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The Demagogue's Biggest Lie: That We Don't Need Politics

Trashing politics and politicians is a classic tool of populists to seduce angry voters, and take countries into quagmires far worse than the worst years of democracy. It's a dynamic Argentina appears particularly vulnerable to.

Photograph of Javier Gerardo Milei making a speech at the end of his campaign.​

October 18, 2023, Buenos Aires: Javier Gerardo Milei makes a speech at the end of his campaign.

Cristobal Basaure Araya/ZUMA
Rodolfo Terragno


BUENOS AIRES — I was 45 years old when I became a politician in Argentina, and abandoned politics a while back now. In 1987, Raúl Alfonsín, the civilian president who succeeded the Argentine military junta in 1983, named me cabinet minister though I wasn't a member of his party, the Radicals, or any party for that matter. I was a historian, had worked as a lawyer, wrote newspapers articles and a book in 1985 on science and technology with chapters on cybernetics, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

That book led Alfonsín to ask me to join his government. My belated political career began in fact after I left the ministry and while it proved to be surprisingly lengthy, it is now over. I am currently writing a biography of a molecular biologist and developing a university course on technological perspectives (futurology).

Talking about myself is risky in a piece against 'anti-politics,' or the rejection of party politics. I do so only to make clear that I am writing without a personal interest. I am out of politics, and have never been a member of what Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni calls la casta, "the caste" — i.e., the political establishment.

The best of our bad options

To paraphrase Winston Churchill: democracy is the best of our bad options. Other systems turn people into victims of arbitrary, incompetent and corrupt rulers, while democracy ensures the people are the ones who choose, and occasionally choice well. They raise and topple the system's players who are neither monarchs nor generals nor religious leaders, but politicians.

Evidently electorates are not infallible, and democracy does not mean "the people are never mistaken." But it does give voters, the people, a chance to repent, and make amends.

And yet, when more and more people vote emotively, the margin of error grows considerably. Devotion or hatred are not worthy counsellors for anyone casting a ballot. Yet in critical situations, whatever their origin, ordinary folk will feel overwhelmed, skeptical and suspicious, which is when they fall prey to 'anti-political' campaigning.

Years ago in Latin America, such situations meant a coup d'état, whereas today, as we have seen in some countries, they produce a savior who usually turns out to be a big disappointment.

Take the United States: a country that became the greatest in the world thanks to democracy and is now suffering from anti-political demagoguery. The September 11 attacks showed Americans their country was not invulnerable, while massive immigration has made sectors of American society feel defenseless. Former President Donald Trump brought out his America First slogan in response, which won him those emotive votes he needed to enter the White House.

His discourse suggested the country was under the sway of an establishment bereft of all patriotism and moral fiber, wedded to its own interests, and turning a great power into an ordinary, anodyne country.

Trump is now facing 19 court actions relating to a range of putative offenses including financial irregularities and inciting a mob to storm the Capitol. Yet in spite of the charges (or partly because of them), a great many Americans remain besotted with the man, and if elections were held tomorrow, he might very well regain power.

Photograph of Libertarian followers at a rally as they await the presidential candidate of La Libertad Avanza Javier Milei.

November 16, 2023: Libertarian followers await the presidential candidate of La Libertad Avanza Javier Milei.

Daniel Bustos/ZUMA

Generalization as a weapon

At the end of World War I, Germany lost 13% of its territory, its overseas empire and 7 million subjects. It was ordered to pay massive reparations to the victors, being blamed for starting that war. The subsequent socio-economic stress and the humiliation of the German nation led to Hitler's election in 1933, with 43.9% of votes cast that year, but also gave him support for his militaristic policies in following years.

It wouldn't compare Hitler with anyone as his perversity and crimes are unequalled. Germany's supposed savior turned the country into a vast ruin within a decade. He caused the deaths of millions.

In Argentina, shoddy government by General Juan Perón's widow, María Estela (Isabelita) and economic chaos sparked a coup in 1976, which came as a relief to a good many Argentines. Anti-political views had triumphed, and that meant a shutdown of institutional government, provincial governors sacked and parties banned. After that, besides the new regime's massive rights violations, the economy shrank, and public sector and foreign debts soared to the tune of billions of dollars.

Generalization is a big weapon of the anti-political discourse. There is a measure of truth to its claims (on the presence of corrupt politicians, say) but it uses the evidence to turn it into an all-encompassing accusation (that all politicians are corrupt).

All the casta as Meloni would say. But it's a bit like commercial flights: one crash is a headline but not the hundreds or thousands of planes flying uneventfully through the air, taking passengers to their destinations. They are like the ordinary, or honest politicians.

Admittedly, there are too many "plane crashes" in politics, but I know how much hard work and integrity I saw, in my years in politics, among members of the lower legislature and the senate, though that will never make the news.

Likewise, I have seen very few political outsiders with the same qualities, and can equally vouch from my years as a journalist, for the incompetence and mendacity of these 'saviors.' Providence is never greater than democracy, which in turn depends, for better or worse, on politics.

*Terragno is a former parliamentarian and senator, and was Argentina's public works minister in the late 1980s.

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