Populism in Latin America
The Practice Of Populism
If it is a distinctly Latin American way of conducting the people's business, what are the characteristics of populism as a political practice? Though diverse commentators emphasize different combinations of traits, generally populism has been associated with expansive electoral campaigning by a "charismatic" leader with special attributes (often a political outsider), the participation of the masses (that is, the "people," or the "popular" of populism), with strong appeals to nationalism or to cultural pride. Successful populist movements usually bypass traditional political institutions like the church, the oligarchy, political parties, newspapers, and elites. Given this, they are typically urban-centered and particularly court the working class but bring together a heterogeneous, if sometimes fleeting, coalition.
The career of Argentina's populist dictator Juan Perón is an oft cited archetypeal instance of Latin American populism. Ideologically eclectic and personally charismatic, though a career army officer, Colonel Perón won the loyalty of most of the nation's working class by 1944, at once facilitating the desires of labor unions, long socially and politically isolated, while repressing the uncooperative. The bond between Perón and the nation's worker's movement (called the "shirtless ones") won him the 1946 election, after which he became a caudillo, or personalistic leader, even as he oversaw economic growth and continued to expand his political base among workers, improving health care, pension plans, and more. The great popularity of his wife, the actress Eva Perón, among the poorest classes, and her role as his personal intercessor to the people, helped to cement Perón's image as a populist and to develop the political rituals of Peronism, which outlived the man himself.
To summarize, populism assumes a quasi-direct, emotionally charged relation between a personalistic leader and his devoted followers. If anything, "clientelism" is the experiential basis of populism. If populist leaders effectively redistribute material goods and other benefits among their loyal, poor constituency, the masses are incorporated into the political process only in a subordinated fashion, as the clients of a top-down, vertical process dependent on the patron's generosity. As pre-figured in Antonio Gramsci's concept of the "national-popular," and reworked by populist theorist Ernesto Laclau, populism can obscure class rule and inequality by provisionally absorbing the contradictory interests of civil society within the orbit of the state. For this reason, populism has sometimes been treated as incompatible with democracy. An accompanying nation-building strategy of populist, clientelistic, regimes in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, and Brazil has been to identify national identity with (racial, cultural, and class) mixture in the figure of the "mestizo," or what José Vasconcelos lyrically called the "cosmic race." Recent work of such cultural critics as Nestor Garcia Canclini has given renewed attention to "cultural populism."
The wide application of the term populism begs the question: What might not be considered populist? Populism appears not in moments of stability, but as a condition of adjustment to periods of generalized political crisis. Historically it has been treated as a phase of political development in Latin America associated with the industrial period and the growth of cities, which made possible the political incorporation of the new urban masses. It has also been identified with the transition from oligarchic to modern politics, and with the condition of dependent capitalism. Populism is often located between the extremes of military dictatorship and political party democracy, though at times each has exhibited populist traits. Populism is also thought to spring up in the absence of both the gradual expansion of individual rights and self-governance. In contrast to liberalism or Marxism, populism conspicuously lacks an identifiable doctrine.