Teodoro Petkoff still hasn’t understood what draws the poor to Chavez

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Picking up where I left off yesterday, I wanted to comment on this bit from Teodoro’s interview in El Mundo on Tuesday:

Q: At first, president Chavez also campaigned on the importance of work with dignity. Thousands of people ran to Miraflores to look for jobs. And what happened?

A: It’s true. He took power with that goal in mind. He announced that his great enterprise would be to attack poverty. And I have to recognize that he succeeded in making the social question the great topic of national debate. Today, no one doubts that that’s the issue…

Teodoro has been playing on variations of this riff for some time: Chavez’s one merit is that he put poverty at the center of the national debate. I think that’s wrong, in a subtle but deep way.

For as long as I can remember, the “social question” has been at the center of Venezuela’s national debate. It’s not like Luis Herrera beat Piñerúa in the 1978 election because Piñerúa didn’t talk about poverty. It’s not as if Lusinchi campaigned on a platform of abolishing inherittance taxes. No! Every government in the democratic era has come to power with a discourse about poverty. There’s nothing innovative about that…

Chavez’s discoursive innovation was something quite different: Chavez talked to the poor, not about them. While the old elite talked about the poor, using technocratic language that made sense within elite conceptual categories, Chavez talked to the poor in their language, using their conceptual categories, and saying things that made sense to them.

This, I think, it’s the crux of his considerable success in engendering fierce loyalty among his poor supporters. Chavez’s discourse treats them as subjects, not as the objects of the debate. Though I’m convinced this is a purely rhetorical ploy, the emotional impact of the strategy has been startling, and continues to be effective. Poor people feel included by Chavez’s discourse – and, politically, that feeling is worth a thousand realities.

Teodoro doesn’t seem to quite grasp the distinction. In his little riff, he always credits Chavez for having launched a debate about poverty. In his 30-second talking-head spots, he seems to think he’s matching him. But he isn’t – because he’s subtly but badly misunderstood the nature of Chavez’s discoursive innovation. Teodoro is trying to counter a guy who talks from the gut and to the poor with a discourse from the head about the poor. It won’t work.

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