Botsford, a contributing editor, for The Fulcrum, has spent most of his career providing strategic advice to more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies doing business in Latin America.
Living and working in Latin America most of the time since the 1970s has meant living through dozens of governmental switches — among democratic, communist and fascist systems.
Witnessing the forces that ebbed and flowed with the political winds, democratic institutions created in the early 19th century were repeatedly assaulted.
And in recent weeks, I've become afraid the United States has chosen to follow that region's sorry lead. It's a fear that will not go away any time soon — even though Donald Trump is at last safely far from the White House and, in Joe Biden, the Oval Office is once again occupied by someone totally committed to upholding democratic norms and the rule of law.
Not even an American president can single handedly, let alone quickly, reverse the toxic national creep toward autocracy we have suffered the past four years.
That's why witnessing the insurrection in the Capitol on live TV this month, and the memories that have haunted us all since, brought me back immediately to my life south of the border. The similarities are striking.
In Latin America, bloody insurrections are the currency of ruthless political ambition.
The call to come to Washington to hear the executive's command for a march on the legislature was reminiscent of other regimes' call for rallies in their capitals — from Brazil in 1979 to Peru in 1992, Mexico in 1995 to Argentina in 2016.
The people heeded those calls out of coercion and in fervor.
Many get coerced through the threatened loss of government benefits, always tempered with free food, merchandise and even transportation. And because casting a ballot is a legal (if generally pointless) obligation across the region, local organizers not only delivered people to the rallies but then made sure they deliver their votes.
Fervor is readily achieved at these rallies, and no more easily than when the marquee speaker is a pathological liar. Trump's technique was startlingly reminiscent of how earlier autocrats — think Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega since the 1980s and Ecuador's Rafael Correa for a decade ending in 2015 — combined blatant falsehoods and grievance politics to concoct a convenient enemy. (The news media as "the enemy of the people" is always first in line.) The strongmen invent facts and concoct conspiracies in order to brainwash or gaslight their core supporters so they can be kept under the leader's command and control.
But, to be fair to the Latin American leaders of the past, their words have usually been more nuanced (or coded) than the blatant orders issued by Trump and his allies on Jan. 6. And, once the throng he exhorted had arrived on Capitol Hill, they found alarmingly little resistance — so reminiscent of "free zones," as they're called in Latin America.
Those are when demagogues utilize loyal civilian armed militias to intimidate the masses, often by embedding them within the crowds at their rallies to incite passions and perform the dirty work. The strongmen use these militias to give themselves plausible deniability. Law enforcement is told to stand down, or to offer only the most perfunctory resistance, so the militias can operate in these free zones.
Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro, for example, has used such paramilitary mobs to his benefit since 2017, ever since his party lost elections. Just last year he had them occupy the Palacio Federal Legislativo in order to block access by the majority of legislators opposed to him.
Free to act, the autocrats escalate. They find excuses to lock down Congress whenever their party loses power at the ballot box. To prevent that from happening again, they rig the elections and suppress the vote to assure their party wins — and Congress reopens, with opposition leaders imprisoned and the political rights of the people denied.
Another lesson from the region's history: Trump is out of power, but maybe not for long unless there's accountability for his and others' role in fomenting a coup against a legitimate democratic government. All who were involved in whipping up the base, and aiding and abetting the lies, must be called out.
If not, either Trump or future dictators will feel empowered to advance their agenda. That's what's happened across Latin America over the past half-century when out-of-control regimes went unpunished.
Accountability can take different forms. The political sort can be swift, but the judicial kind takes more time.
And so the autocrat must be stripped of power immediately. In this, we are fortunate Trump's time was up just two nerve-wracking weeks after the Capitol siege. But the Senate should still follow the House and send a message to his followers that there are consequences for his actions.
Concern that following through on impeachment will only enrage and infuriate his followers is naive at a minimum — and a form of complicity from those who now aim to victimize, distract or obstruct.
There is no difference between the terrorist mob and those who enabled and unleashed it with the Big Lie. Apologetic rhetoric now is too late.
Trump left office with his allies still laying the groundwork for reclaiming power in 2024 — replicating exactly how dictators I've lived under assured their return. (It took only four years on the outs before Cristina Fernandez returned to power in Argentina last year.) That many years go by very fast in a country where an autocrat's opponents focus only on putting out the most obvious fires left behind.
The time for finding remedies can come later — and the solutions will be the same as those offered up to Latin American nations when their democracies were imperiled. Strengthening institutions is where it must always begin.
But the history of that region shows very clearly that there must be accountability right away, or the United States will not be able to successfully move on from these events. If Trump and his allies still in authority face no consequences, then Jan. 6, 2021, will be remembered as only the beginning.
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"Groaning bookshelves about our divisive times" are one of the main features of the publishing world these days, Kirkus Reviews notes. So we identified six books, all published since last summer, that are particularly worthy of note in a campaign season when the faulty functionality of American democracy is getting discussed more than in any previous modern election.
The authors come from the political left, right and center — but they all have a broadly similar panoramic view of the dysfunction plaguing our democracy. And their prescriptions for reversing the decline have more in common than not. What they all agree on: The principles of our Constitution are under assault and the citizenry's only chance at a successful counter attack is by embracing a broad array of plans for strengthening democratic institutions.
The books deconstruct the causes and consequences of about a dozen of the most undemocratic aspects of the way the country is operating — all of which are likely making the Founders spin in their graves. Polarization and partisan tribalism engineered by the Republican and Democratic duopoly, congressional gridlock, the excesses of money in politics, restrictive voting rights, partisan gerrymandering, weakened checks and balances, and shoddy ethics in government are the familiar topics at the top of their list.
There's also a welcome similarity to their fix-the-system agendas. While they differ enough to make all the books worth a read, it's fair to say they're all interested in putting the voters back in charge of the country — if for no other reason than the political class and their moneyed interests have made such a hash of it.
That in turn, leads them to their most fundamental shared recommendation: The citizens must be persuaded to become much more civically engaged and demanding of the changes that would benefit them.
'Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America' — By Lee Drutman (Oxford University Press, 271 pages, $28)
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Drutman, a senior fellow at the Washington think tank New America, has a forceful argument to make that the dominance of the Democratic and Republican parties over our politics has become so toxic that it's on the verge of destroying American democracy. He sees the only salvation as converting to a multiparty system, and quickly.
Before unspooling his view that the partisan duopoly is destroying his country — through a collection of "doom loops" that are a spine of the book — Drutman offers a short course on the history of American political parties, beginning with the Founders' warnings about factions destroying our democracy, through the Civil War-era origins of a two-party system that for decades was at the heart of the coalitions and consensus that shaped public policy.
His journey ends in the "toxic partisanship" quagmire of today, a nationalized and radicalized two-party system defined by geography, culture and race. "This undermines forbearance and restraint," he says, a situation made worse at a time when national identity has defined the partisan conflict and pushed economic inequalities to the back of voters' minds.
"The separation-of-powers governing institutions are on the side of negotiation and compromise, in line with multiparty democracy," he writes. "Today's party system is fundamentally at odds with America's compromise-oriented governing institutions. And the mismatch is unsustainable."
Drutman tries to prepare us for the consequences of looking away: Democratic breakdown and tyranny await and "partisan fighting would beget more partisan fighting until self governance collapsed into authoritarianism." That's one doom loop.
And, when Americans turn to a demagogue to bail themselves out of that loop and otherwise solve all their problems? Thanks to partisan gridlock and a weak Congress, the presidency becomes dangerously more powerful, which in turn raises the stakes for the next election, making the polarization even worse than before. In other words, another doom loop.
He's got many, many more of them. "A decade of conservative propaganda about voter fraud had made a deep and dangerous impact," he writes, and given that "democracy depends on shared fairness," the assault on voting rights "is a legitimacy crisis waiting for a demagogic loser to provoke it."
For much of the second half of the 20th century, the ideological breadth of both parties meant the country essentially had four from which to choose: liberal and conservative Democrats and liberal and conservative Republicans. Since "each represented distinct and meaningful voting factions, Drutman writes, they produced a democratic ideal of competition and compromise as the norm. But no more. Since the 1990s, the parties have reoriented from too little partisan competition to too much — and from too much compromise to too little.
Drutman offers the solution. "In a multiparty system, polarization is not paralyzing because the center is always engaged. Multiparty democracies are more stable and responsive, economic inequality is lower. Parties are stronger. Voter turnout is higher. Compromise is more valued. Citizens are happier and more satisfied with the state of democracy."
Among the ways to bring back multiparty democracy, he proposes various electoral reforms including the creation of multimember congressional districts, their members chosen with ranked-choice voting and the candidates subject to stricter campaign finance regulation.
Two-thirds of Americans want the multiparty democracy he's advocating, he maintains. And so, Drutman asks, what are we waiting for?
'Contract to Unite America: Ten Reforms to Reclaim Our Republic' — By Neal Simon (Real Clear Books, 211 pages, $28)
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After running four businesses, including the investment advisory firm Bronfman Rothschild, and serving on the boards of several prominent Maryland nonprofits, Simon decided it was time to really enter the arena in 2018. He ended up with just 4 percent of the vote as an independent candidate for the Senate, but the experience has only magnified his role as a democracy reform philanthropist and proselytizer. This is his 10 Commandments for fixing the system.
One of the reasons Simon decided to run for Congress was his view that too many politicians have lost interest in fighting for the American people — because they are too focused on fighting each other. Having tried his hand at being a "politician" he now describes himself as a "uniter," which is why he says he ran to begin with.
He argues that hyperpartisanship has contributed to a systematic breakdown of the electoral system and a failing Congress. Washington has become chronically incapable of solving problems because elected people flatly refuse to work toward compromise and consensus, Simon says, and, "If our elected officials cannot put aside partisan concerns in areas where there is broad consensus, how can they tackle complicated issues?"
He laments the Republican and Democratic parties that have become behemoths bent more on their own hold on power than on the desires of team members to try to do right by their constituents, even if that means straying from the party line from time to time. Candidates are forced to embrace what he terms "a perverse set of incentives," selling their souls to donors and party leaders at the expense of the people who elect them.
"A critical mass of Americans knows that what we have is broken," he asserts. "While things in Washington are much worse today, the good news is that more people realize it. Thousands of would-be reformers have joined over one hundred groups."
The bulk of the book is his detailing 10 proposals to "reshape the incentives in our political system," each of which he says has support from at least three of every five voters.
Nine of them are pretty straightforward: opening primaries to all voters, regardless of party; expanding the use of debates during congressional and presidential campaigns; limiting the tenures of House members to six years and senators to 12 years; increasing disclosure requirements for donors who give as little as $100; amending the Constitution to allow a revival of more robust campaign finance regulation; making it easier for candidates not aligned with a major party to get on the ballot; turning political mapmaking over to independent commissions; creating House districts with multiple members, elected through ranked-choice voting; and revamping the rules of Congress to promote bipartisan legislation.
The final item is a bit more aspirational and multifaceted — the adoption of a "culture of unity" platform by Washington including a revival of civics education and mandatory national service for young people, commitments by future presidents to assemble a bipartisan senior administration team, and a commitment by members of Congress to sign a civility pledge.
"It's time for Americans to save each other," Simon concludes. "At the least, we need to learn how to work together again for the common good."
'The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump' — By Peter Wehner (Harper Collins, 234 pages, $26)
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Wehner is a senior fellow at a conservative think tank, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, after having done serious work in the Reagan White House and both Bush administrations. It's a resume that put newsworthy punch behind the most famous thing he's ever written: an op-ed in The New York Times in January 2016, before the Republicans primaries began, declaring he would never vote in a primary or general election for Donald Trump.
His "virulent combination of ignorance, emotional instability, demagogy, solipsism and vindictiveness would do more than result in a failed presidency," he wrote. "It could very well lead to national catastrophe."
This book is Wehner's prescription for what should happen now that his prediction has proved alarmingly short of that horrible mark. Civic discourse has become even coarser and more damaging than he imagined four years ago, he says, and Trump's disdain for the truth even more aggressive.
"Democracy requires that we honor the culture of words," says Wehner, who was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. "When words are weaponized and used merely to paint all political opponents as inherently evil, stupid, and weak, then democracy's foundations are put in peril."
The damage Trump has wrought to American political and democratic institutions, he maintains, will only start to get reversed if a critical mass of his fellow Republicans declare a willingness to work with Democrats to incubate a revival of civic engagement and a restoration of a civic culture where the absence of polarizing behavior is a rewarded virtue.
First, Wehner explains how we got here — in an extensive civics lesson with forays into the philosophies behind democracy, American history, the constitutional balance of powers and how previous recent presidents behaved.
He reintroduces the reader to the teachings of Aristotle, Locke and Lincoln and how they made the contributions that define American politics today: "One of the things I have learned from studying their lives is that politics is an art, not a science, and that the application of human ideals to human society is an immensely complicated task. No one ever gets it exactly right."
The "contempt for the political class" within the electorate that fueled Trump's rise, as he sees it, was born of a toxic mix of demographic disruption, economic anxiety in the middle class, polarization, distrust and invective. But he also says the governing class has done plenty to contribute, through its "a detachment from and an indifference toward the hardships facing tens of millions of Americans over the last several years."
Wehner sounds horrified at the way Trump uses words "to murder the very idea of truth." He also fingers the media as complicit in this corrupt enterprise: "His mastery of social media — and the media's ravenous need to cover Trump's every utterance — has given him the ability to invade and permeate people's thoughts and lives in unique ways."
Wehner, who's seen among the most thoughtful evangelical Christian political minds, also sounds appalled at how that crucial share of the electorate has become so unflinchingly loyal to the president. It's a consequence, he concludes, of the all-or-nothing nature of today's politics.
'Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy' — By Richard L. Hasen (Yale University Press, 138 pages, $28)
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A professor of law and political science at the University of California-Irvine, Hasen is a recognized expert on election law and a prolific author. He's combined those traits in his fifth mass-market book — a hard-hitting, cogently argued and brief takedown of the ways voting gets conducted in this country.
He warns that a widespread absence of both fairness and accuracy in elections has made the public justifiably distrustful of the process and appropriately worried their votes truly won't count this fall. And if those fears are borne out the crisis of confidence in the system could reach unprecedented levels, especially if they end up providing an opening for Donald Trump to do what no sitting president has done before and refuse to concede he's lost re-election.
"Our democracy depends on confidence in the fairness of the vote, and on the losers' acceptance of election results," Hasen notes crisply, but that formula may be scrambled in a close contest in November that Trump concludes has been tainted with "unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud."
Four central threats contributing to our mistrust, Hasen says, and they both separately and synergistically undermine voters' trust that election results reflect the will of the people.
The first is the suppression of voter registration not only through predictable means — Republican legislators pushing restrictive rules in states with potentially high (and Democratic) African-American turnout — but also in less widely reported ways, such as requirements that Native Americans living on reservations have street addresses on their voter ID cards.
The second is election administration incompetence. "The use of partisan election officials to decide key election questions" is a principal worry, Hasen says, noting that no state since 2000 has moved from partisan to nonpartisan election administration — the rule of thumb in most mature democracies.
Third are the ubiquitous domestic dirty tricks that have been magnified by the significant technical and strategic abilities of foreign adversaries to hack voting processes and manipulate public opinion. Hasen warns about Russian cyberthreats on America's power grid on Election Day, crippling critical election infrastructure — as well as the domestic extreme partisans mirroring the Russian disinformation methods exposed by Robert Mueller.
Finally, there's the incendiary rhetoric from the candidate-in-chief. In October 2016, Trump declared flatly that "I will totally accept the results of this election — if I win." The president's lawyer Michael Cohen has magnified the growing concern about this time, saying, "I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 there will never be a peaceful transition of power."
And so, Hasen warns, "one of the greatest risks to the integrity of the process comes from the sitting president of the United States." Whether he "poses an actual authoritarian danger to the peaceful transition of power, Trumpism and the Trump presidency have awakened public understanding that peaceful transitions via elections cannot be taken for granted."
'They Don't Represent Us: Reclaiming Our Democracy' — By Lawrence Lessig (Dey Street, 261 pages, $27)
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Lessig is a Harvard law professor and something of an omnipresent force in the democracy reform world. He's written five previous books on the topic, created or been on the board of a handful of advocacy groups and briefly sought the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination to promote his ideas for campaign finance limits, curbs on gerrymandering and expanding voting rights.
This time, Lessig writes from a premise that American democracy is at a critical crossroads: Our Founders placed guardrails in the Constitution to protect against extreme partisanship and institutional sclerosis, but the country is running off the rails in a crisis of unrepresentativeness. American democracy is failing and heading toward populism and authoritarianism, he concludes, and the tipping point could come as rapidly as the fall of the Berlin Wall three decades ago.
He sees two core causes of democracy's dysfunction: Americans have become disconnected from "them," the politicians and power brokers. But the problem is also "us," the millions who have allowed ourselves to become misinformed and maneuvered toward political extremism.
Lessig marshals polling to suggest that solid majorities, regardless of party, believe the following about their government: It benefits the big interests rather than all the people; Congress does not serve the common good and, besides, it is dysfunctional; corporations and their lobbyists have too much influence, thanks to a corrupt campaign financing system; elected officials think more about the interests of their donors than the common good of the people; and those same people then get to draw their own political boundaries.
After outlining the flaws that have overwhelmed U.S. citizens and prompted our political and media institutions to this misbehavior, Lessig proposes an array of ideas to save our democracy — or at least contribute to making both "us" and "them" feel more enfranchised.
To help fix the "them" problems, he proposes publicly financed vouchers that voters could use as contributions to candidates; the creation of House districts with several members each, chosen through ranked-choice voting; an array of Senate rule changes, including an end to the filibuster, to reduce the disproportionate power of small-state senators; and replacing the winner-take-all rules for the Electoral College with the awarding of electoral votes proportional to a state's popular vote result
The main way to fix the "us" problem, Lessig says, is to ignite a new culture of civic engagement. To help that along, he envisions the convening of all manner of panels of randomly chosen Amercians: "civic juries" to brainstorm changes in pubic policies, citizen assemblies to make recommendations to Congress, shadow conventions to propose changes to the Constitution and even shadow Congresses to press compromise ideas on the real but gridlocked senators and representatives.
One of Lessig's most provocative observations is that democracy is being harmed by a hyper partisan news echo chamber that gives too many of us what we crave but not what we need — a result of the end of the era when a relatively small number of media institutions put enormous numbers of people in the service of accuracy and balance. While the internet has "banished the censor" it's also "banished the editor" — and empowering more such people to act as the public's agent in finding the truth, he says, is a crucial part of democracy's path back to legitimacy.
'Uncounted: The Crisis of Voter Suppression in America' — By Gilda R. Daniels (NYU Press, 211 pages, $30)
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Daniels is an associate professor of law at the University of Baltimore but was a senior official in the civil rights division of the Justice Department in both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, making her keenly qualified to explain the decline and fall of one of the landmark democracy reforms in American history.
When it was enacted 55 years ago, the Voting Rights Act was viewed as the pinnacle achievement of the civil rights movement. And it generally worked as designed for the next five decades — assuring that many thousands of people, particularly African-Americans in the South, could register and then protecting their exercise of the franchise.
But if Selma, Ala., serves as the symbolic birthplace birthplace of the VRA, then Shelby County, just an hour and 15 minutes up the road, serves as its burial place.
Just shy of its 48th birthday, in the summer of 2013, the law was effectively killed by the Supreme Court through the landmark Shelby County v. Holder decision, ruling that the statute's beating heart provision couldn't be used any more because it was fueled with unconstitutionally outdated facts. This was the so-called preclearance section, which said states and localities with bad records of political discrimination had to get advance approval from Washington before changing any legislative boundaries, election laws or voting procedures.
"This decision gave the green light to jurisdictions that had as their mantra to turn back the hands of time on the right to vote," Daniels declares, labeling the decision "a direct reaction to the 2008 presidential election of the first African American."
Daniels recounts in vivid detail how aggressively so many states across the old Confederacy moved to take advantage of the decision, many of them literally within days, with any array of rules and behaviors making it much more difficult to vote: Shuttering polling places or closing them earlier than before, tightening what's acceptable as a voter ID, purging people from the rolls simply because they haven't cast ballots in a while, broadcasting deceptive or intimidating information about the when and where of Election Day.
She also highlights the intensifying struggle to reverse decades' worth of state laws preventing people out of prison from returning to the ballot box — "a vestige of a white-supremacist movement that decided that only white males should enjoy the unfettered right to vote."
She sees all this as an undeniable effort by Republicans, in charge of most areas once subject to preclearance, to suppress the turnout by those who vote decidedly Democratic. And it's not just African-Americans who are the victims, she notes: "Changing demographics — that is, the exponential growth of the Latin and Asian American communities — have spawned an expanded approach to disenfranchisement with proof of citizenship and punitive immigration laws."
Too many American citizens are "sleeping at a dangerous time," unaware this suppression of a few harms democracy for all. And yet, the book holds out hope the tide of suppression will turn — believing that a convergence of "litigation, legislation, social media, community building, organizations, and social, professional, and religious alliances" is in the offing to make that happen.
Those forces, she says, should turn their attention to several proposals for returning to a time when our political rights were much easier to exercise — enshrining the right to vote in the Constitution, ideally, but at least making Election Day a federal holiday and spending more taxpayer money to promote voter education and turnout.
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Botsford spent most of his professional career in Latin America, providing strategic advice to more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies doing business in the region.
Having lived and worked for more than 30 years in countries including Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia — all places with authoritarian regimes elected democratically — I have watched plenty of times as democratic institutions were systematically weakened and corruption allowed to flourish.
The comparisons between these countries and the United States today should be alarming to all of us, as the similarities are striking. An instruction manual exists on how to destroy the rule of law.
The United States is in the process of becoming authoritarian. No need to look any further than our hemispheric neighbors in Central and South America. Authoritarianism, as a result of military dictatorships, has become engraved into their societies and honed to perfection. Generals became strongmen, preferred by a society dependent on paternalistic leaders -- conservative or liberal, but always nationalist. Think Panama's Manuel Noriega or Argentina's Juan Peron on the right, or Venezuela's Hugo Chavez or Bolivia's Evo Morales on the left.
Why are many countries that were colonized by Spain, Portugal or France more corrupt in nature than countries colonized by England?
It's cultural and began with the Rule of Law. Napoleonic law governs much of Latin America, while English Common Law governs much of North America. So, depending on where you live in the hemisphere, private property can become fungible.
Political corruption was rare in the United States from the 1960s until the election of Donald Trump. Down south something close to the opposite is true: Vibrant postcolonial democracies mirrored on the U.S. Constitution were the norm until the 1920s, but since then their democratic institutions have been systematically dismantled.
The pattern has been consistent: A leader has been elected along with a loyal legislative branch, then he's set about to systematically corrupt the Rule of Law, hold power with a divide-and-conquer strategy and use his office for enriching himself and his family.
In order to succeed, these demagogues have dominated their nations' institutions of power:
- The legislature. (Just this month, the Venezuelan Congress was effectively taken over by its president.)
- The judiciary. (Ecuador's Supreme Court always obeys the president.)
- The media. (Brazil's president has suppressed its once free press.)
- Corporations. (Bolivia's president nationalized the private sector.)
- The spies. (The Argentinian president gutted the intelligence community.)
- The treasury. (The Peruvian president outright stole from government coffers.)
- Voting. (Nicaragua's president controlled the conduct of elections.)
Moreover, clientelism has been the currency of these authoritarian regimes. Webster's defines this as "a social order that depends upon relations of patronage; in particular, a political approach that emphasizes or exploits such relations."
Finally, these leaders have focused on cultivating a political base from a portion of the population that feels aggrieved — economically, socially or because of race. Their form of indoctrination builds slowly, starting with small innocuous changes. The analogy is to the frog who never realizes it's been boiled alive. The victim has been democracy itself, with the rule of law decapitated across a continent in favor of the leaders' rules and laws.
These demagogues have needed lots of cash, or the ability for great accumulation once in office, to spread around to their allies. Campaign fundraising kick-started these efforts, inauguration festivities accelerated them exponentially and then re-election campaign financing kept up the pace.
Kickbacks derived from government contracts became common practice. So too the notion of the national treasury as the leader's personal bank account.
The national legislature then readily becomes the dictator's rubber stamp, ushering his judicial picks onto the courts and keeping unwanted legislation stymied. Along the way, members of the opposition party have been systematically bullied into submission — or opted for early retirement.
Quickly installing a corrupt general prosecutor or attorney general has proved essential to demagogic success, followed by the selection of nothing but compliant judges and prosecutors.
While their work has commenced, the leaders' have labeled the press as the enemy of the people — corrupt media partners serving as echo chambers and drowning out balanced coverage. Opposition media has been stifled through economic pressure, allowing leaders to go unquestioned when they tell their people that what they see and hear elsewhere is not the truth — and that the executive is knowledge and wisdom's one true source.
Willing corporate allies have been rewarded with lucrative government contracts, while perceived enemies in the business community have been starved by the treasury until they submitted to the leader's will.
Corrupt foreign allies have also routinely been enlisted — to attack opponents or bring in investments, national security be damned, and even if it requires a hollowing out of the government's own intelligence-gathering community.
And if all this has not assured these leaders' indefinite hold on power, bureaucrats have been lined up to rig elections — timing them for the boss's maximum advantage, suppressing the opposition's path to the polls and stuffing ballot boxes for good measure.
All this has allowed these demagogues to hold power even when their red meat rhetoric has succeeded at herding only a third of the people into their blindly loyal base. In regional political jargon, it's known as controlling the street.
It's worked time and again for leaders who stage frequent political rallies, portraying themselves as men of the people who share many of the public's grievances. Scapegoating immigrants, accusing them of taking jobs from the natives, has proved a winning part of this formula. And portraying themselves as empathetic victims has had the added benefit of keeping the majority silent, out of fear of severe retribution from the riled up base.
Education across the continent is now all about indoctrination. To dominate the people requires starving them intellectually and stuffing them ideologically, their leaders have concluded, so writing critical of the government is often banished. "Shoes yes, books no" has been the demagogue's slogan across Central and South America since the 1940s.
Obfuscation, self-dealing, lies and corruption have been normalized for these leaders to succeed. It is very difficult to turn the clock back in the region. And it is impossible to avoid noticing parallels in our own country now.