PAST AND PRESENT: Divided We Stand: How the US Can Learn From Political Polarization in Latin American History

By Joey DeMarco

On the morning of Tuesday, November 8th, I awoke to find that a friend had posted the following about one of the candidates for President of the United States on Facebook: “If you are voting for this monster, please unfriend me; you are beyond any human bounds of decency.” This post is emblematic of the deep political divisions in the United States today. Harsh and divisive rhetoric from political leaders, combined with the social media-driven ability to create a sort of ideological echo chamber, means that the public finds itself more polarized than ever. Through the ever-expanding reaches of social media, the way that these political tensions manifest themselves in various aspects of U.S. culture is automatically documented for future generations to remember. With this in mind, one cannot help but reflect on how this moment will be remembered compared to similar periods in world history. Specifically, the U.S. can draw from lessons learned by examining textbooks in Latin American countries such as Argentina and Venezuela from particularly contentious moments in their history. How these textbooks reflected a divided society, combined with the historical context of events that unfolded in these countries as a result, can tell us a great deal about the legacies of countries where governments and citizens embrace political polarization.

In 1946, Juan Perón was elected President of Argentina on the back of a campaign to empower Argentine workers. As part of his movement, Perón openly pushed resentment of the country’s elites and repressed dissenting opinions, fostering deep divisions within the country. He became well known for the slogan “Alpargatos sí, libros no” (shoes yes, books no), simultaneously a call for social programs to help the country’s poor and a condemnation of universities, which he saw as a place to foster dissent from elites. In attempting to limit opposition, he reconstructed the education system as a place to standardize what it meant to be Argentine and build support for his own government. Schools nationwide were required to read Perón’s wife Eva’s autobiography. Textbooks specifically described Juan and Eva Perón as patriotic figures ready to defend the country by any means necessary, and mentioned that wealth redistribution was a moral responsibility of the rich[1]. Though the goal was a country unified in support of Perón, this attempt to create a standardized national ideology only further isolated Perón’s opponents and carved deep national divisions. Perón was overthrown by a military coup in 1955, and though his rhetoric was not the sole cause, the tensions it brought to the country certainly did not buy him any favors. This case illustrates the dangers of attempting to wash over differing opinions. Peron’s actions to use textbooks to try and define the opinions of schoolchildren combined with his rhetoric that harbored animosity between political groups created a society that could not function together, culminating in his forced removal from office. U.S. society could learn from the dangers of ignoring political opposition. It is all too easy today to receive news from slanted sources online and surround oneself with like-minded individuals. This allows groups to ramp up disdain for and fear of differing opinions without trying to understand their rational, rendering civil interactions increasingly rare.


In more recent history, since the 1998 election of Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan government has sought to define its political interactions with opponents as a battle between good and bad. The rhetoric of Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro (who define their governmental movement as the “Bolivarian Revolution”), has been extremely harsh, defining opponents as enemies of the state and their government as the country’s natural protector. The Executive Branch has generally refused to work with the opposition controlled Legislature, and has been widely criticized for the jailing of political opponents (a suggestion which would be familiar to followers of the U.S. election, both Republican and Democrat). These actions have created a deeply divided country which sees almost daily protests for and against the government, oftentimes resulting in clashes that leave protestors wounded.  The type of government rhetoric that has led to these moments can be seen, as in Argentina, from an evaluation of the Venezuelan public school classroom, which has been constitutionally required to promote “Bolivarian ideals” since 1999.  This has meant the teaching of socialism and hyper-nationalism as inherent values for schoolchildren to have. A manifestation of this strategy can be seen in this corresponding image, which comes from an illustrated children’s edition of Venezuela’s constitution distributed to all schoolchildren. The drawing shows a man with the words “Venezuelan State” printed on a trademark red Chavista shirt, shielding a myriad of obliviously joyful children from some rather devious-looking individuals. The image is meant to conjure sentiments of the government as a paternal, protective figure, while the unidentified nature of the threatening characters means that children cannot be sure of who to trust other than the state. The effects of the presentation of this type of material in Venezuelan public schools are very real. A 2013 survey suggested heavy divides in the way schoolchildren view the country.  This survey shows how fourth through sixth grade children in public, or “Bolivarian,” and private schools responded to a series of questions regarding their perceptions of the nation.  The results indicate that the ideological influence of pro-Bolivarian materials in public schools, and presumably anti-Bolivarian material in private ones, begins to push young Venezuelan citizens into certain world perspectives. The divides in Venezuelan society are already present at young ages, showing the effects that exposure to a uniform attitude or narrative can have. As today’s Venezuela suffers perhaps more political turmoil than any other country in the hemisphere, the U.S. could stand to learn from the lessons of its ideological education program. Framing differences of opinion as a battle between good and bad or isolated exposure to one viewpoint creates a dangerous situation whereby resentment between groups boils over into real, tangible outcomes.

By almost any metric, the U.S. is more politically divided today than it has been in living memory. Per the Pew Research Center,[3] the public defines itself as more ideologically extreme and less politically moderate than it did even 20 years ago. A report by The Economist notes that public opinion matches the trends of political leaders, as Republicans and Democrats in Congress vote with the majority of members of their own party with increasing exclusivity.[4] The Facebook post I opened with is representative of the feelings of many Americans that those who do not share the same political opinions as them are not just ideologically, but factually and morally wrong. The social media-driven echo chamber that it is so tempting to enter diminishes critical thinking in favor of reaffirmation of existing ideas. It is easier to confirm your opinions than to meticulously analyze them, and it is easier to do that today than ever. The U.S. public must fight this urge, or fail to learn from the lessons of the past. Isolating oneself with one unchallenged ideology, painting those with different opinions as the enemy, and trying to force others to conform to certain political opinions led to measurable turmoil in Argentina and Venezuela. All of these have been very visible responses to recent events such as the November presidential election. These reactions have been documented and immortalized online, and will surely be a major part of what this time period is remembered for. As individuals, members of the U.S. public must now be open to, and indeed seek out, regular interaction and dialogue amongst those with diverse opinions. These actions are pivotal as we look to heal the wounds of a divided nation and not have this present moment become a case study in the dangers of embracing political division.


[1] Plotkin, Mariano Ben. Mañana es San Perón: A Cultural History of Perón’s Argentina. Wilmington, Del.: SR Books, 2003: 110.

[2] Anselmi, Manuel. Chavez’s Children : Ideology, Education, and Society in Latin America. Lanham : Lexington Books, 2013: 136-137.



Joey DeMarco is a Senior majoring in International Studies and Latin American Studies.  He wrote this essay in conjunction with his project for Dr. Elena Jackson Albarran’s Fall 2016 HST/LAS capstone on children in Latin America.

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