, a quite respectable initiative that would have greatly helped the population when it left Bernie Sanders’s desk. The McConnell principle has been applied to the Build Back Better program, and it is now gone.
Meanwhile the GOP leadership established their red lines: (1) defund the IRS, so that it cannot interfere with the massive tax cheating by the prime GOP constituency, the very rich; (2) don’t touch the one legislative achievement of the Trump years, what Joseph Stiglitz called “the donor relief bill of 2017,” a massive giveaway to the very rich and corporate sector, stabbing everyone else in the back. This giveaway to the rich also hurt the right’s own voters, whom the GOP has labored to keep in line since Nixon by diverting attention from its actual programs to “cultural issues” that appeal to Christian nationalists, white supremacists, Evangelicals, avid gun lovers, and segments of the working class devastated by neoliberal programs and long abandoned by the Democrats.
The court has played a role in bringing back the most vile elements of the history that we are told to suppress. The Roberts Court’s most outrageous decision was to demolish the Voting Rights Act on absurd grounds.Shelby), offering the South the means to restore Jim Crow. Citizens United extended the Buckley doctrine that money is speech — very convenient for the very rich particularly — to giving virtually free rein to those sectors in a position to buy elections.
Next up on the chopping board is Roe v. Wade. It will have severe consequences. A right that most women regard as well-established is to be destroyed. That’s almost unprecedented. The undermining of Black people’s right to vote by ShelbyThis is only a partial precedent.
Justice Alito’s leaked draft is based primarily on the principle that court decisions should give primacy to what is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” And he is quite right that women’s rights do not satisfy this condition. British common law was adopted by the founders. It stated that a woman is property and her father owned. Her husband owns it. One early argument for denying the vote to women was that it would be unfair to unmarried men, since a married man would have two votes, his own and his “property’s.” (The infamous three-fifth’s human provision granted that right to slaveowners.) It wasn’t until 1975 that the Supreme Court granted full personhood to women, granting them the right to serve on federal juries as “peers.”
This ultra-reactionary judicial doctrine, like other ones, is very flexible. One illustration is Antonin Scalia’s HellerScalia’s decision reversed a century-old precedent and made personal gun ownership Holy Writ. In his very learned opinion, Scalia succeeded in ignoring all of the rich “history and tradition” that lies behind the decree that “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
The history and tradition are hardly a secret, from the founders through the 19th century, though of course they have no relevance to American history since: (1) the Brits are coming; (2) militias are needed to attack, expel and exterminate the Indigenous nations once the British constraint on expansion was removed, arguably the primary reason for the revolution — though later they were displaced by a more efficient killing machine, the U.S. Cavalry; (3) slaves had to be controlled by force, a threat that was becoming severe with slave revolts in the Caribbean and the South; (4) before the constitutional system was firmly established, there was concern that the British model might be imposed (as Alexander Hamilton had suggested) and might lead to a tyranny that would have to be resisted by popular forces.
None of this “history and tradition” had any relevance by the 20th century, at least in semi-rational circles. It was evidently there in history and tradition, but not just. ThereBut it is a key part of the history that is set to be canceled as the GOP marches down. McConnell, his allies, and the reactionary judiciary have made this possible with the goal to impose a barrier to any deviation from Eisenhower’s for a long while.
Michael Waldman is president of Brennan Center for Justice. He is a specialist in the Second Amendment. Waldman suggests that this may be changing. The court is currently considering a case to overturn a 1913 New York statute that prohibits concealed weapons from being carried in public places. From Alito’s comments in oral argument, and Thomas’s well-known positions, Waldman suspects that the 1913 ruling may be overturned. We’ll then enjoy a world in which concealed weapons are everywhere.
It’s worth remembering that today’s frenzied gun culture is largely the creation of the public relations industry, in fact one of its first great triumphs, a revealing history explored in depth by Pamela Haag in The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture.
Guns were used for certain purposes, as we have just described. Farmers could also use an old gun to repel animals attacking their cattle. A gun was an instrument, similar to a shovel for them. In the meantime, advanced weapons were being developed by arm manufacturers, but not for the general public, who had little interest in them.
A problem began to emerge in the late 19th century. The domestic market for advanced weapons fell largely after the Civil War. Another market was destroyed by the peace process in Europe. The U.S. military was not involved in major wars. The fledgling PR industry was also enlisted in the cause. It created an exciting image of a Wild West without ever being there, with brave cowboys and sheriffs who are quick to draw. The rest of the familiar fantasies were later exploited by Hollywood. The subtext was your son wants a Winchester rifle so he can be a real men, and his sister needs a little pink pistol. It worked brilliantly, as many of you can attest to from childhood memories, if it wasn’t beyond.
Later, the mythology was further expanded by the GOP propaganda campaign in an effort to distract from their actual policies. Scalia’s radical departure from “history and tradition” then turned the Second Amendment into the only part of the Constitution that is worshipped fervently, that is even known by much of the population.
What are the boundaries of authority in politics? Why is there a surge of illegitimate authority in today’s “democracies”? How can concerned citizens refuse to obey illegitimate decisions made both by politicos as well as the Supreme Court?
Class war never stops. One participant, the business classes — the “masters of mankind” in Adam Smith’s phrase — is constantly engaged in the conflict, with no little passion in a country like the U.S. that has an unusually high level of business class consciousness. They seek to control state policy and use it for their own purposes, as Smith noted 250 years ago. Sometimes they succeed, but with occasional setbacks. They can win huge victories for themselves if their victims are defeated or retired from the fight. This was evident during the neoliberal decline, which led to the destruction of democracy and massive robbery. That’s a basic factor in the surge of “illegitimate authority” in today’s declining democracies, and in the pervasive anger, resentment and distrust of authority.
There are many things to be said about how and why this incredible victory was achieved. But that is beyond the scope of this discussion. We should, however, be aware of the fraudulence of standard shibboleths like “letting the market reign” and other phrases that barely count as caricatures.
The “boundaries” of this triumph of illegitimate authority can only be set by an engaged public, just as happened in the ‘30s and at other periods of history when the “masters” were somewhat tamed. There are no clear answers to all questions about the most appropriate measures. While there are general guidelines and aspirations, tactical decisions are dependent on the circumstances. And they are not to be disparaged as “merely tactical.” Those are the decisions on which people’s lives depend — in the present era, even survival.
Surveys reveal that an overwhelming majority of Americans want to see major changes to the country’s political system. How can we fix the U.S. politics? What rules, for example, should be changed?
I don’t feel confident about what the majority want. The variety of options people see is what shapes what they want. These, in turn, are largely structured by the reigning institutions, which are in substantial measure in the hands of the “masters of mankind.”
For example, today the options are “get a job or starve,” so getting a job is perceived to be one of the highest goals in life. In the early days of the industrial revolution, Americans regarded “getting a job” as an intolerable attack on human rights and dignity. It meant that you would have to subordinate yourself to a master for most your waking hours. They had other options in mind. The slogan of the Knights of Labor, the first great labor organization, was that “those who work in the mills should own them.” Anything less than that was intolerable.
Meanwhile farmers in what was then mostly an agrarian country sought to create a “cooperative commonwealth” in which farmers would work together, free from the northern bankers and market managers. That’s the authentic populist movement, which began to establish contacts with the Knights. Their efforts were crushed in the face of state and private violence. This was another defeat for radical democracy. And “what people want” then changed, as the options they could envision reduced.
Organizers and activists are first required to break the chains of ideological control and help people understand that there are other ways to look at the world than those created by the masters and their ideologies. This will allow people to make changes in their lives. Then, the important questions of what should change and how.
The climate crisis is growing. To take just a few random examples, heat waves are shattering records across major sections of the United States and a recent report on France’s drought shows that climate change is “spiraling out of control.” Unsurprisingly, climate protests worldwide have become more common and more aggressive. Do disruptive climate protests aid or hinder the acceleration towards a sustainable transition?
We are now faced with difficult questions about tactics, which are as always of crucial importance. What tactics will inspire more people to be involved in the fight against the Sixth Extinction and save humanity from the impending catastrophe to which its masters are leading it? What tactical choices will alienate people and undermine this fundamental goal? There’s no algorithm, no general answer. This must be carefully considered. There will be many different answers at different times and places.
This is a critical matter that we cannot stress enough or intensify enough. Recent events have made it seem like we are on the verge of disaster at an alarming rate. The Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine had a devastating impact on the production of fossil fuels, which will soon be destroyed if it isn’t curbed. The war reversed the few steps taken to prevent the catastrophe. We are doomed if this is allowed to continue.
Is there any reason to believe that the next stage in economic development, perhaps based on a green revolution will have more legitimacy and be more democratic then the current socio-economic order.
The question that is asked before all else is whether there will be a new stage of economic growth. Or, in truth, there is no next stage in human history. sauve qui peut: Grab what you can for yourself and maybe escape the destruction and chaos by hitching a ride on Elon Musk’s last spaceship to Mars.
Either that or it will be the next stage. We know what must be done and what can be done, but we also know how to do it. The means are readily available. What is at stake is the will to and commitment.
If we can get this far, there are many reasons to believe that a genuine green revolution will lead to a more humane society and a better quality of life.
Our choice, and no time to wait.