Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Populism and Democracy in Latin America

Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Populism and Democracy in Latin America

Article excerpt

Paraphrasing Karl Marx, a specter is haunting Latin America--the specter of "populism." This label has been attached to a wave of radical left leaders in the region, including Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. The term is normatively charged. The Mexican politician and scholar Jorge Castaneda contrasts radical populist leaders (such as Chavez and Morales), whom he characterizes as less convinced of the intrinsic value of democracy and human rights, with moderate left-wingers (such as Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, and Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay), who embrace representative democracy and respect human rights. (1)

This division of the Latin American left between "good" social democrats and "bad" populists is open to challenge. But Castaneda is right to draw attention to the fact that democracy and populism are engaging with similar challenges of political order. Moreover, it is important to recognize that democracy and populism also have compatible normative grounds, both seeking to enact the sovereign rule of the people. Nevertheless, democrats and populists diverge over how to respond to such challenges as how to manage majority-minority relations, safeguard individual rights, and establish a just and enduring political order. The coexistence of these two political logics within Latin American societies generates significant political fault lines, reflective of the incomplete nature of democratic order in the region.


In everyday parlance, populism is a term of abuse, denoting a dangerous malaise of the body politic. Populist leaders are said to be authoritarian demagogues who appeal to the emotions of the electorate in order to gain their support, pandering to prejudices and resentments to turn voters against the established political order. They have little regard for democratic institutions and procedures; they tell the people what they want to hear without consideration of the long-term political and economic consequences.

This view has been challenged, however. Some scholars reject the notion that the populist label adequately represents the governments of Chavez and Morales; others, while agreeing that these governments are populist, nevertheless welcome the transformative--indeed, democratic--potential of giving voice to the ordinary people who feel excluded from the established order. Margaret Canovan, by no means an apologist for populism, reminds us that many so-called populist leaders favor "direct democracy"--that is, political decision-making by referendum and popular initiative. As she rhetorically asks, if notions of popular power and decision are central to democracy, "why, then, are not populists acknowledged as the true democrats they say they are? How is it that they can be often seen as dangerous to democracy: all the more dangerous, indeed, in so far as they get popular support?" (2) Indeed, democracy and populism share common normative ground: on Michael Kazin's definition, populism is a mode of persuasion available to any political actor operating in a discursive field in which the notion of the sovereignty of the people and its inevitable corollary, the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, are core elements of its political appeal. (3)

A focus on the normative basis of populism allows a richer understanding of its appeal to the people, and in particular to those members of the demos traditionally excluded from full enjoyment of political and social rights. As indicated above, part of the normative content of populism is its emancipatory promise. Populism in this sense marks a "rupture" with the existing unjust order and the "reconstruction" of a truly democratic order. In this new political order, the plebs (the underdogs) defeat their oppressors and become the demos (the legitimate holders of sovereignty), and are thereby able to exercise their democratic rights. …

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