DEMOCRACY IN LATIN AMERICA

The cover story in the January/ February edition of Foreign Policy is an article by Amherst Professor Javier Corrales arguing that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is perfecting the art of dictatorship for the 21st century. He offers a list of Chavez’s crimes against democracy which (like an ADL report on antisemitism which conflates incidents like the Iranian President’s diatribes against Jews and some professor’s criticism of the separation wall) combines clear offenses, deft but legal manipulation of the law, and economic policy Professor Corrales doesn’t like.

Some of the abuses Corrales describes are indeed direct assaults on the democratic freedoms of Venezuelan citizens, like keeping public databases on citizens’ votes and outlawing demonstrations of “disrespect” towards government officials. Observers on the left should indeed condemn such human rights abuses, when they are clearly demonstrated, as quickly when perpetrated by leaders on the left as when perpetrated by leaders on the right. Hugo Chavez’s claims to a democratic mandate are indeed weakened by his failure to uphold some principles of democracy, and Corrales is right to call attention to these. Some ostensible abuses Corrales describes amount to effective manipulation of the parliamentary system to reduce the power of minority parties and increase what can be accomplished legislatively by a bare majority (you may know this as “the nuclear option”). I’d agree that such maneuvers are often effectively undemocratic, as long as democracy is understood as a spectrum (as a theorist like Dahl would advise) rather than a dichotomy (as a theorist like Schumpeter would). Certainly, many political structures and policies – the electoral college and the Senate come to mind – reduce the control of individual citizens over the political process. Corrales’ argument that using a majority in parliament to increase his majority on the Supreme Court itself makes Chavez a dictator makes one wonder how he views some other national leaders. Given that Corrales’ qualifications for dictatorship include intentionally polarizing the electorate so that more moderates will break to your side, it’s hard to imagine who doesn’t qualify.

Some of those leaders are distinguished from Chavez when it comes to economic policy, the area into which a third set of Corrales’ critiques of democracy in Venezuela fall. Corrales makes some of the same seemingly contradictory charges levelled against Chavez’s economic policy by a series of neoliberals and conservatives: the problem with Hugo Chavez is that he bribes the poor to like him with economic resources and that he doesn’t really provide them with economic resources and that he doesn’t really make the poor like him. Corrales’ claims of bribery of the poor in Venezuela are echoed by Ann Coulter’s complaints that Americans who benefit from government programs are allowed to vote for the perpetuation of those programs. Corrales’ grievance that Chavez distributes economic benefits as a means of reward and punishment is an important one. His attacks on Chavez for spending large sums of money to help the poor at all are less persuasive though. And his description of Chavez’s investments in alleviating poverty as a demonstration that he is a dictator will be compelling only if one believes that democratization and the right-wing economics of privatization, government-shrinking, and deregulation perversely called “economic liberalization” are one and the same. This postulate – that the “structural adjustment programs” of the IMF and the democratic reforms pursued by human rights groups are two sides of the same coin – are accepted uncritically by too many ostensibly liberal theorists in international relations and economics (not to mention the Wall Street Journal). It’s on full display in Corrales’ article, which faults Chavez as a dictator because “Rather than promoting stable property rights to boost investment and employment, he expands state employment.”

I don’t fault Corrales for seeing economics and democracy as interrelated. I’d say progressive economics that provide more people with economic resources and opportunities also empower them to exercise real voice over the choices which determine the conditions of their lives. Unfortunately, the economic regime Corrales and company favor too often has the opposite effect, plunging more people into conditions of abject poverty in which ever-greater portions of their lives slip from their control. When structural adjustment programs drive down wages, dirty water, and turn a blind eye to violent economic coercion, they erode democracy. And, as David Held argues, the means by which these programs are enacted are corrosive to a robust conception of democracy as well: they remove critical decisions about countries’ economic futures from the province of democratic oversight by citizens to the authority of distant technocrats. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the past decade has seen one Latin American country after another throw neoliberal and conservative leaders out and replace them with populists who run on opposition to the undemocratic “Washington Consensus (including Bolivia this weekend; Mexico looks likely to be next).” It’s unfortunate that some of those populists have democratic deficiencies of their own.

So I’d say Corrales gets the correlation between democracy and neoliberalism backwards, and that his opposition to Chavez’s economics drives him to put some shaky examples along with the solid ones on his list of grievances about democracy in Venezuela. Unfortunately, too many on both the left and the right go beyond arguing that economic policies increase or decrease democracy to instead reducing democracy to the favorability of a country’s economic policy. Too many let bona fide dictators like Pinochet or Castro off easy because of the economic policies they implement. People who live under such leaders deserve better.

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The LA Daily News reports that a few more congressmen have joined up with a bid to repeal the 22nd Amendment’s two-term limit for presidents. Doesn’t seem to have a chance, and it’s hard to get worked up over one way or the other, but I do think the country would be a hair more democratic without the amendment. I generally think it’s a good thing for us to have social norms against third terms of the kind that already existed before 1947, but that’s a decision for primary and general election voters to make for themselves (or, in the case of FDR, not to) in each election year, not one for another generation to make for us. And it’s a norm individual voters should each decide to uphold or reject in their own selections, not grounds for a current or past majority to deny members of a minority or future majority the chance to vote for the candidate of their choice (same goes for the far less sympathetic ban on foreign candidates, especially in an era when the ostensible threat some English prince using his wealth and residual pro-British-empire sympathies as a springboard to the Presidency is that much less of a reasonable concern…). As Aaron Sorkin once wrote, when the system works, “we have term limits in this country: they’re called elections.”

The real implications of term limits are far greater here in Mexico, where elected officials at all levels are government are limited to single terms. I heard a convincing lecture here at UDLA last week echoing what some political scientists in the US have warned about term limits: they shatter the already-fragile subject-agent relationship between voters and candidates, in which voters do their best to evaluate the performance of their representatives and reward or punish them at the voting booth. That’s why the conventional wisdom we’ve heard repeated non-stop recently is that your first term as President is for re-election, and the second is for history – a charming idea, maybe, but not a very democratic one. And it becomes much worse when no one’s term at anything is concerned with getting elected again. Defenders of the term limits I spoken to here argue that in a parliamentary system where voters are choosing parties rather than candidates (a set-up the lecturer is opposed to as well, though I’m not), this makes little difference, even holding voting based on parties constant, in a scenario without term limits voters have the chance in party elections to reward or punish incumbents, and if those incumbents make it to the top of the party’s list, then all voters get the chance to take performance into account. This professor isn’t the only Mexican I’ve spoken to here who identifies term limits as one of the reasons they feel ignored by their elected leaders, who are looking ahead not to re-election but to currying favor with party elites to make it onto the ballot for a different office (Mexico also seems to provide support, incidentally, for another hypothesis about term limits: that they reduce institutional conflict between different branches of government as you see more of the same people cycling through different offices). Of course that concern is also heightened by the overwhelming perception of party corruption, which is itself the main argument I’ve heard from Mexicans for keeping term limits in place. So earning faith that the system works seems the first step here towards convincing voters here that elections are term limits enough.

Wal-Mart Watch: A disappointing op-ed today from Robert Reich, who should know better. Somewhere in there, he’s trying to make the accurate point that government regulation has a role to play in overcoming the collective action problem under which consumers who prefer high-roading companies nonetheless patronize low-roading ones for the cheaper prices (this is a point he makes better in his book I’ll Be Short). Indeed, there is a structural problem which could be ameliorated by changing the perverse incentives behind the corporate race to the bottom. Thing is, it’s not only national legal change which could better reward companies which invest in their workers. It’s also coordinated organizing and media campaigns by labor and community folks organizing workers and consumers to reward better companies and punish worse ones. Taking the fight to Wal-Mart in particular is the defining challenge facing labor in the next decade. Because Wal-Mart is indeed bigger and badder than anyone else. So to write a piece called “Don’t Blame Wal-Mart” suggesting that all employers squeeze their workers equally is simply false and counterproductive. Reich gets a pedestal from which to play broker state technocrat, rising above parochial concerns, calling no one out in particular, pleading with both sides to be more fair-minded. Meanwhile, millions of Wal-Mart workers continue to face prejudicial treatment based on gender or immigration status, poverty wages, anti-union intimidation, and Triangle Shirtwaist Factory-style work rules. Sure, blame Bush, blame Nike, blame ourselves. But let’s blame ourselves in part for not blaming Wal-Mart nearly enough or as often as it deserves.

Beth, like me, is excited by this piece in the Times on the resurgence of grassroots organizing this election season. As she writes:

That’s great for democracy.

It’s also great for Democrats.

It’s always nice when the interests of the big-D and small-d (D/d)emocrats converge…

Beth argues, inter alia, that door-to-door campaigning makes it possible to customize the candidate for the voter. To which I would say, yes, with a caveat. Yes in the sense that politics in perhaps its best sense is about communities and about the harnessing of political institutions to effect tangible change in individual lives, and when Democrats fail to articulate a vision which speaks to individuals’ and communities’ circumstances and issues, they lose. As Sam Smith argued in a tremendous essay oft-cited on this site:

We got rid machines like Tammany because we came to believe in something called good government. But in throwing out the machines we also tossed out a culture and an art of politics. It is as though, in seeking to destroy the Mafia, we had determined that family values and personal loyalty were somehow by association criminal as well.

One Tammany politician, George Washington Plunkitt, claimed to know every person in his district…In the world of Plunkitt, politics was not something handed down to the people through such intermediaries as Larry King or George Will. What defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience, memory and gratitude.

So the first non-logical but necessary thing we must do to reclaim democratic politics is to bring it back into our communities, into our hearts to bring it back home. True politics, in imitation of baseball, the great American metaphor, is also about going home.

Back in December, I chided the Times for an article in its magazine about the Dean organizing strategy which portrayed the belief of regular people that their political involvement, rather than a technocratic project, could be a natural outgrowth of concerns borne out of their personal lives as some sort of leery veureristic parallel to an Alchoholics Anonymous meeting. I’m glad to see the Times get it better this time around, and am hopeful that the rest of the Democrats are beginning to as well.

My caveat would be that crossing the line from customizing the emphasis to customizing the policy tends not to work out so well either. The one thing I’ll say for TV is that it holds candidates accountable nationally for the messages they put forward locally, and helps to curb excesses of “customization” like Lincoln’s two speeches in favor of and against racial equality while stumping on the same day. One political scientist like to compare the nationalization of political campaigns and soft drinks. Apparently, back when my parents were walking to school in the snow (uphill both ways, no doubt), patrons at individual establishments could manually set the ratios of syrup, sugar, water, and whatever the hell else goes into their cola. Once Coke became a product that was the same everywhere, it was necessary to choose a formula that would appeal to the most folks national wide. The same has happened for campaigns, as it’s no longer feasible to customize the message for each district once much of the campaign happens on national television.

The good news here is that it means candidates are responsible in one part of the country for what they tell another and so my gloss on Beth’s point would be a warning that what Kerry can’t do is spin himself on one side of the issue in California and the other in Oregon.

The bad news about the shift away from the grassroots is something I’ve railed against to no end here, but the corollary to this particular piece of good news is the bad news that Democratic candidates have responded to the nationalization of the campaign by whoring themselves out to an illusory median voter rather than bringing new voters into the process by articulating strong progressive visions for the country from New York to Arizona to Pennsylvania to Florida and beyond.