The term “populism” is used these days to refer to a vast array of leaders, movements, and parties—from Viktor Orbán’s far right anti-immigrant Fidesz party, to Evo Morales’ left radical anti-neoliberal Movement for Socialism, to recently elected Jair Bolsonaro, who has glorified Brazil’s period of military rule, promised to rid Brazil of socialism, and give the police free rein to kill suspected criminals. Does the term have any meaning if applied to such a disparate array of leaders, parties, and governments?
When Latin America made the transition to electoral democracy in the mid-1980s, the process was hailed as marking the end to the region’s fluctuations between authoritarianism and democracy. Recent, events, especially in Brazil, tell a different story. Between 2006 and 2011, it seemed possible that the program of a moderate social democratic program could be reconciled with a neoliberal global orientation: Brazil dramatically reduced poverty, public spending was kept in check, while big businesses expanded both exports and investments abroad. Now we see a sharp turn to the political right in Brazil and the inevitability of policies that will contribute to social deterioration. With 99 percent of the votes in, right populist presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, leads with 46 percent of the vote. He is expected to win the second round of voting on October 28.
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.
Increasingly, right-leaning governments are replacing left regimes in Latin America or, if left governments continue to cling to power, they are adopting policies normally associated with the political right. There has been a shift back to some neoliberal policies that contributed to poverty and inequality in the past. Sympathetic observers placed great hope in the left regimes that came to power between the late 1990s and the mid-2000s—these regimes seemed to be on the right track since they reduced poverty substantially and made inroads into high levels of inequality. What went wrong?
In the wake of its most recent economic crisis, Argentina has just signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The agreement will reinforce the austerity measures introduced by centre/right president, Mauricio Macri, since 2015. Most observers blame Argentine populism for the country’s current economic debacle and urge strict austerity, institutional reform, and an end to corruption as the solution. However, such measures are not likely to solve much because they do not address the root cause of populism. Understanding the enormous reliance of populism is key since the most pessimistic of observers suggest that the current Argentine crisis may be the harbinger of worsening economic and (political) troubles in the region and beyond.
Mexican, U.S., and Canadian negotiators are currently meeting in Mexico City for the seventh round of North American Free Trade (NAFTA) negotiations. This round will deal initially with the least contentious issues, thereby opening the way to tackling the most contentious one. With the Mexican presidential election on July 1 rapidly approaching, however, arriving at an agreement on a “modernized” NAFTA is looking increasingly problematic.
Democracy, in its liberal democratic manifestation of free and fair elections, the guarantee of civil liberties, and the protection of minorities is under threat in many parts of the world. The Trump phenomenon in the United States is only the most obvious manifestation of the fragility of liberal democracy. There are reports that human rights violations, corruption, racism, and discrimination persist across Europe. A recent report by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe raises concerns about the damage caused to democracies by new populist movements and parties given their predisposition to undermine human rights and the protection of minorities. Most Latin American countries, which were under authoritarian rule from the 1960s until the early to mid-1980s, have particularly fragile democracies. Once again, the Latin American experience offers some important insights into the world-wide erosion of democratic practices.
Venezuela’s increasing slide into brutal authoritarianism has continued unabated. The country’s recently elected constituent assembly, boycotted by the opposition, has now taken over the powers of the country’s opposition-controlled Congress. With an estimated 124 deaths in opposition protests, international pressure against the regime has intensified. Much of that pressure has come from the U.S. In addition to U.S. imposed sanctions on some two dozen former and current Venezuelan officials, President Trump has declared that he will not rule out “a military option.” The Trump government is also contemplating the banning of oil shipments, a measure that would have a devastating impact on the Venezuelan economy. All of this has supposedly come about in an effort to support the cause of Venezuelan democracy. Trump has characterized the country’s opposition anti-government protesters as engaging in a struggle ”for democracy, freedom, and rule of law,” and has declared that their just demands “continue to be ignored by a bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator” (a reference to current President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro). The pot, I fear, is calling the kettle.
From January 2017, Venezuela’s political crisis, involving a sharp deterioration in social conditions, large-scale street protests, government repression, and human rights violations, has steadily worsened. With the election of a Constituent Assembly on July 30, the country has become increasingly isolated internationally. The European Union, most Latin American Countries, and the United States have all condemned this election, widely seen as a power grab on the part of the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro. Sanctions against Venezuela are under serious consideration, and the U.S. has threatened military intervention. This increasingly intense international pressure will not produce a lasting resolution of Venezuela’s predicament; indeed, it will probably not produce any resolution at all.
Only very recently, observers of Latin American politics were proclaiming the decline of the populist left “pink tide, the various regimes that had come to dominate politics in many countries of the region through much of the 2000s. In 2015 and 2016, centre right leaders obtained a string of notable victories. Mauricio Macri was elected president in Argentina, the opposition in Venezuela obtained a landslide victory in congressional elections, Workers Party President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff was removed from power through impeachment proceedings, and President Evo Morales of Bolivia lost a referendum to allow him a fourth term as president. However, recent events suggest that the left remains tenaciously resilient.
The mainstream media has characterized Emmanuel Macron’s victory in yesterday’s French election as a resounding defeat of right wing authoritarian populism. Macron, heading up a new political party called En Marche! (Forward!), won 65 percent of the popular vote against right wing populist Marine Le Pen’s 34 percent. Despite the rise of populist authoritarian movements in an increasing number of countries, global elites continue to laud the unquestionable benefits of free trade and other features of the neoliberal policy prescription.
With the French public about to vote in a run-off election for the country’s next president, commentators in the mainstream media are cautiously optimistic that centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron will defeat Marine Le Pen’s right populist National Front. Thus, Europe will be saved not only from another movement to exist the EU but also from a racist inward thinking regime that represents a threat to liberal democracy, tolerance, and prosperity. Mainstream media has focussed largely on the National Front’s anti-Semitic and fascist past and on the party’s intolerance towards immigrants. This perspective underestimates the depth and nature of popular disillusionment. The reality is that the very emergence of populist authoritarianism is a symptom of the breakdown of the representative capabilities of liberal democracy. Regardless of who wins the French election, both liberal democracy and the global order will continue to be in trouble.
A number of commentators in the mainstream media have recently lamented that authoritarian populism has been on the rise in Europe and in the United States, while apparently declining in Latin America—a region with a long history of this phenomenon. According to this perspective, while emotionally charged appeals to popular base emotions have now become predominant in the North, Latin Americans have sensibly turned to the political right, electing right-leaning political leaders with solid pro market credentials. There are some basic misunderstandings in this observation. While there are some startling commonalities in the origins of most populisms, there are also some very important differences in their recent manifestations.
U.S. politics is becoming increasingly polarized, characterized by growing rigidity, extremism and, at times, incidents of violence on the part of pro-Trump and anti-Trump demonstrators. What many find most puzzling about the current U.S. administration is how President Trump can continually make what is regarded as outrageous statements without those statements having a substantial detrimental impact on his core base of support. True, his 37% approval rating is one of the lowest so early in a presidential first term. However, even this level of support is difficult to fathom. At the same time, many Democratic supporters have been unwilling to grant the new government even minimal legitimacy, apparently convinced that Trump’s road to the White House was paved with Russian complicity. Europe is now more politically polarized than ever before with the rise in popularity of populist right fringe parties, the result, according to reports, of a general ideological shift.
A growing number of U.S. observers are watching the impact of Donald Trump policy pronouncements on Mexican politics with considerable unease. Left populist leader, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (or AMLO as he is widely known), currently the favoured candidate in the 2018 presidential election, has been variously characterized as a Mexican Donald Trump and as a Mexican Hugo Chavez. In some ways, these characterizations are apt. AMLO is a charismatic leader, who has regularly delivered tirades against free trade (including NAFTA), rigged elections, corruption in high places, and the country’s ruling elite, which he refers to as the “power mafia.” He voices strong opposition to U.S. Imperialism, a position that is proving particularly attractive given President Trump’s support for a wall along the Mexican U.S. border, his threat of a 20 percent tariff on goods coming from Mexico, and his promises to deport Mexicans working in the United States. President Trump’s recently leaked suggestion that the U.S. might send in its military to help the Mexican government round up its “bad hombres” is only the most recent offensive remark contributing to growing Mexican nationalist sentiment.
As Donald Trump assumes office as the 45th president of the United States, widespread pessimism about the impact of his presidency abounds. The Donald has not backed off from (what appeared at the time) to be his most extravagant campaign promises. He has ramped up his rhetoric against China and Mexico as at the root of the decline of American manufacturing. He has announced that he will re-negotiate NAFTA and, if America does not get what it wants, will abandon it. The U.S. will not enter the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. The era of pursing free trade agreements with the rest of the world is gone, at least for now. Instead, we can expect his administration to slap tariffs on products manufactured abroad by U.S. companies and re-exported to the U.S., particularly in those sectors where it appears that companies have changed production location for the sake of reducing the cost of labor. Many commentators recalling the prelude to the Great Depression of the early 1930s, have raised fears about a decent into the protectionist policies of the past, a sharp deterioration of economic growth, and the onset of a severe recession. Others have opined that companies will simply seek other ways of reducing costs (and maintaining profits) such as through the use of robot technology. In general, most political observers place a great deal of blame on Trump himself for stirring up anti-trade public sentiments. Others focus on the racist/anti-immigrant and misogynist predispositions of Trump supporters, arguing that he has fostered these attitudes and rendered them legitimate.
The election of Donald Trump and the British vote to leave the European Union have coincided with a growing chorus of concern about “fake news.” It is tempting to lay much of the blame on social media in general and on the entrepreneurial enthusiasm of teenagers in a small Macedonian town, who churned out pro Trump “news” to make money by increasing traffic to their sites. However, politicians and their supporters, particularly of the right centre populist variety, have also gotten into the act. One Donald Trump supporter, for example, claimed that Clinton and her senior staff were involved in underage sex rings while Trump himself made many false statements during his election campaign. He declared that global warming was a “hoax invented by the Chinese,” said that Barak Obama was not born in the U.S. and then lied again, by denying that he had made such a claim. Fake news, some believe, played a role in the American election and in the Brexit vote. There is also a growing consensus that this type of phenomenon is dangerous to liberal democratic institutions and it is on the rise.
With the election of Hugo Chavez to the presidency of Venezuela in 1998, the country became the darling of the intellectual left. Chavez pledged to confront the country’s reactionary oligarchy and redistribute the bounty from the country’s petroleum wealth to eradicate poverty, and deprivation. Until recently, supported by buoyant international petroleum prices, the “socialist” experiment seemed to work fairly well, although with intermittent and growing political tensions and increasing political polarization. Between 1999 and 2011, poverty and infant mortality rates declined. Today, however, the country faces a severe economic and humanitarian crisis involving inflation of over 700 percent, rising poverty, severe shortages in food and medical supplies, and burgeoning crime rates. Venezuela is now one of the world’s most violent countries.
The rise of the Trump phenomenon in the U.S. and the victory of the leave vote in Great Britain have given rise to growing concern about the rise of xenophobia among apparently large swaths of the public in both countries. There has also been considerable fear that such uncharitable attitudes may usher in a new age of inward protectionist policies that will hurt trade and general social welfare. While there is no doubt that anti-immigrant/anti-foreign sentiment is a reality in both cases, it is important to understand the conditions under which opposition politicians have been able to cultivate such sentiments.
As the U.S. political scene has become increasingly polarized, there have been a number of commentaries (including my own, in an earlier blog) suggesting that with the rise of Trump’s demagogic appeals, U.S. politics was beginning to look more like what has gone on south of the border (1). Latin America has certainly had its share of populist charismatic leaders who have garnered considerable support by offering unsophisticated solutions to complex problems. While there are certainly some similarities between Donald Trump’s appeals and Latin America’s populist politics, more recent developments, including the machinations that have occurred in the wake of the Orlando massacre, suggest some important and (for the U.S.) sinister distinctions.