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When Citizens Are Merely Political Spectators They Get Rolled Over by the Political Class

Those left dazed and confused by the Democrats’ rapid fall from grace would do well to look to Latin America, where similar coalitions have risen to power over the last decade.

Two years ago, President Obama sailed into the White House on the winds of voters’ desire for widespread social change and their disgust with two wars and a massive recession associated with George W. Bush. Only two years into his presidency and the concurrent Democratic takeover of Congress, however, things are looking rough. Democrats rolled into a big majority in 2008, then got sacked in this year's midterms, losing Senate seats and the control of the House. Former excited Democratic voters were so unenthused that the president himself called them out. How, many progressives are asking, did we see the promise of hope and change rise and fall so quickly?

There are more than a few explanatory theories being tossed around, but those left dazed and confused by the Democrats’ rapid fall from grace would do well to look to Latin America, where similar presidencies have risen to power over the last decade. Journalist Ben Dangl’s new book, Dancing With Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press, November) explores how the region’s vibrant social movements have interacted with those presidents. Dangl draws on his six years traveling through the region, interacting with everyone from rank-and-file social movement members to upper-level socialist bureaucrats as he tries to figure out how social movements in the region have fared after leftist governments have taken power. Along the way, he finds varying levels of satisfaction with governments that rode into office on a tide of dissatisfaction with right-wing governments and the “Washington Consensus” and high hopes for social changes to benefit the marginalized. When those leftist governments drifted further and further rightward, popular movements reacted differently: some maintained their support, some distanced themselves slightly, and some became openly hostile critics.

Dangl recently sat down to discuss his book, what he saw in South America, and what it means for the U.S.

Micah Uetricht: You write throughout the book that the logic of social movements competes with that of the state. What does that mean?

Ben Dangl: Often, when left-leaning Latin American presidents arrived in power over the last decade, they found themselves up against the military, Washington, D.C., global capitalism, and other pressures constricting their operations. From the start, these presidents either could not, or were unwilling to, carry out the reforms they promised on the campaign trail. Movements soon realize that, after campaigning for a president, they’ve lost an ally.

Many Latin American movements followed a similar development. The landless movement in Brazil supported President Lula, many activists in Argentina backed Nestor Kirchner following the economic crisis there, the Movement Toward Socialism party in Bolivia came into power with Evo Morales with a big base of support. It’s not that the movements made mistakes by backing these presidents. However, when looking at the dynamics that emerged after these presidents came into office, we see a cycle of presidents promising much, being unable to deliver, shifting to the right to expand their voter base, and/or making concessions to foreign corporations for investments.

That’s not to say the presidents have been total failures. Chavez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia, in particular, have expanded spaces for the public to participate in governing and major decision-making, for example in writing the countries’ constitutions. So great things can happen when a leftist president is elected following social movement victories.

There are still many gains from this leftist wave throughout the region: better access to health care, education, expanded social programs and so on. But there have also been challenges that have to do with the relationship between movements and states. How this relationship plays out in Latin America differs in every country and changes almost every year.

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