Venezuela is a good place for us to start, because as late as 1980 it was the most prosperous country in Latin America and the one everyone expected to make the leap to First World status any day now. Argentina, Chile, Colombia — all have played the same role at one time or another.
Intervals of stability and wealth created the impression abroad that the country would soon leave behind the cliches of Latin American political instability, only for those cliches to come roaring back as the country collapsed back into the usual cycle of coups and civil wars.
One reason for this chronic instability is the absence of a middle class. There is no Latin American country where the middle class makes up a majority. … Even professionals like doctors avoid taxes by dealing in cash. The qualities that make a middle class so desirable for political institution-building — predictability, law-abidingness, intolerance of corruption — don’t necessarily apply.
Once trust is gone, you have a low trust society:
Laxity where rules are concerned, which turns up everywhere in Latin America from taxes to traffic, is one symptom of a broader problem: low trust.
In high-trust societies, street crime and corruption are rare and people are willing to submit disputes to authorities for adjudication in the belief that they will be treated fairly.
Low-trust societies, on the other hand, are characterized by what Robert Kaplan calls “a cacophony of negotiation in place of fixed standards.” Neither laws nor their enforcers are assumed to be impartial. Family dynasties are common in Third World politics precisely because where the baseline level of trust is low, people are more likely to rely on family relationships where there is at least a presumption of trust.
This does not mean Latin American politics has no regard for laws. On the contrary, laws are a popular tool. But they are just that, a tool. Politically motivated prosecutions are used to target opposition figures. Elected leaders are subject to impeachment while in office and judicial hounding after they leave. …
This merry-go-round of incarceration heightens the stakes of each transfer of power.
USA from 2015:
The backdrop of American society was already looking more Latin American before Donald Trump showed up. The middle class ceased to be a majority in the United States in 2015.
In some parts of the West coast, inequality has already reached Latin American levels. Those same regions are also the furthest along the road to Third World levels of public disorder, as exemplified by CVS closing stores in San Francisco due to rampant shoplifting that neither the police nor the courts will punish. California’s elites are converging on the same solution Latin American elites worked out long ago, isolating themselves from lawless elements by building their own private security infrastructure — that, and emigration.
Trump brought some qualities of Latin American politics to the White House. He relied on relatives to staff his inner circle. … He spoke the language of braggadocio and insult rather than neutral bureaucratese.
But it was the Democrats who put Trump through two specious impeachments, including one just days before he was scheduled to leave office anyway, making the whole process obviously symbolic and sapping impeachment of its remaining sense of gravity. No longer a once-in-a-century emergency measure, impeachment is becoming just another political weapon. Nor are Trump’s legal troubles over now that he is out of office. In the end it may not be the orange caudillo, but his opponents, who did more to push us down the path of Latin American instability. …
Soft, shambolic, corrupt totalitarianism:
In the United States, our idea of political tyranny has been shaped far too much by the Cold War. We assume that an American dictatorship will take the form of suffocating Slavic totalitarianism.
In fact, we are far more likely to slide into a Latin American type of dysfunction, which is shambolic, not claustrophobic. Opposition is ineffectual but tolerated; no one accomplishes anything by grumbling about the ruling elite, but no one goes to prison for it either. The government doesn’t go out of its way to oppress its enemies, unless it feels threatened. Otherwise it just enjoys its monopoly on power, rewards its friends with favors, and gets less and less effective at basic service delivery. That’s isn’t a dystopia, just typical Third World crappiness. …
Bringing the third world to the USA via immigration and corruption at the top:
Already America’s cities are starting to look like the Third World. When I moved back to D.C. after half a decade in Australia, I was surprised to find public restrooms were a thing of the past. Every café bathroom was locked and passcode protected — one more little convenience sacrificed to rising squalor.
Parts of California already look like favelas. Chicago’s carjackers are starting to rival Bogotá’s. Soon we may see homegrown equivalents of “car watchers” to make sure our vehicles aren’t stolen and armed private security guards outside office buildings and department stores like they have in Brazil. …
America’s political spectrum is a relic of the society that used to exist here. That political spectrum was not designed to tackle Third World problems of disorder and inequality. …
We have already seen a rise in conspiratorial thinking. Whether Trump supporters are right or wrong that the deep state conspired with the Democrats to harass and ultimately overthrow an elected president, the result is the same: cynicism and lowered expectations for political standards of behavior.
We have already had as many impeachments in the last two years as the country had in its first two centuries. Trump may soon become the first former president to be indicted. If Latin American politics is our future, we are already well on our way.
Better Latin America than the Soviet Union, I suppose. But why can’t we have the old USA back?
Oh, that’s right. Demography is destiny. An “ideas nation” was a brave concept, but it was only ever a theory. It’s failing the empirical test.
hat-tip Stephen Neil