Chile’s Vote Was a Rebuke of the 21st-Century Left. Will We Listen?

The rejected Chilean constitution was not “too far left.” Rather, it exalted a set of identitarian outlooks that has for too long masqueraded as radical politics.

(Martin Bernetti / AFP)

September 2022: Chile’s once-in-a-generation opening for systemic change has just derailed. After a mass rebellion forced politicians to concede a pact to adopt a new constitution — and after a new left won the presidency last December — Chileans went to the polls only to decisively reject the Constitutional Convention’s left-wing proposal. The referendum, which saw only 38% of voters support a charter deemed the most progressive in the world, came 52 years to the day after Chileans voted for Salvador Allende’s road to socialism.

Until recently, hopes remained high that Chileans had embraced radical reform. In the October 2020 plebiscite, held one year after a mass uprising against neoliberalism, Chileans overwhelmingly demanded a constitutional rewrite by an entirely new set of representatives. Defiant optimism still pervaded months later, when the newly minted Apruebo Dignidad coalition of Gabriel Boric, who would soon become president of Chile, received nearly one-fifth of the vote in the Constitutional Convention election, and a slate of autonomists who achieved notoriety on the rebellion’s front lines took another one-sixth of the seats.

Since then, the heady public mood has faded. Although Boric triumphed handily in the runoff, he had placed second, with just 25% of votes, in the election’s first round. With the president’s approval rating tumbling almost immediately following his March inauguration, adopting the new constitution was seen as crucial for the reform process. Why is Chile’s political revolution suddenly in jeopardy?

Blaming the Victims

Many pundits and politicians are blaming the radical excesses of the convention, the charter draft, and Apruebo Dignidad, the governing left coalition. Establishment voices claim the public’s rebuke of the draft constitution proves that Chileans are a politically moderate people, and that they are now calling for a restoration of the progressive neoliberalism that has reigned since 1990. New left militants, by contrast, insist that a biased campaign prevented them from accurately conveying the advantages of the new constitution. From their perspective, millionaire meddling, fearmongering, and fake news muddled Chileans’ ability to vote according to their interests.

Both views ultimately hold ordinary Chileans responsible for the crushing defeat — the former from a laudatory perspective, the latter from a condemnatory one. And both views are wrong.

Crucially, they miss the underlying causes of the defeat, which are, in fact, quite clear: with millions of politically and organizationally unmoored voters obligated to cast their ballots, the Left’s prioritizing of an incongruous jumble of identitarian, social justice concerns over classwide material rights and protections only aggravated the mistrust and resentment of ordinary Chileans pummeled by decades of neoliberal shocks.

The constitution was not too “far left.” Rather, it exalted a set of particularist outlooks and causes that for too long has masqueraded as radical politics. And it’s this very “radicalism” that undermines a more effective working-class-oriented politics founded in universal reforms with broad appeal.

Neither are Chileans inherently too conservative or incapable of discerning their interests. When presented with a bevy of special rights for the most marginalized, which only had the effect of burying the universal social provisions included in the proposed charter, many voters reasonably suspected the draft would fail to adequately advance their interests. In other words, a key source of confusion and doubt, which was unsurprisingly exploited by elites and the old political class, came from many radicals themselves — not “disinformation.”

Given that workers spent more than a decade building the social power required to win systemic reforms, the failure amounts to the squandering of an extraordinary opportunity. It goes without saying that powerful forces were arrayed against Chile’s reform process. But when working people have a unique shot at change, the Left cannot waste it.

We Gave Them 80, They Returned Less Than 40

Relative to the 2020 plebiscite, the vote against the proposed constitution was devastating. While 78% of voters affirmed their desire for a constitutional overhaul in the opening plebiscite, in September, 62% rejected it. This was far worse than polls had predicted. In 2020, all but five townships approved a new constitution; this time, only eight did, five of which are in the left-leaning capital region and two of which are Pacific islands with fewer than 6,500 voters.

Santiago townships, or comunas, illustrate the dramatic turnaround.

Although a vote for rechazo (rejection) was expected in conservative provincial areas — dozens went 80–20 against the proposal — Santiago comunas should have delivered big wins for apruebo (approval) based on the 2020 vote. Instead, Greater Santiago, or the Región Metropolitana (RM), went 55% for rechazo. Similarly, the Valparaíso Region, home to the key working-class port city of the same name, broke for rechazo at an even higher rate. The cross-class opposition to the draft constitution in these two regions, which account for roughly half the Chilean electorate, sealed its fate.

Across the board, vote shares favoring a new constitution plummeted between 2020 and 2022. In the opening plebiscite, all but the three richest metropolitan townships produced pro-apruebo spreads, most with 60% to 80% of the vote. These include four mega-comunas with electorates of between 200,000 and 400,000 people, voter concentrations capable of swinging national elections. This time around, only two comunas had meaningful pro-apruebo differentials, though neither reached 10 points. All others broke even or favored rechazo, ten doing so with spreads of over 20 points.

In 2022, most townships followed the three wealthy outliers that rejected the constituent process back in 2020, the infamous comunas del rechazo. A closer look, however, reveals that precipitous drops in apruebo votes did not drive the crushing reversal. In fact, although no RM comunas increased votes in favor, pro-apruebo turnout largely held, declining only modestly overall. But with voting changes that promoted a massive enlargement of the electorate, an apruebo win could not rely on holding ground relative to 2020.

A first-time switch in electoral rules to automatic registration and mandatory voting meant that significant layers of nonvoters were bound to make it to polling stations. Leftists hoped the change would bring out poor and young voters who typically sit out elections yet could be expected to sympathize with the proposed constitution. Boosted turnout, they felt, would prove particularly impactful in Santiago’s largest and densest comunas. After half a million people attended the apruebo campaign’s closing rally the Thursday before the referendum, optimism grew that polls missed hidden sources of support and that the capital’s working-class districts would tilt the balance. Instead, while voting did swell to historic levels, it ultimately favored the opponents of the new constitution.

Over the span of Chile’s post-authoritarian period, turnout plunged from 95% in 1989 to 47% in 2017. It recovered slightly, to 55.5%, for the 2020 plebiscite. This time, it surged back to 88%. In total, 13 million Chileans voted, an unprecedented number.

But whereas apruebo votes fell slightly, rechazo votes grew exponentially — the massively increased turnout of nonvoters being decisive. Relative to 2020, opposition expanded almost fivefold, increasing by over 6 million votes, from 1.6 to 7.9 million. Since re-democratization, no winning ticket had cracked even 5 million votes.

By way of comparison, when a wide spectrum of voters mobilized against the hard-authoritarian candidate José Antonio Kast in last year’s runoffs, 4.6 million Chileans came out for Boric. In the RM alone, rechazo ballooned from 666,000 to nearly 2.75 million. Working-class districts that drew even, or gave apruebo respectable wins, witnessed the biggest rechazo expansions. In Puente Alto, for instance, the country’s largest township and one of its poorest, rechazo jumped from 27,000 to 175,000 votes. San Bernardo, even poorer, saw rechazo leap from 17,500 to 110,000. When the new rules mandated that those generally alienated from politics cast their votes, a silent majority of mostly working-class Chileans said no to the proposed constitution.

The record turnout left zero room for doubt: a draft produced by an insurgent constituent assembly was disavowed by millions of the people that it sought to empower.

A Vote Against the Radicals, Not Radical Reform

There’s no way for progressives to spin it — the massive rechazo vote was an overwhelming rejection of the grab-bag assortment of virtue-signaling articles foregrounded in the charter, which have since become infamous. This punishment at the polls did not, however, mean a repudiation of the constitution’s promised social provisions.

What was rejected were the dubious identitarian trimmings accompanying them, along with their self-congratulatory and, at times, histrionic authors.

Two in five rechazo voters felt the delegates generated distrust, whereas fewer than one in seven feared that public health, education, pension, and housing provisions infringed on individual freedom and property rights. The moralizing defenses of every conceivable (and inconceivable) social justice cause that characterized much of the convention’s deliberations — and on which the Left campaigned — turned most working Chileans into skeptics of this new left radicalism. In a post-defeat self-criticism, an autonomist delegate described the convention as “a series of performances that affected the entity’s credibility.”

Fairly or not, ordinary workers, it’s clear, simply did not trust these people or their priorities.

Chileans rebelled in 2019 against the insecurity wrought by the country’s savage labor markets and the prevailing commodification of social goods and services. In voting overwhelmingly in 2020 to replace the pro-market constitution imposed under military rule, they demanded, however tacitly, foundational guarantees of universal health care, dignified pensions, free and quality education, living wages and labor protections, and public goods such as clean water.

These rights made it into the draft, but they were drowned out by ubiquitous first-order statements on gender protections, ethnonational rights, and environmental concerns. The overweening emphasis on special prerogatives for oppressed and marginalized sectors — and on lofty abstractions common in academia and the world of NGOs, but totally alien to working-class Chileans — made it difficult to persuade poor and working people that the charter would meet their basic needs.

Two months before the vote, a majority felt delegates had given insufficient attention to health care, education, and economic well-being, yet had devoted too much to attention to “feminism” and “plurinationality” — the recognition of indigenous nationhood within the Chilean state. It is not that Chileans object to gender equality and indigenous rights. After all, voters welcomed the gender parity and indigenous quotas mandated in the 2020 plebiscite. More accurately, millions felt the convention and its draft neglected the broad demands behind the rebellion; that is, the extreme lopsidedness of constituent politics promoted a false incompatibility between universal protections and the rights of oppressed groups.

Despite rising suspicion and bitterness, Chile’s new left failed to react appropriately. It operated on the conceit that 2020’s 80% approval rendered apruebo in 2022 all but inevitable. Until the year’s start, shortly after Boric’s runoff victory, most Chileans continued to report their support. But the rebellious and optimistic mood of 2019 began fading when the new left assumed the task of translating mass grievances into convincing policy. COVID-19 hit, and the economy and employment tanked, with crime and violence affecting more and more working people. As doubts grew, and the opposition launched concerted attacks on the new government and the constituent assembly, backing for apruebo declined steadily.

Rather than redirect overwhelming attention to the draft’s universalist social provisions, its defenders allowed opponents to set the terms of the debate. When fake news proliferated, the Left turned its moralizing into frenetic condemnations of post-truth politics. When the Right denounced the convention’s radical extravagance, leftists, instead of campaigning on the constitution’s democratic socialist elements, doubled down on the nobility and priority of identitarian causes.

As record inflation squeezed family budgets, rising crime exacerbated existing despair and insecurity, and as southern regions were set ablaze by indigenist violence, that “radicalism” devolved into a performance of moral superiority — precisely the opposite of what most people wanted. Recent polling reveals that the majority of apruebo voters regarded both “social rights in education, health, and housing” and necessary “structural changes” as principal reasons for their support. But only 1 in 10 apruebo supporters voted primarily to achieve a “feminist and ecological constitution” or a decentralized state, with just 1 in 25 listing the wish to grant the indigenous peoples more autonomy. Meanwhile, a large segment of rechazo voters cited general uncertainty and indigenous autonomy as key reasons for opposing the proposal.

But opposition to indigenous recognition and rights should not be attributed to overarching racism. The mistrust and resentment promoted by the Left’s moralistic promotion of indigenous rights was not limited to the non-Mapuche majority. Comunas with the highest proportions of indigenous residents were similarly unswayed. In ground-zero Lumaco, where half the population is Mapuche, more than 80% voted rechazo. In Galvarino, a comuna with a Mapuche population of 75%, so did a similar proportion. Alto Biobío, a site of community organizing against mega-dams, is 85% Mapuche, yet only 28% approved the charter.

It turns out plurinational recognition and cultural rights are not essential priorities even among the population they are meant to benefit. Like other Chileans, indigenous citizens want physical and material security.

Mapuche rejection of the proposed charter underscores that broad opposition to today’s radicalism is not simply rooted in hostility to indigenous rights and other conservative positions. More accurately, Chileans — Mapuche and non-Mapuche alike — are dubious of special, targeted benefits if they feel these supersede shared demands. As much as ordinary Chileans recognize historic and ongoing injustices, they will reject ethically grounded positions when these appear to sideline their unmet basic needs. In this sense, regular workers do not pit their well-being against indigenous justice — radical moralizing does.

Deeper Neoliberal Disintegration

Deeper causes underpin the new left’s inability to formulate a clear socialist program and its failure to correct course when universalism emerged as the sole hope for an apruebo victory. It’s important to remember that the rise of the new left and the social movements that engendered it came about over the course of four decades of neoliberalism. Savage free-market expansion politicized the Chilean masses in ways that contrast decisively with the politicization that produced the road to socialism under Allende. Whereas mid-20th-century developmental capitalism helped incorporate toiling sectors into a common program of materialist reforms, neoliberal capitalism disincorporated working and poor Chileans from shared politics, scattering their energies among fragmented grievances.

Neoliberal development’s detrimental effects on popular-sector politics stems partly from its impact on rising mass movements. Industrial disintegration and agrarian restructuring dispersed working people, pushing them to confront myriad challenges in disparate social realms. The fragmentation and marginalization of labor structured grievances along these multiple axes.

When resistance took on a collective form, it targeted specific issues. Students rebelled against the deterioration of public schools and rising debt; the elderly protested against the indignities of private pensions; poor neighborhoods organized against pollution; women confronted violence, harassment, and insecurity; and indigenous groups fought back against the encroachments on their diminished land base. Localized fights against mounting precariousness gradually built up the organizational resources that eventually sustained mass mobilization. Yet expanding popular capacities remained focused on specific issues and never coalesced with revitalized labor struggles. As a result, movements’ particular demands — gender, ethnic, ecological —continued to overshadow system-wide reform programs.

Neoliberalism also bore upon popular opinion through its direct impact on personal politics. By now, the atomizing effects of deregulation and commodification are well-known. Under liberalization, working people find themselves inclined to confront economic insecurity through individual action. The habit of pursuing material security individually underpins suspicion of collective services and public goods. But neoliberalism shaped personal politics in another key way: the neoliberal turn severed ordinary people from the basic fabric of civic and partisan life. In Chile, most working people have been cut off from organized public affairs for decades now.

The decade-long upsurge of protest leading up to the estallido (the 2019 rebellion itself) and the constituent process did not significantly alter this political isolation. Mass movements have swelled and grown in influence, but they have not drawn the average worker into their politics and programs; the left-wing Frente Amplio coalition even less so. When millions of alienated Chileans turned out to vote for the first time, no institutional networks linked them to the new left’s culture and policy proposals. Many rejoiced during the rebellion; even more endorsed discarding the dictatorship’s 1980 constitution. But isolated organizationally and programmatically from the new left, millions did not see their core concerns recognized and reflected in the behavior and output of the convention. Rather than carefully weave new partisan and policy affinities, Chile’s radicals exacerbated popular detachment and bitterness.

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René Rojas is an assistant professor in the department of human development at SUNY Binghamton. He is on the editorial board of Catalyst.

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