Daniel Altman

Are We Becoming Argentina?

The Republican Party is taking America down a dangerous path.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

A popular and often rueful saying in Argentina holds that the country can only be governed by Peronists. Avowed followers of former Argentine president Juan Domingo Perón have used their malleable brand of populism to dominate the political scene for half a century, even when nominally out of power. This kind of domestic hegemony may seem very distant from Washington’s bipolar politics, but the Republican Party is starting to take the United States down a similar path.

Perón first came to power in Argentina as part of a coup in 1943 and then won the subsequent presidential elections of 1946. During his first mandate, he set the classic Peronist pattern of massive public investment and expansion of entitlements — a combination Americans would probably associate more with Democrats than Republicans. But his spending spree was a general policy rather than an attempt to cushion a depressed economy, so high inflation was the inevitable result.

After serving most of two terms, being overthrown by the military, seeing his party banned, and making a triumphant return to politics in 1973, Perón died less than a year into his third elected term. To many Argentines, he remains today a sort of imperfect saint — not as irreproachable in his actions or pure in his intentions as his second wife, Eva, but still committed to improving the lot of the working class.

Perón’s successors have continued to carry that banner, and they have also made life exceptionally difficult for their political opponents. For example, Raúl Alfonsín, a centrist president who came to power in 1983 after the end of Argentina’s most recent military dictatorship, chose to leave office six months early after protests and riots allegedly stoked by Peronist activists. It was a logical conclusion to his term as president; despite the fragility of the Argentine polity after the dictatorship, Alfonsín’s policy toward the military and his economic plans had faced almost constant opposition from the Peronists in the Argentine Congress. In anticipation of the transition, his Peronist successor, Carlos Menem, declared himself ready to rule but later accused Alfonsín of "throwing the presidency on top of him." Ironically, the Peronists would later implement several of the measures Alfonsín supported, from privatizations of state assets to trials for subordinate members of the previous dictatorship.

The next and only non-Peronist president since Alfonsín, Fernando de la Rua, also left office early, apparently under pressure from Peronists. The movement had been mired in disorder and infighting after the elections of 1999, but it quickly regained enough strength to unseat de la Rua just two years into his term. (Argentina was also mired in its most recent financial crisis when civil unrest struck again.) De la Rua’s government had imposed a hugely unpopular freeze on bank deposits, but he and others later accused Peronist leaders of orchestrating a "civil coup." Only days earlier, Peronists in Congress had assured de la Rua that their move to make one of their own the provisional president of the Senate — a post usually held by someone of the same party as the elected president — did not signify a grab for power. But after the president’s resignation, Peronist deputies in the lower house rejected his call for a coalition government, and Peronist caretakers took over until the elections of 2003.

Throughout these tumultuous times, the Peronists often lacked an undisputed leader and, as a result, a coherent political ideology. Menem was an economic liberal who privatized billions of dollars worth of national assets. By contrast, Nestor Kirchner, whose election ended the messy 17-month interregnum following de la Rua’s resignation, reasserted state control of the economy and kept Argentina sealed off from international financial markets. What the two had in common was their use of the Peronist banner — its power a product of history more than policies — to legitimate and sustain their rule.

So is the American GOP following suit? The same obstructionism and internal contradictions are certainly there. Republicans have stalled President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda with a record number of filibusters, and they’re still blocking numerous federal appointments — including dozens of judges. The so-called "birther" movement continued to challenge Obama’s legitimacy well after any reasonable questions were put to rest, and the debt ceiling and fiscal cliff crises — manufactured by congressional Republicans — almost brought the entire government to a standstill. In the meantime, Republican leaders even tried to stop the independent Federal Reserve, designed to be insulated from the daily churn of politics, from bolstering the economy.

Indeed, never before has an American president suffered such a wide variety of political attacks on his ability to govern. Perhaps only Bill Clinton came close, with a government shutdown during his first term and impeachment proceedings in his second — despite high approval ratings and an admirable economic record. In those cases, too, the GOP apparently decided to paralyze the nation instead of allowing Democrats to run it.

Yet when Republicans hold the reins of power, they hardly cover themselves with glory. On average, the economy grows faster and stocks perform better under Democrats. As a result, the federal deficit and the national debt also tend to fall with Democrats in charge. By contrast, the biggest financial crises of the past century — the Great Depression, the savings and loan crisis, and the Great Recession — have all occurred either deep into or on the heels of Republican presidencies.

So how do the Republicans manage to keep coming back? Their kind of populism is not so different from that of the Peronists. According to Argentine journalist Rogelio Alaniz, the genius of Peronism lies in "its capacity
to adapt itself and assume the most contradictory ideological discourses." To hear them tell it, the Republicans are the party of fiscal conservatism but also the party of tax cuts. They are the party of the right to life but also of guns and the death penalty. They are for the family but against gay marriage, anti-immigrant but pro-immigration. It is a feat, even by Peronist standards.

Like Peronism, the GOP is in danger of becoming more about power than about principles. The difference is that where Peronists must pass out subsidies, benefits, and government salaries to appease their supporters, Republicans somehow persuade the electorate with little more than rhetoric. In fact, incomes for most Americans tend to drop when Republicans are in charge; only the highest earners gain during Republican presidencies.

The Republican Party’s advantage may be that it has a better saint — or at the very least, it has cultivated a more inspiring myth. Though his administration had more indictments and convictions than any other in American history, Ronald Reagan became an unsullied symbol of American optimism and rags-to-riches success, two ideals that rose above any political debates. And thanks to the fall of the Iron Curtain, Reagan was also a symbol of the triumph of democracy. "Democracy is worth dying for," he declared on the 40th anniversary of D-day in 1984, "because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man."

The actions of his party’s leaders have begun to fall short of that lofty standard. Rather than honorable servants of the public will, they have become the sort of bullies and schemers whom anti-Peronist Argentines would easily recognize. Today, after a decade of Peronist rule, Argentina is heading for another economic crisis while its leaders gradually chip away at the independence of fundamental institutions, including two of the same targets favored by Republicans: the central bank and the judiciary

As Argentine economist Roberto Cachanosky put it in 2011, "[It’s] one thing to govern under a democratic republic and another, very different, to use a monopoly of force to impose the whims of the current leader and establish a hegemonic power." Cachanosky and others see Peronist tactics as a growing threat to Argentina’s cherished democracy. If Republicans manage to regain the American presidency once more, they may well condemn the United States to a similar fate.

Daniel Altman is the owner of North Yard Analytics LLC, a sports data consulting firm, and an adjunct associate professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Twitter: @altmandaniel