defends a definition of populism, addressing its ideology, social base, charisma, clientelism, and the extent of institutionalization; the second part argues that populism and guerrilla movements are very similar phenomena, divided only by the level of their extremism.
There are many definitions of 'populism', as seemingly each academic uses his or her own definition of this term, expecting all readers to automatically agree with this definition. As Roberts (1995) says, "few social science concepts can match populism when it comes to nebulous and inconsistent usage." As Roberts (1995) says, "These multiple dimensions have allowed the populist concept to be applied to a wide range of loosely connected empirical phenomena, ranging from economic policies and development phases to political ideologies, movements, parties, governments, and social coalitions": some of these will be discussed below.
Some definitions label political populism as, "excessive centralization of decision-making, i.e., rule by decree, with decreasing depoliticization" (Eder, 2003). Many academics, such as Eder (2003) have shown that globalization (and neoliberalism) has not put an end to populism, but rather has transformed it, into 'neopopulism', which leaves little room for 'true' democracy to develop in those countries that have followed these paths. As we shall see, Venezuela and Peru are two good examples of the 'neopopulist' effects of globalization, as in these countries, neoliberal policies have existed side-by-side with populist strategies (Eder, 2003).
Other academics, for example, Weyland (2001) have defined populism as, "populism is best defined as a political strategy through which a personalistic leader seeks or exercises power based on direct, unmediated, uninstitutionalized support from large numbers of mostly unorganized followers." This 'single-defining variable' definition is hotly contested by academics, most notably Canovan (1999) who offered her own seven sub-categories with which to define populism, arguing that such a complex, multi-faceted definition was necessary.
Other academics argue that populists are defined by their message, and that their message can only be heard in countries facing crises, such that populism really needs to be defined within the context of exclusion (Buxton, 2000). Others (Roberts, 1995) argue that "populism is a recurring phenomenon, rather than a period-specific historical anomaly."
Other academics argue that populism is a common characteristic of Latin American politics, which has lasted from its inception in the first half of the twentieth century (Coslovsky, 2002). It is argued that populism is both a political and an economic phenomena, and that, as such, it has had an important role in the region's dual transitions (Coslovsky, 2002). Economic populism can be seen as an attempt to deal with income inequality through the use of overly expansive macroeconomic policies i.e., deficit financing (Coslovsky, 2002).
In this view, populism is best understood as a political phenomenon, with politicians being classed as populist if they fulfil three conditions: I) their personal style is paternalistic, personal and charismatic; ii) they are able to mobilize, from the top down, a heterogeneous coalition that includes urban workers and middle sectors; iii) their political program is reformist, but avoids class conflict, promoting redistributive measures, and implementing a national development program, that expands state activism to include more workers in the economy (Coslovsky, 2002). It has been argued that this definition, however, is too broad, and that, as such, it can be bent to include almost any politician, especially in Latin America, where weak politicians lead to breeding grounds for the cult of personality (Coslovsky, 2002; Szulc, 1959; Dix, 1985).
It can be seen, however, that under any definition of populism, whether it be economic, or political, and then within these broad categories, whichever definition is used within these, populism is incompatible with neoliberalism, as seen from a historical perspective, populism would end with the modernization of society (Coslovsky, 2002; Meny and Yves, 2002). It was thought that political populism would vanish with the emergence of a free market, since import substitution would now drive alliances among industrialists and the middle classes (Coslovsky, 2002). This, however, as we shall see, did not happen.
Other academics have argued that neoliberalism and populism converged during the 1990s in Latin America, to form 'neopopulism', and that the convergence of these two approaches led to a dismissal of democractic processes, to lead to a phenomena called neo-authoritarianism (Coslovsky, 2002; Meny and Surel, 2002; Roberts, 1995).
Which cases studies are good examples of populism, and populist leaders? Peru and Venezuela immediately spring to mind, and will be discussed now. Huge Chavez, Venezuela's current President is arguably a populist President, as once in power, he implemented a series of radical reforms, despite opposition, to the institutional structures of the Venezuelan state (Buxton, 2000). It is argued, however, that Chavez is not a neo-populist leader, as the reforms he has implemented are not within the neoliberal framework, as his reforms are limited, and will accelerate a pre-existing political and economic crisis, rather than bringing in real, lasting, political and economic reforms to the benefit of his 'people' (Buxton, 2000; Ellner, 2003).
Similar arguments are used to argue that Fujimori (who came to power in Peru in 1992) was a populist leader, although as Ellner (2003) argues, "no reference is made to the differences between the two regimes." It is, however, often argued that Chavez is without precedent or comparison in Latin American politics, as "Chavez's electoral triumph was unique in that he was a middle-level officer with radical ideas who had previously led a coup attempt. Furthermore, few Latin American presidents have attacked existing democratic institutions with such fervor while swearing allegiance to the democratic system" (Myers and O'Connor, 1998, quoted in Ellner, 2003).
Many people have argued that Chavez's assumption of power is symptomatic of a general weakening of the democratic process throughout Latin America (Ellner, 2003; Meny and Yves, 2002), and have argued that they represent not populism, not neopopulism, but rather a new term, "hyperpresidential," as their governments are characterized by charismatic presidential leadership, reliance on executive decrees, use of plebiscites to legitimize authority, employment of antiparty rhetoric, and a discourse with messianic overtones (Ellner, 2003). A new term has thus been added to the tome of terms to describe Latin American leaders.
What is our conclusion, then, as to what the term 'populist' actually means? Through our historical review, and analysis of leaders, in particular Huge Chavez, I would argue that populism is a political movement, that is extremist, rather a 'last resort' taken by leaders desperate to change the situation in their country, and willing to make those changes themselves. Populism, under this interpretation, is caused by the effects of the failure of democratic institutions within Latin America, something that is of particular concern at the moment.
Populist ideology aims at changing the situation within the country, to empower the masses, and to allow the country to develop to its full potential. The social base of populism is wide, with the leaders drawing, as they do, from a wide base of popular support, from workers to the middle classes, to bosses, who are sick of economic policies not working for them. As we have seen, the charisma of populist leaders is all important: they must be believable, must be credible, and must seem all-powerful, above all, extremely charistmatic.
Generally, clientelism (i.e., an incumbent holding political monopoly over resources of value to the voters) is not an issue with populism, or with populist leaders, unless we speak about the media, as most populist Latin American leaders are of the opinion that the situation needs to be changed in the country 'for the masses'. Populist leaders should not be confused with dictators, who tend to seize power for their own ends; populist leaders genuinely have a mission to improve conditions for their people. I would argue, however, that populist leaders do tend to seize control of the media (which could be argued to constitute a resource) when in power, as they need to suppress their opponents, whilst pushing forward their reforms.
In terms of the extent of institutionalization of populism, often one of the aims of populist leaders, and therefore policies, is to change the institutional structures of the country. Using our example of Chavez, for example, "from the beginning of his political career, Chavez embraced an aggressively antiparty discourse. He denounced the hegemony of vertically-based political parties, specifically their domination of Congress, the judicial system, the labor and peasant movements, and civil society in general. Upon his election in December 1998, he followed through on his campaign promise to use a constituent assembly as a vehicle for overhauling the nation's neocorporatist political system" (Ellner, 2003). This can be extrapolated, to many Latin American countries, as most populist leaders are seen as very radical, personalistic and well-organized in their approach, with the final aim of changing the situation in their country for the better.
In the writing of this paper, it occurred to me that this definition for populism, as with many of the definitions given for populism earlier in the paper could also be applied to guerrilla movements, and to guerrilla groups and leaders (i.e., revolutionary…