Argentina is a keen importer of foreign political fashions because, as is the case elsewhere, many who are unhappy with their lot are looking for causes to support and if they spot an appealing one they will eagerly take it up, especially if it originated in an “advanced” country. Most come from the United States, a country whose “soft power”, if by that one means an ability to influence the behaviour of others by showing them what can be done, remains as potent as ever.
When, as often happens, outside the US the current occupant of the White House is treated as the devil reincarnate, people the world over take a strong interest in what his critics say and do. As a result, they start playing a passive role in the North American socio-political drama. They can do this even if they are consumed by a burning hatred of Yankee imperialism; on wilder fringes of the Democratic Party many share their trenchant views. According to those who keep a close eye on social media, the sprightly young congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio Cortez already has numerous followers in Argentina and other Latin American countries. Gender issues took off here as spectacularly as they did thanks in large measure to the vigorous campaigns being waged by feminists and gay rights advocates in the US.
Argentina can also claim to be a big exporter of political fashions, among them the biggest of the lot. People who are worried by the recent proliferation of “populist” movements in Western countries are prone to see Juan Domingo Perón lurking in the background. Donald Trump has been compared to him and so too has the new Italian “strongman” Matteo Salvini. That may be going a little too far as neither seem to have much love for the trade unions that Perón and his successors used as battering-rams, but it is undeniable that, like the general, both have succeeded in mobilising the dissatisfaction many people feel and convinced them that snooty ruling elites are to blame.
This is something the Peronists have always been very good at; no doubt they could teach their counterparts abroad plenty of other useful tricks. After all, unapologetic Peronists still run much of the local show despite being accused by their opponents of having caused every bit as much harm to Argentina as the enemies of Trump, Salvini et al predict their bugbears will provoke in their own countries. What is more, Pope Francis is a Peronist and is using his bully pulpit to lambast critics of the movement who resort to what he called “lawfare” in order to reduce the electoral chances of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Populism, which can be taken to mean giving people what they say they want without worrying about the probable medium-term or long-term consequences which, in any event, can always be pinned on evildoers who hate the common man, let alone any ethical questions that may arise, is thriving because these days hardly anyone likes the way things are. Some people want to go back in time to when their own prospects seemed brighter, others peer hopefully into the future. Few feel that, on the whole, it would be best to prolong the status quo.
This was not always the case. Most of our ancestors assumed that unless something dreadful happened the lives of their grandchildren would be much the same as those of their grandparents and it would be foolish to think otherwise. They were fatalists who had resigned themselves to whatever life had in store for them. But then the word got round that everybody was entitled to a far better deal than the one they had been given and that, with a combination of luck and effort, they could get it.
For a couple of centuries, the expectations thus engendered gave rise to a number of utopian schemes that would allegedly benefit all humankind, apart from individuals associated with the old order which would soon either be left behind to rot or disposed of to clear the way for the rest. The most ambitious of these schemes failed catastrophically, producing little but mountains of corpses, but even so there are plenty of people who would like to make yet another attempt to make some of them work.
After the Soviet Union bit the dust, such individuals decided to keep a low profile for a while, but of late they have been making something of a comeback though, with the rise of what is known as “identity politics”, the men and women who want existing societies to be dismantled and then rebuilt in accordance with their own specifications are confronted by contradictions to which, for what presumably are tactical reasons, many turn a blind eye, hence the strange alliance militant feminists in the US have forged with even more militant Islamists. Ironically, those who until recently dreamed of universal brotherhood are now fervently supporting the demands of campaigners who want their favourite “minority” to be given special privileges at the expense of everyone else.
When Mauricio Macri took office, he said – as Néstor Kircher had said over a decade earlier – that he wanted Argentina to become a “normal” country, by which, unlike the man from Santa Cruz, he meant one purged of populism that managed its affairs in a sensible manner, jailed corrupt politicians and obeyed the international rules. Neither he nor anyone else imagined that during his time in office the countries which in his view and that of many others best embodied “normality”, the US and the UK, would be accused of going populist, or that in much of Europe similar forces would soon be in a position to challenge the established order.
Populism is a product of widespread disgruntlement plus
short-sightedness. It is adopted when enough people get fed up
with trying to overcome difficulties in a reasonable manner
because it takes too long and can be painful. This is what happened here many decades ago. Since then, Argentina has progressed less on the economic front than any other non-Communist country. Her experience should serve as a warning to
others, but as few think something similar could happen to them
or their descendants, whatever could be learned from Argentina’s
past and present is likely to go unheeded.