South America’s warning for the United States

The rise of the Latin American-style populism in the U.S. stems from sentiments that Latin American citizens have felt for years: inequality, economic uncertainty and insecurity.


The U.S. election season has been so strange, so unpredictable and so rife with dangerous possibilities that on a bad day it seems to approach the magic realism of Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa. On a good day, it just looks like South American politics.

Most of the analyses of the new style of American leadership of both left and right—populist, angry and insular—have concentrated on the leaders themselves. Trump, so the narrative goes, is either a reality show clown or a marketing genius who knew when the market was ripe for the orange-faced product he is peddling. Bernie Sanders represents the other side of the same coin, blaming undefined elites, bankers and mainstream politicians for whatever woes have befallen the American public. But what are the conditions that make these leaders possible? Why do their messages resonate?

While Donald Trump has based his campaign partly on fear of Hispanics, his electoral success thus far is due in large measure to the “Latin-Americanization” of the U.S. electorate. Not, of course, in the sense of the increasingly large Hispanic demographic, but rather, in the challenges that voters feel the country faces. Inequality, economic uncertainty, crime, and insecurity in the face of increasingly powerful rivals, issues that are well-known for Latin American voters, are becoming increasingly present in the U.S. too. We should not be surprised, then, of the emergence of candidates with similarly simplistic answers; nationalism, populism, personalism, and authoritarianism.

Indeed, Matthew MacWilliams’s research, summarized in a recent Politico piece, shows how authoritarianism—a trait that is all-too-familiar to Latin American political culture—is the best predictor of whether a voter may support Trump. Andres Oppenheimer has been more explicit in his comparisons and highlighted how Donald Trump resembles a Latin American caudillo, strutting and selling solutions to fears created by his own rhetoric (if you announce that all Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers, then a wall to keep them out sounds rather reasonable). Trump’s hyper-masculinity, thinly disguised as misogyny, his implicit threat of violence to anyone who disagrees with him, and nationalism are all tools familiar to the Latin American authoritarian.

On the other end of the spectrum, the same fears and insecurities that lead angry white men to fall for “The Donald” helped Bernie Sanders become the Ben and Jerry’s flavor of the month. Here too, Latin America offers a lesson or two.

Despite declarations to the contrary, Sanders is no socialist. His economic dream for the U.S. is far closer to Scandinavia than Stalin, but his political methods are quite Latin American. The most useful Latin American comparison here is with President Michelle Bachelet in Chile.

In moments of lucidity Sanders states simply, and rationally, that if other advanced economies can afford to have a reasonable and rights-based social safety net, then so can the United States. To him, the problem is in the selling. Like President Bachelet, Sanders is convinced that his proposals are the only correct solutions to a correct diagnosis. Also like Bachelet, he believes that if more people do not support those solutions, it comes down to simply a communications problem. And, like many Latin American politicians, he and his supporters often suspect that the media is stacked against them, limiting his ability to effectively explain to the electorate why his solutions are correct.

But, because their beliefs leave little room for doubt, anyone who might harbor similar objectives but endorse different means for achieving those objectives, such as Hillary Clinton, is discounted, or worse. Clinton cannot be a progressive, Sanders supporters say. She is—heaven forbid—a “moderate.” Sanders doesn’t have voters, he has “Bernievers,” just as Trump supporters do not abandon him no matter how outrageous his comments or cartoonish his performance.

The problem in both cases is that they lead to a distortion of public policy, which is molded into a predetermined worldview, regardless of facts. In Chile, this has been costly. President Bachelet has designed (and redesigned many times) an expensive proposal for higher education reform that is based entirely on student demands. Whereas most literature on university funding agrees that free higher education is actually regressive and helps the poorest classes the least, President Bachelet insists on moving ahead on universally free higher education, even if it means less money for early childhood and other areas that experts believe to have a greater impact on future performance. (Sanders, by the way, also believes state universities should be free.)

President Bachelet’s experience in office shows that while populism can get you elected, the populace is fickle. The same electorate that felt that a series of proposals sounded attractive can quickly turn. Today, even though thousands of Chilean families stand to benefit from free college tuition, Bachelet’s educational reform gets less than 50 percent approval. Her labor reform proposal, ostensibly aimed at helping workers, stands at a mere 29 percent approval. Her tax reform proposal is even lower, at 27 percent.

To be clear, Bachelet is no Latin American caudillo. But globalization has, in many ways, made Chile, and other countries in the hemisphere, much more like the U.S., while it has made the U.S. much more like Latin America. People in Bogotá or Santiago may drive Indian cars on excellent freeways owned by Spanish corporations wearing jeans bought at U.S. chain stores, while many American citizens observe poor migrant workers as they drive on crumbling infrastructure in cars made in Mexico. For different reasons, both situations are frightening symbols of inequality and other challenges of globalization. Within the OECD, U.S. inequality levels are closest to countries like Turkey, Chile and Israel, than to its more developed counterparts in Europe. While life expectancy in developing countries is increasing, it is stagnant in many parts of the United States. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index 2014-2015 places the U.S. 12th in the world for infrastructure. Worse still, the country ranks only 49th in health and education.

The rise of populist candidates in this U.S. election cycle may be worrying, and certainly there is no excuse for allowing a mainstream presidential candidate to exhibit racist, sexist and xenophobic attitudes. Yet a comparative look around the neighborhood shows that there are underlying causes that permit these types of leadership styles to emerge in many countries, not just the United States. For many voters, these conditions are the result of policies implemented over decades by a tone-deaf establishment, and are ready to try something new. In Latin America, however, these options have been tried before, with disappointing results. The voters in the United States would do well to heed this lesson before it is too late.


Robert Funk is professor of political science at the University of Chile’s Instituto de Asuntos Públicos, and Director of Plural, a public policy think tank in Santiago.

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