From JFK To Trump, Latin America Imports U.S.-Style Campaigns

Candidate-As-Showman, Ecuador President Rafael Correa on the campaign trail in 2013
Candidate-As-Showman, Ecuador President Rafael Correa on the campaign trail in 2013
Eduardo Barajas Sandoval

BOGOTÁ â€" For Latin America, the U.S. presidential elections have become a big-screen spectacle that affects the tone and register of local politics, in a region that combines democratic aspirations with an enduring admiration for its northern neighbor.

The televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy generations ago began a process that has turned campaigning into a kind of science. Mixing elements taken from the marketing of household products and statistical studies on what people want to hear, politicians have devised the "perfect dose" to have maximum impact on voters, while campaigns have become high-stake betting arenas that are as dramatic as any sporting event.

The Western world and the countries that emulate its cultural model value images far more than words. Campaign slogans of less than 20 words, English in conception, promise or conjure up spectacular, albeit superficial, solutions to problems. It is essentially manipulation. The result is often that even governments with limited legitimacy, which work for an indifferent public that has a distaste for politicians, manage to attract a momentary euphoria from people.

To cap our problems, Latin American countries perversely enjoy making campaigns look as much as possible like those of our Yankee neighbors. No effort is made to hide this emulation, as if the parameters conceived in the north have universal value. We have election campaigns with solutions to problems of, well, other societies. As one politics professor said here, it is like forcing someone to wear fashionable clothes that do not fit.

Traits of this style of campaigning include always being on the offensive, making scurrilous attacks on your rival’s personal history, hiding unpleasant aspects of your own past or making a careful argument to justify them, using basic language that absolutely anyone can understand, memorizing and repeating the same seven-second messages, blurting out an OK answer to every question, and smiling at all times. The common principle here is to keep the voracious media satisfied even as the public becomes detached from the policy debate.

A Donald Trump rally in March â€" Photo: Gage Skidmore

This campaign style provides the best terrain for populism of any origin or tendency. If a candidate is able to push the unwritten boundaries of public decency and conventional wisdom, and is willing to make shocking claims that arouse a desire to shake up the complacent status quo, he or she stands to make great strides. The media laps up the words of candidates who pull down traditional barriers and propose simplistic, but aggressive, solutions to problems nobody could previously resolve. This in turn leads to reaching a wider audience, whom candidates can feed with outrageous statements that arouse them, either because those declarations are inspiring or appalling.

With the political emergence of Donald Trump, vulgarity has shamelessly burst forth and become a brand. His ongoing antics enthrall the most fanatical and distracted of Americans. Let us observe how political debates shape up elsewhere on the continent. Led by vacuous consultants and managers that conjure up a different way of firing up the public every day, campaigns could soon become a nightmarish cacophony that diminishes transparency, constructive debate and progress toward a more advanced form of democracy.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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