In addition to his pioneering work in linguistics, Noam Chomsky has been a leading voice for peace and social justice. The New York Times called him ‘a global phenomenon, perhaps the most widely read voice on foreign policy on the planet’. He is the author of scores of books, his latest being The Essential Chomsky and What We Say Goes. I talked with him in his office at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 10 September 2008.

Given the unpopularity of Bush, the wars and the tumbling economy, why isn’t Obama way ahead of McCain?

That’s an interesting question. Most of the models that political scientists use predict that the Democrats should be way ahead. In fact, by and large they are way ahead, except on the presidential vote. So you have to look for other factors. We can investigate them.

One is probably race. It’s well known that when people are asked on polls whether they have questions about racial prejudice, they deny that they have it, but when you see their behaviour, you see that they’re underestimating their own racial prejudice. Another element is class. The Republican public relations system – propaganda system – which is quite a formidable apparatus, has succeeded, as they succeeded in 2004, in portraying the Democrats, Obama, as the representative of the elitist liberals who run the world and have contempt for common folk like you and me. And their candidate is kind of like an ordinary guy. It happens he can’t remember how many houses he owns, but let’s forget about that. George Bush, a little spoiled brat who went to Yale, is the kind of guy you would like to meet in a bar, and wants to go cut brush on his ranch; an ordinary, simple guy. And I think they succeeded in doing that with Obama, in making him so he’s presented as, first of all, black, and, secondly, somehow strange, not like one of us. ‘Us’ means white, working-class American with blue eyes. Obviously not one of us. Strange values that we don’t understand. Where did he come from? And also one of those liberals who runs everything and has contempt for us.

They haven’t even gotten started revving up their slander and vilification machine, but it’s an impressive apparatus. Goebbels would be impressed. It works very well. One good example, which has been studied in some detail by Ed Herman and David Peterson, is the way they’ve used the Jeremiah Wright case. They have a detailed article (Monthly Review, September 2008) that just came out about that, and it’s striking.

Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s pastor in Chicago.

This was the main story in the press for weeks, what Jeremiah Wright said. First of all, almost everything he said is entirely reasonable, even if it’s unacceptable to mainstream ideology. But even the parts that merit criticism, like the US organized AIDS to kill blacks or whatever it is, it’s a marginal part of his message. The white preachers who support McCain have said similar or worse things. So, for example, Falwell and Robertson, I think, blamed 9/11 on the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], gays and so on. How could you get more outrageous than that?

Pat Robertson called openly for the assassination of Hugo Chavez.

See, that probably is considered acceptable. When Wright said the chickens are coming home to roost, incidentally, I think, quoting an American ambassador if I recall, that was considered horrendous. but when Falwell and Robertson say it’s the ACLU and gays who are responsible, the press didn’t make a fuss about that.

The other thing, which is sort of in the background, is that American elections pretty systematically keep away from issues and focus on personality, character, values – what are called values, whatever that means. They’re pretty frank about it. McCain’s campaign manager stated that this election is not about issues, it’s about personality and character.

So on the one hand there is the way they’re portraying Obama – subtext, black, Hussein, who knows who he is, and so on, a pretty openly elitist liberal who owns and runs things and has a contempt for America, meaning everything between the East Coast and the West Coast. On the other hand, there is the way they portray McCain. The press has always had a love affair with him. They portray him, first of all, as a maverick, for which there is no evidence in his record. That’s imagery. Also as a hero and an expert at national security. That part is interesting, too.

Let’s imagine that, say, in Russia now someone is running for office who was a pilot in the invasion of Afghanistan and was shot down while he was bombing heavily populated urban areas in Kabul, civilian areas, and was then tortured by Reagan’s freedom fighters. We should sympathize with him for his fate at the hands of the people who tortured him. But would we call him a war hero and a specialist on national security? How does that make you a hero and a specialist on national security? On the other hand, that’s exactly what’s being done with McCain. His expertise in national security is precisely that. But you can’t raise that matter here, because the jingoism and the commitment to the nobility of our military efforts is so high across the spectrum that you can’t bring it up.

And I say across the spectrum. Just recently I read a column by James Carroll in the Boston Globe (8 September 2008) – he’s their kind of pacifist, former priest, moral, left critic about McCain – in which, among other things he starts off by saying McCain is a man of honour with a heroic career. He made an interesting comment. He said that antiwar activists felt that they had to go to McCain to apologize and sort of beg forgiveness for their opposition to the war. Does some Russian who is opposed to the war in Afghanistan have to go to this pilot who was shot down bombing Kabul and apologize for his opposition to the war in Afghanistan? These conceptions are just foreign to Western doctrinal systems and mentality. You can’t think in those terms.

Let’s take the invasion of Iraq. Compare it to, say, Putin’s invasion of Chechnya. There are a lot of differences, but let’s compare it. The Russians invaded Chechnya, destroyed Grozny, carried out massacres, terror. They pacified it. C. J. Chivers of the New York Times was there a couple months ago to report that Grozny is a booming city, there is building all over, everybody has electricity run by Chechens, you don’t see Russian soldiers around. Do we praise Putin for his achievement? No. In fact, we condemn him for it. I suppose that if Petraeus could achieve even a fraction of what Putin achieved in Chechnya, he would probably be crowned king.

Surely Obama couldn’t have any objection to it. His criticism of the war is completely unprincipled. It was a strategic error; we should have put our resources elsewhere. Therefore, if the US succeeds in achieving what Putin achieved in Chechnya, we should all be applauding. In fact, he’s kind of silenced even at the limited achievement. It distinguishes him sharply from his base, a lot of which had principled objections to the war. And he made sure to tell them that he didn’t really mean it, for example, by picking Biden as his vice-president. Biden was one of the strongest supporters of the war in the Senate.

It’s also interesting that both candidates, Obama and McCain, say the US should lead the world.

Because we’re so wonderful. They don’t say we should lead the world by example, by doing good things. They mean lead the world, run the world. And they’re not inventing it. In some respects it traces back to the founding fathers. This is the only country in the world that was founded as, I think Washington’s phrase was, a ‘nascent empire’. People in the Western hemisphere can take it over and be a light to the world. And it continues. But by the Second World War and ever since, US policy has been quite explicit. Plans were formulated during the Second World War. High-level planners recognized that the US would emerge from the war as the world’s dominant power. The plans, which were then executed and implemented and are still unchangeable, are that the United States should be the world-dominant power, it should organize a world system that’s conducive to US interests, and it should block sovereignty by others that interferes with US interests, and the core of it should be military force. I can’t quote the exact words, but that was the gist of it during the Second World War, and it was implemented in sophisticated ways in the years that followed. That has been the doctrine of every president.

It became pretty dramatic in 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed. The pretext all those years was, well, we didn’t want to do it but we had to defend ourselves against this terrible menace that was going to come to the world. Then it collapsed. What happened? Answer: nothing. As a matter of fact, for anyone who wants to seriously understand US government policy, the obvious question, the obvious documentation to look at, is how exactly did the first Bush administration respond to the collapse of the Soviet Union?

It turns out that there was a national security strategy that was promulgated. There was a military spending programme. What they said is quite interesting and almost ignored, probably because it’s so interesting. What they said is that everything is going to go on exactly as before, with one change. Now it is not the Russian menace that we’re defending ourselves against. We have to defend ourselves against what they call the technological sophistication of Third World powers. I don’t know if they laughed hysterically when they wrote that, but, anyway, that’s what they said. What about the military system, what they call the defence industrial base? That’s a euphemism for high-tech industry. It has to be exactly as before. Nothing has to change. What about our intervention forces, primarily aimed towards the Middle East? They have to stay exactly the same. And they add an interesting phrase. They still have to be aimed towards the Middle East, where the problems that might have called for military intervention ‘could not have been laid at the Kremlin’s door’. Nice phrase. That means: Sorry, folks, we’ve been lying to you for fifty years, but now we can’t lie anymore. The clouds have lifted, so the problems could not have been laid at the Kremlin’s door, but we still have to have those forces there, because that’s the world’s major energy resource and we’ve got to control it.

You’re the one principally who talks about institutional structures and how they frame and inhibit policies. So, realistically speaking, whoever is elected, can a president make a difference?

Oh, yes. Presidents make differences. In fact, over time there are systematic differences between Republicans and Democrats. So, for example, if you look over a long stretch, fairly consistently, when there is a Democratic president, there is a level of benefits for the majority of the population. Wages are a little better, benefits are a little better, for the large majority. When the Republicans are in office, it’s the other way around. There are benefits, but for the super rich. The same is true of civil rights and other things. It’s a consistent difference. So there are differences, even though they’re within a narrow spectrum.

The same is true for international affairs. There are some differences. So Reagan, for him Russia was the evil empire; for Kennedy it was the monolithic and ruthless conspiracy, but the behavior was somewhat different, not necessarily in Kennedy’s favor, I should say, but somewhat different. And I don’t doubt that there would be some difference between an Obama and a McCain presidency. In fact, the McCain presidency you can’t really predict very well, because he’s kind of a loose cannon. But it could be pretty threatening.

What do you think of the lesser-of-two-evils argument?

You mean that you should vote for the lesser of two evils? It depends whether you care about human beings and their fate. If you care about human beings and their fate, you will support the lesser of the two evils, not mechanically, because there are other considerations. For example, there could be an argument for a protest vote if it were a step towards building a significant alternative to the choice between two factions of the business party, both of them to the right of the population on most issues. If there were such an alternative, there could be an argument either for not voting or for voting for the third alternative. but it’s a delicate judgement. On the other hand, there is nothing immoral about voting for the lesser of two evils. In a powerful system like ours, small changes can lead to big consequences. The effects that I mentioned, the long-term effects for the large majority of the population from a Democratic or a Republican administration, if you care about those things, you will prefer the lesser of the two evils.

One of those institutional structures, particularly pertaining to elections, is the Electoral College, which seems to me by definition undemocratic. Let’s say I’m running for president against you and you win forty states and get 10 million more votes than me, but I win the big states and I’m elected president. This is not talked about at all, which I find rather astonishing.

Actually, it is talked about by political theorists, people like Robert Dahl, Sanford Levinson, and others.

They’re in the ivory tower. The politicians themselves don’t talk about it.

Basically, I think they’re right, because these technical changes wouldn’t affect the core issue about American elections, which is that fundamentally they don’t take place. The population is not misled about this. The press won’t report it, but the polls these days show and have for a long time – the latest ones are that about 80 per cent of the population says the country is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves, not for the benefit of the people. The latest polls I saw, by about 3 to 1, a couple months ago, the population criticized the campaigns because they avoid issues and keep to personalities and marginal phenomena. The public is not misled, at least so the polls indicate. And those are critical facts as compared with the fact that elections are extravaganzas, essentially run by the public relations industry with the goal of marginalizing issues and voters. As compared with that, the technical details, like do the voting machines work or the Electoral College, just don’t amount to much. Even if you fixed up those technical details, the fundamental problem would remain.

Even, say, moving elections from Tuesday, a day that people work, to the weekend, which is the case in Italy and Europe and many other countries?

It would make some difference, perhaps, but we still would have the same fundamental programme.

Talk about the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the giant mortgage lenders, which are called GSEs, government-sponsored enterprises. What is this bailout about and who is going to pay for it?

The people who are going to pay for it are the American taxpayers. One of the major economic correspondents, Martin Wolf, who is a good economist, writes for the Financial Times, and is a believer in markets, had a pretty strong column condemning it. He said, yes, it has to be done because of the disaster we’re in, but it’s outrageous. First the public is compelled to assume the risks of mortgage lending, then it’s required to pay the costs when the whole system implodes. So there probably isn’t any choice right now, given the nature of the disaster, but the whole system is an outrage. Why should the public have assumed the risks for financial managers, who are basically unregulated? Part of the dominant ideology of the last couple of decades is that you should dismantle government regulation. Fine. So you dismantle government regulation, you have catastrophe after catastrophe. Now the public is called in to pay the costs of that ideology. That’s essentially what happens.

Remember, the first of them, I think it was Fannie Mae, was established in the New Deal, and it was a public entity, I think, until 1968. It was part of the government. It was regulated within the government. Then the other one, Freddie Mac, was set up and they became essentially privatized but with a government guarantee. The government guarantee simply tells the managers and investors and so on, we can play whatever game we want. The government is going to come in and save us, meaning the taxpayer will. That’s pretty much what happened. That’s Milton Friedman-style economics. It’s called free-market economics, with the nanny state there to make sure that the public takes the risks and pays the costs.

Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich calls it ‘socialized capitalism’.

He does, but it’s much too narrow, because that’s true of just about all of capitalism. The whole high-tech economy runs that way. So, yes, this is an example. It’s kind of interesting to watch the outrage about it, but the same outrage should be expressed about the rest of the advanced economy as well. The financialization is a particularly egregious case, but so are, say, the pharmaceutical industry or the electronics industry.

I hate to remind you, but you’re turning eighty on 7 December. You’ve cut back on your public talks. Do you miss the road travel and mixing it up with people?

I was doing it because I wanted to do it, and I thought it ought to be done. And I miss the opportunity. I miss the fact that I have to stop other things, like teaching, because I just don’t have the time for it. but that’s my personal problem.

Happy birthday in advance.