Friday, September 16, 2016

Populism, or the Collective Blindness that Leads Nations to the Abyss.

This is an English language version of an essay previously published in Spanish.

Abdicating Governance: The Failure of Institutions

Winston Churchill’s description of democracy as the worst of all systems of government except for all the others is famous. Democracy, it has been argued, carries within itself the seeds of its eventual destruction by allowing within it by definition voices and factions that oppose it. In democracy it happens that the universal right to vote is considered the desideratum-and yes it is; but, doubtless, universal suffrage is occasionally captured by leaders who hear voices from a dissatisfied populace within the system. Voices echoed by those who will use the liberties of the democratic system to exploit emotions arising from heterogeneous, and sometimes contradictory, dissatisfactions and coalesce a political movement against the cold pragmatic reasoning offered by traditional leaders. A popular movement with the intention of rewriting existing political and social institutions outside the trite formulas and solutions spread by the elite and the intelligentsia of the status quo. A movement that is usually described as populism.

The average citizen has many things top of mind: family, job, garden... The common citizen has many occupations and prefers to devote more time to them than to government. The ordinary citizen wants to have the confidence and satisfaction that his or her government is led by capable people who protect the common interest to the best possible extent. Those are the terms of the political contract that the citizen, the people demand from their government and institutions. When public officials break that contract, that confidence, dissatisfaction arises and the populist seed is sown.

As a further condition, populism flourishes not only when dissatisfaction is widespread, but when existing-political, economic, social and the media institutions ignore this dissatisfaction or do not offer a clear message about how to respond to it—that is, fail in their role. Symptoms of institutional failure include:
  • Media with credibility gaps,
  • Partisan and ideological polarization driven by self-interest or perceived as such and,
  • Low voter engagement with an institutional discourse seen as sterile and irrelevant.

Under these conditions a growing group of people becomes a diminishing group of voters so, and as a result of such low participation, traditional representatives are perceived with scant legitimacy. “Don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for…” is the bumper sticker capturing that sense of illegitimacy.

The citizen body has many needs and demands. When political representatives address these needs before letting them escalate into a general grievance, democracy works. By ignoring these needs and allowing them to become widespread anger against what is then perceived as a detached elite, fertile ground for a populist movement is created.

It is at that moment that the disenchanted, cynical, disenfranchised, marginalized, poor—the forgotten—are easily seduced by a snake charmer who gets from the fervor awakened in the popular mind an adrenaline rush feeding his/her own narcissism while inflaming the masses. The populist dynamic thus enters into a cycle of increasingly toxic feedback between the leader and the mass—as in any overdose of any drug.

Deceit: The Anti-democratic Nature of Populism 

The populist discourse is sectarian by nature. The populist seeks to establish a simple reason why people are dissatisfied with their status and targets the blame on an easily identifiable group and the institutions, politicians and intellectuals affiliated to that group. Common base emotions exploited in sectarian speech are resentment, envy, xenophobia, racism and revenge.

For these reasons (sectarian, anti-institutional and emotional discourse) populism is one of those bad words in politics that few allow as a valid alternative. Recent political movements such as Podemos, in Spain or Kirchnerismo in Argentina, have sought to redefine the term positively, repackaged as "popular democracy." However, as with every populist, they label themselves anti-institutional or protectors of the oppressed. That so called Popular, Participatory or Democracy for the Masses preaches a sectarian credo without respecting the rights or even the legitimate participation of opposition minorities [i]. Also it begets concentration of power, destroying or nullifying institutional checks and balances and separation of powers. It is the tyranny of the majority in full-fledged form.

Populism’s true nature, sometimes in the past and certainly nowadays, hides within the very rules of the democratic game. But make no mistake, populism is fundamentally undemocratic despite looking as if it seeks to legitimize its power from the people, as the name suggests. Even when populist leaders fail to reach power they will change the political dialogue, planting in their followers deep skepticism about the validity of the institutions; and when democrats use populism’s seductive tools to gain power, they equally undermine democratic institutions by the skepticism sown (drunk uncle's "inconvenient truths" -mercantilism, favoritism and corruption- suggested by B. Arditi, as cited by Frei and Rovira, 2008).

Democracy can only be sustained when people trust their institutions. When trust declines a leader can take advantage of that lack of trust by calling the institutional system incompetent, corrupt or rigged. The expectations created by the leader’s promises feed a craving for radical change and breeds hope in the movement’s followers. When achieving power by institutional means, i.e. popular vote, the only way for the leader to fulfill the promised change is by eventually destroying the institutional system that brought him or her to power; otherwise followers in the future will seek a more radical populist. When the populist leader achieves power through non-institutional means, ferocious purges are unleashed against the institutional representatives of the previous system. Undoubtedly the populist and authoritarian go hand in hand. Unbridled populism always and eventually will become totalitarianism.

Institutionalists left behind by the wave leading the populists to power in the best of cases retire, and in the worst end up in exile, prison or executed. Survivors write and ponder from their political paleolithic cave, sometimes not even realizing how they failed the constituents and institutions or media they led.

Thomas Jefferson argued that institutions should be renewed radically every so often—periodic elections originate from that reasoning. Institutional stagnation undoubtedly can decelerate, prevent or reverse the political, and therefore economic, development of nations. For industrial cycles in business theory Schumpeter referred to a similar concept calling it Creative Destruction, caused by technological development and its consequent effect on both production and distribution systems as well as lifestyle preferences. Populism is inserted into the political world as an alarm, like the canary in the mine, indicating the need for a fresh renewal in a nation’s institutions as social needs evolve—or else be forced to face a destructive transformation.

When populism appears democrats need to read the signs and take a stance against it, even if it seems contradictory that a democrat is apparently against popular will. The leader in a liberal democracy must recognize the grievances behind the populist movement and rectify the institutional elites' rule. A populist leader is not fooling people, he is channeling dissatisfaction, collecting and making a powerful emotional echo that appropriates the voice of those alienated by socially bankrupt institutions. [ii] True democrats need to expand horizons outside their political bubble and recognize that the alienation the populist harvests exists. True democrats have to address and rectify the social and economic conditions that cause dissatisfaction, because allowing populism to take over political and media institutions causes serious damage to democracy. And democracy must be protected even though it is the worst system of government, except for all the rest.

Populism has its role in democracy, that of the canary. It is attractive and sings a song, but is toxic and dangerous, as botox can be. The utopian idealism offered by populism is seductive when it groups heterogeneous complaints under the large cover of general dissatisfaction and promises to satisfy these complaints with simple symbols and slogans instead of specific and complex proposals. Liberal Democracy is in danger under those conditions but must hold its political ground to balance the attacks of populists with the need for social redress. 

The fundamental promises of Liberal Democracy are: defending the dignity of the individual, equal protection under the law, ensuring equal opportunity, and protecting private property. Those also are seductive promises. Those are the conditions under which individuals can take charge of their life freely in their pursuit of happiness and thrive, a pursuit that brings benefits to the collective of society—as postulated by Adam Smith almost 250 years ago and proven in practice.

It is only under a system of Liberal Democracy that nations have been able to improve the economic and social condition of their population. There are flaws of course but, we must reiterate, it is only in an alternating democratic system committed to solving these flaws that they can be rectified, as history has demonstrated. Human, civil and social rights have flourished and developed under democratic governments with constructive dialogue. Herein lies the largest and most damaging failure of populism: its purposeful ignorance of history. And that ignorance has led prosperous societies to the abyss of economic suffering, social disintegration and destruction of civic values under regimes using the state’s monopoly of legal (and para-legal) violence to remain in power.


[i] Qualifying democracy with adjectives is an unfortunate necessity to distinguish ideological systems. Just as "populism" often has implicit negative connotations in its terminology, "democracy" is considered a positive descriptor for any system of government, as was the case for the German Democratic Republic (DDR – East Germany, a fiercely totalitarian regime) or is that of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea). Because the usage of the word democracy has been distorted so much it needs the qualifying adjective “liberal” to describe a government system based on free periodic elections, rule of law, and free market principles.
[ii] Regarding the link emotion / reason Frey and Rovira (2008) make this interesting observation: "The fact that the establishment of populism is based more on passion than reason points out one of its greatest political weaknesses: the problem of duration. Rational criteria are much easier to stabilize than emotional factors. Thus, the permanence of a populist movement depends on its continued ability to activate and sustain collective passion. To do this it exploits emotional attention niches, such as speech and images arousing emotions like anger, fear and hatred that keep alive the distinction between friend and foe in society. "


Whatdo we mean when we speak of Populism?; Ezequiel Adamovsky. AMPHIBIOUS, National University of San Martin, Buenos Aires Argentina - Accessed August 11, 2016
Populismas Political Experiment: History and Political Theory of Ambivalence; Frei, Raymundo and Rovira Kaltwasser, Cristóbal. Journal of Sociology 22, 2008; Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Chile - Accessed August 11, 2016
Populismwith a Brain; Lynn, Barry C. and Longman, Phillip. Washington Monthly, June / July / August 2016 - Accessed August 11, 2016
It'snot just Trump. Authoritarian populism is rising across the West. Here's why; Norris, Pippa. The Washington Post, March November 2016 - Accessed August 14, 2015
Sorry,Obama: Donald Trump Is a Populist, and You're Not; Chait, Jonathan. New York Magazine June 30, 2016 - Accessed August 14, 2016

All images copyright of their respective owners.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Immigrant.

I am an American born abroad: born from an American parent in a foreign land. I have dual citizenship and lived a large portion of my formative years outside the U.S. in a country close to my heart, Venezuela. I have relatives, friends, dear memories and continued interest and involvement with the country where I was born. Its current situation and of those I have left behind pains me greatly. This is a common affliction shared, with different details, stories and backgrounds, by many in the U.S. born in other countries and living here now; and while I am not technically an immigrant I understand, literally, where they are coming from and have an ear attuned to anti-immigrant rhetoric.

That anti-immigrant rhetoric ignores a basic question: why did 42 million people, a number greater than the whole population of Canada or half the population of Germany, decide to migrate to the U.S.? Contrary to the current Republican candidate’s messaging, no country actually “sends” people to the U.S.

Migrants make the individual hard choice of leaving their home country because they see no other way out of their situation, be it political, economic or personal. They believe that in the U.S. they will have a new opportunity to improve and/or protect themselves and their families. They believe such opportunity is lacking in their country of origin. Many make the trip thinking they will go back once they’ve made it (“if you can make it there, you can make it everywhere”) or conditions “back home” have changed. A great majority eventually remains in the U.S. once they have constructed a new life, under new rules and with a reliable social contract. They sometimes try to return and realize, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, “you can’t go home again” as the home they once knew exists no more.

A portion of U.S. born Americans always says before any election that if the candidate they oppose wins, they will move out of the country. Canada has often been the supposed destination, New Zealand seems to be a popular choice this season. No mass migration has in fact occurred after any U.S. elections, but immigrants in many cases have not only chosen but been forced to leave their own country of birth for political, war strife, hardship or safety reasons. The quipped motivation in the “if he/she wins I’ll move to Canada” retort, is augmented hundreds of times over for many incoming migrants. They have truly voted or been forced to vote with their feet. Most have probably not read or know but would empathize with the lines by Emma Lazarus:

“Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

By definition immigrants believe in the promise of America. Their economic contribution is significant and their social contribution incalculable. Many have mixed marriages and there are 36 million U.S. born children of immigrants. Immigrants by the most part do not want to reject their origins and naturally seek fellow expatriates to socialize and live with, maintain their country of origin customs and enjoy the cuisine they miss. That is not a rejection of U.S. values and customs, it is an addition. When their origin values and customs are anathema to those in the U.S. in most cases they and their children adapt, particularly when they feel socially welcomed by their new country. Conversely, the U.S. adapts elements of immigrant culture and makes it our own. Salsa, pizza slices and Chop Suey come to mind as adaptations now natural to the U.S. culture.

The hard numbers of size, scale and factual contribution are clear:

  • The Migration Policy Institute calculates, derived from Census Bureau statistics, that the immigrant population (defined as “people residing in the United States who were not citizens at birth”) totals 42.4 million people. That is a little over 13% of the country’s population. For perspective, the African American population is 12.2% of the population and the Hispanic American population is 16.3% (2010 Census). The estimated population of undocumented migrants is around 11.2 million which would make approximately 3.5% of people residing in the country “illegals,” a small minority bearing a disproportionate amount of vindictive political venom and upon which countless ills are laid on. The number of undocumented immigrants has decreased from a little above 12MM in 2008 to its present level and counting.

U.S. Foreign Born Population by Region of Origin. 
Europe Region: 4.8MM
Asia Region: 12MM
(East Asia: 3.77MM / So. Central Asia, including India: 3.2MM / West Asia, including Israel: .96MM)
Africa Region: 1.75MM
America Region: 22.3MM
(Central America, including Mexico: 14.8MM / Caribbean: 3.88MM / So. America: 2.8MM)
Migration Policy Institute, U.S. Immigrant Population by State and County (accessed Sept 1, 2016)

  • The Pew Research Center calculates there are 36 million second generation Americans, of which 20MM are adults, i.e. can vote. Added to the approximately 19MM immigrants that are naturalized citizens it makes for a powerful voting bloc. Even with a 50% abstention rate it would mean almost 20 million votes, enough to swing many an election.  Politicians demonize immigrants at their own peril when driving wedges between long timers and newcomers.

Much ink and bytes have been used to counter arguments laid out by the anti-immigrant rhetoric. In a fact-free reality immigrants (coded as “illegal” to slander a population much greater than the actual 3.5%) are accused of stealing jobs at best and being harbingers of terrorists and criminals at worst.

  • Fact is, as has been pointed out, the low end jobs “stolen” usually do not involve language skills (typically crops, dishwashing, abattoirs, gardening, clean up, etc.) and higher end jobs are filled by companies skirting laws and ethics in pursuit of self-interest through legal corporate sponsorships. In 2012, there were nearly 420,000 “removals” by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), of which 228,000 were by border capture (they never made it in) and 190,000 where “interior apprehensions.” During 2012 there were 1.8 million jobs created by the private sector, that is, nearly the same number of jobs were created every month than all “interior apprehensions” for the whole year. Of the total removals, 55% were of convicted criminals--not everyday workers.
  • Facts are, as has been repeatedly demonstrated, neighborhoods and cities with increasing immigrant populations have seen decreasing crime over the years. While absorbing a portion of immigrants, members of the Muslim community aid in uncovering terrorist plots, and members of Hispanic communities work with police to better control gangs. This does not mean that there are no bad apples, but the rhetoric paints broad strokes with a wide brush, smearing minorities to reinforce stereotypes.
  • The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy has calculated that undocumented alien residents (“illegals”) currently living in the United States collectively paid $11.64 billion in state, local taxes, sales taxes and government fees in 2015. These do not include their tax withholds which will not be returned.
  • GDP is the sum of all transactions in products and services. The contribution of 78 million immigrants and children of immigrants to the market of transactions make for a sizable chunk of America’s GDP.

There comes a morning when the immigrant looks in the mirror and realizes that an American is staring back; an American accepting of differences, striving in the pursuit of happiness, created equal; and troubled by the whipping up of anti-immigrant sentiment. Many have seen and lived such persecution of minorities for electoral purposes in their country of origin and know what it has led to. Thus, when asked, “Is America headed in the wrong direction?” their answer is “yes” because of the celebration of obstructionism, racism, extremism and sheer stupidity in political discourse, its lackadaisical treatment by the so-called mainstream media and the rising influence of fringestream media feeding populist frenzy. The wrong direction. Something I have lived, outside of the American Democracy bubble. I personally know that democracy is not the end of history: we can regress.

There will always be a special place in the immigrant heart for his or her roots. This is human, understandable and not a reason to marginalize. I know of the pain they feel when there is pain in the country they grew up in. Immigrants will support in humanitarian ways and with patriotic fervor the causes they believe in and, in so doing, defend and spread true American values throughout the world. They are the newest Americans. Welcome.


Links and References

Pew Research Center: Second Generation Americans (PDF)


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