Our Latin American future | The American Conservative
In June 2020, the Democratic Political Action Committee Priorities USA launched a campaign ad for Hispanics in Florida. “Our families didn’t come to America to trade one Caudillo for someone else, “said the spokesman for a clip of Donald Trump, who stood next to Jair Bolsonaro. “We do not need any Caudillo, we need one Caballero like Joe Biden. “The Lincoln project started a similar one Caudillo-themed advertising campaign in September. “We know a dictator when we see one,” tweeted Mike Madrid, co-founder of the Lincoln Project, about two photos of men with one arm raised in the style of a strong man, Fidel Castro on the left and Trump on the right.
Around the same time, the Trump campaign recorded the catchiest campaign jingle since Brazil’s “Lula Lá, a star shines”. On election day, rallies across Florida could hear the happy salsa song in English and Spanish: “La buena vida! La Economía! Hazlo por tu familia!“And then the chorus:”Yo voy a votar por Donald Trump!”
We saw on election day which approach works. Trump won both Florida and Texas with the biggest swings in heavily Hispanic border counties. He had already won a higher percentage of the Hispanic votes in 2016 than Mitt Romney did in 2012, and in 2020 he improved that feat. Analysis found that his share of the Hispanic vote rose from 18 percent to 33 percent. Millions of Latinos who voted for Hillary Clinton pulled the lever for him.
Traditionally, the Republican Party’s attitude towards Hispanics has taken one of two forms. On the one hand, there are amnesty pushers like the Bush family or the authors of the 2013 Republican National Committee “Autopsy” who argue that weakening the party’s immigration stance is the only way to avoid political oblivion. Trump has refuted that. On the flip side are the fatalistic pessimists who say the national party will inevitably follow the California GOP into irrelevance if American demographics ever look like California’s. Trump has also refuted that.
The question is not whether a conservative party can win over Hispanics. The question is what is Hispanics will do to conservatism when they become a significant part of his coalition. There is an attraction to immigrants in proportion to their number, which results in the politics of their host country resembling the politics of the places they have left. The United States will be a third of the world’s population by 2050. Now is the time to ask what it will mean for our policies to become more Latin American.
When the tea teller with the red hat sparked a surprise election dissent, the ruling class panicked. In the capital, ministers of the new regime were hissed in restaurants. There was no insult too small for the newspapers to throw at the President: liar, thief, dictator. But it didn’t matter. The president had found a way to bypass the ruling class and speak directly to the people, in a style of his own. His followers, about a third of the country, devoted themselves fanatically to him. Even those on the fence could not take their eyes off the spectacle, the way the president insulted his enemies as weaklings or immediately dismissed employees by saying goodbye: “You are fired, sir!”
It is not to say that Trump is either a socialist or a dictator to say that his style is in many ways similar to Hugo Chavez’s. His Twitter feed was analogous to Chavez’s long-running talk show Aló, Presidentewhere he’d walk around things like fire minister in the air or downtown Caracas, pointing to buildings and saying his catchphrase: “Exprópiese!”(Expropriate it!). None of the presidents could expect flattering coverage from the journalist class, so they were forced to devise ways of communicating directly with the public. Everyone came to a similar person: bold, spontaneous, headstrong, surprisingly funny.
Venezuela is a good place to start, because as recently as 1980 it was the most prosperous country in Latin America and the country everyone expected to make the leap to First World status every day. Argentina, Chile, Colombia – all played the same role at one time or another. Stability and prosperity intervals abroad gave the impression that the country would soon leave the stereotypes of Latin America’s political instability behind, only those stereotypes roared back as the country fell back into the usual cycle of coups d’état and civil war.
One reason for this chronic instability is the lack of a middle class. There is no Latin American country where the middle class is the majority. This problem is likely to persist as the region gets richer, partly because growth is concentrated in tiny elites, but also because the middle class there doesn’t quite fit our Anglo definition. For example, more than half of Mexican workers are in the informal economy, which means that many people on middle-class incomes get completely out of hand. Even professionals like doctors avoid taxes by trading cash. The qualities that make a middle class so desirable for building political institutions – predictability, law-abiding, intolerance of corruption – need not necessarily apply.
Carelessness about rules, which is popping up all over Latin America from taxes to transportation, is a symptom of a bigger problem: low trust. In high-trust societies, street crime and corruption are rare and people are willing to refer disputes to the authorities for decision, convinced that they will be treated fairly. Low-trust societies, on the other hand, are characterized by what Robert Kaplan calls “a cacophony of negotiations instead of fixed standards”. Neither laws nor their enforcers are considered impartial. Family dynasties are widespread in Third World politics precisely because people with a low level of trust are more dependent on family relationships in which there is at least a presumption of trust.
This does not mean that Latin American politics do not have any regard for the law. On the contrary, laws are a popular instrument. But they are just that, a tool. Politically motivated law enforcement measures target opposition activists. Elected leaders are charged in office and brought to justice after their departure. In 2018, the left-wing Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was imprisoned for corruption. One of the people who hailed his imprisonment was the neoliberal lawyer Jeanine Añez, who was about to become President of Bolivia. Three years later, Lula was freed by a Supreme Court ruling that overturned his conviction, and Añez was jailed by her successor for vaguely defined crimes of rioting. This carousel of imprisonment increases the stakes of any power transfer.
The backdrop of American society looked more Latin American even before Donald Trump showed up. The middle class no longer had a majority in the United States in 2015. In some parts of the west coast, inequality has already reached Latin American levels. Those same regions are also the most distant regions on the road to public disorder in the developing world, such as CVS closing shops in San Francisco due to rampant shoplifting, which neither the police nor the courts will punish. The California elites are converging on the same solution that the Latin American elites worked out long ago. They isolate themselves from the lawless elements by building their own private security infrastructure – that and emigration.
Trump brought some qualities of Latin American politics to the White House. He relied on relatives to occupy his inner circle. Latin American conservatism tends to be less preoccupied with small governments and free markets, so Trump’s populist economic agenda represented a step towards that tradition when compared to the party’s Paul Ryan wing. In addition, his style shared many features of Latin American populism. He spoke the language of Braggadocio and insult rather than neutral bureaucrats.
But it was the Democrats who imposed two flimsy impeachments on Trump, including one just days before his planned departure, which obviously made the whole process symbolic and undermined the impeachment of the remaining gravity. Impeachment is no longer a one-off emergency measure, but another political weapon. Trump’s legal problems are also over now that he is out of office. In the end, it can’t be the orange Caudillobut his opponents who did more to set us on the path of Latin American instability.
Fortunately, the least instable Latin American country is where most of our migrants come from. Mexico’s one-party state lasted almost eight decades, longer than the Soviet Union. The system was brilliant in its own way. The Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) discovered that it is more effective to cooperate with dissidents by giving them what they want than to brutalize them. Huge networks of corruption emerged, but no gulags. The press was informally censored (the party controlled the paper supply), but the leaders were not immune to criticism, and since the party had no ideological commitments, there was plenty of room for debate between its left and right wings. This adaptability is one of the reasons why Mexico is the only Latin American country that has not had a military coup since 1920.
The disadvantage of this “perfect dictatorship” (as Mario Vargas Llosa called it) was that it was based on fraud. Elections were frequent, but party Alquimistas made sure they returned the correct score through bribery, ballot papers, re-voters, and other dirty tricks. The 1988 election is known as the one in which “se cayó el sistema”(The system crashed), both in the literal sense that the PRI unplugged the results database on election night when the first results cited opposition candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, and more broadly, that dissatisfaction with fraud was a breaking point reached. When “updated” returns were released a week later showing a PRI victory, most Mexicans believed the elections had been stolen.
The general feeling that fraud was ubiquitous was accompanied by a loud rejection by the authorities of all specific fraud allegations. These two things go together. It was difficult for the opposition to get to the bottom of the events of 1988 as the PRI government secretary ran like a bulldog across the country shouting, “The vote was perfectly legal!” and “Where is your evidence?” and also because many voters were ready to shake it off. When people assume that most of the elections are rigged, the result is not outrage but apathy. Of course the ruling party stole it, that’s exactly what they’re doing. What did you expect The opposition had much circumstantial evidence (statistical irregularities, electoral rolls with ethnic names that did not match a region’s demographics) but no smoking weapon, so their objections collapsed amid PRI denials and popular cynicism.
The same dynamic is playing out in the other ongoing theme of Mexican politics: conspiracy theories. People’s expectations are low and politicians bend over to meet them. When PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was murdered by a troubled shooter in the 1994 election campaign, polls showed that most Mexicans believed political enemies in the PRI had killed him. In the same election, the opposition leader went out of sight for a month at the height of his campaign, which many attributed to a PRI bribe. Today, many Mexicans believe in elaborate conspiracies involving drug cartels, corrupt politicians, and law enforcement agencies – many of which, to be fair, are entirely plausible. Conspiracy theories may be popular in Mexico because there are more actual conspiracies.
The PRI’s one-party rule ended with Vicente Fox’s victory in 2000, but multi-party democracy has not solved Mexico’s problems. In a way, it made her worse. Competitive elections require more money than uncompetitive ones, and the need for campaign dollars has made politics more susceptible to bribery, especially from cartels. (Worst of both worlds – something the United States must watch out for if we become a hybrid system.) The last remnant of the old regime to die is low expectations. In her book Mexico: democracy interruptedJo Tuckman cites a 2010 poll that found that only 10 percent of Mexicans were unhappy with their cell phone service. Cellular coverage in Mexico is objectively terrible, both patchy and overpriced. What the survey really measured, Tuckman implied, is a willingness to shrug and accept misguided rules.
In the United States, our idea of political tyranny was too shaped by the Cold War. We assume that an American dictatorship will take the form of suffocating Slavic totalitarianism. In fact, we are far more likely to get into a Latin American dysfunction that is shambolic rather than claustrophobic. Opposition is ineffective but tolerated; Nobody achieves anything by grumbling about the ruling elite, but nobody goes to jail for it. The government does nothing to suppress its enemies unless it feels threatened. Otherwise, it will only enjoy its monopoly of power, reward its friends with favors, and become less and less effective at providing basic services. This is not a dystopia, just typical Third World crap.
Every year the United States invests millions of dollars in the political development of Latin America through programs like the National Endowment for Democracy and the US Agency for International Development, following the logic that Latin America is meant to be more like us. If USAID sponsors feminist workshops to teach Nicaraguan lawmakers how to be a girl boss, it is provided that these countries develop to American values and norms and need our help to get there a little faster. But what if we paid them all the time to look more like us?
America’s cities already look like the Third World. When I returned to DC after half a decade in Australia, I was surprised that public toilets were a thing of the past. Each cafe bathroom was locked and passcode-protected – another small amenity that was sacrificed in the face of increasing misery. Parts of California already look like this Favelas. Chicago’s carjackers begin to compete with Bogotá. Soon we may see local equivalents of “car watchers” to make sure our vehicles are not stolen and armed private security guards are armed outside of office buildings and department stores like in Brazil.
To be clear, Hispanic voters are not the ones who are causing most of these problems. They are neither the main cause of the disorder nor its facilitator. But they will determine how these issues are addressed. America’s political spectrum is a relic of the society that used to exist here. This political spectrum was not designed to address the problems of the Third World with disorder and inequality. As conservatism adapts to new circumstances, it will inevitably lean on the political tradition that more and more of its constituents have as a backdrop.
The crisis that some people foresee after 15 or 20 years is a right-wing tyrant who comes to power when people are so tired of lawlessness that a strong hand feels like the only hope. But think about the last four years. We have already seen a surge in conspiratorial thinking. Whether Trump supporters are right or wrong that the deep state partnered with Democrats to molest and ultimately overthrow an elected president, the result is the same: cynicism and lowered expectations of political standards of conduct. We have had as many impeachments in the past two years as we have in the country’s first two centuries. Trump could soon be the first former president to be indicted. If Latin American politics is our future, we are already well on the way.