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January 15, 2007

You’ve Got Democracy? Here Come the Consultants


The Americans are invading the third world, encroaching local traditions with their own, narrow idea of what market democracy means. The military in Iraq? The corporations in Southeast Asia? No, the political consultants.


That’s the lesson of a recent documentary, which illustrates the recent trend of American campaign fixers going to work in Third World counties, and other immature democracies, which in many cases has led to different American firms on different sides of the same election campaigns.


The film is “Our Brand is Crisis,” directed by Rachel Boynton, and it was recently released on DVD. It had a brief theatrical run last fall, and appeared on a handful of critics’ top ten lists. More than anything else, the documentary shows the folly of trying to apply maxims of American party politics to the very different political systems of foreign countries.


In the film, we see the American consulting firm Greenberg, Carville and Shrum going to work in the 2002 presidential election in the South American nation of Bolivia. The firm’s candidate, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (known as “Goni”), was a former president whose previous term had been undone by privatization schemes that had been opposed by the majority of the country. At issue, primarily, was the question of whether, and if so how much, Bolivia should export its vast reserves of natural gas, in fixing what at the time was a nascent economic crisis.


The American consultants, using time-tested American styles of positive and negative campaigning, ultimately lead Goni to victory (with 22.5% of the vote) in a race with 11 candidates. But his presidency was immediately met with resistance, primarily from Bolivia’s majority indigenous population, until the riots (known as the Bolivian Gas War) caused Goni to resign the following year. This led to the election to the presidency of indigenous socialist Evo Morales, an opponent of exportation who finished second to Goni in the 2002 election.


What is especially jarring about ‘Our Brand,’ which one critic called “the rare left-wing documentary in which George Bush isn’t the villain,” is that the arrogant Americans at the center of it are…establishment liberal Democrats. James Carville is as well known a Clintonite as anyone, and partner Bob Shrum has been an adviser for nearly every (losing) Democratic presidential candidate of the past quarter century.


The film makes the fascinating, not-often-stated point that, in a relatively new democracy still wrestling with questions of trade and privatization, American standards of “liberal” and “conservative” are all but meaningless. And unlike some of the leftier films of recent years, the film makes its underlying point (“the same thing’s happening in Iraq!”) with masterful subtlety, rather than hammer-like obviousness.


The film also functions as a reverse-image of the 1993 documentary “The War Room”. That film, directed by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, about Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, depicted Carville, pollster Stan Greenberg and others in their element as victorious. In ‘Our Brand,’ despite the narrow victory, they are strangers in a strange land. One consultant, future John Kerry adviser Tad Devine, is seen repeatedly bragging that he had recently won a major electoral victory in Ireland – as though the two nations’ political systems have anything in common.  

The story of GCS-in-Bolivia shows a certain arrogance among some Westerners, seeking to apply the two-party template of American politics to political systems elsewhere in the world. We see this in looking at Russia (is Vladimir Putin a “liberal”? Moreso than the communists, but…) and, of course, in Iraq.  

President Bush may view the war there as a bipolar conflict between “the forces of democracy” and “the terrorists,” when in reality it’s a multi-sided civil war with a whole lot of bad guys in every direction. The same goes for conservatives who for some reason believe in an “alliance” between left-wing anti-war protestors and Islamic terrorists, as though there were anything liberal about jihad.


This isn’t to say that Americans have no business getting involved in foreign elections, if the candidates want to hire them. But the point that is made by “Our Brand is Crisis” is that perspective in such matters is sorely needed.


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