A movement needs periodic new leadership to remind both leaders and the people who is in charge.

First published in December 2019.

The removal of Evo Morales as the head of Bolivia’s government is a lesson to progressive movements around the globe. One explanation from the left wing has been to note the disparities of power between indigenous peoples in South America and authoritarian inheritors of the original Spanish colonizers. And the notion that the natural resources of Bolivia should be used to benefit the people of that country was unacceptable to corporations in the developed world. Morales himself explained that “My sin was being indigenous, leftist, and anti-imperialist.” He also ran afoul of conservative Christians by deriving elements of his ideology from native Andean religion.

With all the good that Morales and the Movement for Socialism has achieved in reducing economic inequalities in Bolivia come a couple of disquieting actions. His dedication of his victory for a third term as president to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, a third term that required a rewrite of the rules, may have come from an appreciation of those dictators’ willingness to stand up to the United States, but it indicates a dangerous naïveté, a false dichotomy of capitalist imperialism and authoritarian leftism. The current crisis is occurring in the context of Morales’s choice to seek a fourth term following the 2017 decision of Bolivia’s highest court to toss out term limits on any elected office.

Morales is certainly not unique in seeking to remain in office. Nor are efforts to mandate the switching out leaders. The Twenty-second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was a response to Franklin Roosevelt’s having won four terms as president, for example. The Mexican constitution limits presidents to one term as a preventative against dictatorship. And prime ministers such as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair notwithstanding, parliamentary systems make the possibility of replacing the person at the top while allowing the party to retain political initiative easier.

It may be that movements are particularly susceptible to a cult of personality, an obsession with the leader as a celebrity, rather than a rational identification with values and policy goals. This is a predictable consequence of an ill-informed electorate – and I do not single Bolivia out here, since Americans with our reality TV addiction have allowed one of the genre’s worst offenders to take office. My point here is to suggest ways that we can avoid this eventuality.

One answer is the liberal’s favorite solution to many problems: education. In twenty years of teaching expository writing to college freshmen, I have made a point of explaining the errors of logical fallacies, while acknowledging that if I were teaching a class on marketing or political campaigning, I would be showing my students how to use fallacies effectively. But a functioning democracy requires voters who recognize bad reasoning for what it is, and this is something that educators can teach, using both specific examples from their individual fields and general ones to illustrate the point. Commercial television and politicians provide an inexhaustible supply. Basic logic may not be something that employers want their workers to possess, but it is essential for people who participate in the governing of their society.

But more than this, it is the responsibility of political movements not only to gain power for the present generation of leaders, but also to raise up successors who will continue what works, will correct what does not, and will address new problems that we of today have not imagined. This was the pattern with FDR who brought into government, both the executive and legislative branches, a group of New Deal supporters who maintained his legacy – most prominently, Lyndon Johnson, whose Great Society and civil rights programs were the final expression of the New Deal’s philosophy. But we then fell victims of the Republican Party, who, having learned this lesson, foisted several generations of Barry Goldwater’s wayward intellectual offspring on us.

One of the flaws of the (US) Green Party has been thin slates for local and state races. This is not an error that the Democratic Party makes, though the latter substitutes the equally bad choice of promoting centrists in so-called purple districts, as if offering a diet version of the Republican platform is supposed to convince people not to vote for full-strength Republicans. A bit of good news for the 2020 election is that Trump has made a lot of people feel distaste with the right wing at the moment, but we could squander that opportunity by dreaming small.

What we need to be doing is promoting a progressive agenda in all levels, local, state, and federal. This is what the Squad of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley illustrate. A Sanders presidency, if we are so fortunate, would be a huge step forward for the nation, but as easy as it is to regard him as a savior, a movement cannot allow itself to be one person. And for the preservation of a free society, a movement needs periodic new leadership to remind both leaders and the people who is in charge.🔷

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[This is an original piece, first published by the author in PoliticsMeansPolitics.com on 3 December 2019. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Flickr/Eneas De Troya. - Evo Morales in 2014. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)