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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 09-01-2021 07:16

Latin American lessons for the United States’ damaged democracy

Being able to disrupt the constitutional process, whether directly or indirectly, through the use of violence is an indication that said democratic process is breaking down.

The world was shocked to see how a relatively small group of Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol building as US Congress was in session this week attempting to certify the presidential elections, putting a firm full stop on the president’s attempts to overturn the electoral process – particularly from a Latin American perspective, where we have grown unfortunately accustomed to widespread political violence and the storming of government buildings. The scars of bloodthirsty military dictatorships still fresh, it was comical to see characters like the so-called ‘Yellowstone Wolf,’ a self-proclaimed ‘shaman’ of the QAnon conspiracy theory dressed like a minotaur, rambling from the chair of the Senate President, Mike Pence, who had been rushed to safety by Secret Service agents only moments before. There are several lessons to be learned from what has sometimes become a normal way to resolve political differences in the Southern Americas though, as the US seems to be sliding toward an institutional decrepitude that seemed impossible not too long ago.

In Argentina, the Peronist movement has made it a thing to “dominate the streets,” a sort of metaphor to express the breadth of its following. Yet, it is much more than a demonstration of popular support – it also communicates a physical capacity that has been put to use against its political opponents time and time again. Political groups mobilised to free Juan Domingo Perón on what has come to be known as the “Day of Loyalty” back in October 17, 1945. After being ejected from the movement by said Perón a month before his death, the Montoneros paramilitary organisation used guerrilla tactics on the streets to fight back against its perceived enemies, including the Armed Forces after a military coup installed the infamous 1976-1983 military dictatorship. Nearer in time, the beginning of the end of Mauricio Macri’s presidency could be tied to the street battle outside Congress that took place in December 2017, when the ruling Cambiemos coalition attempted to pass a provisional reform as tens of thousands faced off with police for several hours, as it rained rocks and tear gas and rubber bullets filled the air, eroding trust in the government’s capacity to govern.

The violent use of public space is a demonstration of institutional weakness, where political differences must be resolved by brute force. Indeed, when Latin America’s military dictatorships took power with tanks and soldiers on the streets — even bombing the Presidential Palace and killing a sitting president, as happened to Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 — they made it clear that Constitutions were less important than the capacity to inflict physical damage on an enemy. Unfortunately, these things still happen today, as can be witnessed in Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela or even Nayib Bukele’s El Salvador. Being able to disrupt the constitutional process, whether directly or indirectly, through the use of violence is an indication that said democratic process is breaking down.

There are many troubling signs from what we saw in Washington DC this week. It was a sitting president, Donald Trump, who roused the crowds and asked them to march on the Capitol, where his vice-president was leading a session in which a minority group of lawmakers sought to challenge the results of November’s election. The violent confrontations between Trump supporters and the limited security forces at the US Capitol quickly escalated out of control given the limited number of officers and barriers, forcing senators and representatives to flee as a motley crew of mainly middle-aged, overweight, far-right conspiracy theorists and white supremacists marched into the buildings with the intention of blocking the vote and potentially overturning the election. Once inside they took selfies and vandalised the building in order to take souvenirs, particularly from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. One rioter was shot and killed inside the Capitol, while a police officer later died from his injuries.

While these people clearly didn’t represent a threat to the world’s oldest representative democracy — Congress was back in session later that night and effectively certified the election — Trump’s actions are extremely dangerous for the future of the US political system. The outgoing president, unwilling to accept defeat, effectively sent a group of hooligans to loot one of the most sacred monuments of US democracy, willfully withholding the National Guard (until Vice-President Pence ordered their deployment) and egging them on through social media. Whether it was his intention or not, he let everybody know he has the power to “dominate the streets” in a violent manner and that he’s capable of disrupting the democratic process. Trump’s power over these people is ideological, making it more dangerous than the South American kind, where it is generally tied to economic incentives. His refusal to concede, together with the months-long construction of a rigged election further encouraged his die-hard followers, among whom are many members of civilian militias that count tens of thousands of armed men.

Trump doesn’t seem so much the cause, but rather the consequence of a fracturing in US society that has only grown deeper under his controversial presidency. The eruption of the Tea Party as a major player in conservative politics during the Obama years was an early sign of a pivot toward the more fundamentalist extremes of the political spectrum. The rapid proliferation of connected devices, together with the depth and velocity of communication and amplification made possible by the internet have taken political systems by storm, helping to consolidate polarisation as the defining characteristic of our times. Disinformation, together with the exhaustion of a global capitalism that is no longer generating greater wealth for everyone — rather, it is concentrating it up top — have evolved the world into a new and more unstable version of its previous self, where characters like Donald Trump can quickly wreak havoc.

It is said in Argentina that only Peronists can govern in a crisis, as they count on enough muscle to control the streets. Macri was only the first non-Peronist to complete his four-year mandate since the resumption of democracy in 1983, which sounds like a small feat for anyone who isn’t Argentine. That a democracy is able to transition through administrations of opposite political signs without street violence, and that major and divisive policy can be passed without riots, is a sign of strength. It was unthinkable before this week that the US Congress could be disrupted using physical force. It should serve as a strong warning for everyone that democracy shouldn’t be taken for granted.

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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