An NPR/Ipsos poll released in January revealed that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe that U.S. democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing.” What the poll does not disclose, of course, is the anomalous situation of the United States in comparison to other democracies. For starters, the U.S. is a very conservative and militaristic country, with a two-party system and a political culture that overwhelmingly favors powerful private interests over the common good. Indeed, in many respects, it operates more like a reactionary plutocracy than a democracy. For instance, the U.S. is the only wealthy country without a universal health care system. It spends more on health care than any other high-income country but has the lowest life expectancy. The U.S. is also a global outlier in terms of gun ownership, gun violence and public mass shootings. Income and wealth inequality is also higher in the U.S. than in almost any other industrialized country, and the U.S. also has the distinction of spending less on children than almost any other wealthy country. Moreover, as evidenced by the recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the United States Supreme Court acts for the most part as an agent of reaction.
Indeed, the U.S. is a “highly unusual society, in many ways,” as Noam Chomsky states in the following interview about the economic and political organization of the U.S. polity and the shockingly reactionary rulings of the Supreme Court on guns and abortion.
Chomsky is the father of modern linguistics, a leading dissident and social critic, and one of the world’s most cited intellectuals. His work has influenced a variety of fields, including cognitive science, philosophy, psychology, computer science, mathematics, childhood education and anthropology. He has received numerous awards, including the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences, the Helmholtz Medal and the Ben Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science. He is the recipient of dozens of honorary doctorate degrees from some of the world’s most prestigious universities, and is the author of more than 150 books.
C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, as gun massacres continue to plague U.S. society, the question that naturally pops into mind is this: Why is the U.S. government so uniquely bad among developed countries at tackling issues in general that affects people’s lives? Indeed, it is not just gun violence that makes the U.S. an outlier. It is also a big outlier when it comes to health, income inequality and the environment. In fact, the U.S in an outlier with regard to its overall mode of economic, political and social organization.
Noam Chomsky: We can begin by taking note of an important date in U.S. history: June 23, 2022. On that date, the senior Justice of the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, issued a decision solemnly pronouncing his country completely unhinged, a threat to itself and the world.
Those were not of course Justice Thomas’s words, speaking for the usual 6-3 majority of the reactionary Roberts Court, but they capture their import: In the United States, people may carry a concealed weapon for “self-defense,” with no further justification. In no functioning society have people been living in such terror of their fellow citizens that they need guns for self-defense if they’re taking a walk with their dogs or going to pick up their children at their (properly barricaded) nursery school.
A true sign of the famous American exceptionalism.
Even apart from the lunacy proclaimed from on high on that historic date, the United States is a highly unusual society, in many ways. The most important are the most general. In your words, “its overall mode of economic, political, and social organization.” That merits a few comments.
The basic nature of the modern state capitalist world, including every more or less developed society, was well enough described 250 years ago by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations and in the Madisonian framework of the Constitution of what was soon to become the most powerful state in world history.
By C.J. Polychroniou