The 2010 Midterm elections: Latin Americanization of U.S. Politics?

Patricio Navia

November 2, 2010


In the 2010 midterm elections in the U.S., those familiar with Latin American politics found a recognizable flavor of political polarization, anti-establishment rhetoric and populist leaders who build support on the frustrations and dissatisfaction of a population that perceives tough times ahead.


The 2008 economic crisis, with its legacy of high unemployment and decreased middle class purchasing power, has left a deep wound in the trust Americans have in their government and political class. Though not fully articulated in these terms, the Tea Party movement rejects the establishment and the two political parties that have dominated American politics for a century. Tea Party’s references to the Founding Fathers as precursors of their movement are as historically inaccurate as those that Hugo Chávez makes to Simón Bolívar in Venezuela. In rejecting the established political party system and calling for the restoration of a (mythical) foundational republic, the Tea Party has employed a populist discourse (defined as policy recommendations that go against well established economic theory) to advocate for a cure to the United States economic stagnation.


As populism has emerged in Latin American in contexts of high inequality and economic stagnation, Tea Party conservative populism has risen in the United States. Tea Party populism does not call for nationalization or a big state sector as Latin American leftwing populists. Instead, it calls for tax cuts, but not equally sizable spending cuts. The end result is the same, fiscal deficits that undermine future economic growth. 


The setback for the democrats in the midterm election is no surprise. Two years after the historic vote that made him the first African American president, President Barack Obama is going through his worst time. The sluggish economy, the instability in Iraq and neighboring countries (a war he did not support), the never ending war in Afghanistan (a war he did support) and the polarization in the American electorate will make his re-election in 2012 an uphill battle. With an electorate in an anti-establishment mood, the commander in chief of the establishment politics cannot escape punishment.


Because there are so many critical issues his government must address, some of the most important items on the agenda of bilateral U.S.-Latin American relations have been confined to the back burner. The election result, with its inevitable polarizing effect on Washington politics, will hinder progress on the Latin American agenda in the White House and Congress.  Political polarization will obstruct compromise on immigration reform (an issue that is increasingly important not just in Mexico but also in Central American, Caribbean and a few South American countries with large expatriate populations in the US). True, because people’s dissatisfaction with politics is directed at both parties, bipartisanship should help the entire political class.


In a normal year, Obama and the new Republican (quasi)majority should embrace a compromise on free trade promotion, specifically on the pending ratification of the free trade agreement with Colombia. Yet, these are not normal times. Bipartisanship does not pay off. The high level of unemployment in the U.S. will increase opposition against new free trade agreements. The effect of tea party politics will dissuade many right politicians from being labeled as RINOs (Republicans In Name Only). Determined to make sure he is a one-term president, the Republican leadership will further polarize its position to prevent being outdone by a Tea Party-backed candidate like Sarah Palin. By moving to the center and compromising on moderate agreements, the Republican leadership will only strengthen the Tea Party within its rightwing base. Similarly, because Obama needs to strengthen his own electoral base, he will drift further away from the center. Moderation has not paid up for Obama, but it has cost the democrats dearly as many voters who enthusiastically supported Obama in 2008 are now disillusioned and stayed away from the polls.


In Latin America, populism is always the symptom of a much more complicated disease, inequality and exclusion. In the past 30 years, the United States has seen its inequality reached levels dangerously similar to those in Latin America. The first symptoms of populism were long overdue in the United States. Latin America has a mixed record when dealing with the causes of populism. Some countries have successfully controlled the emergence of populism even though they remain populism-prone due to their high levels of inequality. The U.S. could learn from the experience of those successful Latin American nations. But after the 2010 midterm elections, the American political arena will pay even less attention to Latin America.  Claiming that the political climate in Washington makes it impossible for the issues on the bilateral agenda to be addressed, the United States will fail to realize that it needs to look at Latin American precisely because the region has ample experience dealing with outbursts of populism.