Saturday, January 28, 2017

The wrong way to oppose a populist: Lessons from Venezuela

In Venezuela, the urban middle class I come from was cast as the enemy in the political struggle that followed Chávez’s arrival in 1998. For years, I watched in frustration as the opposition failed to do anything about the catastrophe overtaking our nation. Only later did I realize that this failure was self-inflicted. So now, to my American friends, here is some advice on how to avoid Venezuela’s mistakes.

Populism can survive only amid polarization. It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy. Never forget that you’re that enemy. Trump needs you to be the enemy, just like all religions need a demon. A scapegoat. “But facts!” you’ll say, missing the point entirely. ...

Don’t feed polarization, disarm it. This means leaving the theater of injured decency behind.

That includes rebukes such as the one the “Hamilton” cast gave Vice President-elect Mike Pence shortly after the election. While sincere, it only antagonized Trump; it surely did not convince a single Trump supporter to change his or her mind. Shaming has never been an effective method of persuasion.

The Venezuelan opposition struggled for years to get this. We wouldn’t stop pontificating about how stupid Chavismo was, not only to international friends but also to Chávez’s electoral base. “Really, this guy? Are you nuts? You must be nuts,” we’d say. ...

By looking down on Trump’s supporters, you’ve lost the first battle. Instead of fighting polarization, you’ve played into it.

The worst you can do is bundle moderates and extremists together and think that America is divided between racists and liberals. That’s the textbook definition of polarization. We thought our country was split between treacherous oligarchs and Chávez’s uneducated, gullible base. The only one who benefited was Chávez.

Our opposition tried every single trick in the book. Coup d’etat? Check. Ruinous oil strike? Check. Boycotting elections in hopes that international observers would intervene? You guessed it. ...

The people on the other side — and crucially, independents — will rebel against you if you look like you’re losing your mind. You will have proved yourself to be the very thing you’re claiming to be fighting against: an enemy of democracy. And all the while you’re giving the populist and his followers enough rhetorical fuel to rightly call you a saboteur, an unpatriotic schemer, for years to come. ...

In Venezuela, the opposition focused on trying to reject the dictator by any means possible — when we should have just kept pointing out how badly Chávez’s rule was hurting the very people he claimed to be serving. ...

The problem, remember, 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 more valuable to them as an enemy than as a compatriot. 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.

In Venezuela, we fell into this trap in a bad way. We wrote again and again about principles, about separation of powers, civil liberties, the role of the military in politics, corruption and economic policy. But it took opposition leaders 10 years to figure out that they needed to actually go to the slums and the countryside. Not for a speech or a rally, but for a game of dominoes or to dance salsa — to show they were Venezuelans, too, that they weren’t just dour scolds and could hit a baseball, could tell a joke that landed. That they could break the tribal divide, come down off the billboards and show that they were real.
--Andrés Miguel Rondón, Washington Post, on e pluribus unum