Who does one think of when talking about populism and authoritarianism? The common names that come to mind are those of Hitler, Hugo Chavez, Juan Perón, Alberto Fujimori, and others. However, there are names of leaders from the last ten years that fall into the same category as populist leaders. Today, existing leaders such as Nicolas Maduro, Jair Bolsonaro, Donald Trump, and others have displayed what populism looks like in the past decade. The dangerous outlooks and beliefs of these leaders have led to democratic backsliding and a rise in violence in their nations predominantly through holding their elections hostage via fraud and/or election denial.
The classical definition of democracy by authors like Schumpeter expresses that this type of government guarantees free elections and allows citizens to freely participate in making a government decision. However, in the discussion of uncovering the realities of populist leaders, one must take into consideration the democracy definition Robert Dahl provides of these governments better defined as a polyarchy. Via this definition, democracy is not only based on free and fair elections and proper representation but also observes the inclusiveness and public contestation (liberalization) of their nation. Through this outlook on democracy, it becomes easier to uncover the authoritarian features within a “democratic” government and leader.
Over the past couple of years, data shows that democracy around the world has been declining. Statistics from the Regimes of the World Classification display a decline in democracies from 96 electoral democracies in 2016 to 90 in 2022. Democratic backsliding is alive in the world today, especially for nations that have a democratic system in place, but their main leader overrides the constitutional standards. In the case of Venezuela’s current leader, Nicolas Maduro, he uses his executive power as the ultimate power in the government to override the decisions of other leaders and of the government institutions in place. Despite Venezuela’s democratic backsliding initiated during the period of Hugo Chavez, Nicolas Maduro continues to fuel it further by his actions of using the judiciary in his favor. As Levitsky details in How Democracies Die, Nicolas Maduro turned to the Supreme Court to pass his personal legislation and strike down the Congress controlled by his opposition parties. Concerns are on the rise about Maduro’s further actions in the coming elections in 2024. Even with the existence of the democratic practice of elections in Venezuela, Maduro has been able to maintain power over the years through fraudulent elections and government oversteps into the other branches of power. In recent years, elections appear to be the main tool populist leaders utilize to rise to power and attempt to maintain it; demonstrating that this aspect of a democracy is currently the most vulnerable to falling into the hands of authoritarians.
Nevertheless, populism has no ideological boundaries as it is present in left-wing and right-wing government ideals as explained by Muller in “What is populism?”. Right-wing populism, however, is on the rise in the United States and in countries like Brazil over the past decade. Yet, a similarity stands among these forms of populism across political ideologies, being that their control stems from weaponizing elections. Since the election of Trump in 2016, the legitimacy of the electoral system in the U.S. has further been questioned and doubted by its citizens. Lieberman emphasizes that Trump, “Campaigned against many of the foundational policy and political commitments of the global liberal order… encouraged voter suppression, selectively attacking the electoral college, and threatening to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power” (Trumpism and American Democracy). Early on, Trump was already building a seed of doubt on the validity of elections and the legitimacy of the democratic institutions of the U.S. that were further fueled by his supporters. Trump’s actions in undermining the democratic institutions and encouraging greater polarization among his supporters and Democrats are signs of an autocratic populist leader (Lieberman). However, similarly to Maduro but in a different context, Trump used his re-election to try to maintain his power. Beginning with his undemocratic attempt to have Georgia’s Secretary of State “find 11,780 votes” to win over Georgia; thus displaying how Trump attempted to continue to use the election as a tool to stay in power. Failing in these attempts is what soon led him to use the elections via a propaganda-like tool. After Joe Biden was announced as the official president of the United States, Trump’s rhetoric focused on stating that the election was fraudulent and he encouraged his supporters to protest this. This led to the January 6th insurrection in 2021 on the Capitol, where Trump’s supporters seized the capitol due to genuinely believing the election was rigged from his constant messaging that it was. Similarly, right-wing leader, Jair Bolsonaro, led his supporters to storm Brazil’s Supreme Court on January 8, 2023, based on his own messaging that Lula Da Silva won Brazil’s 2022 election due to “fraud”. Bolsonaro has used similar propaganda and messaging as that of Trump stating that the electoral process in Brazil was rigged and “that the electronic voting machines can’t be trusted”. For both Trump and Bolsonaro, their push to delegitimize the elections they lost displayed their populist characteristics that are leading the U.S. and Brazil to experience democratic backsliding.
Overall, despite the various components that are attached to populism and authoritarianism, through the observance of these current events from recent years, elections appear to be the main gateway for these leaders to seek out power. Specifically, the election rhetoric that fuels the campaigns, re-elections, and agenda of these populist leaders. The United States and Brazil remain at risk of further democratic backsliding (even without the current leadership of Trump and Bolsonaro); which can become more extreme as the years go by like occurring in Venezuela today. Populism is showing itself to appear on either side of the aisle of political ideologies with a common use of the weaponization of elections to rise to power.
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