April 19, 2004

Why is it so hard to reach Chavez's 30%?

Why those soporific speeches at the end of opposition rallies are such a bad sign...

This has been an ongoing debate in the Comments section, and it's a tough nut to crack. I don't have the answers - but I do have some idea about the questions we need to ask ourselves to come up with those answers.

The opposition tends to have a somewhat naive, 19th centuryesque notion that it's the content of a political message that matters. And of course content matters, but it's not the only thing, or even the most important thing. Chavez's credibility with "his" 30% has more to do with style, identity, and use of language than it does with content. You can see this when you see Diosdado give a speech. He says the same things Chavez says, but he says them with all of the soul ripped out. Result? Diosdado can't really fire up the crowds, or the opposition's anger.

Style is crucial. Chavez adopts a rhetorical pose (it's an illusion, I know, but it's incredibly effective) of always speaking to his audience as his notional equal. He never pulls rank, never talks down to people, never condescends. Within the construct of his speech, he builds a sense of respecting his listener, of speaking to him on his level.

This was revolutionary when Chavez started doing it in 1998, and today, astonishingly, he remains the only public figure in the country who talks this way. The reason so many people associate the opposition with the old regime, if you ask me, is that opposition politicos still use the rhetorical conventions of the old regime - and it was those conventions, as much as the corruption, mismanagement, and substantive failure of the old system that people voted against in 1998 and 2000.

Chavez talks to the poor. The opposition talks at the poor. Chavez talks like the poor. The opposition talks about the poor. Chavez takes the poor as real, living, breathing human beings. The opposition treats the poor as an abstraction, an academic problem, a set of mathematical relationships on a social indicators statistical report. Is there any doubt why Chavez connects and - so often - the opposition doesn't?

Identity: Chavez grew up poor. He knows how to tap into that fount of credibility and use it to connect emotionally with the audience. Too many opposition leaders did not grow up poor, and cannot hope to match Chavez's credibility here. (This also explains why they have such a hard time treating the poor as actual people rather than abstractions.)

Worse still, the opposition leaders who did grow up poor seem to feel ill-at-ease bringing it up or using those stories politically. Quite unlike a John Edwards or even a Bill Clinton, they seem to have no idea how to "give legs" to their life stories. Ever listen to Horacio Medina describe his upbringing as a kid of conserje in Caracas? From a more rhetorically skillful politician, the line could be devastating. From a bashful, shifty-eyed Medina, it's thoroughly forgettable.

Language, I'll get in trouble with Cardinale for saying this, but the opposition further alienates itself from Chavez's 30% through its choice of words. Unlike in English, where simplicity and economy are considered the cardinal virtues of usage, in Spanish linguistic virtuosity demands that you use lots of big fancy words. Strunk and White's famous stricture to "omit needless words" makes no sense at all in the context of Spanish - something that took me years to learn when I edited VenEconomy.

Chavez is a lexical rebel in this regard. He talks as though he had read Strunk and White. His speeches may be unbearably long, but they are not verbose. He shuns long words, shuns any word not likely to be understood in a barrio, and if he's forced to use a fancy word, he takes the time to explain its meaning patiently to the audience. Chavez goes far out of his way to make sure his message is not just understood, but understandable.

The opposition has failed miserably to learn from Chavez in this realm. Opposition speeches are still full of bodrios inefables and people manteniendo la sinderesis and denunciations of contumacia and the abdicacion de las obligaciones deontologicas of the regime, all, of course, in the name of helping los mas necesitados. It's funny, but even the formulation opposition politicos use to define the poor - "los mas necesitados" - is itself oddly circumloquitous and probably not that understandable to los mas necesitados themselves.

The problem is not to come up with a new political program. The problem is to come up with a new discourse, a new way of facilitating political communication between people. To my mind, the opposition should get over its shyness and just copy Chavez's method. You can't argue with success! The opposition has no reason to be ashamed of immitating a superior strategy - just ask Bill Clinton and Tony Blair how effectively a political discourse can be borrowed once it's been developed.

Many will read this and be horrified by the notion. "Eternalizing chavista-style rhetoric in the political sphere? Ni locos!" It's an understandable reaction, part of an overall, virulent rejection of the craziness of the chavista project. But it's counterproductive. The opposition needs to learn the lesson of 1998, a lesson it still hasn't learned: you cannot hope to mobilize the masses with a discourse understandable only to the elite, you cannot hope to win if you continue to exclude millions of people from political participation by raising the lexical bar of participation so high that millions of people cannot meet it. You can't convince someone who can't understand the words you use!

Undoubtedly there are many in the opposition who were more than happy with the cozy control over political life they could maintain so long as only they and their college-educated peers could understand the stories in El Universal and only that social class was even able to discuss the affairs of the nation. That era is over, finished, buried for good. That's not a bad thing, that's a good thing. Politics means, and will mean, something much broader in Venezuela from here on out, simply because through his rhetoric, Chavez has opened the doors of the political realm to any number of people who were informally (but decisively) excluded from it in the past.

These are the new realities of political communications in Venezuela. The opposition had better adapt to them, accept them, and embrace them, because it can't roll them back.