Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Participatory Populism: Theory and Evidence from Bolivarian Venezuela

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Participatory Populism: Theory and Evidence from Bolivarian Venezuela

Article excerpt


Two apparently contradictory features have characterized the group of left-wing populists who have come to power in Latin America in recent years. First, these leaders share a tendency to centralize power in their own hands. Yet at the same time populist regimes have created new opportunities for ordinary citizens to participate directly in politics. Participatory governance has been implemented for indigenous communities in Bolivia, community development (e.g., infrastructure investment) in Nicaragua, and a wide array of local-level policy issues in Venezuela, to name but a few.

This contradiction of practices exacerbates a perpetual difficulty in the analysis of populist regimes: how can one reconcile their participatory tendencies with their drive to centralize power? Both of these are core features of populism, but most analysts highlight one characteristic as the "true" nature of populism, while discounting the other as an aberration or illusion. Approaches which see populism as a form of radical or participatory democracy emphasize the participatory nature of self-governance programs, while downplaying the role of the leader. Conversely, theoretical frameworks which define populism as personalistic, unmediated leadership see the authority of the leader as the sole source of support for populist regimes. As a result, they view participatory programs as little more than instruments of clientelism or other forms of social control.

These one-sided assessments leave a number of questions unanswered: are self-governance programs sponsored by populist regimes truly participatory? If so, why would leaders who seek to centralize power in their own hands devolve power in some circumstances? In this paper, I challenge the assumption that populist tactics of power concentration and popular empowerment are theoretically irreconcilable. Instead, I argue that both personalistic hegemony and genuine participatory governance are part of a single, unified political strategy, which populists use to legitimate their regimes.

Participatory programs are a novel solution to an intrinsic problem of populist rule. I define populism as a political strategy wherein a leader wins support by promising to end the political exclusion of the masses. However, when the time comes to make good on these commitments, a problem arises: populists cannot afford to diminish their own authority, because the diversity and weak social roots of most populist coalitions require strong leadership to adjudicate disputes between factions and maintain unity. The necessity of maintaining hegemony while empowering the masses places populists between a rock and a hard place. If they concede too much power, they risk fracturing the cohesion of their movements and thus threaten their political survival; if they concede too little, the masses will lose faith in their promises and the regime will lose legitimacy. I call this tension the populist's dilemma.

Although solutions to this dilemma vary from case to case, all involve a similar balancing act: participatory access must be granted, but in a form which does not threaten or diminish the predominance of the populist. Participatory programs allow populists to meet their commitment to empowering their supporters, and thus maintain legitimacy, especially among the true believers. In addition, the organizations which sprout up or gather around these programs can provide much-needed support for mobilization during times of crisis. However, strict limits are placed on these programs to ensure that they cannot challenge the populist. First, they are constrained to the local level; this confinement to a small scale and concrete policy issues ensures that they do not threaten the leader's national predominance. In addition, access to these programs is preferentially provided to regime supporters, inducing them to remain loyal to the leader. I call this strategy for resolving the populist's dilemma, wherein genuine participation at the local level serves to legitimate and reinforce hegemony at the national level, participatory populism. …

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