These posts reflect my original interest in American politics, history and political theory broadly cast. I’m interested in exploring the nexus between American Political Development (APD) and American Political Thought (APT) as well as American Studies and Africana Studies or all regional “studies,” including working with Gajo Petrovic a leader in Praxis published in the former Yugoslavia.
This was the reason I stayed in politics for my Ph.D. rather than leaving for law school, history, sociology or business school as faculty kept trying to convince me to do in undergraduate and graduate school after spending a gap year reading Heidegger’s Being and Time with University of Zagreb philosophy professor Gajo Petrovic, who spent time at IAS and working with the author of the former Yugoslavian Constitution, the one that stuck — written in the 1970s. The latter scholar attended the Sorbonne in the 1930s and ended his career as the Dean of the best law school in Belgrade. In the 1980s the Fulbright funded his scholarship on Jefferson at Claremont Graduate School. I worked with him for my B.A. thesis on Marx, existentialism, phenomenology and Yugoslavian self-management supervised by Claremont Men’s College’s public law professor Winston Fisk.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — White nationalists are not just using divisive language, but they’re also using incorrect terms. The latest one is “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer’s use of “European” as a substitute for white.
On Dec. 6 I attended Spencer’s controversial talk at Texas A&M University, where I teach political theory and ethics. Most of my colleagues joined the boycott of his visit and were part of the large protest group that rejected his hate speech.
As a political theorist, I wanted to hear what Spencer had to say, knowing that he had been a graduate student in intellectual history at the University of Chicago and Duke University, well-respected institutions in my field of study.
Since I teach “Immigration Ethics” and “Latin American Political Thought,” I told my students to attend either the talk or the protests, including the well-organized “Aggies United” event at the football stadium to counter Spencer’s divisive speech.
Race is a central topic of discussion in my classes, so most of the students found it amazing that white nationalist ideas were going to be discussed at major national university, especially one at a majority-minority state.
Before Spencer’s talk even started, crowds waited in long lines. We could hear a growing number of protesters, megaphones, and chanting against the public voicing of ideas that seem straight out of a rally at Nuremberg in 1938.
The protesters swelled to a huge crowd of hundreds, while riot police attempted to control them, sometimes with excessive force, at the entrance to the student center, where the speech was going to take place.
Inside the ballroom full of hundreds of people, Spencer proceeded to speak. He said America “belonged to white men,” and kept repeating that he was a “European,” equating “Europeans” with the “white race.”
After he said this about four times, I could not hold back and yelled out, “Europeans are not a race.” He heard me clearly, since I was sitting to his left, in the front row. He responded by saying “Europe is also a place.” With this non sequitur, it was obvious to me now that he is an intellectual lightweight.
Teaching Latin American theories of race has made me realize that most of these white nationalist types do not understand that race is a fluid, permeable category that is made through political and social processes. Spencer has attached himself to an outmoded concept of racial identity that sees it as fixed and immutable and possessing hard boundaries.
That hierarchy of race that he adheres to begs the question: If other, non-white races are inferior to so-called ‘whites,’ then is there an internal hierarchy within this putative ‘white’ race? Are some ‘white’ groups superior to others that seem ‘less-white’?
For instance, are all Finns superior to all Iberians, who tend to be of a darker skin tone? Is a low-education Swede automatically “better” than an intelligent, highly-educated tan-colored Greek? Alternatively, didn’t a ‘darker’ Latin peoples, the Romans, conquer and civilize less-developed barbarian tribes of Britons?
Britain itself is made up of highly-intermixed peoples, the product of encounters with Romans, Angles, Saxons, Normans, Danes, Gaelic Celts, Jutes, Frisians, etc. We also see this in countries such as Spain, where Moors, Jews, Roma, Celts, Basques, Catalans, African Guanches, and others coexisted and undoubtedly intermixed for centuries. As the early twentieth-century Venezuelan sociologistLaureano Vallenilla Lanz said in 1919, there is no purity of race in Spain.
This idea was grounded in the prescient words of Cuba’s founder, Jose Martí, when he uttered the words “there are no races” in 1891. These Latin American perspectives on race lay bare the absurd claims of alt-right demagogues. For Martí, Cubans were an amalgam of racial and ethnic origins.
Similarly, we could say that Americans (in the U.S.) are not simply “Europeans.” In the U.S., Anglo-Saxons mixed with the Irish, Germans and Scandinavians, groups that used to be considered separate “races” within Europe in earlier times, as the historian Nell Irvin Painter tells us in her 2011 work The History of White People.
All this goes to show that the best defense against incendiary racial rhetoric is education. The more we know about the fluidity and synthetic nature of racial identities, the more we will see the empty shell that is the language of the “alt-right” or white nationalism.
Students throughout the country ought to learn about not just racial mixing in the U.S., but also about fluid racial lines throughout the world. And Latino immigrants coming to the U.S. should not lose the more malleable conceptions of race that are present in thinkers such as Bartolomé de las Casas and José Vasconcelos.
To be sure, racism and hierarchy exist in Latin America and some of its history of ideas. But some traditions from Latin America that see race as always changing and as the product of inter-mixed ethnic origins are a good starting point to disarticulate the longstanding idea that races are rigid categories, what W.E.B. Du Bois called the “color line.”
Texas A&M’s president Michael Young must be lauded for his immediate response to the Spencer affront. The Aggies United event, a celebration of Texas A&M’s diversity and growing awareness that race matters, was an excellent idea.
Going forward, major national universities ought to also be more proactive. Many of the students in my class said that we must be ready before these inflammatory events occur.
The best way to do this is to invest in enhancing diversity at the faculty, student, staff, and administrative levels. We need to choose heads of departments who value cultural pluralism and promote the best professors to the highest levels of the university, especially those of minority groups that have shown academic excellence.
As students in my immigration ethics class voiced this week, these changes ought to occur now, not only after provocateurs like Spencer tarnish our public sphere with divisive, and simply incorrect, ideas.
For over two hundred years, the United States has defined itself, to a significant extent, in opposition to the rest of the Americas. Appropriating the term “America,” it has come to be seen as a beacon of democracy, freedom, and equality, in contrast to its neighbors to the South for their chaotic political traditions. Populism, authoritarianism, personalism, machismo, racialism, and caudillismo — or strongman rule — have been historically seenBy Diego Von Vacano is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University.
With the election of Donald Trump, we can now see that the U.S. is indeed part of the Americas as a whole and shares in those pathologies. And while Latin America has been on a path to ever-greater democratization for about sixteen years, prospects for democracy in the U.S. are more gloomy.
The roles have been reversed, and it is perhaps up to Latino immigrants to teach the U.S. about deepening democratization.
When Latin American politics is discussed, the term ‘populism’ is the first concept that pops up in a lot of people’s minds. Getulio Vargas of Brazil and especially Juan Domingo Perón of Argentina are the archetypal cases from the 1950s.
Charismatic leaders with a knack for demagoguery, these populist leaders tapped into economic anxieties by promising all manner of radical reforms. They lacked a particular ideology, and used nationalism to rally popular support, especially from disaffected lower classes. Just as Perón mobilized the ‘descamisados’ (shirtless ones) in Argentina, so has Trump galvanized members of the working class, especially those wary of socialist alternatives.
This demagoguery was also tied to personalism. Instead of relying on institutions, Perón and other populists in Latin America used their networks of clientelism, friendships and family ties to generate a basis for support. Famously, Perón’s second wife, Eva Duarte, gained immense popularity during his first presidential term. His third wife, Isabel, succeeded him as president upon his death in 1974.
We have seen similar ‘dynastic’ politics in the U.S., with the Bush and Clinton families becoming powerful political players. But with the rise of the Trumps, nepotism and personalism seem more central factors. Trump has relied on his family on his rise to power, and it is no secret that Ivanka and her husband Jared wield unusual influence.
The recent demotion of Chris Christie within the Trump inner circle is likely connected to Christie’s prosecution of Jared’s father, Charles Kushner, and his conviction in 2005. It would not be surprising if Trump’s adult children were to seek official positions within the White House, or if Ivanka were to run for office in the not-so-distant future.The peculiar relationship between Trump and his adult children is emblematic of a patriarchal form of politics that was closely associated to Latin American machismo.
Throughout the nineteen-sixties and seventies, countless dictators exemplified the metaphor of the pater familias to generate legitimacy for their brand of authoritarianism. Mario Vargas Llosa gives a most graphic account of this gendered dimension of power in his masterpiece The Feast of the Goat. The novel recounts the sexual exploits of the dictator Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, connecting them to the tyrant’s desire for power. The use and abuse of women as objectified commodities was pervasive. Trujillo was married thrice, had multiple mistresses, and boasted of his sexual prowess as a way to gain stature as a strongman.
The use of the eros of power (part of what Machiavelli called virtu, a term rooted in the Latin word for man) has been evident in Trump’s public persona, from his fame as playboy in the opulent NYC scene of the 1980s, to his ownership of the Miss Universe pageant to his marriage to Melania, a former model. Even the crude comments in the Access Hollywood tapes may have actually made him more popular among certain groups. Trump’s behavior recalls a stereotypical machismo.
What all this amounts to is the rise of a Latin American form of politics, caudillismo, or strongman politics, now in the U.S. The recent selection of particular individuals for cardinal posts in Trump’s government suggests that loyalty is what he values most. Men like General Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Pompeo are possible beneficiaries of this logic.
Caudillismo arose in nineteenth-century South America among men like Facundo Quiroga and Juan de Rosas, as recounted in the classic work Life in the Days of the Tyrant, written by a founding father of Argentina, Domingo Sarmiento. In it, Sarmiento explains the rise of authoritarianism out of personalistic fealty and racialized politics in Argentina, largely driven by support from rural communities. This phenomenon led to a deep chasm between cities and the countryside, which Sarmiento characterized as a battle between civilization and barbarism. The blue/red lines that now divide the U.S. recall this chasm.
Latin America sees change
Ironically, much of Latin America now is at the forefront of democratization in many respects. Dictatorships, with the exception of Cuba, are a thing of the past.
Authoritarianism, with the exception of Venezuela, is on the wane. Most Latin American states are subject to regular, free, and fair elections.
But the democratization is not merely formal; there is great depth to it.
Latin America has the highest regional rate of women’s participation in legislatures outside of Scandinavia, with countries like Costa Rica leading the way. It has massive popular participation by once-excluded racial and ethnic groups, in countries like Bolivia and Ecuador. And it has a long history of advocating for more open borders in terms of migration, going all the way back to nineteenth-century thinkers such as Simón Bolívar.
These include Juan Egaña, Juan Martínez de Rozas and Bernardo O’Higgins in Chile, Francisco de Miranda in Venezuela, José Cecilio Díaz Del Valle in Central America, and Bernardo Monteagudo and José San Martín in Perú and Argentina. They saw migration not just as a matter of distributive justice, but about as a matter of making the demos more porous and expansive.
How can the U.S. avoid what seems like a looming threat to its democracy? Perhaps the solution is counter-intuitive.
It is up to Latino-American immigrants to not assimilate to the U.S.: In terms of political culture, assimilation would mean becoming tolerant of the current state of low voter turnouts, decreasing interest in politics, proneness to media distortions and exacerbation of racial color lines.
Immigrants from Latin America ought to learn about the historical bases and current trends of Latin American democratization. From their past mistakes and current achievements, these lessons could be transmitted to native-born U.S. citizens.
In particular, younger generations, who may be especially concerned about the present path of U.S. politics towards plutocracy and authoritarianism, might be interested in the migration of ideas on how to deal with these problems. #