Moisés Naím: “The scarcest resource is legitimacy”

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Here is a selection of sections of this interview.

The vital signs of democracy in the region after the pandemic

The pandemic created very important new problems, but also revealed old pre-existing problems: inequality, economic precariousness, corruption, anti-politics. All of that existed, and the pandemic more clearly communicated the depth and difficulty of these issues. How unequal and bad health systems are. They are inadequate to deal with a pandemic in which the majority of the population did not have access to government health systems because there were no necessary supplies and vaccines.

Second a surprise: Ideas, institutions, ways of thinking and acting that seemed permanent have proven to be transitory, and things that we thought were transitory seem to be permanent. Remote work, for example, which we thought was temporary and turns out to be here to stay. Policies and systems are adjusting to this new reality.

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And others themes that we thought untouchable, immovable, permanent have shown their fragility. Who would have thought that America’s democracy could be questioned? There are deep fears about its future viability. It is under attack. And this is something normal because normality in these times implies attacks on democracy, which often come from within. Popular and democratically elected heads of state who, upon reaching government, begin to undermine and weaken, or eliminate, the checks and balances that every democracy needs to prevent the concentration of politics and power.

Citizen activation with accelerated learning of technologies

I spoke about the pre-existing conditions of the pandemic. One of them was that the streets of Latin America were burning, they became the place of participation. The discrediting of the political parties meant that the normal communication channel was to take a square, block a street, set fire to the subway stations, as happened in Chile. The streets burned and a people fed up with politicians, politics, corruption, inefficiency, impunity took to the streets.

It is very interesting to note that with the arrival of the pandemic, street protests lessened a bit, but the subject was also changed. It is not that the discontent or the conditions that lead to street activity disappeared. Instead, new themes were combined with perennial themes. Examples are poor public services, unreliable governments, inefficiency, corruption and, above all, inequality.

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Solutions from the public function to these problems

I believe that it is essential to have a fluid relationship between decent, hard-working, modern civil servants, and the media and journalists who share those values. The coups d’état of yesteryear no longer occur. Now, instead of soldiers, we have accountants and auditors who enter companies, especially the media, and punish them with financial penalties.

What we are seeing in the world is the attack on democracy through the attack on checks and balances —In the United States they are called check and balances— that they try to regulate and guarantee that democracy does not lead to an autocracy where there is a head of state and a regime that imposes its point of view over democratic participation.

We are seeing in these times governments with a clearly authoritarian tendency that set up a democratic scenery that includes elections. One wonders why Daniel Ortega goes through the hassle of making elections. Why do Nicolás Maduro, Putin, Lukashenko take the trouble to mount elections that everyone knows are false? Because they need even a remnant of legitimacy, the scarcest resource in today’s political world. This connects with my previous sentence that we need modern public officials to be well communicated with journalists and activists who are denouncing these stealth, clandestine, opaque takeovers, through which these governments disguise themselves as a democratic vocation.

Decline in legitimacy of democracies throughout the region

Performance is insufficient. The patience and tolerance of citizens in the face of these inefficiencies and corruption makes other ways are being sought to express their disagreement and demand their rights. In that sense, it is very important to keep polarization in mind and in conversation. It has always existed but now we are seeing it in a very toxic way. And it has also gone global. Democracies where there is no crippling polarization are rare. Polarization is like cholesterol: there is a good one and a bad one. Good polarization is when organizations and politicians compete with those who have other ideas. Later, thanks to the clean, transparent and fair elections, one of those views prevails and governs with the other as opposition. That is called democracy.

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But there is another bad polarization that paralyzes, prevents the government from working, because the game is locked. We have seen it in the United States and in Europe, where polarization simply serves to inflame spirits, to increase the cracks that already exist in society. Another characteristic of bad polarization is that does not grant the rival the right to exist. The rival is not a compatriot who has different ideas. It is simply a political agent that does not deserve to exist. These ideas must be fought with the search for agreements, for shared visions. It is about being with ideas, people and situations that are not of your own sympathy that are necessary for decisions to be made. There the fundamental public officials.

Technological inequality

The definition of power remains the same; the sources of power have changed. In the 21st century, power has become easier to obtain, more difficult to use, and easier to lose. That happens in the public sector and in politics. It also happens in the media, in unions, in churches, in criminal networks, where there is human activity.

This does not mean that there are no exceptions: Putin has been in power for a long time; Maduro and Chavismo in Venezuela are 21 years old. There are still places and spaces of concentration of power and permanence, but there is also a lot of volatility. Power is weakening, but simultaneously it is concentrating. I wrote a book, The end of power, which analyzes centrifugal forces that fragment power and make it harder to use and easier to lose. What we are seeing is the interaction between centrifugal forces of dispersion, which collide with centripetal forces that concentrate power. That interaction explains the world today. And at the very center of that battle are public officials who have to do their job in this context.

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Latin American Leaders and Their Difficulty in Dialogue

On the list of broken promises on the Internet is the world’s inability to act in concert. We had been told that the Internet would help to integrate countries, cultures in different areas of the planet. That he was going to integrate us and increase our collective capacity to act multilaterally, and that has not happened.

With globalization, problems that cannot be solved by acting alone have increased. The need to act multilaterally has increased because multilateral problems have increased that require the planet to respond as a whole. I am thinking about climate change. There is also a long list of other topics: migrations, failed states, artificial intelligence and its consequences, genetics. In short, there are a large number of issues that will require the effective coordination of different governments. As globalization increases, so does this difficulty.

I have called this the most dangerous deficit in the world: the deficit between the government’s need to act together and its limited ability to do so. Simply extrapolate to the regional level what I just said, and you will find it amplified.

Perspectives

This is a deeply divided continent, but it is possible that within two years we will join a more united continent. If Mr. Petro wins in Colombia, if Lula returns to power in Brazil, if Mr. Castillo remains in power in Peru, if there is a left-wing government in Chile and Fernández and Kirchner remain in Argentina, if Andrés Manuel López Obrador or successors still in Mexico there will be a number of governments that share ideas and that can act together.

The bad news is that they are bad ideas and then we will have to pay the consequences of what I have called political necrophilia: that passionate love for bad ideas. Latin America is going to suffer a pandemic of bad ideas in power.

* This note was published by Diálogo Político, a platform for democratic dialogue in Latin America.

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