Supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump gather in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, January 6, 2021. Source: Reuters.
Two years ago today, an angry mob stormed the U.S. Capitol. In the months following January 6th, condemnation of the rioters was largely bipartisan. However, despite the abundance of evidence presented at congressional hearings, January 6th quickly devolved into a political issue. Supporters of former President Trump refused to name what occurred as an attack on American democracy. Buoyed by their base, large segments of the Republican party allowed politics to outweigh longstanding norms to investigate the attack. Only former Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney and a select few opted to condemn these actions from their own side of the aisle. Cheney and her allies highlighted a valuable truth worth reinforcing on this anniversary. Calling out one’s own party when it threatens democratic processes is both possible and critical to ensuring democracies’ continued functioning.
U.S. policymakers must absorb this lesson acutely and apply it within and beyond our borders. As recent events underscore, holding one’s own party accountable for its anti-democratic actions is a challenge across the Western Hemisphere. If U.S. policymakers can learn from and work with our Latin American allies on this shared challenge, then the future of hemispheric politics already looks brighter for 2023. Beyond the case of January 6th, the Western Hemisphere has long grappled with instances when party members did not hold others in their political camp accountable for anti-democratic actions. Widely alleged corruption during the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT) government was finally addressed by then-presidential-candidate Lula in August 2022—only several years after he was indicted and imprisoned on corruption charges. In Argentina, President Alberto Fernández issued a tweet of support asserting the innocence of his vice-president after she was sentenced to prison for corruption.
In addition to condemning their domestic allies, Western Hemisphere politicians also hesitate to condemn foreign counterparts’ anti-democratic behavior when they belong to the same ideological camp. Periodically, U.S. and international left-leaning politicians refuse to condemn Venezuela, Nicaragua, or Cuba’s anti-democratic governments. Likewise, the controversies surrounding Jeanine Áñez in Bolivia and Pedro Castillo in Peru are a few additional examples that come to mind. Chilean President Gabriel Boric articulated his frustration at this “double standard” in a September speech on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
“Respect of human rights has to… have no double standard… So it really pisses me off when you are from the left and so you condemn the violation of human rights in, I don’t know, Yemen or El Salvador, but you cannot talk about Venezuela or Nicaragua… you don’t have to have double standards.” – Chilean President Gabriel Boric
As both President Boric and former Congresswoman Cheney make clear, politicians should call out threats to democracy and human rights not only from their political adversaries, but also from those ideologically aligned with their own interests. Failure to do so opens individual politicians and national foreign policies to hypocrisy. It also limits the moral authority needed by these actors to combat democratic backsliding in their own countries and beyond. Conversely, politicians who reduce hypocrisy within their own ranks fortify democracy across the Americas. This is an especially urgent task at this moment, when there are both clear and present threats to democracy and growing crises of faith in democracy’s usefulness—reflected by citizen discontent and economic woes.
There are several important steps to minimize hypocrisy, bolster accountability, and support democracy and human rights across the Americas. First, U.S. and Latin American policymakers should eschew the politicization of basic facts at home and abroad. Media outlets and civil society play an important role in laying the groundwork for this depolarization. Social media companies should aggressively combat disinformation, heighten fact-checking protocols, and warn public figures if they are providing false or unverifiable statements. Although tech giants have been making inroads on this front for the past few election cycles, recent changes in policy on platforms such as Twitter highlight the need to remain vigilant.
U.S. policymakers should also discourage each other from seeing foreign developments through purely ideological lenses. Other countries may have a different political spectrum, and viewing events through a partisan lens limits understanding of local circumstances. For example, Peru’s ongoing legal quandary over President Pedro Castillo may be misinterpreted by a U.S. audience as a left- vs. right-wing partisan gridlock. Meanwhile, a Peruvian audience would understand that an intra-left-wing dispute between the president and his former party likely accelerated the president’s removal. Each time U.S. policymakers opine on foreign developments through their partisan lens, then amplify their opinions via global and social media, they may be complicating efforts for foreign policymakers to hold their own political camps accountable for undemocratic actions.
Another approach to minimize hypocrisy is domestic institution building. There should be political incentives to tell the truth and not close ranks around the powerful simply because of their titles. To achieve this, policymakers should strengthen intra-party checks and balances, such as making promotion contingent on policy consistency and not personal loyalty. Especially in this political moment in Latin America, where left-wing governments have a larger political presence, politicians may be tempted to absolve their partisans from accountability in order to fast-track policy priorities. However, these steps are more necessary than ever. There are several cases where the erosion of limitations on the executive has come at the expense of democratic order—often leading to economic ruin. Steps must be taken to ensure that these checks remain in place.
Finally, international and regional organizations can help ensure the non-ideological condemnation of undemocratic actions. The Americas has already taken important steps for the defense of democracy and human rights. In fact, the human rights framework—consisting of both the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights—has long been considered the jewel of the Inter-American system and has been utilized by both small and large states, regardless of political ideology, to promote human rights across the region. While it is concerning that some states are pulling out of these mechanisms, and efforts must be made to strengthen them, they remain a crucial tool and example to promote democracy and rights in the Americas.
Parallel structures within regional organizations can also ensure democracy’s defense. In 2001, the Organization of American States (OAS) adopted the Inter-American Democratic Charter. While this mechanism was designed to ensure the resilience of democracy, it has faced a number of different challenges—including how to address different and evolving threats to democracy, questions over who can invoke the Charter, and the delicate balance between defending democracy and sovereignty. The Charter has also been accused of politicization, with its application being unevenly applied across crises. Reinvigorating the Inter-American Democratic Charter and allowing it to non-ideologically address threats to democracy are critical to protecting democratic rule in the Americas. Efforts to elevate democracy as a central issue in diplomatic circles have gained more traction in recent years, with the Biden administration hosting the first Summit for Democracy in 2021 and the governments of Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Panama establishing the Alliance for Development in Democracy. Whether through multilateral organizations alone or their parallel structures, placing the defense of democracy within international and regional frameworks can reduce the risk of democracy being politicized at the domestic level.
“We can speak up when democratically-elected leaders in our region borrow from the playbook of autocrats to try to stay in power and erode checks and balances… But I want to be very clear that this is not—this is not about picking sides between left and right or liberal and conservative. It’s about putting our shared commitment to democracy above loyalty to ideology or party. It’s about defending the rights and aspirations of people across our hemisphere.” – U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken
Echoing President Boric’s statements, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called on OAS members to stand up for democracy regardless of political party or ideology. The growing chorus to defend democracy, regardless of the ideology of those that attack its institutions, is a sign of key progress. Yet democracy remains under assault from actors across the political spectrum. For the Americas to ensure that its legacy of standing for democracy and human rights remains intact, leaders of all countries from across the political spectrum must stand together to call out their own allies when they need accountability the most.
Adam Ratzlaff (@adam_ratzlaff) is Deputy Director of Global Americans.
Isabel Bernhard (@isabernhd) is an Assistant Director at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, specializing in China-LAC relations and Brazil.
The views represented in this piece belong to the authors and do not represent the institutional position of Global Americans or the Atlantic Council and its affiliate centers.