The Rise of the Populist Right: Lessons from Latin America

 Right populist leaders: Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and Viktor Orbán

Right populist leaders: Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and Viktor Orbán

     Right wing populism, widely seen as a threat to liberal democracy, has been on the rise in the United States and Europe over the last decade. Latin America has a long history of both left and right populist movements, leaders, and governments. It also has had its share of programmatic political parties and leaders committed to social change and substantive democratization. Yet the region’s illiberal democratic features remain stubbornly persistent. There are lessons to be learned from the Latin American experience. Unfortunately, these lessons do not provide much reason for optimism. 

Some General Features of Populism of the Right

     The critique of the populist right as anti-democratic revolves around its threat to the liberal democratic version of democracy—in particular to liberal democracy’s core belief in the primacy of individual and minority rights and its faith in formal institutions and the rule of law. These features are deemed to be essential to the fair and equitable treatment of all citizens. Far from deserving of state protection, the populist right sees minority ethnic, racial, religious, and other identity groups as representing a threat to the viability and survival of the majority. Reasoned debate, compromise, and consensus are not possible because liberal elites and their allies manipulate the media to serve their particular interests and to bolster their biased perspective. Hence, the core features of liberal democracy, according to the populist right perspective, inhibit the state from truly reflecting popular interests because liberal oligarchies dominate and manipulate its institutions. The solution to this rule by an unfeeling oligarchy is a strong leader willing and able to override biased institutions and laws in the popular interest. 

Does the Programmatic Left have a Solution? 

 Social democratic leader, Bernie Sanders

Social democratic leader, Bernie Sanders

     Various observers have advocated ways to address this threat to democracy. Given the association between the rise of right populism and exclusion from the benefits of economic globalization, left parties have been urged to abandon their compromise with neoliberalism and to return to their social justice roots with strong redistributive programs. Civil society activism is seen as a way to compel leaders to deal more effectively with issues of social and political exclusion. One recent suggestion called upon left parties and leaders to incorporate elements of populism so as to more effectively appeal to popular aspirations. In this way, left populism can involve the construction of a “progressive populism” leading to a more profound form of democratization.

Populism: A Slippery Concept with a Core Meaning

 President Evo Morales (Bolivia) and former presidents of Ecuador and Venezuela, Raphael Correa and Hugo Chavez

President Evo Morales (Bolivia) and former presidents of Ecuador and Venezuela, Raphael Correa and Hugo Chavez

     The scholarly literature on populism readily acknowledges that the term is tough to define. Unlike other “isms” populism does not adhere to a coherent ideology. Rather, populism is an array of distinct political features—most notably involving a charismatic leader who appeals directly to a popular base. Further, both left and right populisms share the conviction that liberal representative institutions are corrupt and controlled by unresponsive oligarchies. Hence populist leaders of all political stripes have little reluctance in bypassing or fundamentally altering liberal democratic institutions. In the Latin American experience, both left and right populisms gained momentum in contexts of economic and social exclusion when liberal democratic institutions were weak. Although both left and right populisms claim concern for the material welfare of their support bases the key distinction is in their commitment to actually alleviate material deprivation. The right populist regime of Carlos Menem (Argentina), for example, overrode democratic deliberative institutions and pursued neoliberal reform, a policy direction that increased deprivation and lined the pockets of the economic elite. Meanwhile, the left populist regime in Bolivia, under Evo Morales, substantially reduced poverty and incorporated social movements into policy deliberation. However, the Morales regime has displayed distinct illiberal features, controlling the opposition media and politicizing the courts. Ecuador, under Raphael Correa, reduced poverty substantially and gave rhetorical support to consulting civil society. He failed to honor the latter commitment. Constitutional reform heavily centralized power and weakened the Ecuadorian legislature. The most notable case of the harm wrought by left populism to representative institutions is, of course, Venezuela under Chavez and Maduro. 

Liberal and Populist Democracy

     As C.B. Macpherson pointed out many years ago, liberal democracy is a specific form of democracy: one that values the market, protects private property, and places special value on individual civil liberties. This form of democracy has worked well in the Global North until now because it was good at providing enough redistributive measures so that the vast majority saw the system as a fair one. Populist democracy (of both the left and right varieties), on the other hand, conceives of democracy as the “sway of the whole people” over all other considerations.  It espouses Rousseau’s concept of democracy as that of the primacy of the General Will of the People. A democratic left, particularly in a context where the legitimacy of political institution is under siege as it is in so many countries of the Global North, is going to have to navigate this basic conceptual difference if it is to recoup popular support. This is so because popular supporters of the populist right have abandoned the liberal democratic concept of the term. Addressing this fundamental conceptual dilemma will not be easy, particularly in contexts of increased inequality and wealth concentration. 

The Social Democratic and Populist Left in Latin America

     The Latin American case is illustrative. Left regimes rose to power in the early to mid- 2000s, through free and fair elections. Some of these regimes can be characterized as social democratic (Brazil, Chile, Uruguay), others as left populist (Bolivia, Ecuador).  However, in all cases, economic globalization and market liberalization, a process that had involved a significant reduction in the size and role of the state, had increased the power of domestic economic conglomerates. With the withdrawal of the state from the economy, left (both populist and social democratic) policy elites became more dependent than ever upon these economic actors for increased investment, economic growth, and job creation. These powerful economic interests were in a position to veto progressive policies. In all cases, there were sharp tensions in business/state relations, more so, of course, in the populist left cases than in the social democratic ones. 

 Former social democratic presidents of Chile (Michelle Bachelet) and Brazil (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva

Former social democratic presidents of Chile (Michelle Bachelet) and Brazil (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva

     In all cases, business remained a strong and persistent critics of the left. Social democratic regimes compromised with the business community and engaged in redistributive measures through increased social spending. They failed to improve democratic deliberative mechanisms in any substantial way; indeed, keeping the institutional structure of representative democracy in tack (including the inordinate influence of economic elites over those institutions) and avoiding more inclusive civil society consultation was a necessary component of ensuring business confidence and quiescence. This was particularly the case in Chile as some of my own research has shown. Popular disillusionment and a turn to the political right was the ultimate outcome given the failure to secure any structural changes in economies that would ensure economic transformation and significant long-term employment generation for those who had been excluded from the neoliberal model. Brazil and Chile are now ruled by the political right. The populist political right is now in the ascent in Brazil. 

     Left populist regimes engaged in important redistributive measures (also largely through increased social spending) along with radical anti-establishment rhetoric. The consequence, of course, was considerably greater tension with business sectors and lower rates of private investment. High growth and significant social improvements occurred courtesy of the commodity boom, now at an end in these countries. Faced with a powerful, uncooperative, and threatening private sector, left populists sought to maintain  their social achievements through altering the constitutional order in ways widely perceived as infringing on liberal democracy (through manipulating constituent assemblies to enable their re-election, for example). In doing so, they saw themselves as ensuring the continuance of their reforms--of defending the interests and welfare of the “whole people” from greedy elite sabotage. 

     Neither social democratic nor populist left regimes have been able to bolster the legitimacy of liberal democratic institutions in Latin America. Admittedly, Latin American history is rife with discouraging political and social outcomes. However, it is probably fair to suggest that the political left in the Global North faces some serious challenges in restoring liberal democracy to its glory days.