Tag Archives: populism

Week Thirteen: Towards an Uncertain Future

This week, I would like to focus on the topic of populism in Latin America. I choose this topic because I genuinely believe that populism is a very real threat to the democratic development of the region, and it shows no signs of subsiding. Indeed, Latin America remains consistent in its tendency towards populism, and whilst many elements of the region pertain to both continuity and change, populism is most definitely a continuity that Latin American politics is likely to see for a long time to come. More so than other regions, Latin America’s fixation on populist political leaders tends to come in widespread waves – at many instances in the 20th Century, it was suggested that populism had fallen out of favour and that it was unlikely the trend would ever return to Latin America. These projections all proved to be inaccurate.

“The Return of Populism, Latin American Style” – Javier Corrales, New York Times

This article discusses the ebbs and flows of populism in Latin America throughout the 20th Century, and notes that it is a political tool of mobilisation that may be utilised by either the right or left wing; the steadfast elements are (1) populist leaders mobilise excluded and disenfranchised groups and (2) they pose a threat to democratic institutions as populist leaders tend to invoke anti-establishment rhetoric. Many of the current populist leaders or contenders in Latin America today have honed in on a particular, pressing, and recurrent issue in their country that needs to be addressed. In the case of Iván Duque in Colombia, he has chosen security against guerrillas. In Mexico, Obrador has pinpointed on corruption and wealth distribution. Why is it that populism is so hard to shake in Latin America in particular? I personally would chalk it up to the region’s political tradition of caudillismo and the seemingly unfaltering social, political, and economic inequality, which creates a constantly disenfranchised peoples. However, Corrales also attributes populism’s continuity to external forces, particularly that of the United States. Given Trump’s inflammatory right-wing rhetoric towards Mexico, it is feared that left wing populism may take hold in the country.

“The 40 Year Itch: Populism and Polarisation Threaten Latin America – The Economist 

Whereas the previous article focuses on the conditions in which populism arises in Latin America, this article takes a very bleak approach to explore the autocratic tendencies of Latin American populist leaders in particular. According to Maxwell Cameron, Latin America is seeing the rise of ‘competitive authoritarianism’, wherein, despite using competitive, democratic means to come to power, populist leaders are expanding their presidential powers in a manner characteristic of authoritarian regime. This tends to be done by expanding their powers under constitution, and many populist presidents such as Maduro and Chavez have, upon being democratically elected, embarked on projects of constitutional rewriting. Whilst there is indeed a focus on such principles as the rule of law, security, ending corruption, and more equal wealth distribution, it remains that such a development of these democratic principles without the establishment of strong, liberal democratic institutions to protect them may be putting the cart before the horse.

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Week Ten: Power to the People

This week, I was able to see the effect that technology had to move the people into the forefront of the political game. As it has been noted multiple times thus far in this course, one of the things that made Latin American so hard to govern, even back to the earliest colonial days, was the difficulty in maintaining communication across its vastness. It was because of this that there became centres of concentrated powers in the form of caudillos, which ultimately led to the significant fragmentation of society.

However, with the advancement of technology came increased channels of communication, allowing leaders like Vargas, Cárdenas, and the Peróns into the homes (and often the hearts) of the people. The ability of radio to create a national consciousness was unprecedented. It is interesting to see how opportunistic leaders learned to use and dominate the medium in order to have their voice heard the loudest – and how in alienating their opponents from airspace, they were able to create a one-sided narrative that the people could follow and rally behind. In my mind, this parallels the Nazi’s use of the Volksempfänger to spread their propaganda outside the borders of the Reich – contributing to the personality cult of Hitler.

This brings me to my next point about populism and its dangers. I was surprised that Dawson skirted around any definitive way to identify a populist leader (or even define populism) as to me, this term is almost synonymous with Latin American politics. Its roots run deep in Latin American political traditions, and its various historical and current rises indicate that, for some reason or another, populist leaders have a vast and intense appeal to the people. Populism can be a great danger to liberal democracies as, among other things, the highly personalistic leadership styles of ‘true’ populists such as Perón and Chavez allow for a personality cult to grip the nation, further distancing people from democracy and leaving them vulnerable to imagined/curated narratives. Populists also tend to be anti-establishment, and in a lot of cases (e.g. Chavez) this has led to a rejection or weakening of democratic institutions such as the judiciary. Further, populism can be characterised as a type of groupthink, which is never a good thing (à la Bay of Pigs). I could sit here for hours and list out all the dangers of populism, however, I will save the effort and instead conclude that just as caudillismo can be seen as a long-standing legacy that has razed the democratic foundations of Latin America, I would argue that so too can populism.

Populism is not limited to Latin America, however. The world seems to have taken a populist turn, with the election of populist leaders such as Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in India, Duterte in the Philippines, Netanyahu in Israel, Ergodan in Turkey, and many more. It is intriguing and a little daunting to think about the implications of these populist leaders in status quo nations for the current of international politics.





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Week Five: Caudillos Versus the Nation State

What I found particularly interesting this week was Jon’s discussion of the social contract, and how, in the face of such a fragmented and almost lawless society (especially in the countryside and remote outposts), such a concept that we take for granted in the Western world may be rendered obsolete and unfavourable in comparison to other modes of protection, such as caudillos.

According to Hobbes in Leviathan, the state of man nature is so fearsome and undesirable, that man will accept significant burdens on his freedom in the form of a sovereign in order to escape this state of nature; nature is a “warre… of every man against every man.” It is the very existence of a higher authority that keeps this war at bay. The perversion of this social contract by Rosas and his Mazorcas had ultimately led to a recreation of and reversion to this state of nature. After reading Echeverría’s short story, I could not help but draw similarities between The Slaughterhouse and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, both works drawing upon the central idea in Hobbes’ Leviathan that, in the absence of authority (i.e. in anarchy), savagery, cruelty, and chaos underpin social behaviour. Both authors also use vivid and visceral imagery to depict the depths of mankind in the state of nature, as well as the dangers of mob mentality (through Echeverría’s use of disembodied voices to create cacophony and chaos) and the almost irreversible impacts it can have on order and the rule of law.

These ideas echo a documentary that I watched a few years ago when undertaking a class called The Sociology of Third World Development. The documentary primarily dealt with the issue of ongoing and inextinguishable gang violence in Brazil, and when asked for the rationale for joining such violent organisations, many incarcerated gang members cited disenfranchisement and the feeling of living outside the protection of the law as the most attractive pull-factor of these gangs. (I cannot recall the name at this point in time, but when I do I will post it in the comments! It is a very interesting watch!) Additionally, disenfranchisement has always been (and still is) a significant concern for much of Latin America, and serves as potent kindling for populist movements and the election of populist candidates to positions of power. Perhaps it can be argued that these patterns of political mobilisation are well-established in Latin American consciousness – and just as the population have been conditioned by tradition to push back against feelings of disenfranchisement, so too have leaders learnt to read such trends and exploit them for political power.

But more than this tradition, what is it about Latin America that makes it so hard to govern? Surely it cannot simply be the result of a patchwork of identities. Why is it so that this cycle of disenfranchisement leading to momentum for populist movements seems to persist so vehemently in the region? And why on such a widespread scale?



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