Chomsky on Sanders 2016 vs. Obama 2008

One of the widely circulated left criticisms of the Sanders campaign claims that the hopes invested in it can be equated with those which were raised for Obama  2008 and with the disastrous outcome which this precipitated.   Some of those doing so cite Noam Chomsky’s rejection of Obama in 2008 as well as his well known suspicion of electoral politics as their grounds for rejecting supporting Sanders.

In fact, Chomsky supports the Sanders campaign.  In the following exchange, I asked him to discuss the basis of his support and why he feels Obama 2008 and Sanders 2016 should not be equated:


It struck me that it might be useful to have an on the record answer from you to the following question:

While you have stressed the low probability and also the limitations of a potential Sanders presidency, you have commented somewhat favorably on the Sanders campaign.

This contrasts to your response to Obama in 2008 regarding the high hopes for his presidency to be largely misplaced (correctly as it turned out).

Could you please explain the basis for why your judgements appear to differ with respect to the two candidacies?


Chomsky’s response:

“Because the candidates seem to me very different. Even before the 2008 primaries, I wrote (quite critically) about Obama, relying just on the webpage where he presented himself as a candidate. I wasn’t impressed, to put it mildly. And I had also followed his career and statements to a certain extent. On that basis, I felt that the widespread beliefs about him were mistaken.

Sanders I think is a different story. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I think he is a decent and committed social democrat, pretty much a New Dealer, which is a breath of fresh air in the current political spectrum.

The main significance of his campaign, I think, will be if the popular forces he’s mobilized for a continuing and growing active political movement, not limited to the quadrennial extravaganza. And I understand that he’s been calling for that. Again, quite different from Obama.”

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2 thoughts on “Chomsky on Sanders 2016 vs. Obama 2008”

  1. See “Noam Chomsky & Abby Martin: Electing Noam Chomsky & Abby Martin: Electing The President Of An Empire”

    At 23m:37s, Abby poses the question, “What do you think we should be focusing our energy on?” Professor Chomsky responds with the following:

    “Take, say, the Bernie Sanders campaign. Which I think is important; impressive. He’s doing good and courageous things. He is organizing a lot of people. That campaign ought to be directed to sustaining a popular movement which will use the election as a, kind of an incentive, but then go on; and unfortunately it’s not. When the election is over, the movement is going to die. Now that’s a serious error. The only thing that’s going to ever, ever, bring about any meaningful change is ongoing, dedicated, popular movements which don’t pay attention to the election cycle. It’s an extravaganza every 4 years. You have to be involved in it, so fine. We’ll be involved in it, but then we go on. If that were done we could get major changes.”

    Bernie Sanders promises that he will support the Democratic candidate to avoid becoming the “Ralph Nader of 2016”, so after the Democratic primary election is over the Sanders supporters will be cut loose to find their own way. Of course, if Hillary adapts some of Bernie’s rhetoric some will follow her.

    I don’t discount the value of Sanders bringing the language and issues of socialism into the public sphere. I have witnessed the support Sanders inspires at the non-radical gathering of the “Fighting Bob Fest” in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

    The choice Sanders faces in this rigged system was whether to join with, say, a Green Party or independent campaign, invisible to the governing media thus leaving his message unheard; or to go with the Democratic Party, disseminate his message and then have to abandon his message after his defeat by supporting ideas contrary to the basis of his candidacy, even if only by his silence.

    His defeat is a contingency which Sanders has already anticipated and addressed. We should also.

  2. Thanks for asking this very precisely-formulated question! I cited your question and Chomsky’s response in my correspondence with Lawrence Lessig:

    …Nonetheless, in your response you were moved to remark on my omission of those (relatively few) Important Facts that would be considered Favorable to Clinton… in distinct contrast with your post-July approach to Sanders… The ‘Sanders = Obama’ argument might be the least persuasive one for your campaign… also the one that is most likely to alienate otherwise sympathetic Sanders supporters… “CHOMSKY: Because the candidates seem to me very different…”

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