Party Pooper

Quico says:

Dear Katy,

I’ll start by noting what we agree on. There’s no doubt that there’s a psycho edge to a lot of the party whackery we see in the opposition. At times, it’s easy to feel we have some deep, masochistic need to sabotage ourselves by making contradictory demands on our leadership and blaming them for the failures that ensue. This tendency was most evident in episodes like the self-purging of PDVSA (paro), of the Armed Forces (Plaza Altamira) and of the National Assembly (2005 boycott). I think it’s all part of the Chavez Nos Tiene Locos phenomenon: traumatized by 9 years of vicious attack, disoriented, embittered and all-too-easily-baited into idiot maximalism, the opposition has too often been chavismo’s greatest “objective ally”.

All of that was supposed to have changed on December 2nd. With the referendum victory, we were supposed to have finally realized the lessons of the last 10 years. That personalizing the debate around Chavez was a losing strategy. That we could compete so long as we distanced ourselves from the excesses of the past. That maximalism is a dead end. That there’s a powerful thirst for renewal out there that Chavismo is no longer able to satisfy. That people vote their day to day concerns, not grand abstractions.

Are those lessons sticking? Lets review the bidding. Within 6 weeks of December 2nd we’ve seen the Salas clan pledge a return to the Carabobo governorship and Enrique Mendoza pledging to do the same in Miranda. We’ve seen AD launch a separate bid for Miranda before consulting anyone. We’ve seen Rosales say he wants to install his wife, Kirchner style, in his old job in Zulia. Suddenly, in the opposition, “talking politics” means “talking electoral pacts.”

So it’s already clear that we won’t spend the bulk of this year making our case to the voters, explaining why chavista governors and mayors are failing and how we could do better. Instead, we’re staring down the barrel of a long, divisive, debilitating, cynicism-fueling internal wrangle over “unity” candidacies to be fought out by oppo party elites that are still widely loathed, even within the opposition movement itself.

And here is where we disagree, Katy. The fact that the virulent anti-party mood in the country is kind of nutty and ultimately self-defeating does not mean it is gratuitous. It doesn’t mean there is no reason for it. Far from it.

Anti-partyism is a function of the self-destructive dynamics that result from the oppo’s fragmentation into a dozen non-viable rump partylets, a structure that complicates cooperation and puts a premium on jockeying for internal position over and above what political parties in general are supposed to be all about: presenting voters with a vision and asking them to support it.

To tell the truth, I find it kind of disheartening that thoughtful party people like you seem more inclined to a certain, self-pitying rejection of anti-party sentiment (anti-anti-partyism) than to a cold-blooded examination of what exactly it is about the way the oppo parties operate that drives so many Venezuelans up a bloody wall.

I don’t want to wallow in a recitation of the by now familiar litany of laments here (the navel gazing, the petty feuding, the nepotism and personalism, and my personal bugbear: the absence of any institutional mechanism able to force failed leaders to leave the stage and start a second career.)

But I do want to say that parties exasperate people because they appear fundamentally unable to change, to think fresh thoughts, to act creatively or to adapt to changed circumstances in ways that increase their effectiveness.

These shortcomings are real, not imagined. Oppo supporters are desperate for an organization that can effectively challenge the government. Ultimately, it’s the parties’ inability to do so that makes us so angry.

I don’t accept the idea that “parties just can’t win” because people are just irrationally repelled by them. I think the opposition parties could alter people’s perceptions of them, and quickly, if they could muster the guts and the creativity to pull off some decisive symbolic acts and put an end to the old, discredited politics of caudillismo, sequential splitting, and perpetual fragmentation.

Nothing is preventing Primero Justicia, Un Nuevo Tiempo, Proyecto Venezuela, Causa R, MAS and others from merging into a cohesive, disciplined, effective organization that takes on the serious work of taking on the government: call it the Partido Democratico de Venezuela.

Fragmentation ensures each of the oppo parties will be individually ineffective, unable to reach the critical mass of followers (and fund-raising capacity) needed to create a proper national organization able to put forward a coherent, appealing message. They are very obviously much weaker apart than they would be together. Really, it’s a no-brainer.

And yet this idea is so unthinkable, so impossible, so utterly beyond the realm of the imaginable that it’s virtually unmentionable. Nobody (aside from me) even mentions it because everybody “already knows” it can’t happen.

And why can’t it happen? Because Leo Lopez hates Julio Borges’ guts, or because Liliana Hernandez has a grudge against the Salas clan, or Rosales doesn’t like the color of Enrique Mendoza’s ties. Because petty personal piques trump the national interest every time – hell, they even trump the opposition’s collective self-interest! And this “trumping” is taken to be such an immutable force of nature, a reality of such overwhelming, self-evident ineluctability that it’s not even in need of discussion. Of course UNT is not going to merge with PJ so they can concentrate on fighting chavismo together…why, even to bring it up is preposterous!

If anything, we’re likely to see more party splintering into the future, as the student movement decides the best way to avoid being contaminated with the “disease” of partydom is to found new, non-viable parties themselves. That’s how the game is played, isn’t it?

It is, and largely because that’s how it’s always been.

And so the oppo parties’ future looks more and more like their past: more fragmentation, more personalism, more navel gazing, more mindless jockeying for meaningless tactical advantage. But this passive acceptance of the idea that the way things have always been is the ways they must always be is at the heart of the seething anger oppo supporters feel at their purported leaders.

A movement that needs to spend the next 10 months hammering away at the hopelessness of chavismo’s state and local leadership will instead spend a good 6 or 7 months arguing with itself about which discredited figure will be the “unity” candidate in which race. And then, when we get beat in places where we won last month, they’ll tell us that it’s just that “the campaign was too short” to get voters acquainted with candidates…

So yes, Katy, anti-partyism is certainly self-destructive…but not nearly as self-destructive as the crazy way opposition parties practice politics. Pleading with people to stop being so mindlessly anti-party is nowhere near good enough. If the parties want to overcome the ocean of hostility they face, they have to earn it, by demonstrating that they place the national interest ahead of their individual interests through actions, not words.