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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 — 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.

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A Donald Trump rally in March — 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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