What is Populism?

The presidential palace-

The national flag billows in the wind. Crowds cheering around the presidential palace. The door opens on the balcony. Then he strides out- el Presidente! In full military regalia, proud and handsome.

Populism is at the core of the romanticised notion of Latin America, one of handsome charismatic leaders -Vargas, Perón- leading their country into chaos.

With recent elections in Argentina and Peru, Latin America may be moving past populism. Instead Europe and the US seem to be falling under its spell.

On defining political populism, the Argentine philosopher Ernesto Laclau concluded that “few [terms] have been defined with less precision… we know intuitively to what we call a movement or and ideology populist, but we have the greatest difficulty in translating the intuition into concepts.” (Laclau 143). The discourses around populism are not clear cut, but I believe that looking at it as a political tool rather than a political persuasion creates a useful definition. Populism in Latin America began in the 20th century (Jansen 90) in the wake of urbanisation and industrialisation which led to a shift of power away from the agricultural elites (Spanakos). Populism is made up of the urban lower and lower-middle classes (Dix 35) and is a system in which supporters are mobilised by charismatic leaders (Jansen 85).

Fransisco Panizza, rather than see populism as a party, sees it as a mode of identification in which the people are bound together against the other, in this case the elite and foreign interests. Importantly, populists do not identify themselves as politicians- they have a direct relationship with the people. In the words of Jorge Pacheco Areco, “I am not a politician, at least not in the common sense of the term, I am a man who fights with all his force against everything which is not in the national interest.” (Panizza).

The emphasis is on the leader’s direct relationship with the people and removal from the old elite power structures.

Robert R. Jansen provides a new way of looking at populism, which I believe is critical to defining it. Rather than look at its qualities, he looks at its methods. Jansen sees populism not as a regime type, but as a way of mobilising political support (Jansen 77). In Jansen’s definition, populism, “mobilises ordinarily marginalised social sectors into publicly visible and contentious political action, while articulating an anti-elite, nationalist rhetoric that valorises ordinary people” (Jansen 82) but is corrupt and un-democratic (Jansen 77).

Fransisco Panizza, draws from Aristotle by arguing that populism inevitably descends into totalitarianism due to demagoguery (Panizza 29-30). In Athenaiōn Politeia, looking at Athens after 462 b.c.e. (Chambers 33), Aristotle sees populism as extreme democracy, and not an inherent good (Lintott 115). As long as institutions are weak and citizens are excluded, politicians who use populist politics have a ready pool to draw from (Roberts 159).

With these definitions- we can classify and understand populist political movements.


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