LONDON – Some people call it left-wing identity politics. Others call it “wokeism.” It helped elect Donald Trump president of the United States and provided convenient controversies to distract British voters from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s weak record in office. Woke politics is now traveling south, with equally dismal consequences.
For example, it is helping Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a Trump wannabe, to recover in the polls ahead of the country’s presidential election in October, making the race tighter than it was two months ago. In Chile, woke activists recently produced a draft constitution that The Economist has described as “ridiculously broad” and a “confusing mess.” Polls suggest voters are likely to reject it in a September 4 referendum.
Before I condemn myself to being “canceled,” let me state three obvious facts. Yes, countries like Brazil, Chile, and Colombia – where the right-wing populist Rodolfo Hernández received 47% of the vote in the recent presidential election runoff – after long histories of social injustice, income inequality, and racial and gender discrimination, need serious reform.
Yes, the left in Latin America has managed some striking achievements, like the election of Francia Márquez, an environmental activist, as the first Afro-Colombian vice president. And yes, the likes of Bolsonaro, Hernández, and Chile’s José Antonio Kast – another far-right presidential candidate who did unexpectedly well – have relied on fake news and armies of bots to discredit progressive candidates and causes.
But those facts tell only part of the story. The other part is that the shortcomings of woke politics – ideological rigidity, a penchant for intolerance, and disregard for the practicalities of governing – become even more jarring and dangerous when transposed to Latin America, Africa, or Asia. Populists and radicals – especially on the far right – are the likely beneficiaries.
Recent developments in Chile illustrate this political dynamic. Following widespread social unrest, Chileans voted overwhelmingly in October 2020 to have a new constitution written by an elected constitutional convention. The process generated much hope, and the convention’s 155 members – young, socially and ethnically diverse, and with few connections to the country’s traditional political establishment – initially seemed to embody it.
But the rosy expectations soon came crashing down. At the inaugural ceremony, conventioneers heckled the national anthem, which (unlike the overwhelming majority of Chileans) they apparently viewed as a symbol of oppression. When socialists voted against environmental provisions that would have halted private investment, a group of so-called “eco-conventioneers” chased them down the hallways yelling “Traitors!” By June 2022, nearly 60% of voters were telling pollsters that they had little or no trust in the convention.
In Brazil, meanwhile, Bolsonaro is running as the candidate of Christian values, depicting the opposition Workers’ Party (PT) and its presidential candidate, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, as out of step with voters. Bolsonaro has cemented an alliance with evangelical Christian churches – a political bombshell in a country where evangelicals comprise as much as one-third of the electorate – thanks largely to PT campaign blunders. One can strongly support artistic freedom and LGBT+ rights, as Brian Winter recently argued in Americas Quarterly, and still understand why it is politically unwise for the PT to tweet a picture of a half-naked Pabllo Vittar, a popular Brazilian singer and drag queen, holding aloft a Lula campaign flag.
There are fundamental reasons why wokeism is turning off Latin American voters and paving the way for right-wing populists and authoritarians. One is the disconnect between the woke agenda and the concerns of middle-class voters.
For example, the Chilean draft constitution supports “community management of the habitat” and guarantees the right of “peasants and indigenous peoples to the free use and exchange of traditional seeds.” But, in a country whose population is 90% urban and suffers from a chronic housing shortage, the document fails to clarify whether residents could ever own their government-built units. And despite Chile’s rapidly aging population and national fixation with pensions, the text is fuzzy as to whether old-age savings would be inheritable.
After denying for months that these were valid concerns, and accusing critics of spreading fake news, the governing parties admitted in mid-August that on these points the proposed constitution requires amendment and clarification. But by that point, a good chunk of the middle class had decided to vote thumbs-down in the forthcoming referendum.
On matters of crime, violence, and public safety, woke leftists and mainstream voters inhabit different universes. As in the United States, police brutality, racial bias, and a heavy-handed approach to crowd control are common in Latin America. But if calls to defund the police seem questionable in Detroit or Los Angeles, they sound downright insane in a region with some of the world’s highest crime and murder rates. Yet, during recent social unrest in Colombia and Chile, protesters used the English-language acronym ACAB (all cops are bastards). In Chile, the rioters’ emblem was a black dog called Matapacos (cop-killer). In both countries, citizens report they feel increasingly insecure.
This feeds directly into electoral politics. In 2016, Colombian voters rejected a peace agreement that they regarded as too soft on the guerrillas who had committed violent crimes. In addition to wooing Christian voters, Bolsonaro has made law and order the centerpiece of his re-election bid. The media darling in the Chilean referendum campaign is a shopkeeper whose sandwich joint has been repeatedly vandalized by rioters. And in El Salvador, where tens of thousands of gang members are being imprisoned on increasingly flimsy legal grounds, President Nayib Bukele’s popularity is soaring.
Latin American woke campaigners miss other crucial points, too. Activists legitimately concerned with indigenous rights are pushing for political power to be devolved to small local communities. That sounds great, but it risks further fragmenting already weak states and hindering the delivery of urgently needed social services, which would harm the poor and vulnerable the most.
No wonder authoritarian populists are smiling. The international media are fixated on Latin America’s “pink tide” of recently elected left-leaning governments, but perhaps they should instead start preparing for a right-wing wave of Bolsonaro and Bukele clones. Will it be called the “brown shirt shakeup” or the “iron fist folly”? Headline writers should start searching for labels.
(Andrés Velasco, a former presidential candidate and finance minister of Chile, is Dean of the School of Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022. www.project-syndicate.