An unabashedly populist president, a steady drip of corruption scandals, deep-rooted political dysfunction, and no clear path to stability. It may sound like Donald Trump’s Washington, but it could just as easily describe Brasilia, Brazil; Caracas, Venezuela; or Buenos Aires, Argentina, in recent years.
If populism and corruption have a rhythm, Latin America has it down better than anyone. After a wave of left-wing populist presidents were elected in the 1990s and 2000s, Latin America saw a decade of prosperity fueled by high commodity prices and generous social programs—but in recent years, the region’s economies have collapsed, trapping politics in cycles of cynicism and dysfunction.
Throughout the region, these crises also uncovered massive networks of graft, abuse, and corruption at all levels. In response, bold and ambitious anti-corruption campaigners have fought to clean up politics in several countries, with only mixed success. As the newly minted Democratic House majority prepares to use its oversight power to take on Trump-era rot and mismanagement in the United States, it should study these examples carefully.
To be sure, the challenges in the United States are different. Legal and political institutions north of the Rio Grande are far stronger than those in Latin America. More importantly, corruption in the United States—at least until recently—has been subtler. Less than outright bribery or personal enrichment, U.S. institutions are mainly undermined by legalized threats: out-of-control campaign finance, lobbying by special interests, and revolving doors between government and industry.
At the same time, there are clear parallels. Not only were most Latin American presidential and congressional systems largely modeled on the U.S. Constitution, countries across the Americas also tend to face similar political challenges, including inequality, polarization, concentrated executive power, and complicated dynamics of race and class. Moreover, political, legal, and regulatory institutions in the United States are clearly decaying, entrenched in complex networks of interest-group capture—even to the point of resembling Latin America’s historically cabal-driven politics. The result is similar levels of voter discontent. Faith in Congress has not topped 15 percent since 2009. Public trust in the U.S. federal government has been below 25 percent since the George W. Bush era. A similar poll found approximately the same percentage of Latin Americans to be satisfied with their democracies.
In fact, in 2018 a plurality of U.S. voters described corruption as their top concern, above health care and the economy, and polling shows they overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates. Accordingly, House Democrats of all stripes—from Nancy Pelosi and John Sarbanes to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—promise to make fighting corruption a centerpiece of their strategy for the next two (or six) years of the Trump administration. In doing so, Democrats should study how Latin America’s historic anti-impunity movement has fought to thwart graft, abuse of power, and populism. They’ll find three lessons to follow.
First, focus on reforms, not just investigations.
Populism everywhere is driven by a perception that voters’ voices are not being heard. That feeling of unfairness can only be soothed with changes in how government works, not just punishing bad actors. In Latin America, prosecutions without reforms have had a perverse effect on political stability. Each new scandal represents progress in the fight against impunity but also magnifies public discontent.
Take Brazil, the epicenter of Latin American corruption. The country’s Lava Jato (Car Wash) judicial probe is arguably the most successful anti-corruption mechanism in world history. Since 2014, prosecutors have exposed billions of dollars in graft and jailed dozens of high-profile figures, including former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whom Barack Obama once called “the most popular politician on earth.” At the same time, the past four years have rendered Brazil’s economy and political system a smoking ruin. So Brazilian voters turned in rage and desperation to Jair Bolsonaro, an outwardly authoritarian, far-right populist, who took office on New Year’s Day. There are, and should be, doubts about the future of Brazil’s democracy.
The best way to break the cycle and avoid Brazil’s fate is to counter cynicism with an ambitious positive agenda to reform campaign finance and conflicts of interest. Hearings, subpoenas, investigations, prosecutions, and even impeachment are not enough to restore voters’ trust in the system.
Second, improve politics from the inside and show how “anti-corruption” does not need to be “anti-establishment.”
When government is seen as rotten, the temptation is to burn everything down or look for untainted outside candidates. But the dangers of that are obvious. In 1998, Venezuelan voters—enraged by an elitist, two-party system seen as out of touch—elected a charismatic army officer considered to be honest and genuine. True, Hugo Chávez thoroughly destroyed the old order, but the dystopian dictatorship he installed is unquestionably far worse.
And an outsider need not be Trump or Bolsonaro or Chávez to do more damage than good. See Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, a soft-spoken former comedian and political neophyte elected in 2015 with the slogan “not corrupt, not a thief.” In August, he sparked a constitutional crisis by attempting to shutter the much-praised U.N. anti-impunity commission whose muckraking helped get him elected.
Establishment politicians should learn from the mistakes of their Latin American counterparts, who despite public pressure have mostly failed to take corruption seriously. This applies not just to Democrats but also the growing number of Republicans—like Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse—who see the writing on the wall.
Third, be patient and keep an eye on the economy.
Historically, populism, corruption, and partisanship ebb and flow in a cycle tied to expectations and economic outcomes. In Argentina, the left-wing populist husband-wife duo Néstor and Cristina Kirchner dominated politics from 2003–15. Their Trump-like scandals and abuses of power went mostly ignored until, eventually, mismanagement tanked the economy. Today, Argentina is led by Mauricio Macri, a fairly mainstream and technocratic center-right leader, and Cristina Kirchner is on trial for corruption.
The best strategy for Democrats is patience and sustained effort; nothing will be fixed overnight. They should promote an alternative vision for effective, fair, and representative government as the failures of Trumpism become increasingly self-evident.
If Latin America is any guide, the fight against corruption will take years and the gains will be tenuous. Even though the United States has far more institutional strength and resiliency than most Latin American governments, fixing the cracks in the political system—those that preceded Trump as well as those he has brazenly pried open—is a long, uphill battle.
Democrats, and the country, cannot afford to wait.