What is a ‘Banana Republic’ and are we even using the term correctly?

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WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 06: Protesters enter the U.S. Capitol Building on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. A group of Republican senators said they would reject the Electoral College votes of several states unless Congress appointed a commission to audit the election results. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

(ABC4) — Those paying close attention to the news this week may have come across the political term “Banana Republic” more than once in regards to the violence that erupted at the nation’s Capitol Building.

No, we’re not referring to the popular clothing store or a country that thrives off of banana exports, though both play a role in the term’s turbulent history.

4 people died as Trump supporters stormed Capitol

Wisconsin Representative Mike Gallagher tweeted the following:

Additionally, former President George W. Bush brought up the term in a statement on Twitter:

“This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic — not our democratic republic,” he said.

So, what does the term actually mean? ABC4 reached out to political experts for answers.

James Curry, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Utah, says that politicians have seemingly been using the word to mean something different than its usual meaning.

“In recent years we have seen people increasingly use the term “banana republic” to describe a democracy in decline, or a government in chaos or disorder. In recent days it has basically become the buzzword used by folks to describe their disgust in the attack on the U.S. Capitol Building and President Trump’s reluctance to concede the 2020 election to President Elect-Joe Biden,” he says. “But the term was originally coined to describe a country that is controlled economically by a single industry or powerful corporation, and is for that reason, political unstable.”

Like Curry, Kirk Hawkins, Political Science Professor at Brigham Young University, said that people understood it to mean a country where there’s a lot of political instability, and today it is being understood and used differently.

“Today it is used to refer, in a loose way, to any sort of country where the politics don’t work very well. We imagine a lot of irregular turnover in government. A lot of corruption,” he says. “An economy that’s poor and not very advanced.”

According to Hawkins, Wednesday’s events at the nation’s Capitol is more common in other countries- ones often referred to as banana republics, “where political transfer of power may happen through an election, but then the results of the election may be marred by a lot of violence before or after. Or maybe there’s not an election at all-things like coups or inciting mobs to attack the presidential palace. There is a history of that- it tends to happen in country where both sides can’t agree to respect the terms of peaceful elections.”

The implication, he says, is that the behavior at the Capitol Building was similar to what we might see in other countries with less experience in democracy. Hawkins says he believes the term was used accurately by politicians.

“I think that was a pretty appropriate use of the term… For what they’re trying to say, it fits,” he says. “I don’t think anyone was saying the U.S. is a banana republic, they’re just saying, wow, this makes us look like one and feel like one. Is this going to keep happening? Because then I guess we would be one.”

Hawkins did clarify that banana republic is not a very technical term, and he doesn’t use it to categorize other countries.

Dictionary.com defines Banana Republic in two ways:

  1. a small, poor country, often reliant on a single export or limited resource, governed by an authoritarian regime and characterized by corruption and economic exploitation by foreign corporations conspiring with local government officials.
  2. any exploitative government that functions poorly for its citizenry while disproportionately benefiting a corrupt elite group or individual.

The site says the term is usually disparaging or derogatory.

According to Merriam-Webster, the term first appeared in the novel “Cabbages and Kings” by William S. Porter. to portray a corrupt and unstable country.

“As the novel opens, the country’s president is fleeing a coup with a satchel full of government money; a bit later, his successor, having recklessly slapped a tax on the bananas exported by the large American companies that control the economy, is himself deposed in a corporate-backed coup,” the site says.

Porter, who published the novel under the pen name, O. Henry, is believed to have written about his experiences in Honduras, which had over 30 presidents in only 46 years of independence, Merriam-Webster says.

So, are politicians correct in calling America a banana republic? So far, that seems to be a matter of opinion.

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