As the U.S. political scene has become increasingly polarized, there have been a number of commentaries (including my own, in an earlier blog) suggesting that with the rise of Trump’s demagogic appeals, U.S. politics was beginning to look more like what has gone on south of the border. Latin America has certainly had its share of populist charismatic leaders who have garnered considerable support by offering unsophisticated solutions to complex problems. While there are certainly some similarities between Donald Trump’s appeals and Latin America’s populist politics, more recent developments, including the machinations that have occurred in the wake of the Orlando massacre, suggest some important and (for the U.S.) sinister distinctions.
Like the U.S. today, Latin America’s demagogues have usually arisen in contexts during which significant portions of the population believe they have lost, or are in danger of losing, past gains—particularly in comparison with the more privileged groups in society—and they see existing political elites and parties as obstacles to changing this scenario. Perón in Argentina (the late 1940s and 1950s) and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela are archetypical cases, but there are many other examples that could come to mind. Both the economic policy solutions and the politics of such leaders, contributed in the medium to long term, to very unhappy outcomes: economic decline and extreme levels of political instability and polarization.
While the policy solutions were unwise and demagogic political appeals even more so, there is no question that Latin America’s populist leaders invariably hit on the real root of the problem—the exclusionary operation of both the economic and political systems. The “enemy” identified by the region’s demagogic (and left leaders) was invariably some combination of landed/industrial/financial domestic and international business groups. There is little doubt that these groups constituted a considerable part of the problem: they benefitted inordinately from whatever economic growth occurred—a reality seen in the region’s historically high levels of socio-economic inequality. Indeed, my casual conversations with Latin American taxi drivers and hotel maids over the past four decades has usually revealed an acute awareness of the unfairness of the economic and political games (and anger against those in control), and a high level of frustration as to how things could be changed--hence the resort to “strong” leadership.
In the U.S., on the other hand, the current direction of U.S. politics is distracting from the real source of popular angst: the tight control over the American political system exercised by political elites, and increasing levels of inequality and labor precariousness. With the events in Orlando, political contestation, driven by Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric on the shooting, now revolves around the issue of the physical security of U.S. citizens. Trump sees the source of the problem in radical Islam and has therefore demonized a minority group—Muslims. Preventing them from entering the country is his solution. Clinton is calling for the regulation of access firearms as the most effective way to secure public safety. The privileges and power of the one percent, the problems of unemployment and precarious employment, and other issues of social well-being, have been pushed to the back burner.
While demagogues do not bring viable solutions to political problems, they are clearly evidence of deeply felt societal problems. Identifying and agreeing on what these problems actually are is an important first step. Unfortunately, the direction of U.S. politics right now suggests that the country is moving ever further away from this crucial initial stage.