Contextualizing Populism in Latin America: populist movements within the changing political and technological landscapes

Cristóbal Rovira, International Affairs Forum

Through your research, what commonalities have you identified between populist groups in Latin America, Europe and North America?

Populism is a very contested concept, and the approach that I have been following with Professor Cas Mudde, and also with many other colleagues, is to define populism as a specific set of ideas that considers society to be separated between “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite”, and which argues that popular sovereignty should be defended by all means. In this sense, our argument is that all populist actors adhere to this very specific set of ideas. It doesn’t matter if they’re right wing or left wing. You can analyze different populist actors in North America, South America, in Europe, based on that definition.

If we think about the commonalities, there are at least three that are worth mentioning. The first one is that all populist actors try to politicize, or in some cases repoliticize, certain issues that the political establishment has not been taking into account. For example, in the case of Europe, it’s very clear that immigration has been a very important issue for a big part of the population, but mainstream political parties have not been dealing with this issue. Not by chance, what populists writing in Breitbart News have tried to do is to politicize that issue. In the case of Latin America, it’s much more related to inequality, poverty, and some of the consequences of neoliberal economic policies. What all these cases have in common is that they try to (re) politicize certain issues that are relevant to some constituencies.

The second similarity is polarization, which is related to the capacity of populist forces to (re) politizice certain issues that are relevant for the electorate. It is important to take into account that populist actors try to to polarize not only the electorate, but also the political debate. This is because they try to put into the public agenda certain topics that, to a certain extent, are uncomfortable for the political establishment. In the case of Europe, this is very clear, because since the ‘90s we have seen a growing convergence between mainstream left and mainstream right political parties. What populist parties do in Europe, on the left side and the right side, is to generate polarization.

The third and last commonality is the difficulties between populism and liberal democracy. I would argue that it doesn’t matter if we are looking at leftist or rightist populist actors: all of them have a very ambivalent relationship with the political regime, and they can generate both positive and negative effects on liberal democracy.

How would you characterize recent trends in Latin American populist movements?

Since around the end of the 1990s, we have seen the rise of a new wave of populism, which is a leftist wave of radical populist leaders. The key examples are Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. During the 2000s, all these leaders were relatively successful in terms of winning elections. But what we are seeing nowadays is that most of these populist projects are facing a very difficult time.

There are two reasons why these populist projects are facing growing challenges in the electoral arena today. One is the end of the commodity boom. During the 2000s, Latin America had very good rates of economic growth, related to the export of commodities which had very good prices in the international market. So, for ten years, these populist leaders had the advantage of having a lot of money to be distributed for poor people. This is not the case anymore. The second issue is corruption. We have seen the coming into light of several corruption scandals [uncovered]in Ecuador, in Venezuela and, to a certain extent, also in Bolivia. This, of course, damages the legitimacy of these populist leaders and their political projects.

It’s still an open question how things are going to evolve over time in these countries, but the overall impression that I have, and also shared by many analysts, is that these populist leaders are facing growing challenges at the domestic and external levels.

The election of President Trump has had ripple effects in the Americas, particularly regarding potential migration policy. How do you think his election has affected populist movements, if at all, in Latin America?

To a certain extent, I think Trump is a blessing for populist actors in Latin America because he is a very radical populist right-wing actor, who is generating polarization inside and outside of the U.S. Given that many of these leftist populist leaders in Latin America have a very difficult relationship with the U.S., having Trump in power is a blessing for them. Now they can say, “we have always told you that the U.S. is a very bad country which is against us.” The rhetoric of Trump will help them to boost that type of argument. Obama was much trickier for leftist populists, because he had a much more pluralist take and a tendency to defend multipolar arguments. Trump is the opposite. So, from a populist perspective in Latin America, the coming to power of Trump is good for the moral and Manichean distinction between “the people” and “the elite.”

What have you seen in populist groups in Latin America in terms of utilization of media to support their platforms? In particular, have you seen much activity in this regard concerning embracing digital media?

I would say, yes and no. It depends a bit on the cases. Venezuela, for example, is a very clear instance in which Chávez was in the media the 16 Internatio nal Affairs F oru m whole time. He used Twitter but he was also using television. In the case of Evo Morales in Bolivia, digital media plays a role, but not that big. So, in this sense, I’m a bit skeptical about saying that we can see across all the cases in Latin America that digital media plays a major role.

But a commonality we can see is that as soon as these leaders come to power, they try to control the media system. For example, they start to close media outlets, they try to put barriers against newspapers and TV channels that develop critical arguments, and they also develop new media outlets to promote their own ideas. This is what some authors have called a sort of “populist media complex”, which tries to reinforce the arguments that these leaders advance. Of course, this is related to the question of the difficult relationship with populism and liberal democracy.

However, this is not only a Latin American phenomenon, but rather a relatively common phenomenon around the world. If you look across different cases, when you have populist leaders in power, they can use various mechanisms to restructure the political regime. Nevertheless, this occurs only when they are very powerful, meaning that they get more than fifty percent of the vote and thus control the executive and/or legislative branch. For example, with Viktor Orbán in Hungary, there is a similar situation, in which he has reformed the Constitution to give him power to control media outlets.

In recent political elections, the Brexit vote, the Trump win, and the vote in the Netherlands, many pollsters and pundits have been wrong in their predictions. It would appear that measuring populism has been challenging. Is that a fair statement?

Measuring populism has been a tricky business, in part because of the absence of a common definition. Nevertheless, my impression is that there is growing consensus around an ideational approach to populism; i.e., the concept that I have developed with Professor Mudde and also the proposals of various colleagues who advance similar definitions. This sort of consensus within academia is helping to create new ways of measuring populism in terms of looking at both the supply side and the demand side. For example, by employing surveys one can examine to what extent the populist set of ideas is widespread across the population.

The tricky part with these measures, based on the research that various colleagues have been doing, is that the populist set of ideas seems to be very widespread across most countries of the world. In fact, we have measures for Chile, the Netherlands the U.S., and other countries. And the empirical evidence shows that many of us have this populist set of ideas in our mindsets. The key question is, when do these ideas have an impact on our voting behavior? My impression is that this set of ideas is normally latent. So it’s dormant and it’s only under very specific circumstances that a vast section of the population would rely on the populist set of ideas to take political decisions. In other words, it’s only under very specific circumstances that these attitudes or these ideas get activated. This is what we are trying to figure out now through new research.

For example, imagine that we are Greek voters, and we are facing the economic crisis, witness huge corruption scandals, and realize that the European Union and the International Monetary Fund are imposing austerity measures. I think most of us would say, this is enough, let’s get rid of “the elite” and “the people” should rule. But this is a very specific context.

An argument that I have been developing with other colleagues is that a populist can really get into power – by this meaning more than 50% of the vote – only under very specific circumstances. There has to be a major crisis, not necessarily in terms of an economic crisis, but a crisis of democratic representation where so many people are upset with what is going on that they will rely on the populist set of ideas, and start voting en masse for a populist actor.

Going back to your question about measuring populism and the problem with pollsters, we can examine this when asking whether someone will vote for a populist candidate. For example, in the case in the U.S., many people ended up voting for Trump, but they didn’t say that. That’s one of the tricky parts with populism, and it goes back to this debate that we had before with the activation of populist attitudes. Returning to the example of Greece, first, we know that most people are a bit reluctant to vote for populist because they know that this is a very radical ideology. Because of that, this is a delicate part with measurement. It might be that many people end up voting for populist actors, but they’re not very keen on saying that openly. That’s one of the problems with the measurement that we have been seeing across different countries. This is the tricky part with measuring the populist set of ideas and is related to a sort of negative social desirability bias.

The other point that I want to develop is, for example, if you look at the case of the Dutch election, the media was arguing that, in terms of the number of votes, the winner is going to be Wilders. We have seen that he received around 15% of the vote. It’s not huge, but it’s still a big thing. But what is really interesting in that case is that the turnout level went up. I think this is probably one of the positive effects of populism. When you have growing polarization because of populism, many people start to think, this is a problematic issue. So if many people are going to vote, for example, for Wilders, and you’re against his political project, you will say, it’s important that I go to the polls, and I raise my opinion. So in this sense, the impact of populism on democracy is not always and not necessarily negative, because it generates more engagement by both sides, those who are in favor of populism, but at the same time, those who are against populism. In a sense, it makes democratic debate a bit more lively.

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