LESSONS LEARNED FROM VENEZUELA: HOW TO CULTURE JAM POPULISM

This is the most useful (and brilliant) advice I have read since the election.

Andrés Miguel Rondón is a scholar and Venezuelan native.  From his experiences during the Hugo Chavez years, he wrote a piece in response to Trump’s election in order to provide advice against repeating the Venezuelan failures in countering the populism that brought Chavez to power and kept his party there for two decades.

The issues with non-college educated Caucasian voters here in America reflect the troubles with populism.  While Venezuela and the U.S. are different in many ways, Rondon makes many good points about avoiding easy, knee-jerk responses to populism that ultimately backfired on the Venezuelan opposition – failures he cites as self-inflicted.  Americans should evaluate whether those lessons have value towards diffusing the lure of populism here.

The following is a distillation of Rondon’s column.

 

Trump and Chávez are masters of populism.  There’s something soothing in all that anger – though full of hatred, it promises redemption.

The populist recipe is universal:  find a wound common to many, someone to blame and a good story to tell.  Tell the wounded you know how they feel.  That you found the bad guys; label them: minorities, politicians, businessmen; cartoon them, as vermin, evil masterminds, hipsters, etc.  Then paint yourself as the savior.  Capture their imagination, one that starts in anger and ends in vengeance.  Populism can’t cure suffering, but it can build a satisfying narrative around it:  It is them. It’s been them all along.

Populism is built on the irresistible allure of simplicity.  The problem is now made simple, as opposed to complex and real.

The worst you can do is simplify the debate by bundling moderates and extremists together, or by condemning a group of persons as uneducated and gullible.  In Venezuela, the only one who benefited from such tactics was Chávez.

This does not have to be your fate in America with Trump.  Recognize that you’re the enemy Trump requires in order to succeed.

The problem is you.

 

Lessons Learned in Combating Populism:

  1. DON’T FORGET WHO THE ENEMY IS (YOU)
  • Populism can only survive amid polarization. Populism works through caricature, through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy.
  • Polarization means if you’re not among the victims, you’re among the culprits. In your case, you’re that modern bogeyman called the liberal urbanite hipster who thinks of the working-class disparagingly.
  • “But facts!”, you’ll say, missing the point entirely.
  • You care, but as long as you don´t recognize the problem is not the message, but the messenger, you will be wasting your time.
  • Your focus has to be on erasing the cartoon you’ve been drawn into.
  1. SHOW NO CONTEMPT
  • Your organizing principle is simple: don’t feed polarization, disarm it.
  • This means leaving the theater of injured decency behind. The Venezuelan opposition wouldn’t stop pontificating about how stupid it all was.  “Really, this guy?  Are you nuts?  You must be nuts.”
    • He will destroy the country.
    • He’s clearly not that smart.
    • He’s threatening to destroy the economy.
    • He clearly has no respect for democracy.
  • “Don’t listen to them, folks”, says the populist. “Stop letting them think they can school and fool you.  The only true fact is that the enemies are few and they lie.  Let’s show them they’re the ones who are wrong.  They think only about themselves.  Listen to me.”
  • Shaming has never been an effective method of persuasion. If you show contempt, you’ve lost the first battle.  Instead of fighting polarization (and by extension, populism), you’ve played into it.
  1. DON’T TRY TO FORCE HIM OUT
  • In Venezuela, we should have just kept pointing out how badly Chávez’s rule was hurting the very people he claimed to be serving.  Anything other than digging in to fight the agenda would just distract the public from the administration’s failed policies.
  • The Venezuelan opposition tried every single trick in the book, including a ruinous oil strike, to derail Chavez, but failed because they lost sight that a hissy-fit is not a strategy.
  • People on the other side of issues, and, crucially, independents, will rebel against you if you look like you’re losing your mind. Worst of all, you will have proved yourself to be the very thing you’re claiming to be fighting:  an enemy of democracy.
  • It’s taken many years for the Venezuelan opposition to wash away those stains. Those stains sapped the opposition’s effectiveness.
  • All non-democratic channels are counter-productive: you diminish your message, you give the populists rhetorical fuel.
  1. FIND A COUNTER-ARGUMENT
  • Don’t waste your time trying to prove that this grand idea is better than that one.
  • In Venezuela, we fell into the abstraction trap in a bad way. We wrote again and again about principles, about the separation of powers, about civil liberties, about the role of the military in politics, about corruption and economic policy.
  • Again, the problem is not the message but the messenger. It’s not that Trump supporters are too stupid to see right from wrong, it’s that you’re much more valuable to them as an enemy than as a compatriot.
  • The problem is tribal. Your challenge is to prove that you belong in the same tribe as them:  that you are American in exactly the same way they are.
  • It took our leaders ten years to figure out they needed to go to the slums and to the countryside; not for a speech, or a rally, but for games of dominoes or to dance salsa – to show they were Venezuelans too.
  • It’s deciding not to live in an echo chamber and to press pause on the siren song of polarization.

The chances are that the people getting it wrong will drown out those getting it right.

But, if you want to be part of the solution, the road ahead is clear:  

  • Recognize that the cartoon you is the enemy the populists need in order to be successful;
  • Show concern, not contempt, for the wounds of those that brought Trump to power; and,
  • Be patient with democracy and struggle relentlessly to free yourselves from the shackles of the caricatures the populists have drawn of you and which you may have played into.

The link to the full column:  https://www.caracaschronicles.com/2017/01/20/culturejam/

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