(Marco Verch/Wikimedia Commons)

Argentina could have been the United States.

Like the U.S., it was one of the world's 10 richest countries at the turn of the last century. And also like the U.S., that made it a New World magnet for Old World immigrants. But unlike the U.S., that was as good as it ever got. There was no Argentinian Dream. Just a nearly never-ending nightmare of either falling behind gradually or falling behind suddenly. All of which was self-inflicted.

Its fundamental problem was how unequal it was. About 300 families controlled most of the land, the economy, and the government. Everyone else was just a cog in their beef-and-grain-exporting machine. Or, as the Financial Times's Alan Beattie has put it, Argentina is "what America might have looked" like "if the South had won the Civil War and gone on to dominate the North." Which is to say that it was a semi-feudal aristocracy dependent on a steady supply of cheap labor.

If this sounds like a good way to start a class war, that's because it was. Up until recently, Argentina had spent most of the last 100 years alternating between left-wing populists who promised to share the country's wealth, and right-wing military dictatorships that tried to stop that from happening. And, of course, with the stakes so high, neither side was willing to play by the rules. The Peronists tried to tip elections in their favor by locking up the opposition's leaders, shutting down their newspapers, and getting rid of unions that weren't loyal to the regime. The army, meanwhile, didn't bother with any kind of democratic pretense. It launched coup after coup after coup, outlawing the Peronist Party, and, in the 1970s, "disappearing" tens of thousands of activists and ordinary people too.

Argentina is a reminder of one of the most forgotten caveats in history. Class struggle, Marx said, would either end "in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large" or "in the common ruin of the contending classes." We might want to put a little more emphasis on that second part.

Argentina, though, hasn't just been hurt by people fighting over power. It's also been hurt by what people have done in power. Right-wing governments had no interest in educating the workers or investing in anything other than the landowners' exports. And left-wing governments just nationalized industries, protected others with tariffs, and made promises they could afford only by printing money. The result was a century of inflation and stagnation. As The Economist points out, Argentina went from having an income per capita that was 92 percent of 16 of the richest countries in 1914 to just 43 percent today. The irony, of course, is that even when Argentina did open up its economy and try to cure its congenital inflation in the 1990s, the way it did so—pegging the peso to the dollar one-to-one—made it unable to respond to even the smallest shock. So when one came along, Argentina ended up in its own private Great Depression.

The point is that nothing is inevitable. The arc of the political universe is long, and it doesn't have to bend toward progress or justice or anything else good. It can point backwards if that's where we aim it. And we might. Like Argentina, we have high levels of inequality. And also like Argentina, we have pretty extreme political polarization. But what really might make us like Argentina is if we have politicians who deride expertise, who think that policy is something that fits into 140 characters, and who hint that elections are something you have to respect only if you win.

The United States, in other words, could still be Argentina.