Crisis and New Government in the United States: a Latin American View

The US presidential campaign raises an important question for that country and for the world: before the multiple crises hovering over it, is American society willing to accept a cast generational change and a shift in course regarding state policies? The true election is between fear and hope. Seen from the Latin American experience, the other face of the crisis in the North is the opportunity it represents for a broad action that is less conditioned by the restraints of the recent past, on the part of a new government team.
Latin American Crises

The great changes in social, economic and political direction in Latin America in the last decades have been propelled less by a plan, a will agreed by consensus or a coherent ideology than by the harsh necessity and the strong and recurrent crises that have shaken the continent. Those crises, and their respective exits, have had opposite orientations. A sign of discontinuity thus characterizes recent Latin American history. Therefore, there has not been either sustained economic development or systematic social progress.

To simplify matters, I will say that the last decades’ great Latin American crises have been two: the first one was the hyperinflationary crisis of the eighties, which marked the exhaustion of a substitutive industrial development style, mainly geared to domestic markets. To get out of that crisis, government elites were forced to change the course dramatically with respect to prior public policies and accepted new recipes for stabilization, privatization and opening-up to a new global world. That 180 degrees change is now labeled as “neo-liberal”. The remedy, adopted with haste and administered in overdoses, worked for a while but had very harmful side effects: de-industrialization, unemployment, increase in poverty and inequality, among others. In some countries, the strategy led -in the long term- to an intolerable debt increase and to national bankruptcy.

After a decade of neo-liberal policies, a new crisis cropped up, this time around of a deflationary nature, that was experienced in some countries as the outbreak of a terminal disease, whose political outcome was the arrival at the top of disheveled states of new government casts that were ready to adopt urgent rescue measures and to try other exits. Default, devaluation, nationalizations, more state interference in the market, and attempts at income redistribution are some of these measures. Most of these new governments define themselves as “leftist”, using quite an open and sometimes contradictory meaning of the venerable term, whose semantics has been reduced, in the last 25 years, to policies that tend to produce greater social equality and greater inclusion of marginalized groups, as well as more ideological independence from the traditional institutions of the North, but without offering an alternative plan to the standard practices in global markets.

For reasons that I find difficult to understand, in Latin America there is a manifest tendency to pack policies and assign them a systematic quality they really do not have. Thus, the measures adopted by many governments in the eighties and nineties are interpreted as a logical result of a conspiracy and disastrous plan, an entelechy called “neo-liberalism” which is given the title of “model”. Likewise, but with an opposite sign, the measures taken by many current governments are interpreted as a part of a different “model”, sometimes called “a developmental state”, “the third way” or, more solemnly, “XXI Century socialism”. Yet in one case or the other, a more calm analysis leads to a different conclusion: the so-called “models” are only emergency packages whose aim is to get out of a crisis. To say it in plain Spanish: the grab of someone who’s getting drowned does not imply a swimming style.1

A Lesson Learnt
Yet it is not the purpose of this article to analyze Latin American governments’ public policies in the last 20 or 30 years. My aim is to introduce a topic that I believe is an important lesson provided by Latin America’s recent history: the role crises play in the adoption of strong and necessary measures –but very difficult to carry out in “normal times”- on the part of a government. In a very lucid text about the relationship existing between politics and reform in Latin America, Argentine sociologist Juan Carlos Torre indicates how a crisis that is collectively perceived opens undreamed of government opportunities for a new administration. His analysis, developed on the basis of the Latin American experience, can very well be applied to the new American administration that will take charge in January 2009, and especially to an Obama administration, that will inaugurate a new government style with scarce prior commitments, and that would imply a generational change in the politics of the North. It is worthwhile to quote Torre extensively:

“First of all, crises have the effect of discrediting the stances and ideas of the previous administration and this predisposes public opinion to grant those who access power a strong mandate to act on the emergency. Secondly, crises set up a sense of urgency that strengthens the belief that the lack of initiatives can only worsen matters; in these circumstances, scruples regarding which are the most appropriate procedures to take decisions give way to the acceptance of extraordinary decisions. Thirdly, crises not only intensify collective problems but also generate a widespread fear of an increase in social conflicts and of threats to the institutional order. All of this broadens the margins of action of government leaders and intimidates the opposition forces. When these various mechanisms that crises trigger combine, a government demand is generated that allows the presidency to make full use of the necessary institutional resources to concentrate its decision-making authority, adopt policies elaborated in the stealth by technocratic cabinets and impose an expeditious procedure for their enactment.”2

The United States: Politics in Times of Crisis

How can we apply these reflections to both the internal and to the geopolitical situation of the US in the twilight of Bush’s era? Firstly, we must determine whether there is in fact a crisis and, if so, if it is a partial, temporary or random phenomenon, or if it is instead a steady and deep trend that requires an extraordinary treatment. American opinion is divided with reference to this. Two of the three candidates to the presidency –the Republican John McCain and the Democrat Hillary Clinton-, although different, have a lot in common: they are both seasoned politicians who are skillful in the management of the government system as it is. In particular, they count for their campaigns (and therefore, for their future government action) on the support, and thus the conditioning, of powerful pressure groups, whose conflicting interests frequently lead to the usual compromise and to “more of the same”, that is translated into quite weak policies, if not something worse, that is, a political stalemate and reciprocal veto. Any of the two, if chosen, would move away from some of the especially unsuccessful policies of the Bush administration (except for the war in Iraq, which McCain wants to continue apparently sine die), as for example the abandonment on the part of the Bush administration of basic norms of democracy in favor of national security policies. They differ in terms of taxes, judicial philosophy and social philosophy at large. As to health insurance and social security, there are important differences that have more to do with degree than content. The ideological “tone” and tenor is the most important opposition between these two candidates. They replicate the traditional counterpoint that existed between the two major parties before the G.W. Bush presidency.

The future Obama administration, if he were elected, would be very different both in form and content. This difference is the result of the generational change Obama represents. During the recent campaign within the Democratic Party to choose its candidate, Obama became the spokesman of the youth, an electorate sector that stood out for its absenteeism in all the presidential campaigns that followed the Vietnam War. Youth participation in this young candidate’s campaign is astounding.3
From a symbolic point of view, Obama represents a decisive change. From the color of his skin to his name he is a fundamentally different character: he does not represent racial division but its superseding in the crossbreeding of ethnic groups and cultures that characterizes the new American society. As he often says, he is a carrier of this synthesis in his very DNA. He is not a representative of the identity-based politics of the last 30 years but of a new syncretic identity. He does not present himself as “bipartisan” (a common position among many politicians in the past) but as a “unitarian”. According to Obama’s declarations, that unity would be based on basic and necessary state policies for the whole country -beyond partisan differences. He does not describe himself as a conservative or “liberal” in the American sense but as a modernizing reformer. Hence the link there is between his image or style and the government task he intends to accomplish. The latter would be based on an update of the American economy and society in order to better adapt to a dynamic, bipolar and fractured world. His image –and the huge challenge it represents- is that of a new man for a new world.

The True Election

If this diagnosis is correct, a fundamental question must be raised: is American society willing to accept such a change of cast and course? In other words, and more in line with my previous reflections, is there a crisis situation that is collectively perceived, capable of generating a government demand that will be able to adopt new, creative policies that are at the same time rational, that were until now either unimaginable or shelved due to the great established interests? There are indications that the crisis is in fact perceived by many sectors of the population and that, among them, there is a demand for “something new”. Let us remember -to put it very simply- that in a democracy a simple majority, and sometimes only a plurality, is enough for a candidate, a program or a party to prevail.
In American history there are precedents that favor this last hypothesis. I am referring to the great economic and social crisis of the thirties. In his book about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, historian J. M. Burns describes how at the beginning of the New Deal, when Congress had to tackle the bank emergency law, the following events happened: “Having been completed by the president and his advisors at two in the morning, the bill was still a draft. However, even during the scarce 45 minutes allotted to the debate in the premises voices claiming “we need to vote…” were heard. The Chamber quickly approved the project by a show of hands; the Senate proceeded likewise a few hours later; the president enacted it with his signature at nine in the morning.”4
There are signs that we have entered a period of converging crises and emergency situations. I will list the most obvious:

_ -Financial crisis.
_ -Crisis regarding the standard of living and occupation.
_ -Safety crisis.
_ -Environmental crisis.
_ -Energy crisis.
_ -Educational crisis.
_ -Retirement crisis
_ -Health insurance crisis.
_ -Geopolitical positioning crisis.

As from the September 11th, 2001, attack, and several years later, with Hurricane Katrina, the American population has experienced great disruptions. Such incidents produce reactions of collective fear and a demand for safety and a “strong government”. But there are other crises, of a more structural than interim nature that should generate a demand for a “rational government”, that is, a willingness to support state policies in the fields of environment, energy, education, health and foreign relations that exceed the conventional frame. This concerns positive demands, not repressive reactions, and require a strong dose of hope more than fear.

Deep down, the great American election is between fear and hope. Both feelings furnish a government with more freedom of action: one to punish and keep watch, the other to promote and dignify. From Latin America, used as we are to grant great freedom of action to the governments that must face our periodic and serious crises, we hope that the long American crisis that is moving forward produces a healthy political reaction, with the election of a new cast for different times. If chosen, that cast will have greater freedom of action. It is the opportunity every crisis provides to the one who is in office in hard times.

Few among us are the Latin Americans who will have the privilege of voting in these American presidential elections. The majority will not be able to vote; yet they can express their opinion. Through this note I would like to encourage the expression of such opinion, and I promise to vote in the North from a perspective that is oriented from the South.

Notes:

1 Being saved or getting drowned will ultimately depend upon the strength and direction of the current. Strong or weak, favorable or unfavorable, currents are global. The success or failure of the policies depends, to a great extent, on the way they are adapted to these currents. I believe it appropriate to point out that, unlike other regions, the impact of the world on Latin America has always been greater than that of Latin America on the world -despite the continent’s geographic and demographic volume. To emphasize the contrast, suffice it to remember Churchill’s witty remark about the impact of the small Balkan states on international balance: “They produce more history than they are capable of consuming.” By contrast, Latin America consumes more history than it is capable of producing. Hegel made the first reflection about Latin America in this sense. Kissinger made a similar remark later on: “It is a dagger aiming at Antarctica.”

2 Juan Carlos Torre. 1998. El proceso politico de las reformas economicas en America Latina. Buenos Aires-Barcelona-Mexico: Paidos, p.40.

3 For those of you who take an interest in the impact of the new “generation You Tube” on American politics, I recommend a book by Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais. 2008. Millennial Makeover. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. J.M. Burns. 1956. Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox. New York: Harcourt Brace, pp. 166-167, quoted by Torre.

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