The “Idiot” species, we suggested, bore responsibility for Latin America’s underdevelopment. Its beliefs—revolution, economic nationalism, hatred of the United States, faith in the government as an agent of social justice, a passion for strongman rule over the rule of law—derived, in our opinion, from an inferiority complex. In the late 1990s, it seemed as if the Idiot were finally retreating. But the retreat was short lived. Today, the species is back in force in the form of populist heads of state who are reenacting the failed policies of the past, opinion leaders from around the world who are lending new credence to them, and supporters who are giving new life to ideas that seemed extinct. ~Alvaro Vargas Llosa

Far be it from me to defend the wisdom of crowds and the virtues of democracy.  If Mr. Vargas Llosa wants to say that the policy preferences of mass democratic electorates are often foolish and unsound, I will not contradict him.  However, I tend to find the anti-populism of the liberal democrat a little hard to take, since it is so transparently inconsistent with his own confidence in democratic government.  There is often nothing obviously more purely rational and less self-interested about the preferences of the liberal democrat that puts him in the position to laugh at the populist and socialist as an “idiot.”  Carl Schorske’s cultural history of fin-de-siecle Vienna was one work that revealed to me this contempt of the 19th century liberal and his sympathisers for the conservative Catholic, the nationalist and the socialist: in this telling, liberals conceived of themselves as embattled heroes of rationality, and their foes were foolish crowds stupidly pursuing “magical” answers that could not be explained by anything other than irrationality.  In fact, the backlash against classical liberalism across all of Europe and, to some extent, also here in America was the result of the failure of liberal policies to address the interests and needs of huge numbers of people.  There is good reason why Christian democracy and social democracy became the dominant forces in European politics in virtually every country: most constituencies did not benefit from and did not want the liberal order.  The story of modern Europe is the story of how liberty and democracy are frequently mutually exclusive, but it also offers an important reminder that there are social and political goods that most people will privilege ahead of fairly abstract notions of liberty. 

Liberal economic policies were geared for the benefit of liberal middle-class voters and promised, eventually, benefits for others as well, but in the short term the rural and labour interests were quite rationally and sensibly opposed to policies that privileged the interests of buergerlich city-dwellers and the interests of capital and finance.  Liberals are always caught in the paradox that they endorse all of the contractual and egalitarian theories that must lead inexorably to universal suffrage and mass democracy, knowing at the same time that their definition of good government and freedom is not shared by the overwhelming majority of people in the world and will likely be repudiated once everyone has a vote.  Nowadays they possess a charmingly naive faith in the virtues of democracy, but reserve the right to declare the exercise of the franchise in ways they dislike to be the workings of idiocy.  This role today is taken up by the inheritors of the American Freisinnigen, the Republicans, who are quite happy to extol the glories of democracy and “people power” at every turn when it seems to vindicate their policy preferences until the demos turns against them, whereupon they rediscover that America is supposed to be a republic and the madness of crowds is a dangerous and worrisome phenomenon.  It is as some of them are Jacobins who are willing to pose as Federalists when the occasion requires; the centralising tendencies of both Jacobin and Federalist make this contradictory stance less absurd than it might otherwise be.  But that is another story.         

Back to Latin American idiocy.  What is striking about this analysis is not its rude dismissal of the recurring preferences of large numbers of Latin Americans, but the treatment of the resurgence of “the Idiot” as if nothing in the 1990s happened that might have caused many Latin American nations to question the neoliberalism that was being promoted as the answer to “the Idiot.”  Latin American electorates did not turn on neoliberalism out of a fit of pique or whimsy–like its original, neoliberalism introduced any number of strains and upheavals into the societies where neoliberal policies were implemented and austerity budgets alienated those who depended on government largesse.  Like classical liberalism, neoliberalism has proved to be wildly unpopular.  The disasters of neoliberalism in Argentina in particular seemed to vindicate increased hostility to such policies.  Even though the Argentinian government could be fairly blamed for the overspending that pushed their country into the debt crisis that led to the meltdown that impoverished many Argentines, the association of the ruling party and the government with neoliberal policies tainted the entire theory with the failures of their mismanagement. 

If “the Idiot” has returned with a vengeance, it is because neoliberal politicians also acted pretty idiotically in their own right and discredited the alternative to old-fashioned populism.  To the extent that neoliberalism was associated with pro-American attitudes, its failure made hostility to U.S. policy fashionable once again.  Rather than face up to any of these political realities, Vargas Llosa goes so far as to declare outside sympathisers with this backlash to be guilty of “intellectual treason” (whatever that means). 

The author takes the easy road of bashing Hugo Chavez, who is so ridiculous that criticising him is a bit like calling in an airstrike on a barrel of fish.  He cites Chavez’s admiration for Chomsky and Chomsky’s admiration for Chavez.  That is a surprise–two radical leftists admire each other!  In other news, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair get along, and Christopher Hitchens does not believe in God.  Somehow Foreign Policy thought it worth publishing an article that tells us that (contrary to all of those numerous Western claims of success) Venezuelan social and economic policies are not working very well.  Plus, did you realise that some sociology professor from Binghampton University (where?) has defended the Cuban government?  How could you not know–he is apparently an “American opinion leader.”  Continuing to show the vast influence of ”idiot” sympathisers in the industrialised West, Mr. Vargas Llosa has dug up a lecture by Harold Pinter (he’s still alive?) in which Pinter rallies to the side of the old Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas (because it’s never too late to justify communist atrocities).  Of course, it’s dreadful to have people still defending the Sandinistas, but in an age when Trotsky admirers appear in the pages of National Review it might just be that old leftists rehashing debates of the 1980s are not the most pressing concern of our time.

But did you know that there are occasionally news stories written about Chavez that do not roundly condemn him and all his works?  Clearly, there are terrible and sinister forces at work!  That is not all.  He goes on:

Populists share basic characteristics: the voluntarism of the caudillo as a substitute for the law; the impugning of the oligarchy and its replacement with another type of oligarchy; the denunciation of imperialism (with the enemy always being the United States); the projection of the class struggle between the rich and the poor onto the stage of international relations; the idolatry of the state as a redeeming force for the poor; authoritarianism under the guise of state security; and “clientelismo,” a form of patronage by which government jobs—as opposed to wealth creation—are the conduit of social mobility and the way to maintain a “captive vote” in the elections.     

This is all perfectly true, and it is also a pretty good definition of every welfarist, progressive and social democratic political movement that has come to power in North America and Europe for the last seventy years.  Give or take a point, it could be a very good description of FDR and the New Deal.  These movements are routinely very wrong about the efficacy of the policies they promote, they are often quite stupid about economics and they often end up worsening the conditions of the people they set out allegedly to help, and they are, of course, vehicles for ambitious men to acquire power for themselves, but they came into being in response to the inadequate representation and inadequate response of governments dominated by other forces.  It may be the case that Latin American governments working on behalf of the interests of the wealthy oligarchs pursue policies that are better for the economic development of their respective countries, and it may often be the case that populist backlashes harm these countries, but it is entirely understandable and predictable that marginalised, dispossessed and poor people who see relatively few obvious benefits from this order are going to seek some kind of change.  There is not even a hint that there might be some explicable cause for the resurgence of populism–it can only be idiocy. 

Now, obviously Western sympathy with Chavismo is fairly idiotic, but it is also highly unrepresentative of most Western opinion, just as Chavismo itself is largely unrepresentative of most Latin American left-populism.  Most Latin American nations have turned left without indulging in the more absurd excesses of Venezuela and Bolivia, and they will benefit from their moderation.  The “threat” described in this article is not really that threatening, since it refers to the political sympathies of mostly marginal and far-left Western figures who have limited influence, if they have any at all, on policy.  The regimes for which they have sympathies are themselves relatively weak and have already begun to suffer the economic consequences of their flawed policies.