Democracy’s Future


Three years ago Mexico’s one-party system was finally cracked open by the election of Vicente Fox. Since then Mexico has rushed from euphoria to apathy in record time. The change from over seventy years of Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) rule to a presidency led by a member of the National Action party (PAN) was heralded as the revitalization of the political party system and of government itself. Many leaders of grassroots organizations and citizen movements looked forward to a new era of participation, openness, and transition. Now the speed with which those hopes were dashed is commensurate to the snail’s pace of real change.

Latin American countries have long been encouraged to emulate U.S. representative democracy, channeling ebullient social movements into party-building and electoral processes. Since the 70s, most opposition movements have taken the plunge into party politics–with varying degrees of success.

Now, throughout the hemisphere, the relationship between grassroots mobilization and electoral participation has come under the lens of political analysts and activists alike. In Brazil, a government born out of an opposition movement walks a tightrope between its grassroots constituency and its obligations to maintain stability and appease the international finance system. In Bolivia, coca-leader Evo Morales’ close bid for the presidency has strengthened the resolve of the movement to continue participating in local and national elections.

On the other hand, the members of the powerful Ecuadorian social movement that brought Lucio Gutierrez to power–led by the CONAIE–have called the president to task for what they consider a betrayal of the popular mandate and have begun to question their participation in party politics and government. Mexico appears to have been so successful in creating a <U.S.-style> tweedle-dee, tweedle-dum party system that the electorate has lost interest in the multimillion-dollar midterm campaigns. A recent study by the Federal Electoral Institute concludes that recent high abstention rates reflect discontent with political parties and a sense that, according to a quote from a citizen survey, “the vote doesn’t contribute at all to changing things.”

U.S. society is also reevaluating the role of elections in democracy, but in strangely contradictory ways. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) recently launched an attack on nongovernmental organizations, warning of the “growing power of the unelected few.” By attacking citizen groups that seek to inform policymaking as “unelected,” the implicit assertion is that voting is no longer a form of democratic participation, but the sole legitimate exercise of democracy. The second implication–that NGOs have no valid role to play in policymaking or governance–is, as many have pointed out, ironic since the AEI is an NGO and plays an unprecedented role within the Bush administration. As if that weren’t enough, the Bush administration itself holds office in violation of the popular vote that the AEI now claims is the be-all and end-all of political action.

While criticizing these views, progressive organizations have also begun to look seriously at returning to the electoral arena. This week, <MoveOn.org–the> million-and-a-half member internet group that catalyzed anti-war actions across the country–is sponsoring a political primary, a year and a half before the presidential elections. Other grassroots organizations that have avoided electoral politics like the plague are suddenly talking about participating due to what they perceive as the urgency of unseating the conservative coup. This infusion of activism in electoral politics could reduce the traditionally high abstention rates in U.S. elections, which in itself would be a triumph for the democratic system. What remains to be seen is whether the doddering Democratic Party will respond to pressure from a revitalized base or continue to cater to entrenched interest groups.

What all these experiences go to show is that in equations for social change, going to the polls is just one variable. Real democracy depends on a keen interplay between electoral participation and grassroots movements. High abstention in Mexico’s July 6th elections would be a wake-up call not only for that country’s major political parties, but also for parties throughout the hemisphere. If political parties–in the United States and Latin America–insist on distilling complex demands for change into a media-centered battle for the vote, they may soon be writing their own epitaphs.

LAURA CARLSEN directs the Americas Program of the Interhemispheric Resource Center. She can be contacted at mailto:laura@irc-online.org.

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .

November 24, 2015
Dave Lindorff
An Invisible US Hand Leading to War? Turkey’s Downing of a Russian Jet was an Act of Madness
Mike Whitney
Turkey Downs Russian Fighter to Draw NATO and US Deeper into Syrian Quagmire
Walter Clemens
Who Created This Monster?
Patrick Graham
Bombing ISIS Will Not Work
Lida Maxwell
Who Gets to Demand Safety?
Eric Draitser
Refugees as Weapons in a Propaganda War
David Rosen
Trump’s Enemies List: a Trial Balloon for More Repression?
Eric Mann
Playing Politics While the Planet Sizzles
Chris Gilbert
“Why Socialism?” Revisited: Reflections Inspired by Einstein’s Article
Charles Davis
NSA Spies on Venezuela’s Oil Company
Michael Barker
Democracy vs. Political Policing
Barry Lando
Shocked by Trump? Churchill Wanted to “Collar Them All”
Cal Winslow
When Workers Fight: the National Union of Healthcare Workers Wins Battle with Kaiser
Norman Pollack
Where Does It End?: Left Political Correctness
David Macaray
Companies Continue to Profit by Playing Dumb
Binoy Kampmark
Animals in Conflict: Diesel, Dobrynya and Sentimental Security
Dave Welsh
Defiant Haiti: “We Won’t Let You Steal These Elections!”
November 23, 2015
Vijay Prashad
The Doctrine of 9/11 Anti-Immigration
John Wight
After Paris: Hypocrisy and Mendacity Writ Large
Joseph G. Ramsey
No Excuses, No Exceptions: the Moral Imperative to Offer Refuge
Patrick Cockburn
ISIS Thrives on the Disunity of Its Enemies
Andrew Moss
The Message of Montgomery: 60 Years Later
Jim Green
James Hansen’s Nuclear Fantasies
Robert Koehler
The Absence of History in the Aftermath of Paris
Dave Lindorff
The US Media and Propaganda
Dave Randle
France and Martial Law
Gilbert Mercier
If We Are at War, Let’s Bring Back the Draft!
Alexey Malashenko
Putin’s Syrian Gambit
Binoy Kampmark
Closing the Door: US Politics and the Refugee Debate
Julian Vigo
A Brief Genealogy of Disappearance and Murder
John R. Hall
Stuck in the Middle With You
Barbara Nimri Aziz
McDonalds at 96th Street
David Rovics
At the Center of Rebellion: the Life and Music of Armand
Weekend Edition
November 20-22, 2015
Jason Hirthler
Paris and the Soldiers of the Caliphate: More War, More Blowback
Sam Husseini
The Left and Right Must Stop the Establishment’s Perpetual War Machine
Mike Whitney
Hillary’s War Whoop
Pepe Escobar
In the Fight Against ISIS, Russia Ain’t Taking No Prisoners
Ajamu Baraka
The Paris Attacks and the White Lives Matter Movement
Andrew Levine
The Clintons are Coming, the Clintons are Coming!
Linda Pentz Gunter
Let’s Call Them What They Are: Climate Liars
Paul Street
Verging on Plutocracy? Getting Real About the Unelected Dictatorship
Nur Arafeh
Strangling the Palestinian Economy
Patrick Howlett-Martin
The Paris Attacks: a Chronicle Foretold
Vijay Prashad
Rebuilding Syria With BRICS and Mortar
Brian Cloughley
Why US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is the Biggest Threat to World Peace