For nearly a century, Argentina has faced off with a unique brand of populism. Argentine populism, while originally celebrated for its mobilization of genuine people power, today poses a threat to liberal democracy with the erosion of civil society. Given the broad and pliable nature of populist appeals, Argentine populism has experienced substantial evolution and careening between different presidential administrations. Consistent throughout this legacy of populism, however, are the cleavages used by successive administrations to cement “Us versus Them” narratives. Each narrative is predicated on a conflict between a “virtuous,” “homogenous” people and a “nefarious” elite, incorporating an array of societal cleavages (e.g., globalism/cosmopolitanism versus nationalism, urban versus rural, etc.) to establish respective “Us” and “Them” camps. The past few decades, however, have seen an entrenchment of Argentine populism as these camps have taken on a worrisome pro- versus anti-incumbent nature, reflecting the reactive, affective, and antagonistic qualities of populist leadership. As such, an increasingly polarizing “Us versus Them” discourse seems a necessary prerequisite for any aspiring Argentine political leader. This self-reinforcing populist rhetoric holds dire consequences for liberal democracy, especially with respect to the health of civil society. Attacks on civil society, considered a hallmark of contemporary populist leadership, are evidenced by the executive subjugation of human rights to populist “Us versus Them” narratives.
Human rights have remained a major theme in the Argentine national dialogue following the fall of a brutal military dictatorship in 1983. Known as the Junta Militar, the regime was condemned both domestically and internationally for state-sanctioned violence and crimes against humanity that resulted in the disappearances of some 30,000 Argentines. 1983 is thus heralded as the year of democratic restoration, with President Raúl Alfonsín elected to office on the promise of a long-lasting democratic hegemony. Importantly, however, Alfonsín’s message to Argentines did not stop at the promise of electoral democracy, but liberal democracy. Naturally, the focus of this nascent liberal democracy was the traumatic fallout of the military regime and its numerous violations of human rights. Thus emerged a liberal emphasis on memory, truth, and justice perhaps best exemplified by Nunca Más, an exhaustive report revealing the clandestine operations and many victims of the Junta Militar. While the authoring group was commissioned by the Alfonsín administration, the group––CONADEP, or the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons––was largely a success of civil society; with a large degree of autonomy, CONADEP’s Nunca Más synthesized the plural experiences of family units under the dictatorship with the new democratic hegemony of the state (as well as with the objectives of civil society organizations themselves). The publication of the report thus demonstrates the critical role of civil society within a healthy liberal democracy as a largely autonomous, robust, and plural guarantor of civil and political liberties. The imminent reemergence of populist “Us versus Them” narratives, however, would see the steady erosion of civil society. The handling of human rights would no longer reflect the executive respect for liberal democracy that produced Nunca Más.
Subsequent presidential regimes––notably those of Carlos Menem, Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and Mauricio Macri––have employed populist tactics at the expense of civil society. These trends have both agentic and structural roots, yet altogether paint the picture of a liberal democracy in distress. Jan-Werner Müller describes three such trends: first, populists “attempt to hijack the state apparatus”; second, populists will engage in “corruption and mass clientelism”; and finally, populists are “always engaged in efforts to systematically suppress the civil society.” Each of the aforementioned major presidential administrations following Alfonsín has engaged in such practices, with the status of human rights careening from administration to administration.
First, with respect to hijacking the state apparatus, the Menem, Kirchner, and Macri administrations have effectively politicized the theme of human rights as to strip civil society of its claim to the issue. That is to say, human rights are subject to the generalized “Us versus Them” narratives of presidential administrations. One such example is Carlos Menem’s reversal of the status of human rights, as his platform pitted a neoliberal, forward-looking “Us” against a stuck-in-the-past “Them”. Menem thus relegated the themes of memory, truth, and justice to the past via broad military pardons in his efforts to bring about “national reconciliation,” as a result expanding the jurisdiction of the executive. Importantly, this phenomenon of hijacking the state apparatus is made easier by Argentina’s “hyperpresidentialist” political structure, whereby power is “increasingly centralized in the executive” at the expense of due checks and balances. Human rights, among other facets of liberal democracy, are therefore largely at the mercy of polarizing populist discourse and executive overstep.
Second, with respect to corruption and mass clientelism, these have all been features plaguing recent administrations. While endemic corruption has long characterized Argentine politics, and the potential for executive aggrandizement has only increased due to hyperpresidentialism, patterns of corruption and clientelism have also mirrored populist “Us versus Them” narratives. In the case of the Kirchner administration(s), for example, backlash to failed neoliberal policy produced a brand of populism that pitted a developmentalist, nationalist “Us” against a corrupt, neoliberal “Them”. In establishing this bottom-up “Us,” Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner effectively co-opted prominent human rights organizations into the state apparatus. This maneuver, which also served to expand the state apparatus and undermine civil society, predisposed such organizations to the same corrupt and clientelist practices of reigning regimes. Indeed, the most famous of Argentina’s human rights organizations, Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, finds itself today marred by scandal. The Mothers, originally seduced by the Kirchners’ promise of economic and institutional resources, now finds itself accused of misappropriation of taxpayer money as well as its original mandate manipulated to suit the agenda of the Kirchners. Consequently, the issue of human rights is not only overtly politicized, but deemed as increasingly illegitimate by political leaders and common Argentines alike. Civil society and liberal democracy thus suffer another blow.
Third, with respect to the constant, systematic suppression of civil society, the Menem, Kirchner, and Macri administrations have used various institutions to erode the legitimacy of civil society organizations. Much of this undermining has played out via politicized media and courts, spelling danger for liberal democracy as civil and political liberties are again publicly subject to generalized “Us versus Them” narratives. One such example is with the reactionary politics of Mauricio Macri, who, by pitting a forward-looking “Us” against a corrupt, (ironically) populist “Them”, systematically suppressed civil society with a modified Supreme Court. The politicized Court later handed down rulings which placed human rights in a closed political past. In strategically wielding the ultimate authority of the judiciary, Macri delegitimized and further politicized the questions of memory, truth, and justice with the aid of “outside” politicized institutions.
The status of post-dictatorship human rights in Argentina speaks to its ailing civil society, and, therefore, its ailing liberal democracy. The nation’s legacy of populism, which grows increasingly entrenched with each passing presidential administration, poses a dire threat to the civil and political liberties historically championed by civil society. The treatment of human rights thus serve as a proxy, as well as a warning, through which we can trace the erosion of Argentine civil society under polarizing populist discourse.