Mapping the region’s ideological landscape
A deeper dive into my accidental Twitter meme
Every country is unique and has its own narrative and political culture. This means that any attempt to group countries together in a map of ideologies faces the same tension. Put too many of them together in a group, and it becomes quite simple to pick apart all the differences among the countries. However, separating every country out into its own unique group misses the patterns and trends that do exist regionally.
That tension means there never will be a perfect map for describing the region’s ideological trends. Any map will ultimately face at least one of the following four criticisms:
These two countries can’t belong to the same group because they are different in this very important way.
These two countries should belong to the same group because they are similar in this very important way.
This country has been misclassified because due to some detail it is actually more like this other group.
This map has lots of pretty colors but doesn’t say anything useful to help understand the region.
There are plenty of other criticisms and I’ve heard them over the past day. Why map ideological trends onto a geographic map? Population centers matter more than the vast giant spaces that take up most of the map. If a leftist president wins 51-49, is it really fair to shade that entire country pink? Does it matter how presidents act or how they describe themselves? Why map the ideologies of presidents when there are multiple co-equal branches of national government as well as state and local governments of different ideologies? How should the map properly represent a small country that potentially leads a shift in regional ideology? Isn’t it just arrogant gringo imperialism to label countries in Latin America?
And yet, we make maps about the region’s ideological trends anyway because people like maps. They grab the eye. They shape the narrative. They are quicker to grasp than a thousand word Substack post or a half hour podcast.
In case it’s not clear, this map was a half-legitimate / half-silly 5AM post to Twitter and wasn’t meant to be taken as a serious academic exercise. It also wasn’t meant to be viewed by five million people yesterday. With that said, here are some potential takeaways from the map:
The “yes, and” left spectrum - There is a left: an ideological grouping of people and parties who believe (or at least claim to believe) the government should play a greater role in the economy. The clear left-right divide has definitely become more murky as some (but not all!) on the left have recognized the importance of pragmatic fiscal management while some (but not all!) on the right engage in economic populism and intervention. But I think there is still a left-right economic spectrum that has some value.
The real value in Latin American political analysis is not whether a leader or party is “leftist,” as much as whatever descriptions follow the “leftist and”. Leftist and authoritarian/democratic, pragmatic/ideological, elitist/populist/technocrat, socially conservative/liberal, extractivist/environmentalist, militaristic/peacenik, stable/weak, Swiftie/metalhead. It’s not even as simple as an x-y axis. Each government has a few different additional adjectives that could be added and the ones that are relevant to discuss are a part of the country’s narrative.
The “boring” governments have a problem - Many people saw the map and wished their country was in the “boring” category. But I think that misses the point. Across the past decade, technocratic and “boring” governments from the left, right, and center have all failed to deliver in the eyes of their populations, a key aspect that has led to the current anti-incumbent and populist moment. Of the current “boring” governments, with perhaps one or two exceptions, most are unpopular and/or risk some sort of populist/authoritarian turn in the near future.
The governability question - Peru has had four presidential transitions and two congressional elections since 2018, and another president appears close to on the way out. Argentina and Peronism can be described as “economic chaos theory” and it impacts the politics of the country and the lives of the people there; whoever is in power struggles to maintain the ability to govern fractioning coalitions. Several “leftist” Latin American governments are haunted by the ghosts of the past that hold them back. Mapping the ideological spectrum becomes a challenge when the map can change quickly or is undefined due to instability or factionalism.
Authoritarians old and new - There is a temptation to divide the left into an old and new left, but it’s perhaps more interesting and useful to divide the authoritarians of the region into an old and new subgrouping. There is an old authoritarian movement hanging on in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua (the even older authoritarian movement of rightwing military dictatorships is mostly dead). The rest of the region’s left including Lula should be more critical of them.
But it’s the new authoritarians that concern me today including the “self-described coolest dictatorship” (El Salvador) and “wishes they were as cool as Bukele” (Guatemala, maybe Costa Rica). The new authoritarian wave isn’t necessarily rightist, though some define it as “right” leaning. There was always an attempt by the older left-leaning authoritarianism to portray themselves as “cool” in a revolutionary sort of way, but they’ve lost that appeal over time. Today, we see an expansion of the idea of a cool and popular authoritarianism somewhat separate from the left-right spectrum. There are leaders semi-embracing or fully embracing the authoritarian label as something they are proud of. These are trends I believe will grow in the coming years. There are certainly echos of the past in this “cool authoritarian” trend, but I do believe it is something new and different than previous waves of authoritarian governance. We should fear any authoritarian leader who wants to defy political gravity to be as popular as AMLO and as cool as Bukele. It will reshape the left-right map.
Thanks for reading
Having a viral Twitter post the day I returned from vacation was not my plan for the week. Welcome to all the new subscribers and thanks to everyone who has been reading for a long time.
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A great map & discussion. I'll use it in my Latin American Politics class as a point of departure for discussion.