May 25, 2021
As the Biden administration struggles to forge a compromise with the Republicans to create a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection, it may pay to think about the referendum that just ended 30 years of "pacted" democracy in Chile. For three decades, that country has struggled to escape the heritage of the authoritarian government that was nominally defeated in 1989--but its leaders have been obstructed by a series of institutional and policy compromises that were made to keep reaction at bay in 1990. These compromises have cost the country dearly. Although the Jan. 6 insurrection was not as grave a threat to democracy as the Chilean military, it cannot be effectively met with a politics of compromise.
On the model of the Sept. 11 commission, the Democrats have been working to forge a bipartisan pact with their Republican opposites--but after Ranking Member of the House Homeland Security Committee Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) negotiated a bipartisan agreement with Democrats in April, he was hung out to dry by the GOP House leaders, who apparently worried that exposing Republican complicity in the insurrection would cost them the 2022 midterm elections.
The question is: How far should the Democrats go in compromising with the Republican minority when the future of American democracy is at stake?
Seeking bipartisan support for progressive legislation is one thing; compromising on a major threat to democracy in the name of bipartisan comity is quite another.
President Biden's penchant for cooperation across the aisle is a well-known facet of his political persona, going back to his willingness to work with racial reactionaries like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond in the Senate. But should the president continue to negotiate over the worst insurrection in in America since the Civil War? Seeking bipartisan support for progressive legislation is one thing; compromising on a major threat to democracy in the name of bipartisan comity is quite another. The example of the costs paid by our neighbors in the South for their "pacted" model of democracy can be instructive about the costs of compromise.
When the Pinochet dictatorship ended in Chile the late 1980s, a constitution that had been passed in a contested referendum came into force. The leaders of the new democratic regime retained the market reforms that had been adopted by the dictatorship following the advice of the now-infamous "Chicago boys." That model assured the predominance of big industry, strangled the once-powerful trade unions, created a public/private retirement system, and laid the groundwork for the creation of a network of privately-run universities.
Why were the parties of the "Concertacion" so accommodating to the forces of the former military regime? They recalled how easy it had been for the generals to overthrow the Allende government in 1973, and were afraid that a clash between the extreme left and the military would follow a contentious constitutional process.
The result was a constitution that reserved a "tutelary" role for the military and an economy with the highest level of inequality in the Americas. Although the constitution was revised several times to soften some of its harder edges, the center-left parties of the Concertacion left the neo-liberal economic model in place and set up informal institutions to engage conservative forces, giving them the status of "veto players."
The result was a lack of vertical accountability to the electorate and a series of protest waves from among students, workers, indigenous groups, and women. The culmination was what came to be called the "Estallido Social" (literally, the social outburst) in 2019 and 2020, triggered by an increase in the fares of public transport in the capitol. When this spread to a virtual insurrection across the country--accelerated by a brutal response from the police--the government was forced to respond with a series of referenda aimed at producing a new constitution.
That takes us to the current crisis: On the weekend of May 15-16, a referendum for the appointment of a constitutional convention produced a wholesale rejection of the center-right government and, to some extent, of the entire party system in Chile. Of the 155 delegates chosen to sit in the convention, independent candidates--many of them young, women, and representatives of indigenous groups, who had been in the forefront of the Estallito--took the majority. While the current center-right governing coalition was the biggest loser, the center-left parties did badly as well. After 30 years since the fall of the dictatorship, Chilean voters have resoundingly defeated their "pacted" democracy.
Despite the vast differences between the two countries, the United States has a level of inequality comparable to Chile's.
What does the failure of the Chilean model of a "pacted" democracy have to do with the efforts of the Biden administration to entice the Republicans to cooperate in investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection?
First, despite the vast differences between the two countries, the United States has a level of inequality comparable to Chile's. Second, it was during a crisis of democracy that the parties of the Chilean center-left forged informal agreements with the right that led to the current crisis. Finally, the compromises made by the center-left parties in Chile not only squandered their chance to reform the economy, but left the government largely unaccountable to an electorate that had long rejected the country's neo-liberal model of development.
Biden's support from the populace is still firm, and he enjoys majorities of supporters for his COVID-19 program, his recovery plan, and for his infrastructure proposal. But none of these is as important as the defense of American democracy.
If Biden really wants to "build back better," the place to start will be in facing up to the fact that American democracy lies in the balance.
© 2023 The Hill
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