“When populists included [others] it was under the condition of surrendering to the leader conceived as the embodiment of the will and aspirations of the people. Populist inclusion, therefore, needs to be differentiated from democratization as a long-lasting process based on the expansion of rights, the respect for pluralism, the right to dissent, and freedoms of expression and association. Populists did not create institutions and practices based on respect for civil rights. Those who did not accept the wisdom of the leader were branded as enemies, dissent became treason, and populist polarization transformed political rivals into enemies that need to be contained,” says Professor Carlos de la Torre.
Interview by Selcuk Gultasli
Professor Carlos de la Torre, who is director of Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida, believes populism is here to stay. Prof. De La Torre, whose new book Global Populisms will be published soon, argues that the task of citizens, students, and scholars is to understand populism’s complexities without demonizing it. He underlines that we need to understand why these parties mobilize citizens: “Populists rightly criticize the deficits of participation and representation of real existing democracies. Populists often point to problems and issues that other politicians overlook.” Yet he warns about the solutions populists present: “If populists are right in some of their criticism on the malfunctioning of democracy, their solutions are problematic.”
The following are excerpts from the interview.
Do the policy makers and intellectuals in the North have anything to learn from the experiences of Latin America? Can you please elaborate?
The surge of populism studies in English has unfortunately relegated the Global South to a few marginal footnotes. Most scholars compare Europe and the US, and do not pay attention to the rich bibliography on populism written about Latin America and other regions of the Global South and published in English. For instance, most introductory volumes do not even mention the pioneering work of Gino Germani on populism and fascism. Even when scholars compare the North and the Global South, the categories that they use are derived from European experiences that are posed as the universal norm.
For instance, Cas Mudde’s concept of populism that was developed to explain right-wing extremist parties located on the fringes of the political system is used as the matrix that supposedly allows comparisons between the West and the rest. Yet his categories do not travel well to explain cases worldwide. As an example, Mudde does not consider that the leader is central to his definition of populism. His assertion makes sense if the object of his study is small extremist right-wing European political parties. But in other regions, populism revolves around powerful leaders. In Europe, successful populist mass-based parties like the National Rally, Syriza, or Podemos are leader-centric.
The bibliography on the Global South might give answers to what to expect from populists in power, and how to better resist them. After all, in Latin America, populists got to power before [they did] in Europe and the US.
Populism is based on interactions between two antagonistic camps. Populist attempt to be the centre of the social order and the media tends to obsessively focus on the leader allowing him or her to dominate the news cycle. When the opposition felt that all democratic channels were closed, they called the military to solve civilian problems. These irresponsible and undemocratic acts play into the hands of the populist that presents herself as a victim and the avatar of democracy. Not all populists will have the same effects on democratic institutions.
People as Ethnic, Political, or Social Constructions
To distinguish types of populism, it is important to analyse how they define “the people” and its enemies. The people could be constructed with ethnic or political criteria, and as a plural population or as a unitary actor. Ethnic constructs could be exclusionary, as when the enemies of the people are minority populations such as Muslims and non-whites in Europe and the US. “The people” as constructed by Donald Trump for example faces ethnic and religious enemies such as Mexicans and Muslims. He launched his presidential candidacy from Trump Tower in New York City asserting, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some I assume, are good people.” He expanded his racist platform by calling Muslims terrorists and promising to monitor Muslims within the US and banning those who want to enter this country.
Differently from Trump’s racist view of the people as white and its enemies as cultural, religious, and ethnic “others” fundamentally different and dangerous to the true white-Christian, and heterosexual people, Evo Morales and his political party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS – Movement Toward Socialism), successfully used inclusive ethno-populist appeals. Given the fluidity of race and ethnic relations in Bolivia, they were able to create an inclusionary ethnic party grounded in indigenous organizations and social movements. The MAS and Morales were successful because they also incorporated non-indigenous organizations and candidates. The term indigenous was politicized to include all Bolivians who defended national sovereignty and natural resources from neoliberal elites. It was an embracive category that signified a claim to post-colonial justice, and for a broader political project of nationalism, self-determination, and democratization. Morales’ enemies were the neoliberal political and economic elites that served the interests of multinational corporations, supranational institutions like the IMF, and US imperialism.
Left-wing populists tend to construct the people with political and socioeconomic criteria as those excluded by neoliberal elites. Hugo Chávez framed the political arena so that he did not face political rivals, but instead an oligarchy that he defined as the political enemy of the people, “those self-serving elites who work against the homeland.” Left-wing populist parties in Southern Europe like Syriza and Podemos similarly construct the category of the people as the majorities in their nations who are excluded by neoliberal policies imposed by supranational organizations like the IMF or the Troika.
Democrats imagine the people as a plurality of actors with different views and proposals. By constructing the people as plural, democrats face rivals that have legitimate institutional and normative spaces. Populists like Donald Trump or Hugo Chávez on the contrary claim that they and only they represent the “true people.” Chávez boasted, “This is not about Hugo Chávez; this is about a ‘people.’ I represent, plainly, the voice and the heart of millions.” On another occasion he commanded, “I demand absolute loyalty to me. I am not an individual; I am the people.” Even though Chávez’s political and socioeconomic construction of the people was inclusionary, his view of the people-as-one was anti-pluralist, and in the end, antidemocratic because he attempted to become its only voice.
When ethnic or religious views of the people are combined with constructs of “the people” as one, populism becomes exclusionary and antidemocratic. Under these conditions, populism can be a threat to the basic values of modernity such as a pluralistic, critical, and inclusive civil society. Because ethnic and religious enemies are seen as a threat to the purity and morality of the true and rightful people, they might need to be confined or expelled. Therefore, ethnic constructions of the people in the most extreme cases could lead to ethnic cleansing. Political and socioeconomic constructions of “the people” can lead to inclusionary policies. Yet when “the people” is viewed as one, as Chávez did, his populism was inclusionary and antidemocratic because he assumed that the part of the people that he embodied was the only authentic group.
Light Populism versus Full-blown Populism
Populist not only differ on how they construct the people and on the right and left axis: light and full-blown populism should be differentiated. By light populism, I refer to political parties and politicians that occasionally use populist tropes and discourses, but that do not aim to rupture existing institutions. Under this criterion, Bernie Sanders, who did not break with the Democratic Party creating a third party in 2016 or 2020, is a light populist. Full-blown populists aim to rupture existing institutions by polarizing society and the polity into two camps of enemies and constructing a leader as the symbol of all the demands for change and renewal. Light populists are almost indistinguishable from other politicians in contemporary democracies that appeal to trust in their personas and use the mass media to bypass traditional parties. Full-blown populists often use democratic institutional mechanisms and mass mobilization to try to bring change. When seeking power, full-blown populists appeal to constituencies that the elites despise or ignore. They use discourses and performances to shock and disturb the limits of the permissible and to confront conventions.
Despite their different constructs of who is “the people” and dissimilar politicizations of grievances and emotions, populists do similar things when in power. Populists aim to rupture exclusionary institutional systems to give power back to the people. They face enemies, not democratic rivals. They appeal to reason and emotion to reduce the complexities of politics to the struggle between two antagonistic camps. Regardless of its potential inclusionary promise, the pars pro totodynamic of populism is inherently autocratic because a part of the population claims to be its whole and pretends to rule in the name of all. A leader is constructed as the true voice and the only representative of the “real people.” Some populist leaders are represented as the saviours of their people. Other leaders become avatars of patriotism and claim to know how to make things right for their people.
What can we learn from Latin American populism to explain its relationship with democracy worldwide?
Populism forces scholars to define what they mean by democracy not only as an analytical term, but also as a normative ideal. Whereas critics argue that it is a danger to democracy, populists claim to embody democratic ideals. Whereas some argue that populism is an anomaly of malfunctioning institutions, for others it is a permanent possibility in democratic politics. Three approaches about the relationship between populism and democracy can be differentiated: populism is democratizing; populism leads to autocracy; and populism is a sui-generis combination of inclusion and autocracy.
i) Populism Is Democratizing
For scholars that understand democracy as policies that mitigate structural inequalities, the record of populism for democratization is positive. The sociologist Carlos Vilas argues that from the 1930s to the 1960s, populism in Latin America led to its fundamental democratization. During the first two terms of Juan Perón [Argentina] from 1946 to 1955, the percentage of voters surged from 18 percent of the population in 1946 to 50 percent in 1955, and women voted for the first time in the 1952 elections. The share of wages in the National Gross Domestic Product increased from 37 percent in 1946 to 47 percent in 1955. Similarly, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand (2001-2006) materially improved [the lives of] the poor by creating health programs, giving debt relief to rural cultivators, and introducing a loan system for low-income university students. Poverty fell and he led the political involvement of the informal sector, the rural poor, urban middle classes, and the northern small business and landowners.
Populist material, political, and cultural inclusion was not accompanied by the respect for pluralism and dissent. Perón for example expropriated critical newspapers. His government created a chain of radio stations and newspapers and produced movies and other propaganda materials. Perón dominated the labour movement by displacing and jailing communist, socialist, and anarchist leaders, and by promoting cronies to the leadership of the powerful national labour confederation CGT.
When populists included it was under the condition of surrendering to the leader conceived of as the embodiment of the will and aspirations of the people. Populist inclusion, therefore, needs to be differentiated from democratization as a long-lasting process based on the expansion of rights, the respect for pluralism, the right to dissent, and freedoms of expression, and association. Populists did not create institutions and practices based on respect for civil rights. Those who did not accept the wisdom of the leader were branded as enemies, dissent became treason, and populist polarization transformed political rivals into enemies that need to be contained.
Despite the historical record of populist power being at best ambiguous for democracy, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe view left-wing populism as a normatively desirable democratizing alternative to stopping the xenophobic and racist populist right. Populism, Laclau argues, entails the renaissance of politics. It is a revolt against technocratic reasoning, the surrendering of national sovereignty to supranational institutions, and of the popular will to neoliberal political elites. With the global rise of neoliberalism, understood as a rational and scientific mode of governance, public debate on the political economy was closed and replaced by the imposition of the criteria of experts. When all parties accepted neoliberalism and the rule of technocrats, politics was reduced to an administrative enterprise. Contrary to social democrats that embraced neoliberalism, the populist right used nationalist and xenophobic arguments to challenge globalization and the surrendering of national sovereignty. To stop right-wing variants, the left must construct popular democratic subjects.
Laclau’s normative defence of populism is problematic because he relies on Carl Schmitt’s view of the political as the struggle between friend and enemy. Under these constructs, it is difficult to imagine democratic adversaries who have legitimate institutional spaces. Enemies, as in Schmitt’s view, might need to be manufactured and contained. Moreover, the historical record of left populists in power in Latin America does not support views of populism as democratizing tout court. The leftist governments of Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Ernesto and Cristina Kichner, and Rafael Correa were inclusionary. When the prices of commodities were high, for example, they reduced poverty. Yet their governments entered into war against the media, attempted to control civil society, and attacked freedoms of expression, association, and the inviolability of the individual.
ii) Populism Leads to Autocracy
A second group of scholars argue that populism in power leads to authoritarianism. Kurt Weyland differentiates two routes by which populists erode democracy. The first is that when populists close all democratic institutional channels to the opposition, they provoke the most reactionary sectors to plot military coups. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the history of Latin America oscillated between populists in power being ousted by military coups.
After the third wave of democratization, when the international community accepted elections as the only tool to name and remove presidents, coups became too costly. Nowadays, populism, Weyland argues, is leading to slow processes of democratic erosion. The systematic yet incremental confrontations between populist presidents with the media and with critical organizations of civil society, the instrumental use of laws to punish critics and to favour cronies, and the concentration of power in the presidency leads to what Guillermo O’Donnell conceptualizes as the slow death of democracy—or to competitive authoritarian regimes.
iii) Populism Is a Sui-generis Combination of Inclusion and Autocracy
For a third group of scholars, populism in democratizing contexts and when citizens were not incorporated into political parties is a unique mix of inclusion and autocracy. Populism in Latin America was simultaneously inclusionary and anti-pluralist. Populists’ democratic credentials were grounded in the premise that legitimacy lies in winning free elections. In the 1930s and 1940s, Juan Perón in Argentina and José María Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador fought against electoral fraud and expanded the franchise. In the early years of the twenty-first century, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa used elections to displace traditional neoliberal elites and to build new hegemonic blocks. Yet elections under populism are plebiscitarian, and rivals are turned into enemies. Populist inclusion is based on the condition of surrendering one’s will to the leader who claims to be the embodiment of the people and the nation.
If global populist trends continue, what sort of a world will we be inhabiting in 20-30 years?
I don’t know. But what we learned after Trump was voted out of office in 2020, and his attempts to stay in power at all costs, is that populism is here to stay. Our task as citizens, students, and scholars is to understand its complexities without demonizing it. We have to comprehend why these parties mobilize citizens without using stereotypes that label followers as irrational.
Populists rightly criticize the deficits of participation and representation of real existing democracies. Populists often point to problems and issues that other politicians overlook. They, for instance, politicize anger at socioeconomic and political exclusions. If populists are right in some of their criticism on the malfunctions of democracy, their solutions are problematic. Populism can lead to processes of democratic disfigurement when the complexities of modern society are reduced to the struggle between two antagonistic camps, and when one part of the population claims to represent the population as a whole. Under these conditions, opponents do not have institutional or normative spaces to articulate dissent, becoming the hideous oligarchy or the anti-national other. The populist critique needs to be taken seriously, yet we have to interrogate whether their solutions will actually return power to the people or will lead to what Nadia Urbinati calls “the disfigurement of democracy.”
Who is Carlos de la Torre?
Carlos de la Torre is Director of the UF Center for Latin American Studies. He has a Ph.D. from the New School for Social Research. He was a fellow at the Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. His areas of interest are populism, democratization, and authoritarianism, as well as racism and citizenship in the Americas.
His most recent books are The Routledge Handbook of Global Populism (Routlege, 2019); Populisms a Quick Immersion(Tibidabo Editions, 2019); De Velasco a Correa: Insurreciones, populismo y elecciones en Ecuador (Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, 2015); The Promise and Perils of Populism (The University Press of Kentucky, 2015); Latin American Populism of the Twenty-First Century, co-edited with Cynthia Arnson, (The Johns Hopkins University Press and the Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2013); and Populist Seduction in Latin America (Ohio University Press, second edition 2010).