Democracy is in trouble. According to the Democracy Matrix, a research project based at the University of Würzburg in Germany, the number of robust (or what they call working) democracies in the world has decreased since 2017, suggesting the beginning of a potential “third reverse wave” of democracy (see Democracy Matrix Version 3 goes Online). Other researchers, such as those at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, confirm this trend (see The Global State of Democracy 2019: Addressing the Ills, Reviving the Promise). Political scientists have noticed the evidence and started to write about a democratic “recession”, “regression”, “de-democratization”, “deconsolidation” and, in the words of Frances Fukuyama (2014: 28), the “re-patrimonialization” of democracies. While academic specialists have defined and measured democratic decay, citizens have also felt it, expressing concern in many countries about how to defend democracy where it still exists and restore it where it has disappeared in a coup, as in Myanmar, or in a slower process of decay as in Venezuela and Turkey.
One of the alleged causes of democratic decay in this literature is “populism”. Definitions of populism vary, but many analysts have identified populist movements, parties and leaders as those that claim to represent the general will of a “pure people” against a “corrupt elite” (Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2017: 6). Populist leaders, according to these analysts, begin as democrats but once in power may dismantle the formal and informal institutional constraints of monitoring and accountability and traditions of forbearance, pluralism, and respect for the rules of the game that make democracy work. The result can be an elected leader who refuses to accept the result of a democratic election, as in the United States after 3 November 2020, or a ruling party that curbs the independence of the judiciary, the media, and universities, as in Hungary since January 2012 (see Levitsky and Ziblatt 2019; Ostiguy et al. 2020). This problem is growing. According to the International IDEA, the number of populist governments in the world has almost doubled in the last fifteen years, and the quality of democracy declines under these governments.
Some scholars reject the label of “populism” as over-used, imprecise, biased, and misleading. The US political journalist Thomas Frank, for example, writes that “’Populism’ is the word that comes to the lips of the respectable and highly educated when they perceive the global system going haywire…Our thought leaders relate to populism not so much as scholars but as a privileged class putting down a challenge to itself” (Frank 2020: 2, 8). The French economist Thomas Piketty (2020: 962) agrees with Frank, writing that “In practice, the term ‘populism’ has become the ultimate weapon in the hands of the objectively privileged social class, a means to dismiss out of hand any criticism of their preferred political choices and policies”. The Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo, although ideologically opposed to both Frank and Piketty, agrees with their assessment of populism. He writes on his blog, “Understand that democracy is made up of more ‘demos’ and less ‘kratia’. Stop labelling and ridiculing leaders of the right by calling them ‘populists’ when all they are is popular because they love the people, respect the people’s feelings, express and defend them” (Ernesto Araújo, For a Liberal-Conservative Reset).
However, populism is unlikely to disappear from the lexicon of contemporary political analysis because some people do not like it. Rather than try to banish the term, we should be trying to understand the phenomena that it attempts to describe. As Yascha Mounk (quoted in Frank 2020: 6) has written, “There can no longer be any doubt that we are going through a populist moment…The question now is whether the populist moment will turn into a populist age – and cast the very survival of liberal democracy in doubt”. While the ideational definition of populism offered by Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser is thin, populism is often wedded to other ideologies such as traditionalism, nationalism and authoritarianism in ways that make it particularly appealing to those “who feel that they have been neglected, even held in contempt, by distant and often corrupt elites” (Eatwell and Goodwin 2018: ix).
While populism is international in nature, its historical roots differ by nation and region. In Russia the narodniks in the second half of the 19th century were agrarian populists who believed that a Russian path to socialism was possible through the incorporation of practices of the Russian peasantry such as the mir, the self-governing community that allocated land and other resources to peasant families. The People’s Party in the United States in the late 19th century was a small farmer-based party that opposed big finance, the railroad magnates and urban industrial interests in the name of agrarian democracy. Latin America had its own distinct tradition of populism in the mid-20th century as new political parties and elected officials incorporated an emerging urban working class in alliance with some industrialists and middle-class groups against the agrarian and financial establishment of the old liberal order. It also saw a second wave of neoliberal populism in the 1990s as leaders such as Carlos Menem and Alberto Fujimori combined neoliberal economic reforms with the implementation of targeted social protection and patronage as a means of securing lower-class political support.
Our conference Populism in Latin America and Beyond scheduled for 18-19 March 2021 seeks to examine whether populism has validity and, if it does, what relationship the concept might have with democracy. While the case studies in the conference presentations come primarily from Latin America and the Caribbean (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago) they also range across Europe (including Italy and Spain), Asia (India and the Philippines) and the USA. The questions our presenters will address include how can populism (and neo-populism) be defined? Given the diverse character of populism in Latin America and other places, is the concept still helpful? Is it possible to identify different types of populism in terms of periods both for individual countries and regions? What explains the emergence of populist leaders and why have some been more successful than others? How do the campaigns of populist leaders differ from what those leaders do once in power? Is populism a democratic force, or does it instead threaten democracy? How is populism related to class, race, ethnicity, gender, and age? To what extent is populism rooted in specific countries or instead a reflection of wider regional and global developments? Does the populist critique of “globalism” contain a coherent argument about the failures of neoliberal globalization? To what extent has populism benefited from the growth of social media tools and platforms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Gab, MeWe, Zello, Signal, and Telegram? And has the coronavirus pandemic given new opportunities to populists or instead exposed their limitations?
These questions defy easy answers, but we think they are worth asking and we look forward to hearing from our 30 panelists and two keynote speakers on the 18 and 19 of March. All those interested in this event are urged to register here. The conference will take place from 14:00 to 19:00 GMT on each of the two days.
Eatwell, Roger and Matthew Goodwin, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, London: Pelican Books, 2018.
Frank, Thomas, People Without Power: The War on Populism and the Fight for Democracy, London: Scribe, 2020.
Fukuyama, Frances, Political Order and Political Decay, London: Profile Books 2014.
Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, London: Penguin, 2019.
Mudde, Cas and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Ostiguy, Pierre, Francisco Panizza and Benjamin Moffitt, eds. Populism in Global Perspective: A Performative and Discursive Approach, Abingdon Oxon: Routledge, 2020.
Piketty, Thomas, Capital and Ideology, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2020