week 10

Week 10 – Power to the People

This week, Dawson discusses populist leaders in 20th century Latin America, and the role of social and technological change in the way these leaders connected with the citizens of the countries they commanded.

The book defines populists as “charismatic, nationalist and good at mobilizing industrial workers” (207), and as having come of age in an era of change, both in the social makeup of the population and the means through which ideas and policies could be disseminated across their constituency. The main change was the introduction of the radio in Latin American society, which acted as a channel to the urban crowd.

Dawson points out that, as countries modernized and industries were growing, more and more people moved from the countryside to the cities, chasing the opportunity of economic and social improvement that could come from factory jobs and the surrounding businesses in a booming urban centre. Radios acted as a force that constituted the national community, creating a common repertory of songs and radionovelas that connected the population as a whole and blurred social and geographical boundaries.

Populist leaders looked to capitalize on this new way of connecting to the population, one that, with enough charisma and social intelligence, could propagate ideas further and easier than ever thought possible. However, it wasn’t effective for all the leaders all the time.

The text discusses on a few different fascinating stories of Latin American leaders and how the radio affected their governance and their politics. On of them is that of Getúlio Vargas in Brazil and his state-mandated Hora do Brazil, a daily hour-long period in which didactic programming and public announcements would be played. The audience however promptly rejected it, and Vargas, even though he tried through multiple different avenues (including co-opting samba from the poorer urban class) never quite connected with the populace – differently from his rival Carlos Lacerda, who became popular as a talk show host criticizing the government. Lacerda was then targeted because of his comments, and after some political turmoil, Vargas killed himself. His suicide note was read on radio, and it riled up crowds as they realized they had been better than ever before, even though Vargas didn’t follow through on all of his promises and the changes he made (minimum wage and labour laws, for example) weren’t consistently enforced throughout Brazil.

His story illustrates the power of radio as a tool for spreading ideas and influencing individuals in the continually changing social and economic environment of 20th century Latin America. It also highlights the then-newly found power of citizens as consumers of entertainment and information – they were able to readily reject anything that didn’t feel authentic, and mobilize en masse for politicians and policies that spoke to and for them.