Role reversal

Electioneering in the television age is really a matter of fixing a series of symbolic associations in voters’ minds. Candidates do this by composing a very simple story, a kind of “elevator pitch,” designed to answer the question “what is this election about?” The trick is to answer that question using a very simple story that resonates with voters more than your opponent’s little story does.

For the Rosales camp, this election is about the best way to redistribute oil rents. His very-simple-narrative goes something like this:

Chávez promised to distribute oil rents to everyone’s benefit, but he didn’t follow through. Too much oil money is going to other countries and to corrupt officials, and common people only get their hands on it if they sign up for the Chávez cult of personality. Vote for me because I have a plan (Mi Negra) to put the nation’s oil money in your pockets in a fair and transparent way, with no political exclusions.

Chávez’s elevator speech, on the other hand, goes something like:

I am good and the United States is evil. People who oppose me are U.S. stooges, so voting against me is an anti-patriotic, nearly treasonous act. A vote for Chavez is a vote for multipolarity. Vote for me so, together, we can defeat the US’s hegemonic threat to world peace and stability.

Practically every newspaper headline Chávez has generated this year plays on some variation on this theme. The guy seems to think about very little else these days. Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro’s little catch-and-release routine yesterday at JFK, and the diplomatic spat it caused, reinforces once again Chávez’s choice of strategic positioning for this election.

Frankly, I’m staggered that Chávez is sticking by this theme. I don’t have the research to prove it, but it seems really, really obvious to me that a discourse that’s so abstract, so detached from people’s day-to-day concerns, so obviously of interest to ideological partisans only, can’t possibly get many Venezuelans’ blood pumping.

So compared to the situation leading up to the Recall Referendum in August 2004, the roles are almost exactly reversed.

Back then we had an opposition that kept droning on about abstract categories of very limited relevance to poor people’s everyday concerns (i.e. “freedom,” “tolerance,” “checks and balances,” “voting conditions,” etc.) and a government focused narrowly on the here-and-now of what poor people need (i.e. money, distributed through misiones.)

In the three months leading up to the recall vote, the polls turned around dramatically, as people abandoned an opposition whose discourse just didn’t resonate with their concerns in favor of a government whose actions did.

That was then. Today, it’s the government that’s struck off on some weird, abstract tangent, talking about things that just don’t put an arepa on the table. And it’s the opposition that has rediscovered the theme that first propelled Chavez into power all those years ago: oil rents, and how to share them out.

Can Rosales pull off some unlikely come-from-behind win? Well, Chávez still has a very comfortable lead, and Rosales has serious shortcomings as a candidate. But there’s no question that Chávez is trending down, and Rosales up. If Chávez doesn’t snap out of it, if he doesn’t realize that his strategic positioning this time around is way off track, anything could happen.