Populist? Leftist?

There is an interesting thread (in which I have been participating, though that’s hardly the most interesting aspect of it) at bloggings by boz about the “scorecard” of leftists/populists in recent Latin American presidential elections.

I will not try to replicate the discussion here–just follow the link and see for yourself–but it is a reminder of how imprecise, and potentially useless, concepts like “leftist” and “populist” are in current Latin American electoral politics.

The label of “leftist” is often applied to social-democratic presidents like Bachelet and Lula, but also to a rehabilitated “Tercertista” like Ortega (who made alliances with elements of the right to come back to power), and self-proclaimed revolutionaries who rose through the military like Chávez. As many (including boz) have noted, this diverse group hardly fits neatly under one ideological label.

What about “populist”? This is a term that has less ideological baggage, though it has baggage of other sorts all its own. Boz proposed neo-populist, but as another commentator (Greg Weeks) noted, this term was applied by Weyland in the published literature to refer specifically to anti- or above- party, but pro-market, leaders in the 1990s (e.g. Fujimori, Menem and sometimes Salinas).

It is fairly clear that nominees of internally democratic parties like the Chilean Socialists (in coalition with other left and center parties) or the Brazilian PT cannot be meaningfully called “populists.” They represent a democratic center-left. They also have sought to retain generally good relations with the US, unlike Chávez and several of the others. But what of Ortega and Chávez? And, let’s add, López Obrador, Correa and Morales?

The term, populist, has a long and not entirely distinguished history in Latin American studies. Many of the definitions refer to specific policy directions, as in the move towards import substitution by the so-called classical populists (e.g. Perón). It was in part due to this concepts’ own policy baggage that Weyland added the “neo-” to refer to Fujimori and Menem.

But should populism be understood by reference to policies? I do not think so. It is a specifically political concept. As Riker suggested in the title of a book that deserves to be better known among students of comparative politics than it is, Liberalism against Populism, the latter term is contrasted with notions of limited government, the hallmark of liberalism. A populist conception of democracy assumes that there is such thing as a “popular will” and that it can be inferred from the electoral victory of a leader who presents himself as the embodiment of that “will.” Unlike a liberal, who accepts (at least in principle) the constraints of institutional checks and balances and competing political parties, the populist sees institutions and parties as devices for thwarting the authentic representation of the popular will.*

If we accept such a definitional dichotomy between liberalism and populism (and then recognize that they really represent endpoints of a continuum), it is not too hard to identify the populists in contemporary Latin America. Chávez and Correa would be clear examples. Both won their elections, in part, on promises to set aside existing parties and institutions (courts, the legislature, and the constitution itself). Chávez had a personal electoral vehicle (hardly a “party”), while Correa did not even have that. (In that sense, Correa is perhaps more authentically “populist” than any of these current leaders, as was Fujimori.) Morales might also fit this definition, although unlike either Chávez or Correa, he has an electoral vehicle that won a majority of lower-house seats at the same time as his initial election. Given that said fact does not necessarily imply that he is checked by a party (which, in any case, is probably not well institutionalized), perhaps it does not push him outside the “populist” concept.

What about López Obrador? His “to hell with the institutions” discourse certainly is consistent with populism, though his candidacy at the head of the PRD, which could be considered a reasonably institutionalized party (for such a young democracy as Mexico has) suggests he should not be seen as populist. Besides, not only did he lose the election, but even if he is right that he was cheated out of the 230,000 some votes that would have given him victory, that still would amount to only around 35% of the votes. Some popular will! (López Obrador seems to have missed the irony here.) So, he might have a “populist” style and ambitions, but if the term is to be meaningful, it should reflect actual political conditions, and not mere aspirations.

Then there is Ortega. Populist? Absolutely not! Not only did he win a share of the vote not much greater than López Obrador in Mexico, he came (back) to power on the back of a political party that he helped create decades ago. If anything, the Sandinista Front is over-institutionalized. That is, it is such a rigid organization that it has proven impossible for internal reform movements to alter its leadership. Yet it controls a formidable vote-delivering machine that has won it around 38-40% of the votes in every election since 1990 (but not a plurality till 2006). The populist seeks to override institutions in order to represent the “popular will.” Ortega has employed the institutions of his party and the electoral law to return to power from within. I see no sense in which that is meaningfully populist.

Fitting some of the aspects of populism (as I have defined it), but not others, would be a former president such as Menem. Like Ortega, Menem came to power through an established political party, although the Peronist party was never, according to most accounts, particularly institutionalized. It was flexible and manipulable. Whether it was “populist” after the initial burst of energy that brought Peron himself to power is debatable. Once in power, Menem certainly attempted–and in some sense, managed–to govern in a way that circumvented institutional checks. On the other hand, aside from getting approval for and winning reelection, he was also forced by the opposition both inside and outside his party to accede to new checks, including losing a bid to be allowed to run for a third term.

Salinas, classified by some as “neo-populist,” hardly even belongs in the discussion. He came to power through the long-ruling PRI, and his tenure in office was marked by efforts to re-entrench that very same party against the threat from the new PRD and the rising PAN.

In short, once we accept a political definition of populism, it is not hard to identify Chávez, Correa, Fujimori, and maybe Morales as fitting quite well. It is likewise not hard to see that López Obrador and especially Ortega and Salinas do not qualify, and that Menem probably does not. The question is whether the leader seeks to replace and override institutional and partisan checks, and not any particular ideological or programmatic leaning.

One could make a case for simply abandoning the term, populist. Yet it does have analytic value, as long as it is not used as a synonym for leftist or as a means to describe any leader who employs a discourse of being set against the status quo. Or against US influence.


* I think there is potentially a useful parallel with how these terms are used in economics. Whereas “populist” economics is often understood as redistribution of wealth and the politicized provision of benefits to lower classes without concern for their fiscal implications, liberalism subjects economic policy to the discipline of market competition and the constraints of financial markets. Of course, in the political sense, liberalism subjects executive leadership to the discipline of party competition, regulated and channeled by political institutions. Populism does not.

Previous discussion of labels like leftist, populist, Leninist, and even fascist: Getting the labels all mixed up (29 May, 2006).

0 thoughts on “Populist? Leftist?

  1. I’m no expert on “populism,” Latin American or otherwise, but I see the term all the time.

    It sometimes seems to mean the same as “personalist” which I take to refer to a leader whose partisans tend to follow the leader personally rather than adhere to his principles, if any. Such a leader will adopt whatever principles serve him best from time to time, whether as good strategy or tactics, or because they have popular appeal. De Gaulle was an example of a good personalist, who used his prestige to shift France into the future and extricate itself from Algeria. But was he a populist? Other examples are bad personalists, simply brutal “strongmen” who are as much feared as admired.

    Conversely, some “populists” are simply conservatives in the mold of Disraeli who are modernizers and try to match the appeal to the people of socialist parties. Note that European conservative parties that don’t want the label “Christian Democrat” often call themselves “People’s” or “Popular.” The largest group in the European Parliament, 264 of the 732 MEPs, use the term “European People’s Party (Christian Democrats).” Since this is the democratic parliament elected by the world’s largest group except India, their terminology should be given much weight, yet this seems to reduce the term “Popular” to an almost meaningless slogan. So “populist” may be more specific. Or does it simply sound more specific, but the meaning dissolves on closer examination?

    Note that I have avoided Godwin’s Law in this discussion, unless the mere mention of it is itself a conversation-stopper.

  2. Great discussion, but there is one issue you don’t address. In analyses of populism that I’ve seen (e.g. Weyland) membership in a well-institutionalized party does not preclude the label “populist.” Instead, it refers to the political strategies of the leader in question. Does that person ignore or threaten to ignore institutions in favor, say, plebiscites? Does that person appeal to the masses as an individual rather than as a member of a party, even perhaps criticizing his/her own party?

  3. I’m actually teaching a course on populism in Latin America next semester at Dickinson. And I’ve found the book Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, edited by Francisco Panizza extremely useful. I’m also using some stand-along articles, including Weyland’s famous piece.

    Your thoughts here are similar to mine. I don’t think Chavez is a “neopopulist” (like Fujimori), but I do think that he his a populist in the older tradition. Certainly, I think Evo Morales is. Particularly if we use Riker’s distinction.

    Another little-read book that I’m using for my class (or just a chapter of it) is Christopher Mitchell’s Legacy of Populism in Bolivia, in which he argued that populism can also be a style of *party* (the book is an analysis of the MNR, the final chapter compares the MNR to other “populist parties” such as APRA & AD).

  4. I think “populist party” is really an oxymoron, unless, of course, we use “populism” to refer to a set of policy priorities that a party is organized to advance. But on the political (ant-liberal) definition I favor, one can’t have a populist party in the strict sense of a party organized for anything other than mere fealty to the leader.

    I agree, in principle, that “populist” type leaders can rise through established parties. However, one must be careful here, in that when we are talking about presidential systems, these inherently allow the party leader to put more of his/her own stamp on the party than is usually the case in parliamentary systems. There is thus an inherent “populist” tendency to presidentialism, but if the concept it to retain any meaning, it can’t just refer to phenomena that area inherent to the very institutions that the populist (understood as I have proposed) seeks to override.

    On Godwin’s law, well, let’s set it aside. Fascists probably are inherently populist, though of course, most populists are not fascists. I linked one of the recent Latin American “populists” to fascism here some months ago.

  5. Is “populist party” an oxymoron? What about Poland’s Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (Law & Justice) Party, Bulgaria’s National Movement Simeon II, or the party of Boiko Borissov, mayor of Sofia (“Borissov backs Bulgaria’s EU accession and membership of NATO, and aims at people who are in the middle of the political spectrum. People like Borissov for his personal qualities and clear messages.”)

    “In current media debate, the term “populism” is used in two senses: referring either to an emotional, simplistic and manipulative discourse that is directed at people’s “gut feelings”, or to opportunistic policies aimed at “buying” people’s support. But an appeal to people’s passions is not forbidden in democratic politics, and the decision over which policies are “populist” and which “sound” is open to debate (as Ralf Dahrendorf noted, “one man’s populism is another’s democracy, and vice versa”). Thus, unless we perform a Brechtian gesture and abolish the people, populism is and will remain a part of the European political landscape.”

    “Populism can be seen as a marketing strategy for political newcomers in the age after the “end of history”. In Latin America it has been called “violin politics” (you hold it with the left hand but play with the right); in Europe, it means you win the election as a populist but govern as a centrist liberal.”

    Populism is on the rise all over Europe.

  6. I think a “populist party” isn’t necessarily an oxymoron. The Mitchell book that I reference argues that the MNR was a multi-class organization that emphasized nationalism under a vague ideology that could appeal to various sectors of society, in part by their very vagueness. The emphasis is on a party mechanism that is organized, but doesn’t have mass membership, and doesn’t specifically articulate a left or right position while advancing a highly nationlist rhetoric that emphasizes distinctions between “the people” and “the other” (the rich elites, the foreign business interests, etc).

    In many ways, this kind of party could be described as “fascist lite” because of its millenarian tendencies, devotion to symbolism & spectacle, and militancy (members are ogranized into “comandos” and ready to participate in civilian putsches).

  7. As I noted, “a party organized for anything other than mere fealty to the leader” can’t be populist. So, a party organized solely for fealty to a leader who claims to represent the “popular will” that is thwarted by institutionalized parties and liberal-democratic institutions could indeed be a “populist party.”

    I still say it is an oxymoron. But to call something an oxymoron is not the same thing as saying it does not exist.

    Miguel, note that the definition you are referring to is based largely on a description of the party’s policy priorities (and social composition), rather than its position vis-a-vis liberal-democratic institutions. However, the “distinctions between ‘the people’ and ‘the other'” is a key part of what I am calling “populist.”

    “Fascist lite.” Could be, though I do think fascism (“lite” or otherwise) has other components (as I discussed in my previous post, linked above).

  8. I think you’re using “populist” to mean primarily “personalist.” I do think there’s something to the personalism of most populist movements. But if populism is based on a rhetoric of national (“popular”) sovereignty, a dismissal of liberal institutions in favor of “national-popular” will, and an ideological flexibility that makes it hard to pin down into right or left, then I think the 1950s MNR, APRA in its heyday, and other “populist parties” can exist.

    I’m using the term “populism” here to mean a political philosophy that views the polity at as organic whole, a view of “integrationist” national identity, an emphasis on mass mobilization in the streets as a sign of strength (rather than “bourgeois” voting or legal wrangling), a program of national education based on establishing a new national mythology, and a rhetoric that dismisses “politics” (and “liberals”) as enemies of the organic polity.

    I fear that if we focus too much on populism as movements based on a single leader, then we confuse personalist regimes into populist ones. Does Kim Jon Il lead a populist movement because of his role in the regime? What about the Nazi or Stalin regimes? Do the terms fascist, totalitarian, or communist mean nothing to describe those regimes? What about a sultanistic regime, like the Duvaliers in Haiti?

    I guess I take the more “sociological” approach to defining populism, which emphasizes it as a style (or “form”) of political discourse. As such, it can take both organized or personalist forms.

  9. Absolutely we should not conflate “populist” and “personalist.” Uribe, for example, is clearly personalist (as has been the entire Colombian political system for some time), but neither Uribe nor most of the political movements in recent Colombian history (other than ANAPO) could be called “populist.” I would use “persronalist” simply to refer to contexts in which the personal reputations of individual politicians are more important to voters than the collective reputations of the party or movement to which they belong. They can be fully involved in regularized political competition, and hence there is no contradiction in the concepts of personalism and liberalism, as there is in populism and liberalism.

    As for movements that view the polity as “an organic whole,” that is getting us pretty close to fascism.

    As for totalitarian regimes (Nazi Germany, Stalinist USSR, N. Korea), obviously they are not populist. It makes sense to oppose populism and liberalism–as I have throughout this discussion–only if we have at least a minimal level of political competition. Just as in the economic sphere we need to distinguish socialism as distinct from populism, which in turn is distinct from liberalism, so too in politics, we should allow for totalitarianism (no competition, total management of society by the state) from populism as well as the latter from liberalism.

    I do not have any problem with calling the MNR, PJ, and some other examples (but probably not the PRI) “populist parties,” as long as we acknowledge the inherent oxymoron in that concept. Certainly, organizations that resemble political parties are established to seek hegemony in a semi-competitive context and to serve as mobilizational vehicles for the current jefe máximo.

    As I have said throughout, I prefer a political-process definition of these political concepts, and not either an economic, ideological, or sociological one. But then I am a student of political process and not a student of economics, ideology, or sociology.

    Thanks for continuing the conversation, Miguel and other propagators! I still am not convinced that the term remains useful. My effort here was to show that it is, but I wonder.

  10. Fair points. And, yes, the MNR (at least) became much less a “populist” party by the 1980s, when it transitioned into a neoliberal party. The same could be said for APRA or PJ, perhaps. And, true, the MNR had a powerful “personalist” component, principally around the “heroes” of the Chaco generation (Busch, Villarroel, Estenssoro, a few others).

    The historical connection w/ fascism, however, should be emphasized a bit more. After all, the earlier populists (Peron, Vargas, Haya de la Torre) were heavily (and explicitly) influenced by Italian & Spanish fascism.

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