Thursday, June 13, 2024

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 27-04-2024 05:43

Five dogs and a million reds

The government puts itself at risk by acting as if everything the President says is true, while Milei runs the risk of believing everything he sees on his social media feed.

It is not important by now if Conan the dog is dead or alive. What matters is how Javier Milei and his inner circle discern reality. Given the language Presidential Spokesman Manuel Adorni used this week to respond to one simple question, they may have a problem. Exactly how many dogs live at the Olivos presidential residence?

“If the President says there are five dogs, there are five dogs – end of the discussion,” Milei’s chief spokesperson said. Adorni did not say if there are four or five dogs. The suspicion, of course, is that there are only four dogs because Conan – the father of the lot and the original of Milei’s cloned animal – died some years ago. 

This, however, is not the point. The President, as Adorni added, is entitled to have as many dogs as he likes, cloned or not. The public is also entitled to know how the government gauges reality.

In the real world, this week produced tens of thousands of people marching to protest against budget cuts at public universities. It was the largest and most diverse march against the government yet in its four months and a bit in office. The government’s narrative was that the march was “political” because several members of the opposition attended, which they did. But many of the demonstrators were also voters, from Milei’s 55 percent, who were simply expressing they did not agree with this one issue of his agenda.

The worst political mistake Milei can make (which he did) is to ignore or discredit an event like this. Hours after the protest, Milei published a picture of a lion (representing himself) drinking from a cup of “leftist tears,” as if every person in the million-strong march nationwide was a Red opposed to every aspect of his administration.

Milei was voted in with the mandate, ordered to sort out Argentina’s economy – while keeping them alive in the process. He knows that he eventually will need a firm majority if he is to materialise his ambitious reform agenda. But he acts as if he believes he will construct that majority by expanding his hardcore base. ‘There are five dogs, because I say so,’ etc. 

Reality, as ever, gets in the way. Many of Milei’s voters back in November, maybe half of them, might never believe there are five dogs, just because the President says so. But at some point, they might want to see the dogs. Milei needs to speak to those people, not just his diehard followers: they are the ones who will make or break his Presidency by force of approval ratings, and eventually in next year’s elections.

Political miscalculations continue to highlight the implicit tension between the two Caputos in the Milei administration. Last week, Economy Minister Luis Caputo violated Milei’s free-market gospel and forced private health companies (or ‘prepagas’) to lower prices after the government had authorised them to fire at will at the start of the administration. This week, Santiago Caputo, Milei’s communications spin-doctor/consultant, pushed the President to clash with universities, one of the only remaining symbols of middle-class upward social mobility in the country.

The distance between these two worlds is overwhelming. The former produced an anachronic national television broadcast on Monday night in which the President boasted about the government’s fiscal achievements: an angry but monotonous Milei read out numbers as he dedicated his economic “miracle” to his many rivals. The head of state continues to break all netiquette on social media, as he spends an average of two hours a day on Elon Musk’s X network, frantically posting and retweeting messages. 

The government puts itself at risk by acting as if everything the President says is true, while Milei runs the risk of believing everything he sees on his social media feed. 

This is a trademark issue for democracy in our era. “In digital communications, the other is increasingly absent. Smartphones allow us to retreat into bubbles that screen us off from the other,” writes the South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han in Non-things: Upheaval in the Lifeworld. “We perceive reality through the filter of the screen. The digital window dilutes reality into information that we register. There is no physical contact with reality… The smartphone de-realises the world.”

The reality Milei needs to tackle to succeed is very tangible. Next week he needs Congress to make real progress with his updated versions of the mega-reform ‘Ley de Bases’ bill and accompanying fiscal package, without which Luis Caputo will likely struggle to deliver solid fiscal numbers in the months to come. This is also a bill foreign investors are closely eyeing too. Stepping out of the algorithmic reality constructed on his smartphone screen is only in President Milei’s own interest. 

Marcelo J. Garcia

Marcelo J. Garcia

Political analyst and Director for the Americas for the Horizon Engage political risk consultancy firm.


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