Note: Thinking about doing a mailbag show for Friday. If anyone has an interesting question, post it up here or on Gab.
President Harry S. Truman famously said is a speech at the end of his career that if it is a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article. He was giving a pre-election pep talk to his fellow Democrats who were downcast at their prospects in 1952. His point was that if you proudly give the voters an alternative to the other option, they will at least consider what you have to say and may even vote for you.
It is interesting to note that the two parties were having a uniparty problem way back in the middle of the last century, but it is the nature of democratic systems. Like all markets, they eventually converge on one dominant market player. It is why we have one operating system maker, two mobile phone makers and so on. In the marketplace, people seek safety, which is a form of protection. As Robert Nozick noted, protection must always lead to a monopoly or something close to it.
Like consumers in a grocery store staring at rows of the same product, people will flock to novelty, even if the market prefers predictability. We are seeing this in Argentina where the voters elected what can best be described as an autistic Austin Powers character as their next president. Javier Milei won Sunday’s run-off against Peronist former Minister of Economy Sergio Massa. It was a stunning victory for a man who promises to radically change the Argentine economy.
Javier Milei is the next in line in what has become a tradition that started with Beppe Grillo a dozen years ago in Italy. He was the former television comic who formed a joke party to run for office, which quickly turned into a social phenomenon. Getting back to what Truman said, given the choice between people acting like clowns, the voters in democracies have repeatedly picked the genuine clowns. Trump, Bolsonaro, Meloni and now Milei have come to power this way.
That is not to say that these eccentric candidates have not come with a real platform and a genuine list of issues. It is that their primary appeal is their eccentricity. A more traditional presentation would have failed, even if the issues were popular, because part of the problem for voters is the dreadful sameness of the candidates. One of the ironies of “our democracy” is it produces gold-plated phonies. The least relatable people on the planet are popular political figures.
Of course, it goes deeper than just a desire for authenticity. The unspoken truth of politics for the last thirty years is the sense that something is deeply wrong, despite the relative material prosperity. One reason so many were so quick to embrace the Covid madness is the sense that we were about to get what we deserved. Mother Nature was about to balance the scales with a great plague. These eccentric candidates are something of a search for absolution by the voters.
There is also an end of time issue with many of them. Italy has been convulsed with populism since Beppe Grillo because no one is able to answer the big question that hangs over every human society. Why does it exist? Italians no longer have a reason to exist, which is why they have stopped having children. People like Grillo and now Meloni offer some hope for a purpose. Their anger and eccentricity are a little bit of light in the gathering darkness of their civilization.
This may be the case in Argentina where they have been ruled by a combination of kleptocrats and maniacs for generations. One party steals the nation’s resources on behalf of international interests in the name of fiscal discipline until the people grow weary of it and replace them with the maniacs. These are the socialists who then start printing money to buy happiness until inflation gets out of control and the banks stop lending them money or accepting pesos for debts.
This is where Argentina is now. They currently have inflation at 120%, a swelling debt crisis and a stagnant economy. In addition to being an entertaining weirdo during the campaign, Milei promised to dollarize the economy, de-unionize the private sector, cut taxes, and restore private property rights. He calls himself a libertarian, but he has not promised to give free weed and porn to children or convert to Bitcoin. Perhaps he is saving that for his second act.
This is where Milei will turn out to be like the other eccentrics that have paraded across the stage of democracies over the last decade. There is little chance he will get any of his agenda implemented. The two main parties still control all of the important institutions, so they will collude to block his initiatives. Another feature of democracy is the controlling parties are incentivized to not address genuine problems. The metastasizing social ills are the systems’ defense mechanism.
In the end, that may be the function of these eccentric populist characters that are turning up in democratic politics. They gain support mostly because they are a break from the dreary reality of the system. If voting is not going to lead to good public policy, then at least it can lead to amusing failure. If food prices rise faster than you can count pesos, then maybe having autistic Austin Powers staring back at you through the television will take your mind off things.
So far that has been the result. Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement accomplished nothing, other than helping the EU sidetrack genuine reform. Trump and Bolsonaro, of course, were stymied by the system. Meloni’s angry housewife act remains popular, but her administration is the same as her predecessor. What all of these eccentric characters are, in the end, is proof that there is no voting your way out of the problems of liberal democracy.
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