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  HOME | Opinion (Click here for more)

Michael Rowan: The Hidden Costs of Populism
Latin American guru Michael Rowan documents the populism of Chavez that led to the downfall of Venezuela and compares it to where the populism of Trump may be leading the U.S.A. in a new book.

By Michael Rowan

Populism is the politics of grievance. It is the politics of blaming enemies real or imagined for perceived economic ills. Populism is not an idea but a feeling that if presumed enemies are punished, all will be set right. The fatal attraction here is spending all of your time punishing enemies and no time setting things right, especially the economy.

From 1998 to the present Venezuela has been under the throes of populism. The enemies were the historical enablers and profiteers of subjugation, including oligarchs, colonizers, the U.S.A., and institutions established since democracy, which were defenestrated or destroyed over the last 20 years. Its heroes were Chavez and his close allies or cronies who have become wealthy and powerful. Meanwhile, Venezuela plummeted from rich to poor quite rapidly on a factual if not universal perception basis.

Most recently the U.S.A. has been mesmerized by the populism of the Trump campaign twittering onto the scene in 2015, winning election a year later.

The USA has a history of populism starting with push-back against massive immigration in the mid-1800s, when the “America Party” aka the “Know-Nothing Party” was started. Historically, immigration strengthened America’s economy, but it is not perceived that way by white, rural, rustbelt Americans – the Trump base.

Perception is reality in the age of cable TV and the Internet. Facts have lesser hold on behavior than powerful biases and historical grievances. The time of the populist has arrived.

The enemies of the U.S.A.’s current populism are foreigners, people of color, immigrants and their enablers: the elites, the establishment, and institutions are blamed for tolerating what Trump unabashedly calls the politically-correct “carnage” of America. Its heroes are Trump and his cluster of cronies who share his worldview – and the view from the White House Oval Office.

Populism is a grievance movement and not a governance movement.

It can come from the left or the right but in neither case is populism ideological or practical. Chavez was not a true socialist and Trump is not a true Republican. Both are improvisers on a daily TV program talking to the base – and they listen to no one else. This is unprecedented in modern politics. It is asymmetric and unconventional, turning politics on its head.

Populism takes over a country when a grievance polarizes a society so comprehensively that no middle ground exists for governance, the system goes dysfunctional, and in frustration voters turn to the populist authoritarian to fix it. Polarization employs the mutual intolerance of extremes, guaranteeing the disrespect of minorities, tyrannical majorities, and eventually tyrannical cults in power.

A democracy paralyzed by populism and polarization is already brain dead. Give it time in power and the economy can be corrupted in ways that surprise everyone who slept through the populist takeover thinking it would pass. Absolute power and secrecy coddles dictators and mafias alike. It’s hard to see the stones in the path to the cliff’s edge passing beneath your feet and then you’re in a free fall.

Polarization works wonders for the populist wannabe because it renders knowledge, agendas and worldviews of dissenters irrelevant while concentrating on every entertaining or distracting improvisation that can be imposed on a nation’s senses.

By filling TV daily with simplistic, sensational nonsense, the populist eliminates rational discourse about issues of complex, historical meaning. That’s the first stone in the path to suicide.

Culture wars thrive on populism which produces stupendously volatile TV news every day, but economies, which prefer predictable and often dull law and order, are immolated by it. Notice how Venezuela’s economy has disappeared, and the US economy is becoming manic – the next step is manic depressive.

The populist’s inclinations are to close borders, build walls, isolate the mind, act from fear, prepare for war, celebrate ignorance, echo loyalist mantras, and avoid reality, providing an environment of maximum opportunity for predators.

In Venezuela’s case, Cuba, Colombia’s FARC guerillas, Russia, Iran and China pounced, and after a decade of manipulation, essentially own or run the country today.

In the U.S.A.’s case, populism has not yet captured the law and courts by obeisance to the tyrant’s loyalty oath, but it’s not for lack of trying. But predators are already lurking in the shadows – Russia, Iran and China again – to take advantage of the largest free market democracy in world history collapsing from internal polarization.

And in Russia’s case, assisting U.S. suicide by exacerbating US polarization through social media, as in the presidential election of 2016.

Speaking of assisted suicide … The opposition to Chavez in his first four years (1999 to 2002) contributed mightily to polarization and thus Chavez’s survival. To this day, the Venezuelan opposition has no clear message that appeals to the Chavez base and the fragmented opposition groups to rebuild the country for all.

The opposition to Trump in the U.S. has not yet realized that polarization has rendered it disinterested in promoting an agenda which could attract a piece of Trump’s populist base, which is making Trump’s re-election in 2020 a better bet than the odds he faced in 2016.

While the Democrats gloat about a blue wave in the 2018 Congressional elections, they have no vision for the U.S. that unravels polarization and leads the country in a constructive engagement with itself and the world. The U.S. is truly spinning its wheels in a ditch.

While the malfeasance of populists at governance offers a direct path to national suicide, the opposition – mesmerized and polarized by populist daily distractions on TV – do not present an alternative, or an inclusive vision to vote for a future, which gives the populist a free ride. In both Venezuela and the USA, the opposition is playing the unintended role of assisted-suicide counselor of the populist, while the nation stands by stunned.

Globally, the big winner from the rising tide of populism around the globe is Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose political and economic power is rising in the U.S., EU and the developing nations.

Russia with less than 2% of world GDP is manipulating the US with over 19%, Europe with over 17% and in many cases China with 12%. Historically skilled at propaganda, artificial intelligence, computer malware and social media manipulation, Russia supports populism and polarization everywhere they can suborn democracy or free markets.

Global and local politics has entered the unknown space of the information age without knowing much about it. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the collapse of Venezuela and the mainstreaming of populism of the USA.

Michael Rowan is an author and political consultant who has advised presidential candidates throughout Latin America, including Governor Manuel Rosales in Venezuela, President Jaime Paz Zamora of Bolivia and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. In the U.S., he has advised winning candidates in 26 states. He has been an award winning columnist for El Universal, The Daily Journal -- predecessor to LAHT -- and the Latin American Herald Tribune since the 1990s. He is the author, with Douglas Schoen, of The Threat Closer to Home - Hugo Chavez and the War Against America.


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