Grassroots Expectations of Democracy and Economy: Argentina in Comparative Perspective

Grassroots Expectations of Democracy and Economy: Argentina in Comparative Perspective

Corrales, Javier

Powers, Nancy R. Grassroots Expectations of Democracy and Economy: Argentina in Comparative Perspective. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001. Tables, figures, appendixes, bibliography, index, 294 pp.; paperback $19.95.

Do material conditions determine the political inclination of citizens? Or, in the jargon of scholars of voting, do citizens vote their pocketbooks? This is one of the most vexing questions in political science. It is a crucial question for students of democratization, especially in Latin America, where poverty persists unabated almost three decades after the onset of the third democratic wave. If citizens form political interests based on material conditions, will the poor in democratic countries eventually turn antiestablishment and hence, antidemocratic?

Karl Marx was absolutely convinced that they would. In his words, “life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” (1978, 155). Sooner or later, the sorry “material existence” of the proletariat would turn them into revolutionaries. Yet as students of revolutions, clientelism, populism, and authoritarianism have often shown, Marx overstated his case. Often, rather than rebel, deprived citizens actually learn to cope with hardship quite well, sometimes even remain loyal to the very same political leaders who are responsible for their hardship. In the context of Latin America in the 1990s, it seems that the poor reacted passively to neoliberal economic reforms that did not always help them (Geddes 1995). Why didn’t they rebel? In Argentina in particular, the mystery is deeper: why did so many of the poor continue to vote (according to Gervasoni 1998) for the incumbent president, the Peronist Carlos Menem?

These are the central questions in Nancy Powers’s superb study of poverty in Argentina. Arguing that to understand how people’s material interests affect their political views, “we first need to understand how they think about their material interests” (p. 2), Powers interviewed 41 poor citizens living mostly in two neighborhoods of Buenos Aires (San Telmo and Montserrat). The result of her analysis is a compelling argument about the political behavior of the poor.

Powers begins by arguing that the poor can adopt three forms of political interest, or foci. One is the micro focus, which occurs when citizens focus exclusively on their personal material problems “with little thought” to government affairs. The second is the macro focus: the citizens follow national politics without thinking too much about its impact on their personal lives. The third, less common focus is the “macro-micro link”: citizens follow the macro situation but also evaluate it according to the impact it has on their personal situation. Among the poor, only those who make the macro-micro link are likely to be politically active, and presumably ready to displace incumbents who do not deliver.

The trick, therefore, is to isolate the conditions that determine exactly when the macro-micro link prevails. Powers’s answer can be summarized in three words: coping, blaming, and identity. Coping refers to the kind of resources that citizens can count on to survive. Often, these resources are nonpolitical: help from friends, relatives, contacts, patrons, charities, or sheer personal resilience. Blaming refers to how citizens construe the cause of their material predicament. Again, the attribution of blame can be nonpolitical: citizens can blame personal bad choices, conjugal or parental problems, bad luck, bad bosses, or God’s designs. Identity refers to social background, including class and party affiliation. For Powers, the most likely citizen to adopt the macro-micro link is the one who has fewer “varieties of coping mechanisms,” who attributes blame to political factors, and who has been brought up in the context of political parties that specialize in activism. Unless coping, blaming, and identity are politicized, the poor will not make the “macro-micro link” and thereby act as reliable challengers to the state.

However simple it sounds, this trilogy of variables constitutes a real theoretical contribution. Not only does Powers explain why “democracy in Argentina has managed to maintain widespread legitimacy as a valued system of government despite its inability to produce governments that could create a decent standard of living for all” (p. 180), but she also generates an interesting argument about the barriers to political activism. Until now, some of the best explanations for activism in politics came from scholars of social movements. Recently, theorists in this tradition argued that in addition to political opportunities and resource structures, activism requires the right “framing process.” That is, citizens must “fashion shared understandings” of the causes of their grievances and prospects for collective action. Yet even these theorists admit that the concept of framing lacks precision and is often difficult to use in “systematic empirical application” (McAdam 1996, 354). This is where Powers helps to fill in some of the blanks. Her trilogy adds a new set of testable conditions under which framing, or, to use Powers’s own term, the macro-micro link, will prevail.

Coping is the most innovative factor of the three. It is true that the notion of coping surfaces in some of the classic works on revolutions. Gurr, for instance, argues that “if disconnected people have or get constructive means to attain their social and material goals, few will resort to violence” (1970, 317). Few scholars, however, have theorized about the concept of coping. What Powers does is to incorporate that insight of anthropologists and psychologists, often forgotten by political economists, which says that hardship encourages citizens to become more resourceful, finding ingenious informal mechanisms for survival. It is therefore no mystery that the poor are less politically active than we would typically expect; they are too busy and, often, quite diligently coping. Simply exhorting the poor to become active, as many social activists do, will not always work.

How could this innovative book have been made better? I offer some criticisms hesitantly, because I do not mean to minimize the book’s accomplishment. First, Powers could have tried harder to rank her three main variables. She seems to argue that coping is the most important; yet despite her chapter on this topic, she cannot fully rule out the idea that perhaps the most important variable is, instead, party affiliation. Parties do more than just “color” the views of actors and affect their identity (pp. 142-79); they also affect the level of coping. As Powers shows, parties were quite present in Argentina’s urban neighborhoods. In the early 1990s, these parties did not exactly foster the rise of macro-micro links. The ruling party was keen on exonerating the government of any prevailing hardships; the main opposition party was too discredited to elicit much excitment, even among its affiliates. It could very well be that poor citizens were not making the macro-micro link because parties were blocking them from doing so. One way Powers could have separated the effects of party affiliation would have been to control for parties (that is, study the opinions of non-Peronists in more detail) the way she controls for class.

Powers also could have probed Albert Hirschman’s famous “tunnel effect” argument. If you are stuck in a traffic jam in a two-lane tunnel, said Hirschman, and the opposite lane begins to move while your lane remains still, your immediate reaction is not anger but hope, because you imagine that the traffic jam is broken and that you, too, will move soon. If the analogy holds, it was a bit unrealistic to expect the poor to be active in the midst of an economic boom. Here is where the timing of her interviews hurt Powers a bit. Most interviews took place in 1992, one of the golden years of the Menem era. The government had just successfully killed inflation, the economy was growing phenomenally, and poverty levels were at their lowest in a decade. In other words, Hirschman’s tunnel effect was in full force. Those who were worse off might not have been moving, but everyone else was. Powers could have tried to address the hypothesis that in a country where most citizens are in a festive mood (and political parties are unavailable for action), the conditions are simply not right for the poor to act as party poopers. She could have done this by drawing more on her second round of interviews in 1995. By then, even Hirschman would have predicted that those still stuck in their lane would be ready to explode, which is not exactly what Powers finds.

Powers’s overall points are important, but so are some specific parts of her book. Her chapter on housing conditions is an example of effective descriptive writing. Many social scientists who write about the poor often make the mistake of bombarding the reader either with a barrage of statistics or with endless graphic descriptions of squalor, as if these excesses would make the reader more aware of the gravity of the subject. Powers shows that one can avoid these excesses and still offer a moving account of how dismal housing can affect not just the economic prospects, but also the self-esteem, of the poor.

While hard-core statisticians will lament the lack of more sophisticated statistical analysis, I find that Powers makes a solid justification for her qualitative methods. The benefit of interpreting open-ended interviews is that they help the researcher not merely in collecting data but also in “discovering what the right questions are” (p. 4). The research appendix, in which Powers describes in detail her method of field research, including practical tips on topics such as how to choose which housewife to interview, should be obligatory reading for anyone interested in qualitative interviewing.

Ultimately, Powers leaves us with a paradox. Poverty does not endanger democracy because the persistently poor, unlike many social scientists, do not have expectations that democracy should deliver them from poverty. That democracy is safe is no doubt a relief. But it is disconcerting to realize that this safety also means that a crucial mechanism of accountability in modern democracies-namely, that the losers of a regime should stand ready to punish incumbents-does not always work. Powers not only provides solid answers to important questions about the behavior of the poor; she also raises an important paradox for future thinkers to unravel.

Copyright Latin American Politics and Society Winter 2002

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