Democracy is at risk in Latin America

According to this opinion piece in The Conversation, Democracy is at risk in Latin America. People have lost faith in government and, especially, political parties and are embracing Strongman rule. Part of the problem may be that leftists, unable to prevent corruption by the rich elites, squandered their opportunities. The recent election of Jair Bolsonaro as President of Brazil is cited as an example:

Is there a North American country that has also embraced this new bigoted and anti-democratic politics?

I’m guessing you’re a fan of slow pitch softball.

I encourage everyone to listen to the latest Radiolab: Tweak the Vote. The first segment is about the increasing numbers of both US and European citizens that are supporting more authoritarian rule. Democracy is losing popularity in many places. Scary times.

BTW, I’m very interested in the single transferable vote system. I need to do some reading on it.

What you have is that when you tell people that democracy is the solution that will free you of the pain and suffering that dictators brought and then formal democracy comes and what you get is just new different flavors of pain and suffering; or that democracy is the government by the people, for the people and you notice only the 1% is getting what they want, voters tend to arrive at the conclusion "&^% it, if I’m getting screwed either way I’ll put in charge someone who’ll at least kick some asses that need kicking"*.

And it’s not necessarily right/left: Venezuela had 40+ years of formal democracy before the masses got tired of the established “centrist” parties profiting from it, and freely voted in Hugo Chavez, authoritarian left nationalist populist. Brazil now got sick of established “leftist labor” political corruption and has elected Bolsonaro, an authoritarian *right *nationalist populist.

Which shows how stupid they are because that someone is just going to screw them over even more than the others. And look at Trump. He didn’t drain the swamp–he just piled even more bullshit into it, and let it overflow.

Venezuela is much worse off now than they were before. They still Have plutocrats but now they can’t vote them out of Office.

Why do people get tired of democracy? I assume it is a mix of disdain over democratic ineffectiveness, corruption, immigration, but I’m not sure.

I hope Plato wasn’t right but who knows anymore.

Stupid, yes, but entirely predictable. People vote for a populist out of emotion, out of frustration. It’s a way to give the finger to those in power, and the irony is that democracy tempts people to vote against their interests at times.

It’s one thing if you vote against your interests and the failed populist that they’ve voted for has democratic values. But populists are typically not democratic; they offer rhetoric and rarely have any idea of how they’re going to deliver on their campaign promises.

What they do understand, though, is how to gain more power - that’s what they’re good at. They know how to exploit people, how to manipulate people.

What’s especially important to understand is that there’s not necessarily a single moment when democracies die: the support columns corrode over time until one day, it just collapses. What this means is that people in countries that hold elections might still believe they’re in a democracy, when in reality, true democracy is in a state of rapid decline.

I forgot where I read it but I came across in article which included a 2011 poll in which a majority of Venezuelans believed that their political system was democratic, perhaps because in spite of the fact that he was taking apart the machinery that makes democracy function, Hugo Chavez still enjoy some level of popular support.

Now Chavez is dead and he’s been replaced with a real sonofabitch in Maduro. Now it’s beginning to dawn on Venezuelans how fucked they really are. Yes, they still have elections. Yes, they still have a press. Yes, people there still protest. But the price of speaking truth to power is much, much higher than it was 15 years ago. In 2000, media critics of Chavez would have been labeled fake news and probably had a flood of protest calls from pro-Chavez trolls. Now? Those same journalists go to jail – or to neighboring Colombia where they report in exile.

That’s some food for though for those who think that comparing Trump to other authoritarians is hyperbole. If it turns out to be hyperbolic, then we should thank our lucky stars. But I’ve got news for people: don’t rely on good fortune to save American democracy. It’s against the ropes right now.

Democracy requires citizens to be vigilant. Particularly when all seems relatively well and stable, the average person isn’t necessarily interested in understanding the finer points of political science, human psychology, sociology, history, cultural geography, and macroeconomics, and yet, it’s important for voters to have a deep knowledge of how people behave, what our basic needs are. It’s important to have an educated person’s understanding of what ‘justice’ is, what equality is, what equal opportunity are. Having a cursory understanding of Darwin’s theory of evolution as a half-baked justification for competition and socioeconomic hierarchy sustains neither democracy nor capitalism.

This was written back in 2011 though. Since then Poland, Turkey, Hungary, etc have all moved towards authoritarianism and they are all above the 10k in per capita income that was claimed to make a democracy ‘immortal’. Brazil is at about 10k too.

I know wealth, health and education are negatively correlated with dictatorship. Sick, poor, uneducated people tolerate dictatorship much better than healthy, educated, wealthy people do. I don’t know if that is due to Maslow’s hierarchy or something else.

But authoritarianism is growing in relatively prosperous nations now. I’m not sure what the answer is.

“Prosperous” is a term that can be somewhat nebulous. America’s relatively prosperous, but since the 1970s, real wages have stagnated and income inequality has widened. The average person has lost job security, lost sure-thing retirement pensions, lost access to affordable medical care, lost access to affordable higher education and training programs. As a result, the average person has had to borrow against the future to live the middle class lifestyle. All of this is against the backdrop of corporations having the ability to amass massive amounts of wealth, so much so that their market capitalization and revenues rival the GDP of some small nations.

And as we’ve seen with the financial crisis, they control the political system: they’ve set it up so that the middle class (or what’s left it) gets punished during times of economic contraction, and the rich take disproportionate gains during tims of expansion. That’s what drives inequality, and while the US looks “rich” on paper, the middle class doesn’t feel it. They feel insecure. People in their 20s and 30s wonder if their ‘investments’ will pay off. People in their 40s and 50s wonder if they have enough money to retire, knowing that a trip to the hospital could wipe out decades of savings. On paper, we’re rich, but we don’t feel rich at all.

No, we’re not recovering from a humiliating military defeat against a neighboring enemy who’s inflicting onerous wartime economic reparations. But there are some of the same feelings. Humans have a built-in fairness meter, and for many, that meter is saying that they’re getting screwed. They trusted the established system to protect them. And it isn’t protecting them. So it’s easy for someone to say “Let’s give that obnoxious blowhard a chance - what have we got to lose?”

Even the uninsured may have better health care and life expectancy than people in the Middle Ages had; and they benefit from infrastructure that would seem magical to our ancestors. But it is income inequality, not absolute income, that drives perceptions and politics. Democracies are supposed to have minimal inequality. This is a major difference between left-wing and right-wing thought: Many on the right will say “Quit complaining! You’re much better off than your distant ancestors. Why care if the better people are earning 100 times what you earn?” In a Democracy however, by its nature and as both cause and effect, inequality should be reduced.

Latin America, where the boot of the Conquistador lay heavily for centuries, inequality has been extremely high. The choice of strongman rule is both cause and effect of this inequality.

For its first century, the U.S.A. was a beacon to the world with income equality perhaps better than had ever been achieved in any country of significant size. In 1910, the U.S. still was significantly more “equal” than the major countries of Europe. American inequality flourished in the Roaring 20’s, but as late as 1970, U.S. income equality was about the same as that of France and Germany. Since then, American inequality has soared and is now in the same ballpark as Brazil’s, way ahead of any other major industrialized democracy.

Here are a few stats gathered by the IRS from tax returns depicting U.S. inequality.

  • Altogether the top 0.001% earn almost as much as that portion of the top 0.01% who are not in the top 0.001%.
  • Altogether the top 0.01% earn almost as much as that portion of the top 0.1% who are not in the top 0.01%.
  • Altogether the top 0.1% earn more than that portion of the top 1% who are not in the top 0.1%.
  • Altogether the top 0.1% earn more than the bottom 50% of households filing Form 1040.
  • Altogether the top 1% earn more than that portion of the top 8% who are not in the top 1%.

A working democracy depends upon an informed citizenry–which implies an extended network of institutions both governmental and not. Governmental would be something like US state-level Secretaries of State who manage elections. Non-governmental would be something like the League of Women Voters in the US–despite the name, it provides information to all potential voters about how to cast a ballot regardless of partisan affiliation.

The trouble in the US is that supposedly neutral governmental institutions have become partisan instruments. This has happened in a country with a long history of democracy.

It is not surprising that other countries experience the same problems. Iraq is a non-functional democracy; after the US invaded an authoritarian country with no social and cultural structures to support such a democratic system, then said “elect people!” well…

What’s sad and ironic about Iraq (and Afghanistan) is that these countries had a long history of socio-political institutions which, while not Western-type democracy, had been able to produce compromise and competent governance for centuries before the U.S.A. ever existed. A main difference between their traditional political methods and Western-style democracy is the use of representatives — clan and tribal leaders — rather than one-man one-vote elections.

The naïve U.S. insistence that one-man one-vote was the only path to democracy, what I call “purple-finger democracy,” contributed to the failure of these countries to recover from U.S. malfeasance.

Another factor has to be aging populations. Old people eventually become afraid of even their own shadows, so they vote for “law and order” politicians who promise to protect them from “those people” who are lurking around every corner.

To drive home the first point, everyone needs to look at the graph shown here.

So the economy is generating more wealth for the same amount of work. The extra wealth isn’t going to the workers.

The plutocrats have taken over and the last thing they want is actual democracy. Which is very strange given that it’s democracy that made them rich in most cases. And in particular the Middle Class. A large, well-off, Middle Class is the key to having a booming economy. One where you can get filthy rich!

After all, how many Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos type people do Brazil and Argentina have per capita compared to the US?

But instead of encouraging the Middle Class, the plutocrats see them as the enemy. “Hey those people still have some money. I want all the money. Therefore take their money away from them and give it to me. I’ll, mm, er, “stimulate the economy” with it. Yeah, that’s the ticket.”

Jeff Bezos’ net worth recently increased $40 billion in one year. That’s over $100 million per day. No one can reasonably spend or use $100m per day. It makes Brewster’s Millions look like child’s play. This is not someone who needs another tax cut at everybody else’s expense.

And since the plutocrats own the media, and they can hire the best propaganda writers around, they can fool people into voting for candidates that will screw over those very voters. (And if you think CNN is “liberal” or anything, guess again.)