Not that many years ago, politicians the world over – especially if they took their cue from the French – did their best to ingratiate themselves with the local cultural elite. Rightly or wrongly, they thought that having an eminent philosopher, literary critic, film director, apparently cerebral actor or the conductor of a renowned symphony orchestra put in a good word for them would greatly impress millions who were unfamiliar with what they did but assumed it must be very important.
For good or ill, this is no longer the case. In Europe and North America, the (for the most part) leftist cultural elites are getting blamed for the mess so many countries have got themselves into. Argentina is no exception. Here, being the butt of snooty comments from the theatre crowd or members of the writing fraternity can help win votes.
Defenders of the old, pre-Brexit and pre-Donald Trump order, when democratic socialism was still a going concern in most of Europe, warn us that a tidal wave of anti-intellectual populism is sweeping across the world, destroying all in its path. Others point out that, for well over a century, so many undeniably clever and erudite people have supported murderous regimes that it would be dangerous, even suicidal, to let oneself be beguiled by the views of their present-day counterparts without thinking hard about the possible consequences of applying the nostrums they come up with.
Unlike Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who once told a roomful of philosophers that, after much soul-searching, she had come to the conclusion that she was closer to Hegel than to Heidegger, Mauricio Macri has little time for intellectual stuff. People who have known him since his student days say he remains a nuts-and-bolts man, an engineer who puts things together and is more interested in football tactics than in political strategy. That is why he is only too happy to leave the empyrean regions frequented by ideologues to the Kirchnerites and their leftist allies. His foes think that means he is stupid.
Unfortunately for them, the events of the last few years have shown that despite his alleged deficiencies, Macri is a very smart political operator who regularly outwits his rivals. He may not be a great reader, but at least he does not try to persuade people that he spends what spare time he has pondering the works of long-dead poets or thinkers as other politicians are prone to do.
In this Macri seems quite sincere, in contrast to George W. Bush who, determined to cling to his carefully crafted image as an inarticulate, down-to-earth Texan, was greatly embarrassed when caught trying to hide a novel by Camus he had in his hands; his aides must have warned him that the man he had defeated on the way to his second presidential term, John Kerry, had lost votes because people thought he was too fond of things French. In fact, Bush was a voracious reader with a taste for biographies and books about history, but his many critics – like Macri’s – took comfort from the belief that they were far brighter and better educated than he was. Their willingness to say so worked to Bush’s advantage.
In a similar fashion, Macri’s indifference toward intellectual matters has earned him the disdain of a considerable number of progressives; one even berated him for thinking too much about sewers and paved roads. Otherwise, it has not harmed him in the slightest. He is not the most popular politician in the country, but the only ones that according to the opinion polls do better in this respect are Maria Eugenia Vidal and Elisa Carrió, both of whom happen to be on his side.
Macri’s creed may be rudimentary by the lofty Hegelian or Heideggerian standards of his fiercest critics, but for about half of the population it is better than anything Cristina, the “rational” Peronists who want to dump her, or the fringe parties of the Left have to offer. That is why the government managed to withstand the all-out onslaught that was mounted against it by the wilder opposition movements before and after last October’s legislative elections. Those convinced that Macri had to be stopped before he and his fellow-conspirators reduced Argentina to a heap of rubble tried just about everything in their playbook: scuffles in Congress where Cambiemos (Let’s Change) is still a minority, mass demonstrations accompanied by riots with brawny young men in balaclavas attacking the police and lawsuits they knew would lead nowhere but could give them some useful publicity, in the hope that the president and his hirelings would flee in panic so the old order could be triumphantly restored. They failed.
Since then, the country has settled down a bit. Attempts to paint Macri as Jorge Rafael Videla in civilian clothes backfired; even people who disliked him thought they were grotesquely arbitrary. Equally unsuccessful have been the efforts to revive the Santiago Maldonado case by refusing to take into account the evidence about what actually happened to that unfortunate tattooist by insisting that he was a victim of Macri’s blood lust.
Meanwhile, the government coalition is continuing to make inroads into the remaining bastions of the Kirchnerite faith in the densely populated shanty-towns of Greater Buenos Aires. Those much despised sewers, paved roads, bus services and the like are proving to be more effective when it comes to winning hearts and minds among the poorest of the poor than the heated rhetoric favoured by Cristina’s supporters or even the utility hikes that are upsetting better-off consumers who assumed a businessman president would give them a break instead of squandering resources on slum-dwellers.
All this has the Peronists worried. They fear that Macri and Maria Eugenia Vidal will deprive them of the votes of millions of people they thought they owned while retaining those of the many middle-class citizens whose support got them into office. Were they to succeed, Cambiemos could continue to govern the country for decades to come unless, as it well could, the economy tanks yet again and all bets have to be called off. That is something the anti-Macri brigade, whose leaders desperately wants Argentina to follow Venezuela on the road to self-destruction, would very much like to see happen.