by Steve Ellner
The relationship between state and society, particularly with regard to social movements and organizations, constitutes an important paradigmatic gap separating the experiences of Latin American and U.S. democracies and represents a challenge to area-study programs, including academic journals. These differences manifest themselves in major ways today as a result of the rise to power of leftist and center-leftist movements, as they also did in the past on different fronts. U.S. labor leaders, for instance, steeped in the tradition of Samuel Gompers who envisioned organized labor’s political role as that of a pressure group, have always felt uncomfortable with the political party affiliations of their Latin American counterparts. This line of thinking, which rests on the separation of social movements and the state, is reflected in the U.S. scholarly literature on organized labor in the region. Latin American trade unionists, on the other hand, justify the nexus by pointing to the supportive role played by parties during military dictatorships when many labor leaders are forced to go underground or into exile.
Similarly, U.S. academics have traditionally championed concepts of liberal democracy, which posits a clear separation of state and “civil society.” At the same time, many tend to view Rousseau’s writings on radical democracy as tantamount to the justification of non-democratic rule, an opinion not shared by their Latin American colleagues. These differences have come to the fore with the recent electoral successes of leftist and center-leftist movements, which defend distinct political models including participatory democracy and direct popular input in decision making that contrast with traditional liberal thinking in the United States and elsewhere.
Fundamental structural differences between Latin America and the United States lie at the root of the differences in tradition and in dominant conceptual frameworks related to democracy and state-society relations. In contrast to the situation in …
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Latin American Perspectives
July 2016 vol. 43 no. 4 Abstract, pages 111-116