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POLITICS/ Populism, Chavez & Obama

MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS comments on the populist way through which Hugo Chavez governed Venezuela, and outlines the possible positives and negatives of populism in the American politics

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In the movie “Game Change” the character playing Sen. John McCain is encouraged to go on the attack against then-candidate Sen. Barack Obama, specifically with ads highlighting inflammatory remarks made by Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. McCain recounts what happened in the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary, when he was accused of fathering a black child out of wedlock: McCain and his wife had adopted a girl from Bangladesh. McCain recalls having to explain the situation when she got older and googled her own name. He concludes the discussion by saying, “There is a dark side to American populism, and some people get elected by tapping into that. I am not one of those people.

Hugo Chavez died yesterday and he embodied the dark side of populism, which in Venezuela did not have the racist overtones of conservative populism in the U.S. but has its own ugliness. Chavez was not just a populist but a thug, standing in a long line of caudillos of both left and right who created a narrative in which the caudillo embodies the aspirations of his people and, so, is justified in rooting out enemies – not of him, but because they are his enemies, enemies of the people too! To this end, the media is turned into a propaganda arm of the caudillo and his government, historical thugs like Che Guevara are made popular heroes, political parties are suppressed or co-opted, civil society is subsumed into the party of the caudillo, and sooner or later, human rights and personal liberties vanish. Often, there is great applause from the populace whom the caudillo is sure gets just enough crumbs from his table to keep their loyalty, but not enough that they might get an education and begin to ask questions.

We normally translate the Spanish word “caudillo” as “leader,” but the essence of the word is perhaps more accurately by the German translation, “fuhrer.”

Chavez could have been ignored except for the fact that Venezuela has gobs of oil. And he used this asset with great effect, propping up the corrupt regime in Cuba, enticing Joe Kennedy Jr. to sing Chavez’s praises, and aiding other populist gangsters posing as statesmen in Latin America. That he charmed Sean Penn and a few other Hollywood stars tells you all you need to know about Hollywood’s intellectual and moral authority. Let us hope that his repressive regime follows him into the grave.

Populism need not be dark. In fact, in the U.S., and on the left, I would like to see a bit more of it. During the debate over the fiscal cliff at the end of last year, President Obama rightly noted that over the past several decades, middle class incomes have stagnated or fallen, while all the increased wealth generated by our often over-heated economy had gone disproportionately to the top one or ten percent of Americans. Growing income inequality is not only an affront to basic notions of justice, it is dangerous to the long-term stability of any political culture.