04/20/2006 02:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Disparaging Populism & Creating Confrontation

The media's desire to put everything -- even other countries' political systems -- into "red vs. blue" terms often deliberately blurs the economic battles taking place right below the surface. Case in point is today"s story by Juan Forero in the New York Times about the rise of populist politics in Latin America. Forero's article finds its fulcrum in his assertion that the region's traditional, old-line, elitist parties "offered stability, a clear ideology and experienced functionaries ready to govern" and that the new parties that have swept them out of power "lack the cohesion and direction of traditional parties and, in many cases, much of an ideology." Put another way, we are led to believe thatthe binary "red-blue" paradigm in Latin America is not between Republicans and Democrats, but between stability and instability, with elites supposedly being the corrupt-but-desirable representatives of stability, and with commonfolk being the undesirable representatives of instability.

Obviously, this narrative reeks of class bias. It is also dishonest, in that "stability" is used as a wonderful-sounding euphemism for repressive governments, lack of basic worker rights, military juntas, etc. But perhaps even more incredible than this bias is the fact that Forero devotes all of one line in the entire story to the fact that populism has increased "as Latin Americans have grown frustrated with Washington-backed economic prescriptions like unfettered trade and privatization." It is as if he wants us to believe that the rise of these new political parties has only coincidentally coincided with popular anger at U.S.-backed "free" trade policy, military coups, repressive regimes, and Tom Friedman-style neoliberalism in general. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While I'll be the first to admit that I am no Latin America expert, it doesn't take a Latin America expert to know that what's going on in our Southern Hemisphere is the outpouring of unbridled rage at policies and politicians who think government is the exclusive sidearm of the wealthy and powerful. While the Times correctly notes that the new parties evolving from this rage are sometimes disorganized, and sometimes based on differing tactics -- it is nothing short of revisionism to suggest that there is not a palpable, fiery ideology that unifies all of these movements together: namely, a demand that politics starts belonging to people and not just the elites; that public policy starts serving ordinary citizens' economic interests -- not just the wealthy and powerful; and that the American government's insistence on ramming unfair trade policies down the throat's of the developing world is unacceptable.

To be sure, Americans are not going to agree with everything that every Latin American leader does. But it's clear that some in the media -- and many political elites here at home -- are trying to paint a cartoonish picture of what's going on down there in order to create an us vs. them, America vs. Latin America image in the public's mind. That's no accident -- there are two very distinct reasons that the powers that be want that.

First is the short-term reason: preserving corporate prerogatives in Latin America. Populism in the Southern Hemisphere threatens all sorts of industries. Look no further than Venezuela's oil reserves or Bolivia"s natural gas fields to know that any move by leaders in that region to make those resources actually help millions of ordinary citizens is a direct threat to the bottom line of very large, very powerful multinational corporations.

Second, and more broadly, as I note in my new book Hostile Takeover, the Big Money interests that control America's political Establishment are desperate to disparage any policies -- whether at home or abroad -- that actually make government stop working exclusively for the wealthy and start working for ordinary people. If those policies and the leaders who push them aren't disparaged, they might actually gain credibility. Americans might start asking why other countries are able to achieve more for more of thier citizens, while our country continues to pursue an economic Darwinism that is laying waste to our middle class. And if those questions start getting asked in a serious way, people might start demanding politicians answer those questions in ways that threaten the status quo. And to the interests profiting off the status quo, that's simply unacceptable.

This is why so much of our political debate -- both between politicians and in the media -- is artificially packaged in fabricated storylines. The binary storyline is one of the classics. If the debate is always a substance-free battle between two caricatures -- in America, it's "red vs. blue", in Latin America its "stability vs. instability" -- then the real class war that the Big Money interests are waging never get talked about. That's what Hostile Takeover seeks to uncover -- the real debates and the real truth beneath the corrupt, money-drenched politics that has decimated democracy. Because only when we start talking about the economic class issues at the heart of all these battles can citizens both here and abroad ever hope to take their governments back.