Does the U.S. Really Resemble Latin America?
By Dinorah Azpuru and Mary Fran T. Malone
The mobs that stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 reminded some scholars of events that have often occurred in Latin America. Some U.S. politicians even used the term ‘banana-republic’ to refer to the siege of the Capitol. While some of these comparisons have been pejorative, others offer insights for understanding what ails American democracy, and what comes next.
Since Donald Trump ran as a candidate in 2016, and throughout his term in office, scholars of Latin American politics have compared Trump’s discourse and rhetoric to that of Latin American populist leaders. Over the course of Trump’s four years at the White House, many of the ailments of Latin American politics became evident in the United States, to the point that some have talked about the Latin Americanization of American politics. Indeed, nepotism, corruption, attacks on the media, loyalty tests, and authoritarian attitudes among politicians are unfortunate traits of politics in many countries in that region.
After the siege of the Capitol, survey data showed that over 40% of Trump voters considered themselves “mostly a Trump supporter,” instead of a supporter of the Republican Party. The personalization of politics is yet another characteristic of some countries in Latin America, where individual politicians are more important than parties in the eyes of many citizens.
The January 6th events raise doubts about whether the authoritarian behavior of citizens who stormed the Capitol was triggered only by Trump’s incitement, or if it is a deeper problem related to political culture. Data from the 2019 AmericasBarometer survey (based at Vanderbilt University) can give us a glance at the similarities and differences between U.S. and Latin American political culture. On some questions, data for Canada are also available. This article presents a general overview, but the data allow for deeper analysis of longitudinal trends in the United States.
The data show a mixed picture. Americans score higher than citizens of most Latin American countries on certain democratic values. However, U.S. citizens register similar levels of trust in political parties and elections as their southern counterparts. Most worrisomely, Americans rank at the bottom of the entire Western Hemisphere in their trust in the media, respect for political institutions, and belief that ordinary politicians care about them. We may have just started to see the consequences on January 6.
Americans are more satisfied with democracy overall and more tolerant of dissent.
U.S. citizens fare better than most of the hemisphere on several democratic indicators. For instance, 72% of Americans believe that democracy is the best possible form of government, on par with Costa Rica and Argentina; only Uruguay and Canada score better than the U.S. U.S. citizens are also slightly more satisfied with the performance of democracy (at 56%) than citizens of most other countries (with the exceptions of Canada and Uruguay).
The U.S. tops the list with regard to tolerance of dissent—65% of Americans say that they approve of the right to protest of those who criticize the form of government in the United States, even surpassing Canada. Likewise, 58% of Canadians and 56% of US citizens approve of such citizens’ right to vote, ahead even of strong Latin American democracies such as Uruguay and Costa Rica.
Confidence in elections and parties in the U.S. is similar to other Latin American countries.
Trust in elections and political parties is essential for democracy. On these attitudes, U.S. citizens are similar to Latin Americans. Since the 1990s, most countries in Latin America have become electoral democracies, with free and fair elections. Still, uneven application of the rule of law limits their ability to hold elected leaders accountable. U.S. citizens are in the middle of the pack in levels of trust in elections, at only 42%--far below Uruguay and Canada (at the top with 68% trust in elections). To be sure, some countries score even worse, especially Honduras and the Dominican Republic, where less than 30% of citizens trust elections.
All countries get low scores for trust in political parties. Even in Canada, only 33% of citizens had confidence in political parties. The figure is much lower for the United States, at 19%. At the low end, Peru scores in the single digits at 7%.
Where the U.S. numbers are most concerning
There are issues on which the U.S. numbers raise serious concerns. On the following questions, the responses of American citizens place the U.S. lower than many countries in the Western Hemisphere.
In 2019, only 28% of Americans indicated high levels of trust in congress: well below Canada (with 49%) and 12 Latin American countries. The U.S. results are equal to those of Honduras and slightly higher than Colombia, Panama, Chile, and Peru. Likewise, Americans were next to last in respect for political institutions, at 42%. Only Peru had a lower score, as shown in the figure below.
A question that tackles authoritarian attitudes asks if the executive is justified to govern without congress during a crisis. The United States was among the top five countries, at 26%: a worrisome sign in light of the January 6th events. Only Peru was higher than 30%, with 59% agreeing.
These low scores can have real consequences. In Chile, low levels of institutional trust contributed to widespread protests in fall 2019, culminating in the current rewriting of Chile’s constitution. In Peru, the president was able to dissolve congress despite questions of the constitutionality of such action, and congress in turn deposed the president in a series of complicated political moves.
On the final two questions, the U.S. is at the bottom. One of those questions tackles what in political science is called “external efficacy.” It asks whether respondents agree that “those who govern this country are interested in what people like you think.” As seen in the next figure, only 23% of Americans agree with this statement.
Finally, the United States also ranks at the bottom in trust in the media, at 27%. As the final figure below shows, this places the U.S. ten points below the next country in the region, Argentina. Most countries in the hemisphere score above 45%.
Overall, Americans’ political culture is not exceptional or above average vis-à-vis Latin Americans (and especially vis-à-vis Canadians). It is a worrisome sign that on some critical issues, U.S. citizens actually fared worse in 2019 than citizens in some of the so called “banana republics” that American politicians belittle.
 For this and the other questions discussed in this article, we estimate the percentage of citizens who gave a positive answer (5, 6 or 7 on a 7-point scale). Venezuela and Cuba were not included in the 2019 round of the survey because of the difficulties given the authoritarian nature of those regimes.
Dinorah Azpuru is Professor of Political Science at Wichita State University.
Mary Fran T. Malone is Professor of Political Science at the University of New Hampshire.