Our Latin American Future
Chronic instability, isolated elites, and popular cynicism will outlast the orange caudillo.
In June 2020, the Democratic political action committee Priorities USA launched a campaign ad in Florida aimed at Hispanics. “Our families didn’t come to America to trade one caudillo for another,” the voiceover said to a clip of Donald Trump standing next to Jair Bolsonaro. “We don’t need a caudillo, we need a caballero like Joe Biden.” The Lincoln Project launched a similar caudillo-themed ad campaign in September. “We know a dictator when we see one,” tweeted Lincoln Project cofounder Mike Madrid over two photographs of men each with one arm raised, strongman-style, Fidel Castro on the left, Trump on the right.
Around the same time, the Trump campaign was recording the catchiest campaign jingle since Brazil’s “Lula Lá, a Star Is Shining.” On election day, at rallies all over Florida, one heard the upbeat salsa song in English and in 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 worked. Trump won both Florida and Texas, with the biggest swings in heavily Hispanic border counties. He had already won a higher share of the Hispanic vote in 2016 than Mitt Romney did in 2012, and in 2020 he improved on that performance, with one analysis showing his share of the Hispanic vote jumping from 18 percent to 33 percent. Millions of Latinos who voted for Hillary Clinton switched to pulling the lever for him.
Traditionally, the Republican party’s approach to Hispanics has taken one of two forms. On one side, there are the amnesty pushers, like the Bush family or the authors of the 2013 Republican National Committee “autopsy,” who argue that softening the party’s immigration position is the only way to avoid political oblivion. Trump disproved that. On the other side are the fatalistic pessimists who say that if America’s demographics ever start to look like California’s, the national party will inevitably follow the California GOP into irrelevance. Trump disproved that, too.
The question is not whether a conservative party can win Hispanics. The question is what Hispanics will do to conservatism when they become a significant part of its coalition. Immigrants exert a gravitational pull, in proportion to their numbers, that makes the politics of their host country come to resemble the politics of the places they left. The United States will be one-third Hispanic in 2050. Now is the time to ask what it will mean for our politics to become more Latin American.
When the teetotaler in the red hat pulled off a surprising electoral upset, the ruling class went into a panic. In the capital city, ministers of the new regime were hissed in restaurants. There was no insult too low for the newspapers to throw at the president: liar, thief, dictator. But it didn’t matter. The president had found a way to circumvent the ruling class and talk to the people directly, in a plainspoken style all his own. His supporters, about a third of the country, were fanatically devoted to him. Even those who were on the fence could not tear their eyes away from the spectacle, the way the president insulted his enemies as weaklings or sacked staffers at a moment’s notice with the sendoff, “You’re fired, sir!”
It is not meant to suggest that Trump is either a socialist or a dictator to say that his style in many ways resembles Hugo Chávez’s. His Twitter feed was analogous to Chávez’s long-running talk show Aló, Presidente, where he would do things like fire cabinet ministers on air or walk around downtown Caracas, point at buildings, and say his catchphrase, “Exprópiese!” (Expropriate it!). Neither president could expect flattering coverage from the journalist class, so they were forced to develop ways of communicating with the public unmediated. Each ended up converging on a similar persona: brash, spontaneous, idiosyncratic, surprisingly funny.
Venezuela is a good place for us to start, because as late as 1980 it was the most prosperous country in Latin America and the one everyone expected to make the leap to First World status any day now. Argentina, Chile, Colombia—all have played the same role at one time or another. Intervals of stability and wealth created the impression abroad that the country would soon leave behind the cliches of Latin American political instability, only for those cliches to come roaring back as the country collapsed back into the usual cycle of coups and civil wars.
One reason for this chronic instability is the absence of a middle class. There is no Latin American country where the middle class makes up a majority. This problem is likely to remain even if the region gets wealthier, partly because growth is concentrated among tiny elites but also because what middle class exists there doesn’t quite fit our Anglo definition. More than half of Mexican workers are in the informal economy, for example, which means lots of people with middle-class incomes work entirely off the books. Even professionals like doctors avoid taxes by dealing in cash. The qualities that make a middle class so desirable for political institution-building—predictability, law-abidingness, intolerance of corruption—don’t necessarily apply.
Laxity where rules are concerned, which turns up everywhere in Latin America from taxes to traffic, is one symptom of a broader problem: low trust. In high-trust societies, street crime and corruption are rare and people are willing to submit disputes to authorities for adjudication in the belief that they will be treated fairly. Low-trust societies, on the other hand, are characterized by what Robert Kaplan calls “a cacophony of negotiation in place of fixed standards.” Neither laws nor their enforcers are assumed to be impartial. Family dynasties are common in Third World politics precisely because where the baseline level of trust is low, people are more likely to rely on family relationships where there is at least a presumption of trust.
This does not mean Latin American politics has no regard for laws. On the contrary, laws are a popular tool. But they are just that, a tool. Politically motivated prosecutions are used to target opposition figures. Elected leaders are subject to impeachment while in office and judicial hounding after they leave. In 2018, left-wing Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was jailed for corruption and one of those cheering his imprisonment was neoliberal lawyer Jeanine Añez, shortly to be installed as president of Bolivia. Fast forward three years, and Lula has been freed by a Supreme Court judgment annulling his conviction and Añez has been jailed by her successor for vaguely defined crimes of sedition. This merry-go-round of incarceration heightens the stakes of each transfer of power.
The backdrop of American society was already looking more Latin American before Donald Trump showed up. The middle class ceased to be 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 furthest along the road to Third World levels of public disorder, as exemplified by CVS closing stores in San Francisco due to rampant shoplifting that neither the police nor the courts will punish. California’s elites are converging on the same solution Latin American elites worked out long ago, isolating themselves from 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 staff his inner circle. Latin American conservatism tends to be less preoccupied with small government and free markets, so Trump’s populist economic agenda represented a move toward that tradition relative to the Paul Ryan wing of the party. More than that, his style shared many characteristics of Latin American populism. He spoke the language of braggadocio and insult rather than neutral bureaucratese.
But it was the Democrats who put Trump through two specious impeachments, including one just days before he was scheduled to leave office anyway, making the whole process obviously symbolic and sapping impeachment of its remaining sense of gravity. No longer a once-in-a-century emergency measure, impeachment is becoming just another political weapon. Nor are Trump’s legal troubles over now that he is out of office. In the end it may not be the orange caudillo, but his opponents, who did more to push us down the path of Latin American instability.
Thankfully, the Latin American country least plagued by instability is the one from which most of our migrants are drawn. Mexico’s one-party state lasted for nearly eight decades, longer than the Soviet Union. The system was brilliant, in its own way. The Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) discovered that coopting dissidents by giving them what they want was more effective than brutalizing them. It created vast webs of corruption, but no gulags. The press was informally censored (the party controlled the paper supply) but leaders were not immune from criticism, and because the party had no ideological commitments, there was plenty of room for debate between its left and right wings. This adaptability is one reason Mexico is the only Latin American country to have no military coup d’état since 1920.
The downside of this “perfect dictatorship” (as Mario Vargas Llosa called it) was that it ran on fraud. Elections were frequent, but party alquimistas made sure they returned the correct result by means of bribery, ballot-stuffing, repeat 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 early totals showed opposition candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas leading, and in the broader sense that discontent with fraud reached a breaking point. By the time “updated” returns showing a PRI victory were released a week later, most Mexicans believed the election had been stolen.
A general sense that fraud was pervasive went hand in hand with loud denials by the authorities of all specific allegations of fraud. These two things go together. It was difficult for the opposition to get to the bottom of what happened in 1988 both because the PRI government secretary ran around the country like a bulldog shouting “The balloting was perfectly legal!” and “Where is your evidence?” and also because many voters were willing to shrug it off. When people assume most elections are rigged, the result is not outrage but apathy. Of course the ruling party stole it, that’s just the sort of thing they do, what did you expect? The opposition had lots of circumstantial evidence (statistical irregularities, voter rolls with ethnic names not matching a region’s demographics) but no smoking gun, so their objections collapsed amid PRI denials and popular cynicism.
The same dynamic plays out in the other running theme of Mexican politics: conspiracy theories. People’s expectations are low, and politicians stoop to meet them. When PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated by a deranged gunman during the 1994 election campaign, polls showed that most Mexicans believed political enemies in the PRI had had him killed. In that same election, the opposition frontrunner dropped 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 the drug cartels, corrupt politicians, and law enforcement—many of which, to be fair, are entirely plausible. It may be that conspiracy theorizing is popular in Mexico because there are more actual conspiracies.
The PRI’s one-party rule ended with the victory of Vicente Fox in 2000, but multiparty democracy has not solved Mexico’s problems. In some ways, it has made them worse. Competitive elections require more money than uncompetitive ones, and the need for campaign dollars has made politicians more vulnerable to bribery, especially by the cartels. (Worst of both worlds—something for the United States to watch out for if we become a hybrid system.) The last vestige of the old regime to die is low expectations. In her book Mexico: Democracy Interrupted, Jo Tuckman cites a 2010 poll showing that only 10 percent of Mexicans were dissatisfied with their cell phone service. Mobile coverage in Mexico is objectively awful, both patchy and overpriced. What the poll really measured, Tuckman implied, is willingness to shrug and accept misrule.
In the United States, our idea of political tyranny has been shaped far too much 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 slide into a Latin American type of dysfunction, which is shambolic, not claustrophobic. Opposition is ineffectual but tolerated; no one accomplishes anything by grumbling about the ruling elite, but no one goes to prison for it either. The government doesn’t go out of its way to oppress its enemies, unless it feels threatened. Otherwise it just enjoys its monopoly on power, rewards its friends with favors, and gets less and less effective at basic service delivery. That’s isn’t a dystopia, just typical Third World crappiness.
Every year, the United States pours millions of dollars into political development in Latin America through programs like the National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Agency for International Development, on the logic that Latin America is destined to become more like us. When USAID sponsors feminist workshops to teach Nicaraguan female legislators how to be girlbosses, it does so on the premise that these countries are evolving toward American values and norms and need our assistance getting there a little faster. But what if all the time we were paying them to be more like us, we were becoming more like them?
Already America’s cities are starting to look like the Third World. When I moved back to D.C. after half a decade in Australia, I was surprised to find public restrooms were a thing of the past. Every café bathroom was locked and passcode protected—one more little convenience sacrificed to rising squalor. Parts of California already look like favelas. Chicago’s carjackers are starting to rival Bogotá’s. Soon we may see homegrown equivalents of “car watchers” to make sure our vehicles aren’t stolen and armed private security guards outside office buildings and department stores like they have in Brazil.
To be clear, Hispanic voters are not the ones driving most of these problems. They are neither the primary agents of disorder nor its enablers. But they will shape how these problems are addressed. America’s political spectrum is a relic of the society that used to exist here. That political spectrum was not designed to tackle Third World problems of disorder and inequality. As conservatism adapts to new circumstances, it will inevitably borrow from the political tradition that more and more of its voters have as their background.
The crisis that some people foresee, 15 or 20 years down the line, is a right-wing tyrant coming to power when people get so fed up with lawlessness that a strong hand feels like the only hope. But consider the past four years. We have already seen a rise in conspiratorial thinking. Whether Trump supporters are right or wrong that the deep state conspired with the Democrats to harass and ultimately overthrow an elected president, the result is the same: cynicism and lowered expectations for political standards of behavior. We have already had as many impeachments in the last two years as the country had in its first two centuries. Trump may soon become the first former president to be indicted. If Latin American politics is our future, we are already well on our way.