Admittedly, my close familiarity with Latin America’s turbulent political history shapes my view of recent developments in U.S. politics, in particular, popular support for candidates at what seems to be opposite ends of the political spectrum (Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders). Latin America, with its long history of high levels of socio-economic inequality, is rife with populist, demagogue-like political figures, and radical left politicians calling for profound structural changes.
There has been a worrisome interactive series of cycles in Latin American history, with, I believe, important lessons for leaders of Global North countries, whose societies have witnessed a rapid rise in inequality in recent years. The widely accepted conventional wisdom is that the root of the Latin American political problems lay in its institutions (both economic and political), which have operated in an unfair way, allowing the privileged few to acquire inordinate political power and wealth at the expense of the many. This outcome, understandably, served to undermine public support for what passed for “democratic” political institutions, giving rise to political movements that challenged both the established political elite and existing political parties. There was admittedly a certain difference in emphasis between the populist centre/right and the political left, with the former focussing on the unresponsiveness and exclusionary aspect of political systems and established elites, while the latter paid more attention to the exclusionary attributes of the economic order. But the profound disillusionment of large swaths of the public has been apparent in both cases, and continues to exist today in most countries of Latin America.
Meanwhile, we (particularly mainstream political science scholars) have assumed that the institutions of (northern) liberal democracies are immune from such challenges. As U.S. politics shows us so clearly, however, this is most certainly not the case. Despite the much lauded pluralism of American democracy (the presence of so-called “checks and balances,” civil liberties, etc.), the operation of politics has, nevertheless, allowed exclusionary economic outcomes to flourish. An inadequate public educational system, unemployment, precarious employment, and a decline of economic opportunities have all combined to substantially diminish equality of economic opportunity—a notion that is becoming a distant myth of American political ideology. The profound disenchantment of an important segment of the American public with existent political elites speaks to the potential erosion of system legitimacy. There is growing public perception that powerful interests have been able to manipulate politics and policy outcomes in ways that serve vested interests and harm the majority.
Throughout history, the unequal socio-economic outcomes in Latin America have fuelled political instability. Right/Centre populist leaders often shied away from the basic changes that were needed, and engaged in profligate spending in an effort to satisfy everyone—a policy direction that only served to fuel economic and political instability. Left leaders were coopted or their policy initiatives blocked by vested interests in the midst of worsening political conflict. The use of rhetoric that inflamed political passions became an all too common feature of politics. Politics became deeply polarizing. We can only hope that leaderships of northern countries (particularly in the U.S.) find ways to mitigate what has become exclusionary political processes that privilege the economically powerful. Doing so is a necessary precursor to the policy changes required to improve social well-being, enhance economic opportunity, and bolster public belief in the efficacy of the political system.