The Normal Politics Trap

Allegory of MUD's Strategy
Allegory of MUD’s Strategy

The question now is what will collapse sooner: Venezuelans’ confidence in the government or the opposition’s confidence in MUD’s leadership. I think of it as a kind of race, and I don’t think it’s obvious who will “win.” (With a bit of – macabre – luck, we’ll end up with a dead heat.)

The reasons for Venezuelans to lose confidence in this government are many powerful – we’ve been writing about them here for fourteen years (y medio). It’s the other bit that’s underanalysed.

Since April 14th, the opposition leadership has been building a trap for itself: arguing, on the one hand, that chavismo has a sophisticated operation in place to steal elections and, on the other, that if we just get enough people out to the polls we can successfully counter the government that way.

The tension at play here is evident. It can’t be massaged with artful sophisms or too-clever-by-half attempts at positioning. And yesterday’s Supreme Tribunal ruling, which put on dramatic display MUD’s utter powerlessness as it demands fair(er) electoral conditions, only underlines it once again.

This is the Normal Politics Trap. Guys like Henrique Capriles, Ramon Guillermo Aveledo and the rest of the MUD leadership cut their teeth in democratic politics. They see the task of political leadership as appealing to as broad a section of the electorate as possible. That makes sense as an understanding of the politician’s craft only in given circumstances: when you can be reasonably certain that the link between “appealing to more people than the other guy” and “obtaining power” is reasonably intact.

These days, even as they argue – and even as reality clearly shows – that this link has been severed, our leaders can’t seem to grasp the ways that break renders their old task irrelevant. This, in the most basic sense, is what it means for democracy to collapse: it no longer really matter whether you’re backed by 51% or 49% or 55% or 45% – the real basis of power now lay elsewhere.

The MUD Leadership knows this. What it doesn’t seem to know is how to adapt its practice to match this bewildering new reality. Its entire world-view, its whole conception of what it means to do politics, leaves it badly ill-equipped for the shift to abnormal politics that chavismo is imposing.

Thanks to its longstanding disdain for electoral politics, the far left has always been at home with abnormal politics in  a way that we’re not. We’re still wearing ourselves out filing lawsuits with the Supreme Tribunal of Luis Velasquez Alvaray and Eladio Aponte Aponte. It shouldn’t surprise us: asking Henrique Capriles to destabilize an authoritarian regime is a little like asking Diosdado Cabello to lead an open, deliberative parliament: nothing in his life experience or ideological outlook prepares him for such a task.

The Normal Politics Trap turns our powerlessness into spectacle, theatralizes it in highly visible set-pieces like yesterday’s TSJ decision.

And make no mistake: chavismo is banking on this. They know we’re ill at ease outside the sphere of institutional politics. They know we’re pretty damn hopeless at the kind of politics authoritarianism makes inevitable. They know, for instance, we’re just crap infiltrating stuff – there’s no conservative Gramsci to tell us why we need to. But you can’t subvert the power of unaccountable institutions if you don’t have people working from the inside. And, seriously, how many opposition infiltrators do you really think work in Fuerte Tiuna? In the Finance Ministry? In PDVSA?

What if we spent all the time, all the resources, and all the effort we’re currently wasting on Normal Politics of the type rendered powerless by authoritarianism and devoted them to the types of infiltration-and-subversion tactics that really might make a dent in the regime’s power? Does that sound hopeless to you? I’m sure that’s what people told Douglas Bravo back in 1974 when he decided his new strategy would be to talk up some 20 year old cadets at the Military Academy…

Unless we get serious about mastering the only kind of politics that matter in Venezuela these days, MUD risks turning into the Maginot Line of civil society’s defenses against authoritarianism. The longer it insists on gearing up for a battle on terrain that the other side can just by-pass, the closer the day comes when its ability to rally opposition supporters first fractures and then collapses.