Representative Democracy and Alternative Models: Notes on Latin America

1. In Latin America, the institutions of representative democracy have only very rarely been robust enough to successfully represent society. From these institutions' inception as republics, the capitalist economy of Latin America was insufficiently dynamic to be able to absorb significant portions of the population. The proportional prominence of peasantries and ‘informal economies’ meant that there were significant portions of the population that did not experience the state as an institutional order that represented them, and for which they, in turn, paid by way of their taxes. This type of situation, today often referred to as ‘exclusion,’ can perhaps better be conceptualized as a kind of ‘excess’ in the sense that states were too weak to develop a deep biopolitical connection to their populations. For this reason, Latin American republics have been the site of much political experimentation. They provide a rich repertoire of political forms—many of them unstable, but also persistent.

2. The result of this dynamic in the nineteenth century was a tension between Jacobinism (in various forms) and representative democracy. This tension was manifest even in the ideology of modernizing dictatorships; for example, that of Porfirio Díaz in Mexico, who was The Indispensable Man’ on one hand (suggesting a pivotal role of the leader, consonant with Jacobinism), but who, on the other, handed significant roles in his administration to a coterie of Positivist ideologues who used Comte’s philosophy as a way of figuring the Liberal dictatorship as a transitional evolutionary mechanism that tended (inexorably and step by step) to build a representative system.

3. These tensions in the nineteenth century were also visible in pendular oscillations between centralism and federalism and enfranchisement and disenfranchisement, as well as in the tension between conservatives—who sought to preserve the buffering role of the Church and the military (each of which with its own sphere of jurisdiction) as key mediating institutions and were wedded to various restrictions to access to full citizenship—and the Liberals, who supported representative democracy in principle but who often tended to Jacobinism (that is, to favoring unmediated forms of popular sovereignty, leading easily to populist dictatorships).

4. After World War I, some of these tensions became more mitigated and less pronounced. Industrialism, which took off beginning roughly in the 1880s, incorporated important swaths of the popular classes into a more active relation of representation in the state. Indeed, even the rich history of Latin American populisms of the mid-twentieth century (say, Peronism, the Estado Novo in Brazil or Cardenismo in Mexico) was marked by the prominent role of corporate structures (e.g., labor federations, agrarian unions) as mediators in the democratic system or as institutions that could mitigate the power of dictators. Indeed, even in cases where key elements of representative democracy were weak, for instance in the case of Mexico’s PRI, where executive power was not much balanced either by the legislative or judicial branches, corporate structures produced at least some active politics of representation.

5. In both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the tension between representative democracy and the politics of ‘exclusion’ is manifested in Latin American history in what can be called a ‘politics of the street.’ By this, I mean that alongside the mechanisms of representation associated with electoral democracy, there has thrived a politics of representation based on the ability to occupy public space and, from there, to negotiate with the state. The tension between the institutional mechanisms of representative democracy (e.g., the vote, the use of the public sphere, recourse to judicial injunctions) and the informal mechanisms of the ‘politics of the street’ is often symptomatic of the nature and composition of a regime. So, for instance, the intensity of the politics of the street in contemporary populist regimes (such as Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela or Kirchenerist Argentina) contrast as much with stronger representative democracies (for instance, those of Chile and Brazil, or even those of Colombia and Mexico) as they do with totalitarian or post-totalitarian Cuba.

6. The rise of new populisms as reactions to neoliberal reform has been fundamental to an active politics of redistribution in Latin America. At the same time, at this point in time, it is clear that it is important to defend representative democracy in the region because Jacobin populist regimes (like those mentioned) flourish, along with what might be characterized as a ‘nervous’ relationship between the leader and the people—a relationship that must be negotiated and renegotiated daily (in interminable speeches and state rituals) because it is founded in the politics of the street, rather than in the mechanisms of representative democracy.

Most seriously, perhaps, the economic imaginary that emerges from this structure of daily negotiation is one that sees the republic either as plunder or as cornucopia—that is, as the source of all redistributive wealth.  It is symptomatic that much of the ‘new’ Latin American left is fundamentally ‘neo-Republican’ (which is why it has revived figures like Bolivar, Juarez, or Rosas, who were not figures of the left in earlier generations). This problem—what one might call the poverty of the economic imaginary in the neo-Republican left—is perhaps the most important flaw of these movements. Their strength of commitment to strategies of redistribution through the state goes hand in hand with nationalist and republican views of the economy that favor thematizing rent (including taxation) over thinking about innovation in production. It is perhaps not a coincidence that these regimes have flourished alongside a boom in commodity exports (e.g., oil in Venezuela and Ecuador, soybeans in Argentina, mining in Bolivia).

7. On the other hand, Latin America’s representative democracies continue to have their ‘sin of origin’: as long as there is radical ‘exclusion’ (or excess), an exclusion that has been often indexed by the region’s deep inequalities, they continue to be deeply impositional and undemocratic for important sectors of the population. So, for instance, Brazil’s new laws defending labor rights of domestic servants have been hailed as a ‘second emancipation from slavery’ in the country that has the greatest number of domestic servants in the continent—around seven million.

Indeed, if representative democracy is to be defended and to continue to thrive, it must incorporate a deep, expensive, effective, imaginative, and detailed set of institutional commitments dedicated to addressing inequality and, especially, to guaranteeing a minimum shared level of income, education, and health for citizenship to be possible and meaningful. There is, today, some serious movement in this direction, with important strides in the reduction of inequality and poverty in a number of Latin American countries. In my view, it is in this area—the development of public policies around minimal shared levels of welfare in citizenship—that political creativity is best expended, and without this, the countries of the region will tend to populist cycles of inflation that always deflate either into dictatorships or into deep societal crises.

About the Author
Claudio Lomnitz is the Campbell Family Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University.