Saturday, August 23, 2014

An odd critique of Chomsky

Erik Loomis scolds Chomsky over his oft-repeated assertion that "In many respects Nixon was the last liberal president." Loomis:
Richard Nixon was a liberal in no way. Richard Nixon was however a very shrewd politician operating in the time of the postwar liberal consensus. Nixon didn’t like signing those bills...if he had his druthers, he would have ruled conservatively. As it was, he wanted to build support for the war by signing relatively liberal legislation. 
...What’s happening today is that even smart progressives are using Nixon as a uncontextualized figure to compare to everything they dislike about today. But this gives the presidency way too much power and essentially fetishizes the power of the presidency at the cost of a meaningful analysis of how political change is made in the United States. Unfortunately, if a law gets passed, the entire credit or demerit for it rests in the popular mind on that president and not on Congress or the millions of Americans who wanted it.
This is all spot-on except for the part where Loomis thinks he's substantially disagreeing with Chomsky. In his own words:
The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria, hardly represents healthy democratic impulses. Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method a marginalizing the population... 
The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in a progressive direction...is to grow and become strong enough so that they can't be ignored by the centers of power. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots...[are] cultivated by steady work at all levels, every day, not just once every four years.
Worth noting that this isn't just an obscure passing remark - it's more or less at the center of Chomsky's politics. He is an anarchist who has written prolifically on the ways that hierarchical power, including state power, controls populations. His primary mode of political action has always been at the grassroots, and is on record insisting that progressives should only "spend five or ten minutes" on presidential elections.

This line of thought is explicit in his elaboration on the Nixon-as-liberal-president line:
Nixon was basically the last liberal president, and those liberal measures were in substantial part the result of popular activism, from CIO organizing in the 1930s up to the activism in the '60s and on to their impact in the early '70s. They had an impact on legislation and on public officials. So it's not one or the other; you can do both and recognize what the interaction is like.
This is the exact opposite of claiming that "the entire credit or discredit" for anything lies with the President. As he has multiple times, Chomsky credits the public for placing enormous public pressure on Nixon to enact various liberal initiatives.

To the extent that there is any daylight between Chomsky and Loomis, it may be that Chomsky sees in Nixon's "shrewd" negotiation a prerequisite of pluralistic governance: an ability to recognize opposition and treat with it. This may seem trivial, but it's a completely different ideological universe from modern Republicans who even refuse to negotiate to the point of self-destruction. But what seems clear, in any case, is that Loomis is not exactly contesting Chomsky's ideas about the importance of popular activism. On that, they'll have to disagree to agree.