Populism is unique in that it can take on many shapes and is not tied to either end of the political spectrum but is rather an ideology. Populist leaders also rarely claim the title themselves but rather are typically boisterous and charismatic leaders, boasting that they are the voice of the “pure people” and fight for their interests against the “others” who subject the people/ majority.
The rise in populism in Latin America is considered by many scholars as its third wave, originating from the ideology of the Russian Narodinks in the late nineteenth century. With this third wave, many countries have seen a rise is authoritarian populists leaders on both wings of the political spectrum, using nationlistic rhetoric to convey themselves as the leader and will of “the people” against their common enemy, whether that be in the forms of elites at home or outside force abroad. Regardless of the left or the right ideologies of these leaders, countries such as Bolivia, Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, and El Salvador have all experienced these charismatic and energizing leaders.
One such example of this authoritarian populism can be seen with Bolivia’s Evo Morales and his MAS (Movement toward Socialism) party is a prime example of this new era of leftist populist leaders. Since his rise to power in 2006, Evo, as he is known by Bolivians, has become renowned for his boisterous and populist style of speeches. Often using terms like hermanos (brothers) in his speech to rally his followers, he references the “poor and humble” people as a priority for his regime while blaming the old foreign investors in the country as the evil that had to be purged from the country to avoid ruin. He has also sought to consolidate his own power by changing or eliminating governmental institutions. Along with his populist us vs them rhetoric, promising a grand revolution for the people against the elite, he successfully rewrote the constitution in his first years of ruling, allowing him to run for an additional term and centralized the control of power in the executive, legislative, and judicial. In the general election in 2019, voting was plagued with inconsistencies, with the vote stopping short and the judicial tribunal the Evo had a hand in called the election in his favor. These are clear examples of the three features of populist governance as Muller has defined them. Evo has hijacked the state apparatus by rewriting the constitution, exhibited mass clientelism by packing the tribunal courts and public offices with followers of his party and regime, and attempted to suppress civil society by threatening protests when his election in 2019 was put into question.
The irony of this leftist populism is that it is working. The majority of Evo’s followers, the rural poor and blue-collar workers have benefitted from his power consolidation. The country’s economy has grown at a steady rate, and the income inequality gap between the rich and the poor has shrunk. This theme is not unique to Bolivia, as many populists leaders have used the antagonistic stance of the poor against the elite to persuade their followers. This common factor that plays a role in the rise of populism is reinforced in Acemoglu’s work, citing the role that economics has in the rise of dictatorships.
These leftist populist leaders’ success raises the question, does the benefits that the traditionally poor and underrepresented portions of the populations in these countries outweigh the erosion of democratic institutions that these populist leaders are causing?
While I generally support the rise of the poor majority over the few elite, it does draw concern. Populism and the leaders that are drawn to it can lead to a runaway freight train of the masses. In his work, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Schumpeter sums this theory up by stating that the electoral mass is incapable of action other than stampedes. Many governmental institutions have been put in place to slow the pace of change and prevent drastic shifts in a country’s government and/or economy. Authoritarian populists that are quick to rise in power by using the “true will” of “the people” tend to be quick and willing to destroy the institutional pillars of their country’s democracy. This has often led countries into periods of tremendous inflation and economic recessions or the complete overthrow of the regime with military or other party coups. This represents the stability that solid foundational democracy brings to a country and while there may be periods of inequality and injustice, the life of everyday citizens does trend to betterment over time.
Evan, I definitely agree with you and see that if a type of leader attempts to rise to power via a charismatic persona, it is often bound to lead to chaos. It is crazy to see the amount of change that Evo Morales has brought to Venezuela after successfully manipulating the general population in Bolivia. The leftist populism wave has brought a much more significant impact than the people might even be aware of. Just a simple persuasive speech to the ear and the people become a lot more susceptible to essentially being brainwashed into thinking that stripping away their rights is for their own benefit. It is no shock to me, however, because the targeted audience of the working class. I wonder at what point the people will gather up their strength in numbers and organize. They will soon plan a revolt to overthrow the government, as even the most essential parts to a democracy like completely updating the constitution to work in his favor for a longer term in power. This is just an outright abuse of power, but I understand the working class who are benefitting from the overall improved health of the economy. If this can happen in Bolivia today, I fear that here in the United States this same kind of threat to democracy will take over. We can see this with the executive orders passed during the last presidential term, although not as permanent as editing the entire constitution.
Evan, your argument was presented well and you did a good job of tying in the readings. I think that understanding the connection between populism and economics is quintessential in assessing the trajectory of a country. It seems unlikely that the ability for demagogues to take over by claiming the “mandate” of the general will cannot be stoped under economic turmoil. Many individuals begin to prefer authoritarians as they resent the status quo and believe that either way they may be out of luck and are willing to take a gamble.
I would like to say add to what you have written. I definitely agree with what you have said. It seems that we who are looking at democracy around can notice that often with regimes that we may consider not “true democracies,” the way that the ruling party stays in power is through the improvement of the lives of the people. In other words, legitimacy is gained through the economic growth of a country; an example is the case of China as it had gone through unprecedented economic growth. We can also see it in Bolivia with Evo Morales where the gap between the rich and poor as decreased and minorities are being represented better.