A vast gulf once separated the political life of Latin America from that of the United States.
The Rio Grande marked the dividing line between a land of sound and effective institutions to the north and a turbulent region to the south where the public discourse was belligerent, political parties were incapable of finding common ground on crucial matters of state, and institutions were a source of boundless suspicion.
Those problems now seem to have spread to the United States.
The U.S. election campaign, which to the delight of many is winding to a close, has been brutal in its best moments and revolting the rest of the time.
Since the campaign season began a year and a half ago, political discussions have revolved around Donald Trump’s penis and Carly Fiorina’s face; women’s vaginas and who can grab them; and the propensity of Mexican “bad hombres” to crime and of Syrian refugees to terrorist attacks.
And those have been the campaign’s “lighter” moments. Its more disturbing aspects have included suggestions that Trump avoided paying federal income taxes for 10 years and is receiving campaign aid from Russian intelligence and that Hillary Clinton is obstructing an FBI investigation into her use of a private e-mail server as Secretary of State and has orchestrated a massive fraud to win the election.
Trump is largely responsible for the breakdown in public discourse. Using language that is politically incorrect and often conveniently vague, he has suggested that supporters of the Second Amendment (which protects people’s right to bear arms) might stop Clinton from being elected. In recent weeks, he has become increasingly defiant and said he will only accept the outcome of the election if he wins.
But it would be wrong to blame Trump for the country’s political dysfunction. Without a fertile ground for his nationalist and populist rhetoric, his candidacy would not have been possible. A larger phenomenon is at work, one that goes beyond this particular campaign.
The United States is undergoing a profound institutional crisis. Its coarse public discourse, the lack of credibility of its institutions - the media, the private sector, the electoral system - and years of partisan gridlock in Congress have, among other things, paralyzed infrastructure investment and hampered discussion about ways to reverse the decline of the middle class and about the role of the state in key areas such as research and development in science and technology.
The social upheaval currently shaking the United States, whose institutions had been the envy of much of the world for many years, may be construed as unprecedented. But there are parallels between today’s situation and the 1960s, a decade of severe challenges to the social order, both in the United States and much of the rest of the West. Indeed, the extremes of U.S. public life in those years were far more severe than what confronts us today: we all remember that the 1960s culminated with a series of political assassinations and a president’s resignation.
The question now is whether the United States is facing a similar situation. Like in the 1960s, we are living in an era of profound global changes. This time, they are triggered by exponential technological advances that have created extraordinary opportunities for some while dooming others to obsolescence.
Much of Trump’s base consists of people who used to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle even with jobs that did not require a high level of education, but who now have been displaced by globalization and technology. Furthermore, due to an unprecedented demographic shift, those who once were the majority - white Anglo-Saxons - now must face the uncomfortable prospect of being the minority in the near future.
Social media also has given our voices much more reach and impact than the students of May 1968 or the demonstrators who took part in the U.S. civil rights movement could ever have imagined.
The despair of people who feel displaced, coupled with their greater capacity for making their voice heard, has sparked an idea that has hovered over the Republican candidate’s campaign like an urban legend: if Trump loses, there will be a “popular revolution.”
It is hard to conceive of a scenario in which millions of Americans would take to the streets in acts of civil disobedience reminiscent of the events of the 1960s or those that still frequently erupt in the developing world. But no matter which candidate wins, it is not difficult to foresee difficult years ahead for the country, an impeded ability to govern and even some extremely unpleasant surprises.