2019年11月1日 星期五

The Interpreter: Our No. 1 hack for understanding the U.S.

Hint: look south

Welcome to The Interpreter newsletter, by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, who write a column by the same name.

On our minds: Our No. 1 hack for understanding United States politics.


How South America Explains the Trump Impeachment Drama

When President Sebastián Piñera of Chile went on television to extend the country's state of emergency, he was surrounded by members of the military.Office of the Chilean Presidency

We have long thought that the hack to understanding politics in the United States is to look to South America.

Anything happening in American politics has usually already played out farther south. Deep, partisan polarization. Rising inequality. Smash-the-system populist outsiders. Violent police tactics that end up disproportionately affecting minorities and the poor. Capitalism run amok.


Structurally, the systems are similar: presidential democracies, strong party politics, legacies of colonialism and slavery. Social politics are similar, too, with prominent middle classes and a left-right culture war. The United States' influence in South America, especially during the Cold War, deepened the similarities.

It's part of why we find covering South American politics so engaging. It feels like writing about a version of the United States where the political and social dynamics are a few degrees more extreme. Or maybe a version of the United States projected 20, 30, 40 years in the future.

It is not a coincidence that, shortly after President Trump's election, we got interested in how Venezuelans came to elect their own anti-establishment populist leader (albeit one from the left) and what happened to Venezuelan society and institutions as a result. And in Brazil's drive for impeachment amid rising partisan polarization. And in the consequences of Brazilians' rejection of the political establishment. And in the rise of Brazil's far right on social media. (We will admit a certain fascination with Brazil, which can feel like an alternate-reality United States with better beaches.)

We've found that, by looking at South America's recent and continuing encounters with phenomena hitting the United States, we can learn valuable lessons about how those issues play out and what it means long-term.

Take, for example, the impeachment process unfolding in the United States.

As we watch the White House and its congressional allies dig in, we keep thinking about something that Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, told us about the wave of unrest sweeping South America.

"The implicit rules of the game have changed," he said.

He was talking about how Latin American presidents respond to public unrest — something that might not seem applicable, but bear with us.


For a long time, the norm in Latin America has been that, if protests demanding the president's resignation reach a certain threshold and gain a certain amount of support from lawmakers, the president will step down.

That norm "is in question nowadays," Mr. Pérez-Liñán said. "Presidents, in contrast to the last 15 years, are now more willing to dig in if they are challenged by hostile legislatures or hostile social movements."

We were talking, specifically, about presidents in South America increasingly invoking support from the military to defy demands from protesters and opposition lawmakers. In just the past month, it's happened in Chile, Peru and Ecuador.

It's not that those leaders were threatening military force against anyone who challenged them. Rather, they seemed to be drawing on the military's moral authority as a way to deflect criticism — how can I be as bad as you say if the beloved military supports me? — and on its political authority as a way to defy any efforts to remove them.

"Presidents are reaching the conclusion that if society is polarized and if there's disagreement about which side should prevail, then if they have the military, they will survive," Mr. Pérez-Liñán.

The result is that Latin American presidents, as long as they have the support of the military, feel more emboldened to dismiss opposition as illegitimate, especially if that opposition falls along partisan lines. A big risk of this strategy, Mr. Pérez-Liñán said, is that militaries become politicized, just one more instrument of partisan conflict.

Maybe you see where we're going with this.

The United States military is probably not going to get involved in impeachment proceedings. But one big lesson from South America is that, when polarization is high and democratic institutions are widely seen as compromised, opposition-led efforts to remove the president are easier to delegitimize.

This doesn't need to be on the merits of whatever issue the opposition is raising. It can be as simple as the president using his allies within the political system to block his removal. The rules of the game shift, defined less by popular will or legal minutiae than by which party controls which institution.

If you're a South American president, that means holding a televised news conference with a bunch of generals standing behind you. This sends a clear signal, Mr. Pérez-Liñán said: "You can weather social mobilization and weather adversity and defy everyone else."

In the United States, the institutional mechanisms are different. If you're an American president under siege, facing steep public opposition and accusations of significant wrongdoing, holding a news conference with the head of the army standing behind you won't do much. But hold a news conference with the majority leader of just one house of Congress, and you've conveyed that you're nearly untouchable.

Yes, it is theoretically possible that congressional Republicans could flip on Mr. Trump in sufficient numbers to remove him from office. Just as it is theoretically possible that military leaders could defect from Chile's president or Ecuador's president, paving the way for protesters and opposition lawmakers to remove those heads of state.

But it's not particularly likely. (Read our colleague Carl Hulse on how House impeachment inquiries are being defined less by the merits of the charges than by partisan polarization within Congress, which is of course no surprise.)

As Mr. Pérez-Liñán put it, the rules of the game have changed. Whether you stay in office or leave is defined more and more by which institutions remain loyal, which is in turn defined in large part by forces like partisanship.

But, to draw more on our time covering South America, that's not great news for Republicans, either. See this excellent overview of how Venezuela's leaders used institutions like the military to overcome opposition and stay in the power, in the process destroying public faith in those institutions and, ultimately, basic social order.

We're not saying that the United States is going to become Venezuela. Rather, a leader who survives efforts at removal by calling on partisan and institutional allies might hold on, but the process weakens his perceived legitimacy. Short term, it makes a wider backlash at the polls more likely. Longer term, that weakens the perceived legitimacy of the institutions that backed the president up, and the consequences of that can be far-reaching.

That might be one of our biggest takeaways from watching South American politics. The way that these systems are set up, including those of the United States, the incentives of individual political figures often cut against the greater, long-term good. But following one's immediate, individual incentives is what all human beings naturally do. It's not the most durable system that expects individuals to consistently act against their own self-interest. But it's what we've got.

What We're Reading

  • A new study by Jenny Shen, an economics Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University, suggests that closing the educational gender gap may be playing a role in driving up economic inequality and driving down social mobility. As men and women have attained more equal access to education, she finds, it's become easier for heterosexual couples to find partners with the same level of education. But this means that people who have the economic means to access good education are likely to end up with mates, and therefore kids, with the same. The same goes for those without means. To state the obvious, this doesn't mean that gender equality is bad. Rather, it's a reminder that the American education system, particularly higher education, is engineered in such a way as to naturally reinforce economic divisions.
  • There's deep academic literature on the circumstances under which a country will transition to democracy. But what are the forces that predict whether a democracy will stay democratic? A new study finds that "the only robust factors are income and a law-abiding bureaucracy." The latter of those two is self-explanatory — when institutions uphold the rule of law, democracy is safer; when they don't, it's likely to backslide. As for income, the scholars write, "while it is not clear that democratic countries become more stable as they grow richer, more well-to-do democracies are more stable than poor ones." The study is by Espen Geelmuyden Rod of Uppsala University, Carl Henrik Knutsen of the University of Oslo and Havard Hegre of the Peace Research Institute Oslo.
  • Do major social media platforms privilege right-wing views, either through top-down policies or by the design of their algorithms? Judd Legum, who writes a newsletter called Popular Information, finds data in support of growing claims that the answer is yes and yes. Facebook, he finds, seems to be allowing a network of pages associated with the Daily Wire, a site run by the conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, to game the site's policies against coordinated inauthentic behavior. In other words, it's allowing the pages to collectively push a particular link without revealing their connections to one another, tricking users and the newsfeed into seeing a swell of organic interest. Earlier this year, we found that Facebook had removed a network of right-wing Brazilian pages for doing what appears to be the same thing. (We were going to mention this in our story on YouTube's influence in Brazil but didn't end up including it.)

How are we doing?

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