The opposition will not be televised

A different kind of opposition…

So I really like the way Miguel Angel Santos writes. In the barren wasteland of the spirit that is El Universal’s OpEd page, he stands apart for the clarity of both his ideas and his prose. And his latest piece is no exception.

El gobierno se metió en una calle ciega. Como buena calle ciega, durante un tiempo iba feliz porque rodó sin tráfico. En eso se han pasado la mayor parte de los últimos seis años. No había nadie allí, porque no llevaba a ninguna parte. De esta situación han salido muchos países de América Latina, de eso no cabe duda, pero esa salida exige unos niveles de conocimiento, eficiencia, ejecución y capacidad de generar confianza que van más allá de la chapuza chavista.

Where I break ranks with Santos is when it comes to the “therefore”. He thinks the opposition should develop a message that pegs the government’s policy failures squarely on the government. I think in the era of communicational hegemony, we’re well past the point where “the opposition should…” is a meaningful frase.

Playing on a dramatically uneven playing field, the political opposition has seen its means of communicating with the broad middle of the Venezuelan electorate severely degraded. Apart from the tiny sliver of voters in class A and B in the five or six largest cities – which, lest we forget, is maybe 5% of the electorate – it doesn’t matter in the slightest what Henrique Capriles or Ramón Guillermo Aveledo (or M.A. Santos or Quico Toro, for that matter) say, for the simple reason that they just won’t hear it.

Normal people don’t seek out political information. They just don’t. Normal people absorb the political information they’re passively exposed to it, largely on the radio and the TV. In the kind of media landscape communicational hegemony has built, passive news consumers – the kind whose knowledge base is made up of half-overheard snippets from the radio, gleaned when their attention is largely elsewhere, (a.k.a., normal people) – have no access to “the opposition” line. What that line is doesn’t matter, because they’ll never hear it. They’ll hear the government railing against a made-up strawman version of it, yes, but they’ll never hear it.

What this means is that the political opposition, as we’ve traditionally understood it, is an increasingly marginal player in the Venezuelan drama. It’s been sad for me to watch Henrique Capriles halting, often incoherent attempts to adapt to a new political landscape dominated by his irrelevance – and I’m clearly not above lashing out in despair at him for that, probably unfairly. But how we feel about that irrelevance, how we analyze it, what we ascribe it to, doesn’t really change it. And failing to acknowledge that is just another version of the Normal Politics Trap.

Of one thing I’m now sure: the social forces that could, imaginably, put an end to the catastrophic misgovernment of post-chavismo will not be shepherded by  the political opposition as we’ve known it.

It may be that Venezuela today is like Serbia in 1998, when a hapless gaggle of traditional anti-Milosevic  politicos was entirely blindsided by a people power movement that they didn’t organize, didn’t understand, didn’t control and didn’t manage. That movement didn’t replace them, it simply passed them by, doing the job that the traditional opposition clearly didn’t have the ingenuity to do. That this could be our future may sound far-fetched. But is it more far-fetched than thinking a new form-of-words hatched inside a MUD messaging committee is going to make the difference?